Lovely Looking Livery
The sun glinted off the scythe blade as the whetstone, held at a very precise angle, whispered over its length, the glint stopping only as Geffrey đe Wulf’s left arm blocked the light. Again the whetstone whispered its gentle caress over the blade. A shadow blocked the sun as Geffrey prepared to make another run with the whetstone.
‘Good afternoon Cuz,’ Geffrey said without looking up.
‘You knew it was me?’ asked the owner of the shadow.
‘Your shadow is the only one I know big enough to block a whole scythe-blade and then some.’
‘Really you are a rude man, so it is no wonder you have never moved up the ranks from yeoman to gentleman.’
‘So they tell me Cuz.’ Wulf turned his only eye on his visitor. ‘So tell me, to what does the holding of Half Farthing owe the honour of your visit?’
‘I just came to see if you still know how to do some honest work as well as plundering the poor peasantry of France of their meagre possessions.’
‘Well you would know all about that Cuz, seeing as it has been under your banner I did the plundering. Anyway; what would someone of your exalted position know about honest work?’
Sir Alan de Buxhall, Knight Bannerette, Lord of Bugzell near Salehurst in Sussex, Keeper & Commander – under Sir John Chandos – of St Sauveur in Normandy for His Grace King Edward III, moved into the shed where Geffrey was working and tested the sharpness of the scythe blade with his thumb. ‘Hmmm,’ he took the blade from between Wulf’s knees and sat down alongside his distant relative on the rough bench seat that ran along the back wall of the shed. Wulf put the whetstone between them on the seat. Sir Alan clamped the blade between his own knees and gave three gentle sweeps of the whetstone on the opposite side of the blade to the one Wulf had been working. He tested the edge again with his thumb. ‘It may have been a while since I did this Cuz, but it is not that many years since I was just a poor knight of the shire who had to work his land as hard as any of his workers.’
Geffrey smiled; ‘You have come a long way since.’
‘True.’ Sir Alan passed the blade back to Geffrey for him to check the sharpness. ‘God willing, I’ve a long way to go yet. Which brings me to my visit.’
Wulf got up and started to re-fit the blade back into the scythe’s body. ‘I wondered how long it would be before you came round to the real reason you came here – I knew it wasn’t to help sharpen farm tools, or to pay a family visit.’
‘Cuz!’ Sir Alan managed to look both hurt and amused at the same time.
‘Cuz indeed.’ Wulf now picked up a hay fork and started to rummage under a work bench looking for a file. ‘Don’t you dare tell me I’m to return early for garrison service at St Sauveur.’
‘Cuz!’ Again the hurt look, this time edged with a hint of cunning. ‘As if I would.’
‘Yes you would. You have done it before when your protection racket to keep the French peasantry supplying the garrison with provender started to unravel because the fool you left in charge pushed them too hard.’
‘Insurance, Gef, insurance. It is not a protection racket, it is insurance against fire and theft.’
‘Fire set by your garrison and theft by the same said garrison.’ Wulf sat down and started to file the tines of the fork.
‘And in all my time as Keeper & Commander have there been any fires or theft from either our garrison or French raiding-parties?’
‘No,’ Wulf conceded.
‘Well then, the peasants must consider it a worthwhile investment.’ The knight then gave Wulf a stern look. ‘It is not as if I take all the profit is it. Some of the provender I have to sell in order to get money so that I can pay off the nearest French force and that way save your poor peasants from being burnt out or stolen from by their own people.’
‘Hmm,’ grunted Wulf, not fully convinced.
‘Anyway, although the matter involves France I am not here to recall you to garrison duty.’
‘That’s a relief. I get enough grief from my wife now, being away so much, without you adding to the problem.’
‘How is the lovely Lucy, Cuz?’
‘Don’t change the subject, Cuz. What are you here for?’
‘You like clothes don’t you.’
‘Why?’ Wulf stopped sharpening the hay fork. ‘Where is this going?’
‘Dover actually – it is going to Dover.’
‘Dover Castle is not your responsibility.’
‘No, I have bigger ambitions than that. Dover is the port that King John of France is coming to.’
‘Where has he been then?’
‘France! What was he doing there? I was part of the army that captured him.’
‘Yes I know.’ Sir Alan dusted the sleeve of his jacket, knowing that, if he wasn’t careful, Geffrey đe Wulf would give him one of his long reminiscences of his part in the Battle of Poitier.
‘I wasn’t supposed to be there you know. It was you volunteering me for a suicide mission that got me caught up in that little to-do.’
‘Yes Cuz, I know. I volunteered you to act as messenger between His Grace of Lancaster’s army and Edward, Prince of Wales’ army as you were the best chance there was of getting the important message through.’
‘I lost three good men getting there and was very lucky not to get killed myself.’
‘Yes I know Cuz.’ Sir Alan dropped his head and supressed a sigh. Taking a deep breath he looked up at Geffrey and gave a winning smile. ‘That is why I have come here today.’
‘I still don’t see what this has to do with me liking nice clothes.’
‘Ah, well,’ Sir Alan warmed to his topic. ‘King John has been back to France to get his people to hurry up with his ransom.’
‘And have they?’
‘Well, no. The matter was complicated by his son, Louis of Anjou, who had been his replacement hostage and lodged at our base in Calais, legging it. Bad for chivalry were that, and that is why King John felt compelled to come back to England.’
Wulf looked back down at the fork and gave another tine a good filing. ‘I would have thought it was to get some decent food instead of the muck they eat in France.’
Sir Alan gave a shake of his head, aware that he was touching on another of his relation’s hobbyhorses. Taking yet another deep breath, he closed his eyes briefly before speaking again. ‘It doesn’t matter why he is coming back, Gef; he is. Now, can we get back to why I am here?’
Wulf gave a small nod and tested the fork tine before placing the hay fork on the shed’s dirt floor. ‘So, why are you here Cuz?’
‘Our Sovereign Lord, His Grace, King Edward, has arranged for a suitable escort party to bring the French king back to London, where he will be accommodated in The Tower. Now the escort will be led by Lord Burghesh. Also in the escort will be Sir Richard Pembrugge and …’ The knight paused for effect.
‘And you have rented me out to go and do some grotty job in Dover that they don’t want to do and that they haven’t got a man unscrupulous enough to do for them.’
Sir Alan stood up abruptly and, his face turning a bright red, yelled at his somewhat cousin: ‘Geffrey the Wolf, there are times when you stretch our family relationship to its limit!’
Geffrey lowered his head and looked suitably ashamed.
Sir Alan gave a discreet smirk. ‘Actually,’ he said, his voice now honeyed, ‘what I was going to say was that I am also to be part of that escort.’
‘Oh.’ This time Geffrey looked genuinely ashamed.
‘So: a step up the greasy ladder of society for me. The King is shewing me great favour in including me: not bad for a poor knight of the shire whose father was lucky not to get himself beheaded for treason in Edward II’s time, don’t you think?’ Sir Alan’s smirk had turned into a smile and he looked very pleased with himself. The knight dusted his place on the seat and sat down again, still smiling to himself.
‘Congratulations, but I don’t see what this has to do with me and, well, as far as I can see, it has even less to do with my liking of nice clothes.’
‘Well, you were partly right about the need of a man of “discretion” whilst in Dover waiting for the Froggy monarch.’
‘I thought so, you crafty knight you.’
‘I had you going for a while there Cuz. It can be quite fun teasing you.’
‘Don’t be like that, Gef. Look, all of us knightly sorts need a retinue – I learnt that when I had to be part of the King’s party that met the King of Cyprus last year. Not only do I need a retinue, they have to look flash, and, and this is where you come in Cuz, they have to be both trustworthy and cunning, in equal parts. Oh, and they have to be able to handle themselves if there is any trouble. Not that there will be any trouble, of course.’
Wulf gave Sir Alan a long hard look.
‘Well,’ conceded Sir Alan, ‘we are not expecting any trouble, at least not any real trouble, but it pays to play safe.’
‘So you want me in your retinue.’
‘That’s because of all my men, I trust you the most.’
‘With good reason.’
‘And,’ Sir Alan quickly added, ‘I thought it would be good to have at least one or two of the men who won at Poitiers in the escort. Just to remind His Froggyness of why he is here; in a gentle and casual way of course.’
‘Though I don’t think you, the Irishman and Mark of Plymouth singing that song of yours that starts: “Whilst we were raiding, all through the French lands” and ends “If anyone asks you just who we be, and who our commander is by name: Edward Prince of Wales is our commander, and we the archers who won him fame” would go down well, at least not whilst we are riding on the road.’
‘But in a halfway tavern at night whilst his nibs is trying to sleep upstairs?’
‘That would be shockingly bad taste.’
‘But a gentle and casual reminder?’
‘It is not something I would allow.’ Sir Alan picked the hay fork up from the dirt floor where Wulf had left it and placed it against the wall. ‘You do remember all the words don’t you?’
‘So does my nephew, young Gareth, and he has a very nice voice.’
‘Yes, I could do with a page or two to accompany me. How old is he now? Gareth? Thirteen?’
Wulf nodded in agreement. ‘You mentioned clothes. The boy will need an outfit, but I already have a set of your livery.’
‘True, but in order to impress, linen might not be good enough; nor even the more expensive cotton. His Grace, the King, has granted me an allowance to ensure that my retinue is suitably attired.’
‘Well, samite I thought.’
‘I bet the King gave you money for pure silk,’ Wulf muttered under his breath.
‘Sorry Cuz? I didn’t catch what you said.’
‘Sorry, Sir Alan; I said that it was good of the King to give you the money, and for samite too.’
‘Yes, well.’ Sir Alan strode to the door and beckoned forward Mark of Plymouth, whom he had recently taken into his service. The new household archer came forward with the knight’s palfrey, the archer’s own horse gratefully eating sparse grass that grew between the cobbles of the farm’s garth. ‘So, fancy clothes for you and for Gareth it is then.’
‘Fancy clothes it is then.’
‘Oh.’ Sir Alan looked down from his horse. ‘I forgot to tell you: as part of my now exalted position, His Grace, the King, has allocated me lodgings at The Tower of London. Not small chambers either.’ The knight gave a satisfied smile. ‘So, come and visit me in two days, and bring young Gareth with you.’
Geffrey đe Wulf gave a resigned nod of his head, and watched his employer and distant relative trot down the muddy lane from Half Farthing with his escort of Mark and another archer riding as a pair behind him. Wulf took a deep breath, which he let out as a sigh as he wondered how his wife, Lucy, would react to the fact that he was back on duty for Sir Alan.
‘What do you think?’ Mark of Plymouth asked in his gentle Devonshire voice.
‘Nice material, though I have to be careful when I touch it in case the rough skin on my fingers catches the thread.’ Geffrey đe Wulf carefully fingered the selvedge of the golden yellow samite cloth on the table in front of him.
‘Rough skin.’ Mark had a smile on his face; he nudged Gef in the ribs. ‘Farm work proving harder than garrison duty in France then?’
‘Is Sir Alan expecting us to get the livery made up ourselves? I am not sure my wife has handled cloth this fine before.’ Mark scratched the whiskers of his short muzzle beard.
‘Here’s His Knightedness himself: ask him.’
Sir Alan de Buxhall, accompanied by his secretary, Benedict Stonehewer of Askerigg, bustled into the chamber that was part of his quarters at The Tower of London. ‘Good, good: you have seen the material then? There is enough there for at least six of you and a couple of pages.’ Sir Alan looked at Mark: ‘That nephew Paul of yours?’
‘Too young, Sir Alan, too young by far.’
‘Shame; I rather liked the idea of a small boy in the retinue.’
Geffrey đe Wulf leaned close to the ear of his fellow household archer: ‘He fancied small because he would save money on the outfit.’
‘Cuz?’ asked Sir Alan.
‘I said you were paying Mark here a great honour Sir Alan.’
‘I doubt it,’ muttered Benedict, glancing at Wulf before starting to clear some space on the table for the parchment roll he was carrying. He looked again at Wulf before shaking his head at the strange and complex relationship between the old archer and Sir Alan. The secretary cleared more space on the table, and then stole a look at Sir Alan, who had pursed his lips into what may have been a supressed smile, leaving Benedict wondering if the knight had, in fact, heard what Wulf had said. Benedict looked away and scrubbed his face with his hands, still unsure if his employer’s look indicated that he had heard what his distant relative had said.
After a knock on the chamber’s door, a youth in the garb of a mercer’s apprentice appeared and deposited a bale of bright blue samite next to the gold.
‘Mind the cloth!’ Sir Alan called in a worried voice. ‘It isn’t cheap!’
‘Unlike its buyer,’ Wulf whispered to Mark, who fought down a smile.
Sir Alan looked across at the archers: ‘Cuz?’
‘I said it would be a shame to damage the cloth.’
‘I doubt it,’ muttered Benedict quietly to himself, again wondering at Wulf’s honesty, before turning to watch the apprentice leave and close the door behind him.
‘Quite,’ Sir Alan replied to Wulf. The knight gently caressed the blue samite with the back of his hand and smiled at the quality of the cloth, remembering how he had managed to beat the mercer he had bought it from down in price. ‘Now all we need to do …’ He moved round the table, watching the cloth as light from the arrow-slit window caused the material to glow. ‘Now all we need to do is get the rest of the retinue here and get you all measured up for the outfits.’
Geffrey inclined his head towards Mark, who quietly smiled knowing that his wife would be spared the duty of making his new clothes.
‘Yes, I am arranging for you all to be measured up this afternoon.’
‘You don’t trust us to get it done ourselves then?’ Wulf brought a hand up and rubbed the empty socket where his left eye once was.
‘Not this stuff, no. Besides, it is to be more than just normal particolour livery; this will bear my arms on the front.’
‘That’s unusual, Sir Alan,’ Mark commented.
‘It is the latest fashion!’ Sir Alan could not resist another loving stroke of the cloth.
‘Not French fashion I trust,’ Wulf interjected.
‘I was waiting for that,’ Benedict muttered under his breath, well knowing Geffrey đe Wulf’s prejudice against all things French.
‘Burgundian!’ Sir Alan snapped back. ‘That is why I am getting it made up by Katherine Xavier, she coming from Burgundy as well as being an excellent seamstress.’
‘And a wine merchant,’ Wulf added.
‘Yes, well, that is true. You know her then Cuz?’
‘She is a childless widow who took over the trade of her husband Phillip when he died. I have had dealings with her on behalf of Chaucer.’
‘Ah, yes, well I have recently spoken to Geffrey Chaucer and assured him that the undeclared duty on her last delivery of Rhenish wine was a misunderstanding and that an arrangement can be made satisfactory to all parties involved.’ Sir Alan smiled to himself, pleased with his private, and slightly dodgy, “arrangement” with the widow and the customs official.
Benedict discreetly leaned over and whispered in the knight’s ear. ‘You realise your somewhat cousin has been doing “unofficial” debt-collecting for Chaucer?’
Sir Alan gave a quiet snort and smiled. ‘We all have our “unofficial” activities Benedict.’ The knight gave a quick look at Geffrey and continued whispering: ‘As long as nothing reflects back on me I don’t mind.’ He changed his caress from the blue samite to the gold samite. ‘My knowing Chaucer’s “unofficial” arrangement with my cousin allowed me to persuade him to be, shall we say, “gentle” with our seamstress.’
‘Why am I not surprised?’ muttered Benedict quietly to himself.
Sir Alan looked across and gave an assuring smile at Wulf and Mark, who had lapsed into a bored silence and had taken to looking out of the narrow window that gave on to the grassed bailey below. The knight gave a cough, which caught the attention of the two archers. Sir Alan directed his attention to Wulf and gave another winning smile. ‘Now, talking of merchants Cuz, that Moorish friend of yours, him I often see in in the company of you and the others in my household when he is in the city. You know; dealer of gemstones and the like.’
‘Dinesh?’ asked Mark.
Wulf nodded agreement. ‘Yes, Denis. Denis Darkfire, though he is not a Moor. Denis is a Christian and he comes from Ceylon not Spain or North Africa.’
‘Well,’ said Sir Alan in a dismissive tone, ‘he is dark isn’t he and he looks like a Moor.’
Wulf grunted, for Denis did have a dark skin. ‘What of him?’
‘Is he in London at present?’
‘Well, yes he is,’ Wulf confirmed.
‘I don’t suppose he can play a trumpet?’
‘A trumpet Sir Alan?’ both archers asked at once.
‘Yes: it is quite the fashion to have a Moor trumpeter in one’s retinue these days. Ask him if he is available. I can’t pay him, mind.’
‘Didn’t think he would,’ Wulf whispered to Mark.
‘But seeing as the French King will have several wealthy Froggies in attendance, it would give him a good business opportunity for selling his gewgaws.’
‘Commission?’ Benedict whispered to Sir Alan.
‘Not now Benedict,’ the knight hissed. ‘Let’s see if he gets any sales first.’ Sir Alan turned his attention back to his archers. ‘Now it is time to get these two measured up. The others can be rounded up and get measured up in their turn. I think young Gareth is annoying the guards at the gate, so that would only leave’ – he looked to Wulf for confirmation – ‘Denis?’ Wulf nodded back. ‘Denis to be done, provided he is available of course.’
‘And if he can’t play a trumpet Sir Alan?’ Geffrey asked.
‘Doesn’t matter as long as he looks good and can get some sort of noise out of it.’
There was a knock at the door, and Benedict let in a well-built woman holding lengths of measuring strings in her hand.
‘Ah, Katherine,’ beamed Sir Alan. ‘So nice of you to come and be of assistance in this matter.’
‘Greetings Uncle,’ called the boy as he was hurried along the passageway towards Sir Alan’s chamber by a group of men.
‘Greetings Gareth,’ replied Geffrey đe Wulf as he and Mark of Plymouth flattened themselves against the wall to allow Gareth and four of Sir Alan’s retained archers to rush past.
Mark gazed at their backs as the party entered the chamber and Hakon de Falcon, the rearmost retainer, closed the door with the flat of his boot. ‘I hope Sir Alan didn’t see Hakon’s footwork or he will be on night sentry duty for the next month.’
‘I doubt it. Hakon is bound to find a way of bribing others to take his place with some of that ale he brews.’
‘So, Hakon, Airka the Irishman, Swiss Albert and Lyulf St. George are the other “volunteers” for the Knight’s retinue. The usual crew then.’
‘Usual disreputable crew,’ Wulf confirmed.
‘And archers not men-at-arms?’
‘Mark, you may only have recently joined Sir Alan’s household, but even you should know what he is like with money. Archers are half the price of a man-at-arms, even though he has said he will pay us the sixpence per day of active duty rather than the fourpence of garrison duty.’
‘Plus we are more versatile.’ Mark gave his short muzzle beard a finger comb. ‘I suppose that, as we will be travelling in livery clothes, others won’t spot the difference.’
Wulf sniggered. ‘I was thinking: any cloth Sir Alan saves on livery for my short legged nephew Gareth will be lost on livery for Longshanks Lyulf.’ Wulf rubbed his hand over his shaven head before pulling on the close-fitting biggin he habitually wore on his head. ‘Seeing as your Paul is too young, I wonder if the chief armourer’s son, Sebastian, could be “borrowed”. You know, the one that hangs around the archers when they practice at the butts. He might fit the role of second page for Sir Alan; he is bright enough, and small enough not to need too much material for his livery.’
‘Talking of the livery Gef …’ Mark joined Wulf as they started down the spiral staircase that would lead them to the door that opened out onto Tower Green. ‘Seeing as it is January, I don’t think that fancy samite stuff will be warm enough, and that wool would have been better.’
‘Wool isn’t shiny is it? Wool isn’t so expensive looking is it?’ Wulf opened the wooden door at the bottom of the stairs to a burst of blinding sunlight; he stood back for a while so he and Mark could adjust their eyes to the bright winter’s day. ‘This isn’t about warmth or comfort, this is all about show.’
The two archers stepped out into the sunshine and made their way along the gravel path that would take them to the store where the Tower’s Constable had allowed Sir Alan’s men to store their surplus clothing and equipment.
‘Well,’ said Mark, continuing the conversation. ‘At least we will have the woollen horse-cloaks we are about to collect to keep some of the cold out. I assume Sir Alan wants us to get them out of store so that lady can cover them in shiny samite.’
‘Yeah right,’ sniggered Wulf. ‘I hate to disillusion you but the cloaks won’t be covered in expensive samite. The reason we are collecting cloaks is so Mistress Katherine can make bags out of the fancy stuff for the plain woollen cloaks to go into; much less samite involved.’
Mark gave a quizzical look. ‘Oh ah?’
‘And don’t think you will get to wear that nice warm woollen cloak unless it is raining,’ said Wulf. ‘Oh no, my relation’s expenditure won’t stretch to samite covered cloaks, that’s why we are to just have our usual ones and we will only get to wear them when it helps to prevent his fancy new livery getting ruined by rain.’
‘Bugger,’ Mark commented.
‘Bugger indeed,’ agreed Wulf.
‘So, if it gets really cold we just have to turn blue.’
‘Well blue is one of Sir Alan’s livery colours. I am only wondering if he has been checking that everyone in his “retinue” has yellow teeth so that we completely fit in with his family’s colour scheme.’
Both the archers gently shook their heads, wondering if this had in fact been considered by their employer.
Mark shrugged his shoulders. ‘Oh well, I guess it will have to be extra under-shirts and old hosen inside the new.’
Wulf gave a gentle nod of his head. ‘I will have a quiet word with our lady wine-merchant later to get her to add a bit of spare room in the garb to allow for that.’
‘We owe you, Gef.’
‘A bottle of mead each would cover it Mark; let the boys know.’
Hakon, Airka, Lyulf and Albert each handed over two bottles of mead to Geffrey đe Wulf: one bottle for the extra width on their new livery, and the extra one as their payment for the honey Wulf had supplied for making more of the drink, the honey having come from Wulf’s dealings with Mistress Katherine Xavier.
‘Thanks lads.’ Wulf lifted each bottle just to make sure that the weight indicated the stone bottles were indeed full.
Lanky Lyulf sat down on a crude stool and stretched his long legs out towards a blazing brazier in the middle of the barrack room. ‘I quite like these quarters Master Wulf; certainly better than the stable gables we normally sleep in when accompanying Sir Alan when he is in London.’
‘Only as good as most of the barracks we use whilst on garrison duty in France.’ Blonde Hakon joined his tall companion in warming himself at the brazier.
‘But,’ interrupted Airka Eóganachta Mór, ‘at least der locals here speak English.’
‘Which cannot always be said for you, Irishman!’ The quiet-spoken Albert Bossard, having found a stool with more than two legs on it, moved as near to the heat of the brazier as he could.
‘Ha!’ Airka waved a stool leg he was trying to get to fit back into the stool’s seat in order to give it three legs again. ‘A fine comment is that from you, Schwiizer.’
Wulf held up his hand to silence the two retained archers: ‘Enough!’
The two young men muttered quietly to themselves and returned to getting themselves warm, accepting Geffrey’s authority; an authority that came from his relationship with their employer, age, experience, and from him being a household archer rather than a retained archer.
Hakon probed into the strange silence. ‘In addition to the livery outfits do we get new arrow bags and covers for our bow cases?’
Wulf broke his watch on Airka and Albert. ‘No. We aren’t taking our bows, just swords, bucklers and daggers.’
‘That’s a bit risky isn’t it? I know the king boasts how safe it is to travel, but there are outlaws haunting the woods despite what the king may want to think,’ chimed in Lyulf, who knew of such things, being a man who had chosen to join King Edward’s army rather than hang for being an outlaw.
‘Lord Burghesh, who is the head of this little outing, is, so I am told, bringing some of his foresters with him and they will be going ahead of us as a screen, just in case,’ Wulf informed them.
Lyulf snorted: ‘I suppose he thinks they are better archers than we are!’
‘Well, quieter and more used to hunting through woods than us,’ Wulf commented. Hakon gave him a hard look as the one-eyed archer had an unproven reputation for being a good woodsman, and one that discreetly brought home deer that he may not have been entitled to shoot.
‘When do the campaign wages start Master Wulf?’ Airka had managed to get his stool fully assembled and had settled amiably alongside Albert, with whom he often swapped insults.
‘We are due out this coming Monday.’
Albert pulled a battered pewter tankard from a bag at his feet. ‘And the extra pay stops?’
‘When we get back Albert, when we get back.’
The Swiss archer took a leather pitcher slopping with ale from Hakon. ‘Any idea how long it will be before we get back?’ His English was perfect but accented.
Wulf gave a grunt; ‘How long is a piece of string? It depends mainly on the weather and how that affects the French king crossing the channel from Calais. Even allowing for that, our own party may have reasons for delaying the return ride from Dover.’
‘Tw’ld be nice if it took a while; I’m terribly short of the money.’ Airka nodded contentedly as he sipped ale from his leather jack.
‘Just as long as we don’t spend all our time in the saddle at the rear of the party: I hate eating others’ dust and if this frosty weather keeps up it may well be dust rather than mud.’ Lyulf went to pour himself another jack of ale only to find all that was left in the leathern pitcher was foam.
‘We may well be at the rear I regret to say.’ Wulf eased himself against the wall he was leaning on. ‘Sir Alan is very much the junior party in this expedition.’
Hakon raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t suppose a bit of palm greasing would help?’
‘Beer or mead bribes won’t work with a baron and a high-ranking knight as it might with a Sergeant or Captain.’ Wulf made his way to the door. ‘Get used to the idea that we will inevitably be at the end of the column, dust or mud and all,’ he called over his shoulder.
Sir Alan de Buxhall’s advance party approached the heavy iron-bound wooden gate that gave entry to Dover Castle, headed by Geffrey đe Wulf and Dinesh Avinash Nandakumar, the latter with a bright long trumpet held in his left hand with the instrument’s mouth resting on his left thigh. The two riders nudged their ponies two horse lengths ahead of Mark, who carried a Royal banner aloft, and who was followed by Airka, Lyulf, Albert and Hakon on their mounts in pairs behind him. Sir Alan had halted 20 yards behind with Lord Burghesh, Sir Richard Pembrugge and their pages and the rest of the party.
Wulf leaned across to speak to his companion. ‘Blow your trumpet Denis; announce we are here. Don’t be shy, everyone is looking at you.’
Dinesh shrank his head further back into his nice shiny samite hood.
‘Blow it Denis: don’t be paranoid.’
‘I can’t Master Wulf.’
‘Yes you can lad; put it to your lips as though you are going to give it a kiss and then blow between your lips.’
The dark skinned young man brought the trumpet to his lips, gave a worried look at Wulf, who gave him a reassuring smile, and blew.
Nothing happened. He tried again, and this time a sound like a wet fart came out.
Wulf turned his head and nodded to the rest of the party to close up. ‘Get close to each other so those behind can’t see.’ The riders shuffled their mounts into a line so that horses and riders formed a solid wall. ‘Right Denis, pass that thing here.’ Wulf took the trumpet, wetted his lips, raised the instrument to his lips and blew.
‘De dah de dah. De dah de dah. De dah de dah - daaaaah.’ Wulf gave a satisfied smirk as he passed the trumpet back to Dinesh. ‘Just put it back on your thigh, lad, and carry on as if it were you who blew the “alert”.’ The archer watched as his young companion did as he was told; he then turned to the others. ‘Right: as we ride forward, drop back into pairs, Mark and Albert at the front.’ Wulf turned his attention to the entry port and saw the gate guard turn out and stamp to attention as their Captain walked towards Wulf.
‘Who requests entry into His Grace of England’s Castle?’ demanded the Captain, who in fact knew full well what party it was.
‘Lord Burghesh, Sir Richard Pembrugge and Sir Alan de Buxhall come to escort His Grace of France back to London.’ Wulf rode forward and handed down a small roll, from which hung a ribbon with an impress of the Privy Seal on green wax.
The Captain undid the roll and examined it. From the way the Captain handled the roll Wulf suspected the man could not read and was more interested in the authenticity of the seal on green wax. The Captain looked up from his scrutiny: ‘Advance, friends.’
Wulf took back the roll, held his right hand up high and proceeded through the gate, into the barbican, under the portcullis and through the second gate and into the castle’s bailey. The clatter of the horses behind him echoed off the stone walls of the barbican’s twin towers. Wulf and his advance party dismounted and led their mounts towards the stables whilst pages ran out to take the reins of the baron’s and knights’ horses. The escorts of Burghesh, with the pack horses in tow, and the very dusty escorts of Pembrugge’s rear-guard, their faces above their noses covered in grey grime, their lower faces, which their cloth visors had covered, an almost bright shiny white, all remained mounted whilst their masters dismounted.
Wulf leant his head next to Mark of Plymouth’s. ‘I still don’t understand why we were the vanguard all the way down here from London. Barons and knights can’t be bribed with Hakon’s mead the way Captains and sergeants can be.’
‘Ah.’ Mark looked across to Dinesh and smiled. ‘Mead: no. Small chips of Ceylonese sapphires: yes.’
‘Then I owe the lad,’ Wulf acknowledged. ‘Being at front of the party was wonderful.’ He looked across at Pembrugge’s men who had now dismounted and had headed for the water troughs to wash the road dust from their faces, all of them, as they went, taking swigs from their water costrels and spitting the mix of water, spit and dust onto the beaten earth of the garth.
Geffrey đe Wulf and Mark of Plymouth pushed open the reluctant door to the damp storeroom which Sir Alan de Buxhall’s men had been allocated as their barracks. The two household men were now dressed in the linen livery of the knight. Before them, lounging on piles of straw, were Airka, Lyulf, Albert, Hakon and Dinesh; the retainers and Dinesh wore their ordinary clothes with one of Sir Alan’s tabards over the top. Wulf cast an eye over the men, noticing that both Airka and Albert’s shirts had frayed seams, Lyulf had found an outlandish hat from somewhere, Airka’s hosen were getting threadbare at the knees, and that Dinesh wore immaculate clothes that reflected his status as a merchant of some wealth.
Wulf eased a small purse out of his pouch and thoughtfully gave it a couple of low tosses: the retainers watched, waiting for the one-eyed archer to miscatch the purse, as his disability so often caused him to. Wulf gave them a crooked, knowing smile. ‘Money, boys, and it is not even your pay day.’
‘Money?’ Airka sat up. ‘Did yer say money? Not even pay money?’
‘That’s right Irishman: money that is not even pay money.’ Wulf opened the purse and carefully extracted a silver penny. ‘Who would like some?’
‘Don’t be daft, Master Wulf.’ Hakon stood up and focussed his eyes on the coin, assessing if it were true or clipped. ‘We would all like some money.’
‘In addition to our pay of course,’ Lyulf added in his languid drawl.
‘You can all have some; can’t they, Mark.’ Wulf gave a smile.
Mark inclined his head in agreement: ‘Oh arh, they can have some, but not for nothing Gef, not for nothing.’
Albert stretched his legs till his joints cracked. ‘What’s the catch Master Wulf? You don’t give money out for nothing and,’ – Albert paid attention to the soft calfskin purse Wulf held, noting that it was far fancier than anything he had seen the older archer with before – ‘and I know for certain that Sir Alan doesn’t. So, what is the catch?’ Albert’s accent had become more pronounced as the thought of money entered his mind.
‘No catch, my Swiss friend, no catch.’ Wulf looked to Mark, who gave an amused snort. ‘Just a little work, that’s all.’
‘I knew it,’ said Albert quietly.
‘Thought so,’ agreed Lyulf in a tired voice.
‘Ah,’ chipped in Mark. ‘Pleasant work, mind.’
‘Pleasant for me involves drinking.’ Hakon removed some wisps of straw from his golden hair.
‘Exactly,’ chipped in Airka, ale fumes wafting off him.
‘Exactly,’ agreed Wulf. ‘You will get paid to drink, and’ – he smiled – ‘you will also get money for yourselves as well as the drink money.’
Hakon looked puzzled: ‘So you are telling us that we get paid over and above our daily rate, and given money to buy drinks?’
‘Yes,’ Wulf confirmed.
Albert stood up. ‘As I said – what’s the catch?’
Hakon shook his head in disagreement. ‘Sir Alan does not hand out money for nothing so there has to be a catch.’
‘I don’t care,’ interrupted Airka. ‘Drink; free drink!’
‘The catch?’ insisted Albert.
‘There isn’t one, you don’t have to do any work, just go out and drink.’
Dinesh at last joined the others as they stood around Wulf and Mark. ‘Master Wulf.’ The Ceylonese spoke perfect and unaccented English. ‘Master Wulf, although you say there is no catch, would I be wrong in saying that there will be conditions to us being given the money?’
‘Ah, well,’ Wulf agreed, ‘there are conditions, it is true.’
‘I knew it,’ Albert muttered quietly.
‘And the conditions are?’ asked Hakon, now brushing straw from his rear.
‘You do your socialising and drinking with those Sir Alan asks you to do the said socialising and drinking with.’
‘I guessed as much,’ Albert muttered quietly.
‘So, Master Wulf, just who is it that we be drinking with then?’ Airka smiled and then belched ale fumes gently to himself.
‘Don’t know yet. We have to see just who His Grace of Frogland brings with him.’ Wulf smiled, replaced the penny in the purse, replaced the purse in his pouch, and, with Mark in tow, left for his own, more comfortable and drier quarters. Once in the yard the two older archers bumped shoulders and walked away laughing quietly at the way they had spun the young retainers along.
Lord Burghesh stepped forward onto the stone quay and bowed to Jean II, King of France. Behind him, Sir Richard Pembrugge and Sir Alan de Buxhall followed suit. Geffrey đe Wulf, together with the rest of the English escort group, stood upright at attention. Wulf took his first look at the French king who, although the king had been in England many years, Wulf had never seen, due to the latter spending most of his time either in France on garrison duty, or working on his farm outside Wandsworth. The chill offshore wind whipped strands of the French king’s golden hair across his face, which the archer noticed was very white, but with blue and pinkish purple tints on the cheekbones.
Quiet pleasantries were muttered between Lord Burghesh and the king before they advanced and the French king was introduced to the two English knights. Wulf ignored them all and cast his eye over the others disembarking from the Calais ship tied to the quay. There were the usual courtiers, squires and pages, but there were others, inappropriately dressed for the cold English day and carrying what looked like covered musical instruments. Wulf dared to move his eye to Mark, who was alongside him; the Devonshire man raised his eyebrows.
The royal party passed along the lined-up archers and men-at-arms without looking at them, heading towards the pages holding the reins of smartly caparisoned horses. ‘I am sure Your Grace will enjoy his ride on the horse we have provided; though,’ – Burghesh gave a polite laugh – ‘I am sure it is not as exquisite as those in your own stables at Savoy House.’ The Baron’s French was perfect, but accented with the burr of a country-raised Englishman.
‘I am surprised you didn’t bring one of my own superior mounts my Lord.’ The French king stood still as a page attached a heavy woollen cloak around his shoulders. The cloak being attached, King Jean moved forward to examine the horse the English had provided; he did not acknowledge his page’s actions.
‘Ah, well, Your Grace; your Steward is most protective of your property.’
‘Good: that is how it should be.’ King Jean moved round to the other side of the horse, running his expert eye over it, noting its slightly flighty nature. The king came back to Burghesh’s side and the king’s page went onto all fours. The king stood on the page’s back, his left hand being supported by a courtier as he did so; he mounted the horse, and two courtiers placed his feet into the mount’s stirrups whilst another placed the reigns into the king’s right hand. ‘Let us be off: Dover Castle for tonight?’
‘Indeed Your Grace,’ Burghesh called over his shoulder as he moved to his own horse, leaving Sir Richard and Sir Alan rushing to their own whilst the rest of the English party broke up, with Burghesh’s men-at-arms forming the king’s escort and all the others setting about to oversee the transporting of the French King’s small court and rather larger orchestra. Some brought horses for the French courtiers, whilst others started organising the loading of ox-carts with the multitude of baggage that always accompanied even a small royal court; each of the English party doing his allotted task and the remaining French milling around in disorganised chaos as was their wont.
Later that day Geffrey đe Wulf and Mark of Plymouth shouldered open the reluctant door to the damp storeroom in Dover Castle that Sir Alan de Buxhall’s men had been allocated as their barracks.
‘Money? Who wants some money?’ Wulf asked.
Hakon, who seemed to have assumed the position of spokesman, stood up and brushed the loose straw from his clothing. ‘No need to play games Master Wulf, you know we want money. What we want to know is what we have to do for it.’
‘Comes to the point do ’e, Gef,’ Mark commented to Wulf.
‘Indeed he does.’ Wulf carefully opened his pouch and removed the fancy purse Sir Alan had entrusted him with.
‘Well, Master Wulf? What does our Lord and Master want us to do?’ Hakon insisted.
‘Drink,’ said Wulf
‘Drink,’ confirmed Mark.
‘Drink?’ muttered Albert.
‘So we drink, Master Wulf,’ commented Lyulf in his slow drawl. ‘We drink and what else?’
‘Watch,’ said Wulf.
‘And listen,’ added Mark.
‘With discretion,’ Wulf insisted.
‘Watch and listen to what?’ asked Albert.
‘Watch and listen to whom,’ Wulf amended.
‘Your nephew would be proud of you Gef, him being so pedantic with the language,’ Mark commented. Wulf smiled.
‘I bet you even get him to vet your letters when you write, don’t ’ee.’
Wulf turned to Mark, still smiling: ‘Be a waste of the weekly penny my brother pays for his education if I didn’t.’
‘Watch and listen to whom?’ Hakon asked.
Wulf gave the tall youngster his attention and chinked the purse in his hand, refusing to give an answer, playing with the retainer’s patience.
‘Does it matter? We get to drink.’ Airka, the Irishman, had finally woken up enough to join in the conversation.
‘Well, Master Wulf?’ Hakon progressed his straw-removing exercise to the hair on the back of his head.
‘Our Froggy friend’s people. Not the courtiers of course; his people, the underlings. Underlings always know more than their masters think they do. Masters forget that underlings are present. Masters forget underlings have ears. Underlings are less guarded in what they say.’
‘We bribe them?’ Hakon asked on behalf of the others.
‘No, no: too crude.’ Wulf started to ease the purse open. Airka’s eyes opened in ratio to the mouth of the purse. ‘You just see where they go, drink with them, buy them drinks; get to know them, gossip with them …’
‘Only common knowledge mind, nothing indiscreet, nothing Sir Alan wouldn’t like you saying,’ qualified Mark.
‘Just so, just so.’ Wulf gestured the retainers forward. ‘Spend well, but don’t get too silly with the money or the drinking. Too much money spent would raise suspicion. Too much to drink and you won’t remember what you learn.’
‘Drink,’ Airka licked his lips. ‘Drink.’ The Irishman joined Hakon in the activity of removing straw from clothing.
Wulf looked around the room. ‘Where is Denis?’
‘Sussing out who he can sell his jewels to.’ Hakon held his right hand out, palm first for Wulf to drop coins into. Wulf obliged. ‘Is that all Master Wulf? That is only one night’s drinking there.’
‘Drink!’ Airka edged close to see how much each man would be getting, dropping a collection of straw wisps on the stone-flagged floor.
‘One night’s drinking is the correct answer. Tomorrow we will be stopping at Rochester and you will get more coin then; back in London, more coin. Then, if you have useful information, money for yourself, which you can spend on drink or not, whatever you wish.’
‘I knew it,’ Albert muttered quietly.
‘Drink.’ Airka licked his lips. ‘Drink.’
‘There is something else,’ Mark added.
‘I knew it,’ Albert muttered quietly.
‘I heard that, Swiss Albert.’ Wulf looked strongly at the young man. ‘No catch, just order of battle. Mark here is married to a Channel Islander and speaks French.’
‘Of a sorts,’ Mark qualified.
‘Mark speaks French, but he won’t let the French know that, whereas Albert speaks French and will let them know he does. I noticed on the dock that some of those musicians the French king has brought with him were speaking in Flemish. Now Airka speaks Low German and Flemish, but he won’t let them know he does, but Hakon, who has the same talents, will talk to them in their own language – I’m sure they will appreciate it after spending most of their life being looked down upon by their Walloonish masters and being made to speak French. Just remember: those who shew that they can speak the foreign must translate anything that is said to those who speak foreign but pretend they can’t. Their job is to listen to asides when Albert and Hakon leave to get more ale or go to the jakes. Lyulf, as the most sober of the group,’ – Wulf glanced at Mark who gave him a hurt look – ‘you will sit quiet and watch everyone and make sure nothing goes amiss.
Lyulf nodded contentedly to himself, gratified that he had been acknowledged as being more reliable than the others when it came to drinking.
Wulf closed Lyulf’s hand over the coins in it before addressing the group as a whole. ‘Start today boys, but do be discreet. A friendly gesture here, a helping hand there, so that drinking with them this evening does not look strange.’
‘Master Wulf, we are not fools,’ Lyulf assured him with dignity.
‘I hope you are right, Lyulf, I hope you are right.’
‘Drink.’ Airka licked his lips. ‘Drink.’
Wulf shook his head and followed Mark back outside. He put a foot on the door portal and heaved the damp-warped door shut using both hands. ‘Now Mark: Gareth – you are still teaching him French?’
‘Of a sorts,’ Mark confirmed. ‘Of a sorts.’
Later that evening Geffrey đe Wulf, now in ordinary clothes, with his young nephew Gareth, sat at the end of a long trestle in the servants’ hall. Wulf nudged Gareth gently in the ribs and whispered, ‘You have younger eyes than me; where are the boys? Have they picked their new “friends”? Are they in the pairs I arranged them to operate in?’
Gareth, whose interest had been focussed on acquiring bread and cheese from a large platter that had been provided, looked up and scanned the hall; satisfied, he shoved a lump of coarse black bread into his mouth. ‘Hmmm, hmmmmm, hm.’
Wulf gave the lad a disparaging look. ‘Manners, boy, manners, don’t talk with your mouth full.’
Gareth filled his leather jack with some small beer, sipped some, swallowed the bread and turned to his uncle with a teasing smile on his face. ‘You do that all the time Uncle.’
‘I talk over the food,’ Wulf replied indignantly.
‘If you say so Uncle.’ Gareth reached for the substantial lump of cheese he had filched from the platter.
Wulf stayed the boy’s hand. ‘Answer my question,’ he hissed.
Gareth used two fingers to tap the hand Wulf was using to stop the cheese transfer. ‘Everything is in order Uncle.’
Wulf released the youngster’s hand and grunted. The old archer pulled the food platter towards himself, only to find it contained just scraps of cheese, bread and cold mutton. ‘Typical,’ he said to himself. ‘Bloody typical; be a few moments late and the food is all gone.’ He looked to his nephew’s hoard, but the youth had managed to scoff the lot.
‘Best be off, Uncle; Sir Alan has some tasks for me before Seb, the other page, takes over duties for the banquet tonight.’
‘Don’t be late, boy; you and I have work to do tonight. I am given to understand that His Froggyness of France uses the garderobe to the left of the great hall. Sir Alan has suggested that it would be very bad form if some archers were to be nearby and started to sing the ‘Petters Song’ whilst the king was otherwise engaged. Mark is busy greasing up a French minion, so you are to join me teaching others the words and then leading the singing.’
‘Fair enough.’ Gareth grabbed a bread roll the person sitting next to him had carelessly put down on the trestle.
‘Then we go taverning.’
‘Right-oh.’ Gareth topped up his jack with beer, swilled it down, and left, weaving his way through the throng in the hall, his now-empty jack hanging from the fingers of his right hand.
Wulf picked up the small beer pitcher to fill his own leather jack, only to find that the pitcher was devoid of sustenance.
Geffrey đe Wulf, accompanied by his nephew Gareth, entered the smoky interior of The Swan tavern. Whilst the boy swept the tap room with his eyes, Wulf beckoned over a serving wench and enquired about food and a quiet place to consume it.
‘All is in order Uncle. The retainers and Mark are in pairs and they have company with people from the French King’s entourage. None of our lot have any of Sir Alan’s livery on.’
‘Discreet,’ Wulf muttered to himself in a satisfied voice. ‘No point in drawing attention to their affinity in case others from our party are present,’ he whispered into Gareth’s ear.
‘It’s important Uncle?’
‘Oooh, yes,’ Wulf confirmed in a low voice. ‘We don’t want others getting the same ideas as us; it would reduce the value of the information Sir Alan wants us to get for him if everyone was doing it.’
Gareth looked quizzically at his uncle, who winked back.
‘One of the things that makes Sir Alan valuable to our King Edward is the trustworthy information he brings to him; sets him apart from a lot of the others around the king does that – trustworthy information – discreetly obtained, mind, discreetly obtained.’
‘Won’t the Frenchies wonder why our men are being friendly to them, Uncle?’
‘Lonely men in a strange land, with free drink being offered? Works most of the time, when you target the lower orders – it wouldn’t work with courtiers or knights: you have to use other means to befriend them. I have other ideas for seeing who of those ranks might be of help to us.’ Wulf looked to his nephew to see if he had heard what had been said, but the boy seem more interested in looking around the room. ‘Well, boy? You are sure all is in order?’
‘Eh?’ Gareth started. ‘Oh, yes, all is in order; our lot are with their new friends, drinking and laughing, and, from the way they are carrying on, the ones who shew that they speak foreign are translating what is being said to those that speak foreign but pretend they don’t.’
‘Good.’ Wulf steered the boy towards a table in a far corner. ‘Just watch them now and then, be discreet boy, like I trained you to be. Observe without observing; very important is that.’ They arrived at the table and sat down, backs to the wall. ‘You have the French, like Mark has taught you. Listen; not just to any Froggies in here, but to any of our own people speaking French, like they do when they want to show off. You never know what you may learn.’ Wulf screwed up his one seeing eye, looking for the food he had ordered. Not seeing it coming, he turned to the boy. ‘Entourage? What’s that then?’
‘Retinue, sort of; hangers on, sort of; those who work for the French king, sort of …’ The boy broke off as he had spied the serving wench coming towards them with a large bowl of steaming hot vegetable pottage.
Wulf looked at Gareth, waiting for the boy to continue, then, realising his nephew’s attention had switched elsewhere, he followed the boy’s line of sight. ‘Ah: food, your main interest in life I think boy.’ He turned back to looking at Gareth. ‘You have already eaten; I only got a mouthful of leavings tonight in the hall.’
‘But I am a growing boy Uncle,’ Gareth beamed back as he pulled his horn spoon from the depths of his pouch.
‘Just don’t over-fill yourself. We have a song or two to sing up the passage from the French king’s chamber tonight. I just hope Mark and Airka stay sober enough to join us.’
Wulf, Gareth, Mark and Airka shuffled into place in the passageway just out of sight of Albert and Lyulf, who were on sentry duty outside the French King’s chamber. The two retainers, now back in their fancy livery and drowsy from the drink they had consumed earlier that night had slipped down the wall till they were sitting on the floor, borrowed halberds clasped to their chests, wishing that it was not their turn to be on night watch and wondering why Wulf had arranged it.
‘Lead us in.’
Gareth gave a quiet cough before his beautiful boy’s voice started:
Whilst we were raiding all through the French land,
The others joined in with a mix of good and, in Airka’s case, slurred, voices:
We hadn’t gone a month past two or three
When we were caught by thirty thousand French
And they were five times more than we.
“Throw down your colours, you English dogs;
Throw down your colours, don’t refuse;
Throw down your colours, English dogs,
Or else your precious lives you’ll lose.”
Our commander being a most valiant man,
And a well bespoken man was he,
Said, “It never will be said we died like dogs –
We’ll fight this battle manfully.
“So climb the hill, my most valiant boys,
And plant your hedgerows way up on high.
Form wedges out on each of our flanks;
We’ll win this battle or we’ll die.”
The fight began about the forenoon;
It went till the setting of the sun;
And by the rising of the morning
Of the French there could be seen not one.
Most we had killed, boys, some we had caught.
The rest we’d caused to flee away.
The French king we carried home to England
For to let ’em know we had won the day.
If anyone asks you just who we be,
And who our commander is by name,
Edward Prince of Wales is our chief commander
And we the archers who won him fame.
There was a sound of metal scraping against a stone wall as Albert gave way to sleep, despite the singing, and his halberd slipped slowly from his grasp.
Wulf held up his hand to the gathered singers whilst he listened for further signs of activity. Hearing only a muffled annoyed voice that had a distinctly French accent, he turned to the others with a look of glee.
Gareth looked to his Uncle. ‘The Crecy song?’
‘Oh why not.’
On the twenty-sixth day of August, thirteen hundred and forty-six,
French horse and foot they did advance,
Most frightening to be seen.
Both horse and foot they did advance,
And the bugle horn did blow,
And the sons of France we made to dance
On a ridge ’bove Crecy town …
Lyulf, now wide awake and standing to attention, gently kicked the prone Albert in the ribs. ‘What a raucous noise. I wonder if Mark knows the words in French?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Albert replied sleepily as he fumbled around for his halberd and made to stand. ‘I can’t see him singing solo. Now Gareth singing solo …’
The door behind them opened and a cross-eyed squire tugged Albert’s elbow: ‘Tell them to shut up!’
‘Sorry: me no speakee Froggie, savvy?’
‘Well?’ Sir Alan de Buxhall, looking slightly the worse for wear after the previous night’s banquet in the grand hall of Dover Castle, tucked his body into the corner of the watchtower to block out the chill of early morning.
‘Slowly, Sir Alan, it is going slowly.’ Geffrey đe Wulf pulled his heavy woollen horse-cloak tight around his body. ‘These things take time. The boys are making friends, working out who may be useful, and who not. Seeing who likes his drink, seeing who likes to gossip, seeing what other useful traits the members of the Froggie King’s entourage have.’
‘Entourage?’ Sir Alan’s eyebrows rose in disbelief.
Wulf sighed: ‘Retinue, sort of; hangers on, sort of …’
‘I know what an “entourage” is, Gef. I am just shocked that you did.’ Wulf looked at Sir Alan with a hurt look. ‘Oh, right, Cuz.’ Sir Alan gave an amused chuckle. ‘Gareth used the word and then told you what it meant: an endless interest in words, that boy.’
‘Oh get that disgruntled look off your face Cuz, just be pleased that the education he is getting from the widow’s penny school is paying off. Now,’ the knight insisted, ‘tell me how things are going.’
‘Slowly,’ Wulf repeated.
It was Sir Alan’s turn to look disgruntled. ‘All that money I gave you to pass on – you did pass it on didn’t you? – course you did. All that money and all I get is: “slowly”?’
‘It all takes time, Sir Alan, it has only been one night! Tonight we stop at Rochester and friendships will be deepened, and lubricated….’
‘With my money!’
‘With drink bought with your money, yes. The boys are working hard at this, giving a helping hand to their new friends where they can, giving useful advice so that the drinking and shared food are seen as a natural progression. All this takes time, and discretion. After Rochester they should know which targets are worth cultivating or exploiting and which just to keep tags on so suspicions are allayed about false friendships. Then, given a few weeks in London, maybe a couple of months, the targets can be given a handler, if their foibles are to be the base of blackmail, or, if it is the best way to get information, a bed companion, and the boys can return back to normal duties.’
Sir Alan shook his head. ‘A lot of time and a lot of my money.’
‘Which King Edward will reimburse?’
‘With interest no doubt,’ Wulf added under his breath.
‘Well?’ Sir Alan de Buxhall looked slightly the worse for wear after the previous night’s banquet when King Edward had entertained the French king at Westminster Palace. Having escorted King Jean back to The Tower of London earlier that morning he was saddle sore too. Easing his buttocks, he settled himself into the padded chair in front of the fire burning in the fireplace of his own quarters at The Tower.
‘Well, we do have some prime targets Sir Alan.’ Wulf stood, hoping his distant relation would offer him the chance to also sit down.
‘Oh stop fidgeting Cuz.’ Sir Alan gestured towards a table against the far wall. ‘Get us both a drink and come and sit down, then you can tell me what you have for me.’
Wulf sauntered over to the table, noting that Sir Alan’s chamber had fresh-smelling rushes on the floor. He took the cloth off the top of a silver ewer and smelt its contents: red wine, possibly Bordeaux – doing odd jobs for Geffrey Chaucer had given the old archer a more discerning nose in recent years. Wulf picked up a silver gilt goblet, checked it was clean, and poured a stream of wine into it. ‘No ale Cuz?’
Sir Alan shook his head and closed his eyes. ‘Cuz, you do this every time; you know it will be wine in my rooms; that is what nobility drinks and I do have ambitions for joining them, so I need practice in drinking what they drink.’
‘Ambitions; yes. Wine; yes. Beer? No.’
‘Just get on with it.’
Wulf picked up a second goblet and filled that too with the red wine. He sniffed the bouquet before bringing the drinks over and handing one of the goblets to Sir Alan.
‘Thank you, cousin.’ Sir Alan swirled the wine in the goblet, appreciated the wine’s look, inhaled, sipped, and then gave a satisfied sigh. ‘A beautiful red from Bordeaux this year.’
‘Passable; not as good as it was two years ago.’
‘You have become a wine connoisseur Cuz? You know that two years ago was a classic year?’
‘So I have been told.’
‘Ah.’ The knight took another sip of his wine before giving his attention back to Wulf. ‘Now, what information do you have for me?’
‘Well, for willing gossips there are a couple of Flems in the band. They seem to know anyone and everyone in the Frog’s entourage and what is going on and they hate the French. I have a daughter-in-law who is a Fleming and I am sure an introduction can be arranged and socialising brought about.’
‘And this will cost me?’
‘Not a great deal, being family and all that.’
‘Good.’ Sir Alan took another sip of wine. ‘What else?’
‘One of the squires could be useful, though I am not sure if blackmail, given his king’s own tastes in these things, or just finding him a suitable “companion” to pick up on pillow talk, is the best way to go.’
Sir Alan raised an inquiring eyebrow.
‘Well,’ Wulf continued, ‘Gareth said he didn’t feel comfortable around this squire, a hand placed where it shouldn’t be, a fluttered eye, a suggestive phrase or word; that sort of thing.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Sir Alan gave a knowing smirk. ‘I think pillow talk best. The French king is unlikely to be worried about one of his pages following his own example, and pillow talk is often so much more reliable than blackmail.’ The knight tapped the edge of the goblet against his teeth. After some thought he looked across at his cousin. ‘What’s the name of that Genoese wine merchant? You know, the one who smells of garlic all the time.’
‘They all smell of garlic, the Italians, and not just the wine merchants.’
‘Yes, but this one more so than the rest. You know; oils his hair and sweats a lot. Always needs a shave; food down the front of his clothes.’
‘Ah: De Soto; specialises in sweet white wines.’
‘Just so. His boy, Roma, he is that way inclined I understand. Old smelly De Soto – never can remember his first name …’
‘Thank you, yes; old smelly Cosmo De Soto. He wants a concession to supply the Court with his wine and in addition for him to have a reduced number of yew bow staves required to be brought in per tun of wine. I am sure an understanding between us and his son can arranged, especially if I can throw in sales to the French king in addition to King Edward’s Court.’
‘I’m sure you can Sir Alan.’ Wulf risked drinking some of the wine, despite it catching his teeth.
‘Yes; talking of concessions; that Moor of yours. I understand he did quite well selling gewgaws to the French whilst with us.’
‘He is not a Moor,’ Wulf began; then, seeing Sir Alan’s indifference, he decided not to pursue correcting the knight. ‘Denis did indeed sell some stuff and he says he is very grateful to you for providing him with the opportunity and that he will be sending you a “thank you” gift.’
‘Oh, he needn’t bother.’
Wulf looked at Sir Alan with a shocked look.
Sir Alan laughed, tossed back the last of his wine, and then gave one of his rather dishonest smiles. ‘Well, perhaps he should bother.’ The knight gave a sinister chuckle.
‘Quite.’ Wulf risked another swig of wine, winced and put the half full goblet down on the floor, hoping that Sir Alan’s gazing hound, lazing at his master’s side, would oblige him by finishing the drink off for him, a task it had undertaken on numerous occasions.
‘Anyone else? So far a small return for my investment.’
‘There is a courtier whose page says is in a lot of debt from gambling.’ Wulf caught the gaze hound’s eye and encouraged it over toward the half full goblet.
‘That could be useful – I know a few at our Court who could swindle him deeper into debt and obligation.’
‘A couple of the courtiers seem to have an unseemly attraction to bright gems.’
‘Your Moorish friend could be helpful there, but it would be a last resort as bribery is not a good means of getting information that is reliable: you get fed all sorts of rubbish most of the time.’ Sir Alan snapped his fingers to try and get the gaze hound to come over for an ear fondle, but the dog had started to investigate the contents of Wulf’s goblet.
‘There are a couple of grooms fond of drink but, according to Mark, you have to get stuff out of them before they have imbibed too much as first they get incomprehensible, then maudlin and tearful, then looking for a fight before resorting to indulging in what seems to be a vomiting competition.’
‘Oh nice: I will leave those two to your boys then.’
‘They are “your boys” Sir Alan; they are your retainers.’
‘Yes Cuz, but you manage them so well.’
Wulf pushed the hound away before picking up the empty goblet and returning it to the table. He picked up the wine ewer and came over and refilled Sir Alan’s goblet. ‘The fancy livery Cuz; do we hand it back in?’
‘No, no, you can all keep it, work well done and all that. I shall be using you all again when – not if, but when – when I progress to a status which regularly needs a retinue. Just make sure no one puts on any weight, because they won’t be getting another set. Replacement livery will be paid for out of wages.’ The knight drank some of his wine before nodding his head and adding, ‘You never know, we may soon need them again escorting the French king back to France when his ransom is paid.’ He reached down to fondle the gaze hound’s ears as it looked longingly up into the knight’s eyes.
‘If he lives that long.’
Sir Alan gave a quizzical look. ‘Cuz?’
‘Well he didn’t look too healthy when we collected him at Dover, and when I last saw him, when he was leaving the Duke of Lancaster’s place on a very fancy-looking dapple-grey horse, he looked distinctly frail; he could hardly keep in the saddle. I am sure all his socialising and late-night drinking and gorging isn’t helping his health.’
‘Oh God,’ exclaimed Sir Alan de Buxhall. ‘Don’t say I have laid out all this expense for nothing. If Jean dies, I doubt any of his sons will come and take his place as hostage. In fact I can’t even see his son, The Dauphin, even continuing to pay us the ransom.’
‘Well, Sir Alan, some of the contact may still be of use and you did get some lovely looking livery out of it, at the King’s expense too.’
When John II came to power, France was facing several disasters: the Black Death, which caused the death of nearly half of its population, free companies of routiers who plundered the country, and English aggression that resulted in disastrous military losses, including the Battle of Poitiers of 1356, in which John was captured.
While John was a prisoner in London, his son Charles became regent and faced several rebellions, which he overcame. To liberate his father, he concluded the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), by which France lost many territories and paid an enormous ransom.
In an exchange of hostages, including his son Louis, John was released from captivity to raise funds for his ransom. Upon his return in France, he created the franc to stabilize the currency and tried to get rid of the free companies by sending them to a crusade, but Pope Innocent VI died shortly before their meeting in Avignon, so the crusade never took place. When John was informed that Louis had escaped from captivity, he voluntarily returned to England, where he died in 1364. He was succeeded by his son Charles V.
John always suffered from fragile health. He engaged little in physical activity, practised jousting rarely, and only occasionally hunted. Contemporaries report that he was quick to get angry and resort to violence, leading to frequent political and diplomatic confrontations. He enjoyed literature and was patron to painters and musicians.
The image of a "warrior king" probably emerged from the courage in battle he showed at the Battle of Poitiers and the creation of the Order of the Star. This was guided by political need, as John was determined to prove the legitimacy of his crown, particularly as his reign, like that of his father, was marked by continuing disputes over the Valois claim from both Charles II of Navarre and Edward III of England. From a young age, John was called to resist the de-centralising forces that impacted upon the cities and the nobility, each attracted either by English economic influence or the reforming party. He grew up among intrigue and treason, and in consequence he governed in secrecy only with a close circle of trusted advisers.
He took as his wife Bonne of Bohemia and fathered 10 children in eleven years. Due to his close relationship with Charles de la Cerda, rumours were spread by Charles II of Navarre of a romantic attachment between the two. La Cerda was given various honours and appointed to the high position of Connetable when John became king; he accompanied the king on all his official journeys to the provinces. La Cerda's rise at court excited the jealousy of the French barons, several of whom stabbed him to death in 1354. La Cerda's fate paralleled that of Edward II of England's Piers Gaveston and John II of Castile's Alvaro de Luna; the position of a royal favourite was a dangerous one. John's grief on La Cerda's death was overt and public.