A Plague of Angels: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #4

A Plague of Angels: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #4

In 1592, dashing courtier Sir Robert Carey took up his northern post as Warden of the West March in order to escape the complications of creditors and court life. Trouble, ...

About The Author

P F Chisholm

P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym of a well-known writer of historical thrillers, childrens’ books, and nonfiction blogs and ebooks. Previous ...

Read an Excerpt

Wednesday, 30th August 1592, late afternoon

You could always tell when you were near a town from the bodies hanging on the gibbets by the main road, thought Sergeant Dodd. London was no different from anywhere else they had passed on the interminable way south. As their horses toiled up the long hill from Golders Farm, Dodd could just glimpse a robber’s corpse dangling from a big elm tree, up on the brow. Of course Sir Robert Carey had told him how close they were to London when they turned off the Great North Road and passed through the village of Hendon, but they had been delayed by Carey’s horse throwing a shoe. The afternoon crowds of people were gone now so that the dusty rutted road was quite empty. It could have been anywhere.

A bit of knowledge gleaned from Carey’s manservant floated to the front of his mind.

‘Ay,’ he said with interest, and turned in the saddle to speak to Barnabus himself who trailed lumpenly along behind them on a sulky looking horse. ‘Would that be Tyburn Tree up ahead there?’

Barnabus was frowning with concentration as he tried to get his mount to move faster up the hill.

‘Nah, mate,’ he puffed, kicking viciously at the horse’s flanks. ‘Tyburn’s off to the west, where the Edgeware Road meets the Oxford Road, and it’s a lot fancier than that. That’s only the Hampstead Hanging Elm.’

The road was curving round into a deep cutting with scrubby heathland trees growing on the banks. Ahead, the Courtier’s ugly and obstinate replacement horse was balking at something again, probably the smell of rot from the corpse. Carey had glanced without interest at the Elm with its judicial fruit. The horse neighed, tossed his head and skittered sideways.

‘God damn it,’ Carey snarled to the horse. ‘You flyblown lump of dogsmeat, get over!’ He brought his whip down on the animal’s flank and the horse crow-hopped and tried to turn to run back down the hill to its home in Golders  Green.

Dodd wasn’t liking the look of the place either. You couldn’t see past the curve of the road and those high banks on both sides were perfect siting for an ambush.

He tried to urge his own horse up to a canter to bring him level with Carey, but the mare had her head up too, and her nostrils flared. Forelegs straight and the hairs of her mane up, she refused to pick up the pace. Dodd frowned.

‘Whit’s ahead of us, sir?’ he called to Carey whose nag was slowly turning round in circles and shaking his head.

‘The Cut, then Hampstead horse pond,’ said the Courtier and whacked the animal again. ‘Will you get on, blast you…!’ he roared at it.

Drawing his sword, Dodd slid from the saddle, took the mare’s bridle and led her forward at a run, then dodged behind and hit her on the rump with the flat of the sword. The mare reared and bolted past the Courtier and young Simon Barnet on his pony.

As she galloped up the road through the Cut, whinnying and shaking her head, Dodd heard the unmistakeable whip-chunk! of a crossbow being fired.

‘Och,’ he said to himself as he instantly changed direction and sprinted softly up the narrow path he had spotted on the right hand side of the Cut. ‘Ah might have guessed.’

The bank reared higher on the right of the road, soft sandy earth held together by tree roots and bushes. Just below him, overlooking the narrowest part, he saw a man hunched in hiding, a bolt ready in his crossbow as he squinted down the sight ready for them to pass by.

Dodd had been storing up an awful lot of rage on the journey south from Carlisle. He gave an inarticulate roar at the sight, hopped like a goat down the high crumbling earthbank and cut down on the man with his sword.

The footpad had heard something coming, turned just in time to see his death, dropped the crossbow and reflexively put up his hands to defend himself. He took Dodd’s swordblade straight down through his armbone and the middle of his face. Dodd slashed sideways to finish the job, then turned at another man who was lungeing out of a bramble bush waving the biggest sword Dodd had ever seen in his life, a great long monster of a thing that the robber was wielding two-handed, his face purple with effort.

Somewhere behind him, Dodd heard one of Carey’s dags fire and an incoherent screaming follow it. As he dodged the whirling blade in front of him, a particle of thought noted that for the first time in his memory, Carey had finally managed to shoot somebody with his fancy weapon.

Balancing in a crouch, Dodd watched how the robber handled his stupid great sword, ducked again and waited for the instant when the momentum of it was whirling it round the back of the robber’s head. That was when Dodd jumped inside the man’s guard, slashed once with his sword and kicked as hard as he could at the man’s balls.

The soft earth crumbled under him, he missed his target as he toppled and slipped on his bum down the bank. The robber danced after him, hefted up the long blade to bring it down on Dodd’s head; the blade arced through the sky and Dodd rolled and slithered frantically, caught a rowan trunk to stop himself pitching eight feet down, and then saw the man grunt, stand still for a moment with his mouth wide open. The double-handed sword thudded to the ground and its wielder pitched headfirst down the bank and into the road.

Barnabus stood behind him, puffing for breath and dusting off his hands. Dodd nodded his thanks, clambered back up to the tiny narrow path and ran on to find the rest of the bastards, his blood properly up, just itching to find someone else to kill.

He saw the flash of legs and then glimpsed three more men off across the bare hill, running as fast as they could past the Hanging Elm. He sprinted after them, roaring ‘A Tynedale, A Tynedale, Out! Out!’ and the cowardly southron pigs only ran faster, splitting up as they dodged down the other side of the hill through the brambles and bushes.

Years spent on the Border not getting himself killed won through Dodd’s rage and he stopped. They might have kin within hailing range, there might be men and horses lying in wait behind one of the hedges, hiding in a double ambush to catch them when they thought they’d won the fight. No. He was a Dodd from Upper Tynedale and he’d pulled that trick too often himself in the past to be fooled by it.

He caught his breath and wiped his swordblade with some of the tussocky grass next to the Elm, where the sandy soil was more fertile, glanced up at the corpse in its soiled suit of brown wool with black velvet trimmings. A bit prosperous-looking for a thief; must have been a murderer. The smell wasn’t bad at all, though the face was a terrible mess.

Horsehooves beat the earth behind him, and Dodd whisked round into a crouch again, sword at the ready. It was only the Courtier though, laughing fit to burst his ribs, dag in his left hand and his sword in his right.

‘By God, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘That was a bloody good piece of work.’

Dodd tried hard not to look pleased. ‘Ay,’ he said. ‘They’ve run though.’

‘Of course they have. No soft southern footpad is a match for a Tynedaler and never will be.’

As this was undoubtedly true, Dodd nodded his head. ‘How long afore they fetch their kin?’ he asked, squinting around himself. Apart from the Elm, there were no proper trees, though a multiplicity of hedges split the fields below. Not much cover up here, he thought, plenty down there, I don’t like  it.

Carey was laughing again, putting his still-wound second dag back into its case on the horse’s withers, and twirling his sword around his gloved fingers in an absurd swordmaster’s flourish.

‘They won’t,’ he said with the unwarranted certainty that always enraged Dodd. ‘This is Hampstead Heath, not the Bewcastle Waste. Every man jack of them will have to change his breeches now they’ve lost three of their friends, including the big ugly bastard that almost fell on Simon, who I think was their leader.’

‘Ye killed one, then, sir?’ Dodd said as he followed Carey down the slightly better path that led back to the road on the southern side of the Cut.

‘Shot one, slashed another.’

‘Nae trouble wi’ yer hands now?’

Carey grinned with satisfaction and flexed the fingers of his left hand in the embroidered kid gloves he was wearing. ‘No, my grip’s as good as it ever was,’ he said. ‘The kick didn’t even hurt.’ Dodd nodded once, unwilling to be as delighted with Carey as Carey was with himself.

‘I swapped a couple of blows with somebody who had a polearm, might have got him with a slash, and then you killed the big one and the lot of them ran like  rabbits.’

‘Nay sir, that werenae me, it were Barnabus,’ Dodd said dolefully, annoyed with himself for not doing better. ‘Got him in the back with a throwing knife. I killed anither man with a crossbow.’

Carey laughed again and sheathed his sword. ‘I’ve never regretted the day I hired Barnabus,’ he said untruthfully. ‘Even though I was drunk at the time. Come on, let’s make sure he doesn’t strip all the corpses.’

Dodd glowered at the thought of being bilked out of his rightful spoils and ran back through the Cut to find Barnabus bending over the man Carey had evidently shot, since his chest was a mashed mess of bone and blood. He was still flopping feebly and Barnabus appeared to be trying to act as a surgeon on  him.

‘Barnabus, really,’ admonished Carey from his horse, which was spinning and sidling again. ‘Wait until the poor bugger’s dead.’

Barnabus looked furtive. ‘Well, sir, I was…ah…going to put him out of his misery, so to speak.’

‘Ay,’ said Dodd, coming close and looking down. ‘Were ye now? What are they, then?’ He pointed at the round bright gold coins scattered about the dying man, some of them embedded in the ruined flesh of his chest. ‘Buttercups?’

Barnabus had the grace to look embarrassed. ‘Just wondering,’ he muttered.

Even the sniff of gold had the Courtier off his horse, tying it to a bush and coming over to look.

‘Hm,’ he said. ‘That’s peculiar.’

Dodd was gathering up the coins on the ground, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to start plucking coins out of the man’s body. Barnabus wasn’t so fussy.

‘What’s a scrawny Hampstead footpad doing with a purseful of gold?’ Carey asked. ‘And why did they try it on with us if they already had money?’

Dodd shrugged and went to look at the big bruiser that Barnabus had killed. Somebody else had got there first though, and he scowled at Barnabus who coughed and brought out the purse he had taken.

Simon came trotting down from the bank looking disappointed. ‘Nothing up there, Uncle Barney,’ he said.  ‘Sorry.’

Pointedly, Carey held out his hand for the spoils which Barnabus handed over. Dodd was very reluctant to give up a purse full of money, even if it had blood and chips of bone mixed in, but wasn’t quite annoyed enough with the Courtier to hold onto it.

Carey hefted the purses and frowned. ‘What wealthy little footpads,’ he said, and bent over the man he had shot, who was finally still. Staring eyes told him he’d get no information.

‘Hm,’ said Carey again, putting the purses into one of his saddle bags. ‘Come on, let’s get the horses watered and try and make it into London before nightfall.’

# # #

As expected, Dodd’s nag was at the horsepond slurping up greenish water and swishing at flies with her tail. She made a great drama about shying when she saw him and trotting further round the pool. Dodd pretended he wasn’t interested in her, wandered up to the trampled banks of the pond, looked everywhere but at the horse and then when she put her wary head down again, nipped her bridle.

‘Got ye,’ he whispered to her and she snorted  resignedly.

Carey’s mount was still pulling on the reins and sidling stupidly until he caught the smell of water and then he lunged for it. Carey tied him to one of the posts and disappeared into a bramble bush a little way off. Simon came up from the Cut with Barnabus, leading the other two horses. They had no packponies and were riding strange southern horses because Carey had been in a hurry and they had been riding post. They were due to change mounts again at the Holly Tree in Hampstead, and Dodd, for one, couldn’t wait to be rid of the latest batch of useless knacker’s rejects. Also, he was thirsty, but he would have to be a great deal worse off to consider the stuff in the horsepond. What he wanted was a quart of ale, Bessie’s for preference, bread, cheese, a meat pie, pickled onions…Dodd sighed. Maybe the Holly Tree would have some food. Maybe Carey would let them stop for half an hour to drink. Maybe he wouldn’t. Dodd wasn’t very hopeful. Out of sheer habit, he stared out across the horsepond at the countryside around them and at the thatched roofs of the village which began a little way down the other side of the hill. His horse had finished and was looking at him expectantly, but he didn’t have a feedbag hidden anywhere on him, so he tied her to the hitching post near the pond. Then he wandered to the other side of the hilltop, to see if he could spy London town yet, even though the milestone had said they were five miles away still.

His mouth fell open. It was a fine lookout spot, that hill, good siting for a pele tower, not that the soft southrons had thought of building one. They had a pathetic beacon on a raised bracket, that must have been put up in the Armada year from the rust on it, but there was no wood around to light it with. You could see for miles when it was clear, which it was, a pale golden evening with not a hint of autumn.

And if you looked southwards, there it lay, a baleful brackish sea of houses, the foremost city in England. The craggy flotsam of church steeples poked up among the cluttered roofs, with smoke dirtying the sky above even on a warm day. Dodd had never seen such a thing. The day before he had been impressed with York, but this…A city that had burst its walls in all directions with so many people that came and stayed, as if the city ate them and got fatter each time. Dodd narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. London might impress him, but eat him it would not.

‘Makes yer heart sing, don’t it?’ said a guttural voice beside him. Barnabus Cooke was standing there, squinting in the south-westering light of the sun. Either the light was stronger than Dodd thought, or the ferret-faced little man had tears in his eyes. ‘Seems a hundred years gone since I left,’ he sighed.

‘Hmphm,’ said Dodd noncommitally.

Barnabus heard his lack of enthusiasm and waved an expressive arm. ‘That, Sergeant Dodd, is the greatest city in Christendom. Everything any sane man could ever want you can get right there, no trouble, money to be made, never any reason to be bored.’

‘Ay, and the streets are all paved wi’ gold,’ said Dodd straight- faced, ‘so I’ve heard tell.’

‘No, they ain’t,’ piped up Simon. ‘Don’t you listen to ’em, Sergeant. Me and my friend Tom, we dug down for two days solid, looking for gold paving stones and we never found nuffing except more paving stones.’

Dodd nodded at Simon. At some time on the long weary journey, a mystery had happened to the lad’s speech again. From sounding quite Christian really, at least as comprehensible as the Carlisle stable lads, Simon had turned back into the guttural creature with hiccups for ‘t’s that he had been when he first came north. God save me, Dodd thought, feeling for the little lump of his wife’s amulet under his shirt, alien men with alien notions and words like cobblestones.

‘Nay lad,’ he said gravely to Simon. ‘I never thought it were, or why are the Grahams no’ laying siege to  it.’

‘Figures of speech, Sergeant,’ said Barnabus patronisingly. ‘Only true in a manner of speaking. Like what you get at the playhouse? You ever seen a play?’

‘I’ve seen the players that come to Carlisle some years,’ said Dodd, who hadn’t thought much of them. ‘Garish folk, and ay arguing.’

Barnabus tutted. ‘Nah. Plays. At a playhouse. With guns for thunder and the boys tricked out in velvets and satin and trumpets and a jig at the end. Best bit, the jig, I’ve always thought. Worf waiting for.’

‘Why?’

Barnabus grinned knowingly and tapped his bulbous nose. ‘You’ll see.’

Dodd grunted and looked around for the cause of this whole stupid expedition into foreign parts. Carey came striding impatiently out of his sorry-looking stand of thorns, his good humour after a fight obviously destroyed by what had sent him hurrying into it. Dodd was quite recovered from the vicious Scottish flux they had both picked up in Dumfries, but Carey’s bowels were clearly made of weaker stuff. He saw them gazing into the distance and turned to look as well, scowling at the view of London before turning back to scowl at all of them. To his clear dissatisfaction, the horses were all drinking nicely, none of them was lame for a change, and there was nothing to complain about. God, but he was in a nasty temper and had been all the way south, starting with an eyeblinking explosion of profanity when he first got the letter from his father. Dodd had heard it in the new barracks building while Carey was in the Carlisle castle yard.

It had been very wearying, riding with a man as chancy as a bad gun, all the way to Newcastle and every step of the Roman road south. They had changed horses luxuriously twice a day and pressed on at a pace that Dodd thought indecent, even with the Courtier having to stop and find cover every couple of hours. It wasn’t the length of time it took—Dodd was no stranger to long rides and three days was not the longest he’d been on by several days—it was the sheer dullness of the business. Hour after hour of cavalry pace, walk a mile, trot a mile, canter for two, then lead the horses again, and never a familiar face to greet nor a known tower to sight by. Dodd felt marooned. Even with the straight dusty Roman road, he doubted he could find his way back home again from so far away, though Carey knew the way well enough. After all, he was used to flinging himself across the entire country on the Queen’s account.

The countryside had changed around them as they went, so you might think they were still and the country moving, changing itself magically from rocky to flat and back to hills, fat and golden with straw after the harvest, the gleaners still combing painstakingly through the fields. They passed orchards—Dodd had not been certain what the little woods full of fruit trees might be, but had found out from Simon; they passed fields full of sheep and kine and only children guarding them, so it made you sad to think how many you could reive if only the distances weren’t so great. Even the size of the fields changed, from small and   stonewalled to vast striped prairies and then back to small squares quilted with hedges. The road was generally full of strangers as well, crowded with packponies, carriers’ wagons, even newfangled coaches jolting along with silkclad green-faced women suffering inside them. Once a courier carrying the Queen’s dispatches had galloped down the grassy verge, shouting for them to make room, and leaving the rest of the travellers bathed in dust. Carey had coughed and brightened up a little, and they had talked for an hour about the technicalities of riding post. They had agreed that the key to speed was in making the change of horses every ten miles as fast as possible and paradoxically in taking the first half mile slowly so the animal had a chance to warm up.

Once a trotting train carrying fish from Norwich went past them, little light carts pulled by perkily trotting ponies, trailing a smell of the ocean behind the smart clatter. Once they had passed a band of beggars and Dodd had loosened his sword, but the upright man at the head of them had not liked the look of three men and a boy, well-armed and with the gentleman at the head of them ostentatiously opening his dag case before him. Dodd had thought it was a pity, really, he’d heard tell of southern beggars and a fight would at least have broken the monotony. Dodd was also short of sleep, thanks to Carey’s efforts at economising. At each inn they stayed at, Carey had put them all in the one room so Dodd could get the full benefit of Carey and Barnabus’s outrageous snoring. In desperation he had offered to sleep with the horses in the stables, but Carey had turned the idea down.

The south was a dreamworld where all the familiar normal animals had suddenly turned fat and handsome and he could only understand one word in three that was spoken to him. Dodd felt naked without his jack and morion, and thought wistfully that it would have been nice if his brother could have come too so he could have had someone to talk to. But Carey had refused to pay for any more followers than he had to on the grounds that it was Dodd himself that the Lord Chamberlain, his father, wanted to speak to, not Red Sandy.

‘What do you make of it, Sergeant?’ Carey asked him, nodding at the ambush of houses ahead of them.

‘Ah dinna ken, sir,’ said Dodd at his most stolid. ‘I’ve no’ been there yet.’ Was Carey actually planning to keep all the spoils for himself? Damn him for a selfish grasping miser; he’d only killed one of the footpads and if it hadn’t been for Dodd, they would have been helpless in the Cut when the robbers  attacked…

As if reading Dodd’s mind, Carey had squatted down and was emptying out the gold and silver coins onto a flat stone, sorting them briskly into shillings and crowns and angels, and then into three piles which he then doled out. The few pennies left over he gave to Simon.

‘Will we get to see the Queen, sir?’ asked Simon as he stowed his money away.

Carey shrugged. ‘We might, if she’s in London. She’s more likely to be on progress.’

‘Will yer father no’ be with her then, sir?’ Dodd said, having picked up the vague notion that Lord Chamberlains were supposed to look after courtiers and the court and such. ‘How will we tell him our tale if he isnae there?’

‘How the hell should I know?’ snapped Carey. ‘Father’s brains have addled, I expect. Bloody London. What the devil’s the point of making me come back to London now?’

‘Ay, the Grahams will be riding, and the Armstrongs forbye,’ said Dodd dolefully. ‘Once the Assize judge has gone home after Lammas torches, and the horses are strong and the kine are fat, that’s when we run our rodes.’

Carey snorted. Dodd, who was tired of treating Carey with tact, decided to live dangerously. ‘Ah, that’ll be it, sir,’ he said comfortably. ‘Your father will have got wind the Grahams have a price on yer head and he’ll want ye safe in the south again.’

Lord, Carey could glare fit to split a stone when he wanted. ‘I very much doubt it,’ he said frostily, ‘seeing he knows perfectly well I’d rather be in Carlisle and take my chances with the Grahams.’

‘Hm,’ said Barnabus. ‘Not an easy choice, is it, sir? With all the people wanting to see you in London.’

Carey didn’t answer, but went to his horse and started turning up hooves looking for stones. The animal nickered and licked at his neck, searching for salt and knocking his hat off in the process.

Uncharacteristically, Carey elbowed the enquiring muzzle away with a growled ‘Get over, you stupid animal.’

‘Mr Skeres will want to talk to you, won’t he, sir?’ Barnabus went on, sucking his teeth and scratching his bum. ‘And Mr Barnet and Mr Palavicino’s agent and Mr Bullard and then there’s Mr Pickering’s men…’

Involuntarily, Carey winced.

‘Got some feuds waiting for ye, have ye, sir?’ asked Dodd with interest. It didn’t surprise him at all, knowing Carey by now, but he wouldn’t have thought southerners would have the spirit.

‘No,’ Carey admitted as he checked the girth and mounted. ‘Not feuds. Much worse.’

‘Och ay?’

‘Much much worse,’ Barnabus explained gloomily, using the mounting stone to clamber into the saddle.

‘What then?’

‘Creditors,’ Carey said hollowly. ‘London’s bloody crawling with my creditors.’

# # #

The nags supplied by the Holly Tree were, if anything, worse than the ones they had been riding before and true to Dodd’s gloomy expectation, Carey refused even to pause long enough for a quart of beer. Nor would he roust out the village Watch to go and find the footpads, though that was sensible enough since they were more than likely the same people or at least their relatives.

As they clopped briskly down Haverstock Hill, Carey’s face got longer and longer. He looked just like a man whose blackrent to the Grahams was late, waiting for the torch in his thatch.

‘Could ye not pay ’em off with the spoils fra the footpads?’ Dodd asked solicitously.

Carey blinked at him, as if checking to see whether he was making fun, and then laughed hollowly.

‘Christ, Dodd, you’ve no idea,’ he said. ‘I wish I could. The only thing I’ve got going for me is the fact they don’t know I’m coming.’

‘Wouldn’t be too sure of that, sir,’ said Barnabus from behind them.

Carey had been in a tearing hurry all the way south, but now he slowed to a walk.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What do you think, Barnabus?’ I was hoping to come down Gray’s Inn Road and into Holborn just about the time when the law students come out of dinner and use them as cover, but we’re too late for  that.’

‘Mm,’ said Barnabus thoughtfully. ‘I shouldn’t think there’ll be too many duns out on Holborn—why bother? If I was trying to catch you, I’d hang around Somerset House, wiv a boat on the river. After all, they don’t know which way you’re  coming.’

‘If they know I’m coming at all.’

‘You’re planning to rely on that, are you,  sir?’

Carey shook his head. ‘It’s the Strand that’s the problem then.’ He nibbled the stitching on the thumb of his glove. ‘I simply can’t afford to wind up in the Fleet.’

‘What’s that, sir?’

‘A debtor’s prison,’ said Carey in a voice of  doom.

‘Och,’ said Dodd and considered. ‘Have ye  kin in London?

Yer father’s there, is he  no’?’

‘I hope so, since he’s forced me to ride a couple of hundred miles just to talk to him face to face and do business that could be perfectly well done by letter.’

‘Ay. It’s no’ difficult, then. They willnae ken ma face as one o’ yourn, so ye tell me the lie of the land and where your father’s castle is, I ride hell fer leather intae it, he calls out yer kin and comes out to meet ye and none o’ yer enemies can do a thing about it.’

A short silence greeted this excellent plan which Dodd realised was not the silence of admiration. Carey cleared his throat in a way which Dodd knew meant he was trying hard not to laugh and Simon sniggered behind his hand.

‘Well?’ demanded Dodd truculently. ‘What’s wrong with that idea?’ He could feel his neck reddening.

‘Among other things, the fact that Somerset House is only one of the palaces on the Strand and I doubt you could find it,’ said Carey. ‘Not to mention the fact that the Queen is highly averse to pitched battles being fought on the streets of London.’

‘You could let ’em take you, we talk to your dad and he bails you tomorrow,’ suggested Barnabus. ‘You’d only need to spend one night inside…’

‘Absolutely not,’ snapped Carey, and his face was pale.

Dodd thought he was being overdramatic and called his bluff. ‘Ye can allus change clothes wi’ me, sir, if ye’re so feart o’ being seen; none will know you in my clothes,’ he offered. Perhaps it was cruel to tease the Courtier; Dodd knew perfectly well that Carey would probably rather die than enter even London’s suburbs wearing Dodd’s sturdy best suit of homespun russet. Certainly he would hang before going into his father’s house like  that.

Carey’s blue glare narrowed again but it seemed he was learning to know when Dodd was pulling his leg. He  coughed.

‘Thank you for your offer, Dodd,’ he said, ‘but I doubt your duds would fit me.’

‘Ay, they would,’ said Dodd, who was only a couple of inches shorter than Carey and not far off the same build. Though he thought no one would actually confuse them in a thousand years since Carey had dark chestnut hair, hooded blue eyes, a striking family resemblance to the Queen along his cheekbones and slightly hooked nose, and a breezy swagger that breathed of the court. Dodd knew he was no beauty though he felt it was unfair the way his wife sometimes compared his usual expression to a wet winter’s day. The best you could say about his brown hair was that it was quite clean and he still had all of it.

‘We dinna have to go straight in,’ Dodd pointed out. ‘There’s surely no shortage of fine inns. Ye could stay at one o’ them, Barnabus could scout out yer dad’s castle for ye, see was the approaches laid wi’ ambush, and then we could bring out a covered litter for ye and take ye in that way.’

‘That might work,’ said Barnabus. ‘At least we could bring out some of your father’s liverymen for cover.’ Dodd forebore to point out that this was exactly the plan he had first suggested and they had laughed at.

For once Carey looked as if he was being tempted to act sensibly but as Dodd expected, it didn’t last.

‘No,’ Carey said. ‘News travels fast in London. If anyone spots you, Barnabus, they’ll know I’m  back and come looking for me when you return. Dodd wouldn’t know the way and Simon’s too young. Also nobody knows them at Somerset House so they might have trouble getting in. Besides I’m not skulking into my father’s house in a blasted litter like some bloody trollop from the stews. No, if we move fast enough and quietly enough, by the time they realise it’s me, we’ll be in.’

‘And yer father’s henchmen can see ’em off.’ ‘No,’ said Carey. ‘My father’s lawyers.’

‘Whit use are lawyers?’ laughed Dodd, who had never heard good of one. ‘It’s fighting men we lack, as  usual.’

‘You’d be surprised, Sergeant. Right, so it’s down Gray’s Inn Road to Holborn, turn right on Holborn and past Chancery Lane, cut across Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then down Little Drury Lane at a trot, turn right into the Strand where we’ll walk so as not to be too dramatic and besides the ground’s awful there, then in at my father’s gatehouse. Stick close, Dodd, I don’t want you getting lost.’

What did a London bailiff look like? wondered Dodd as they cut across the fields to the gate at the top of Gray’s Inn Lane, cattle almost blocking it as they stood waiting to be taken in for milking. They were lovely beasts, fat as butter, huge udders groaning. As they manoevred round the herd, Dodd rode up behind Carey and let out a soft cough.

‘Look at them,’ he said longingly. ‘Could we no’…er…borrow a few, sir? I could drive at least five o’ them maself, and more if ye gave me a hand. We could use ’em to pay off yer  creditors.’

Carey stared for a moment and then shouted with humourless laughter. ‘For God’s sake, Dodd, keep your sticky hands off those beasts, they’re the Earl of Essex’s. See the bear and ragged staff brand? Don’t touch ’em.’

‘Och,’ said Dodd sadly, not very surprised. ‘He’s a big lord, is he, sir?’

‘Er…yes,’ said Carey. ‘Also, I’m still his man and you’d get me in a lot of trouble.’

Gray’s Inn Road must have been a horror in winter, what with the depth of dust. It was lined with houses, like streets in Edinburgh, and then they came out on a wide road. Carey was looking about him and had his hat pulled down. They crossed some fields criss-crossed with paths that looked badly overgrazed and came through a gate beside a high garden wall. Across another dusty road was a lane that led due south between tall narrow houses. Simon shut the gate and they unconsciously bunched together as they went into the lane. The sun was a low copper bowl now and the people milling around not paying them any attention. Dodd thought that Londoners were very rude folk, not to wave, even. Carey was biting the corner of his lip and looking nervous, while Barnabus had the narrow-eyed thoughtful expression he wore when he was waiting for trouble. Dodd loosened his sword and wished for a bow.

‘Don’t kill anybody, Sergeant,’ Carey said. ‘Even if there’s a fight.’

‘Why not?’

‘You’ve no idea what a bloody nuisance it is to fix juries in London,’ Carey snapped. ‘So don’t get yourself hanged.’

Their horses’ hooves slipped and scuffed on the dusty clay as they negotiated a whole fine litter of red piglets plugged into their dam across the middle of the lane. There was a stone water conduit at the end of the lane, where city women stood waiting to draw water—fine ladies too, by the looks of their velvet trimmed kirtles and outrageously feathered hats. The Strand was wide and choking with dust, the biggest houses Dodd had ever seen in his life rearing up like cliffs on either side of it.

‘Hell’s teeth,’ said Carey, catching sight of the decorative gathering at the conduit. ‘The wives are out to  watch.’

Dodd gestured at an impressive house opposite the conduit. ‘Is that yer father’s house…?’ he asked. Carey shook his head and pointed at the gatehouse of a towering elaboration of a palace that Dodd had taken for the Queen’s court itself.

‘And here they come,’ said Barnabus, as a crowd of large men in buff coats, waving pieces of paper and clubs and coshes, moved suddenly in their direction.

Just for a second, Dodd saw Carey on the verge of running like a rabbit. If he hadn’t known why Carey was so afraid of arrest, he would have thought it funny, but since he did, he decided that he wasn’t going to allow it and the hell with London juries, they had to catch him first.

Dodd drew his sword and drove his horse into the thick of the shouting crowd of men. As he’d thought, they wanted their bounties for arresting Carey, but not at the expense of their heads, and they fell back in front of him. At least Carey, Barnabus and Simon had the sense to stick close behind him. The boom of Carey’s second dag rang out by Dodd’s ear as he discharged it into the air. A couple of bailiffs clutched desperately for Carey’s reins and stirrup leathers. One fell back with a broken nose from a vicious kick from Carey’s boot, and Barnabus’s horse co-operatively trod on another one’s foot, making him howl.

And then they were through, the whole bunch scattering at the edges, the other people in the street staring, a couple of children laughing and pointing and the women round the conduit clapping.

They clattered inside the shelter of the gatehouse, Dodd turning at the opening with his sword ready and his teeth bared. The bailiffs had followed them, though at a safe distance. A hubbub rose from them in which the words ‘writs’, ‘warrants’ and ‘Westminster Hall’ could be heard and more papers were waved.

‘Och,’ said Dodd, spitting deliberately at the feet of the biggest one. ‘If ye think ye can take a Dodd fra Tynedale, come on and try it.’ Carey was shouting at the gatekeeper in his lodge. Surely to God they weren’t at the wrong place? Was Carey’s father not there? What was going on? Dodd had his horse placed sideways on to block any rushes, but he didn’t think the bailiffs had the stomach for a real fight.

‘Ay tell you what,’ he said conversationally, and trying hard to talk as much like Barnabus as he could so they would understand him. ‘Since ye’re all a bunch o’ catamites wi’ nae bollocks at all, I’ll take three o’ ye at once so I dinnae outnumber  ye.’

The biggest bailiff stopped and frowned in puzzlement. How much longer would it take Carey to get into his father’s house? If this had been anywhere in Cumberland, they would all have been dead by now. A coach bowled past like the Devil himself.

Surely somebody would have a go soon? Even Londoners couldn’t be that soft. Dodd gripped his sword more tightly and wished again for his nice comfortable jack and helmet, and a lance as well while he was at it. He looked about in case the bailiffs had sent for reinforcements. How far did a messenger have to go to find men? How long would Carey be chatting in the gatehouse…? The  postern gate  opened  finally and Carey  beckoned.

Instinctively Dodd sent the boy in first leading the horses, then Barnabus, before backing his own horse through the gate. That was the bailiffs’ last chance to hit him but by that time his already low opinion of southerners was at rock bottom.

‘Off ye go, lads,’ he sneered at the bewildered bunch. ‘Ye’ve lost us. Best get back to yer mams and yer fancy-boys.’ He gave a hard final stare at the biggest bailiff as the postern gate shut and Carey barred it.

He turned to see a small yard beetled over by high stone and brick walls. A groom came to take the horses. Someone else in yellow and black livery, wearing a badge that looked like a duck in the throes of delirium, came hurrying out, bowing to Carey who greeted the plump little man with a familiar clap on the shoulder. The servant led them through a stunning marble entrance hall and into a small parlour lined with painted cloths and dotted with benches and stools padded in primrose yellow. In a corner was a virginals, painted with enamel people, mostly naked and winged, with the cover on. Another man in glaring livery brought wine which Dodd tasted with habitual suspicion before finding it quite smooth and hardly sour at all. Carey knocked his back in one and held out the silver goblet for a refill. Then he threw himself onto a bench, stretched his long legs in front of him, crossed them at the ankles and grinned.

‘Can’t think what I was so worried about,’ he said to Dodd. Dodd himself was still worried. Magnificent and palatial though

Carey’s family house was, it didn’t look very defensible, with no proper pele tower, no battlements, no moat, no mound, no visible ordnance. There didn’t seem many men around either.

‘Ay,’ he said. ‘But how long before we have your…creditors around our ears like flies?’

Carey laughed. ‘Well, they won’t have pikes and muskets like the Grahams’ debt-collectors.’

‘Oh? What then?’ asked Dodd, interested to know what weapons Londoners preferred.

‘Writs,’ said Carey. ‘Blizzards of paper.’

Dodd began wondering irritably what all the fuss had been about. Barnabus took Simon off with him to see to the small amount of luggage they had brought with them in their saddlebags and Carey wandered familiarly round the room with another goblet of wine in his hand.

‘Place seems deserted,’ he commented. ‘Where the devil’s Father gone?’

On that instant there was the sound of a female voice raised in argument outside the door which opened to let the owner of the voice come in. It was a young woman trailed by a maidservant and a young man in Hunsdon’s livery who was still arguing with her back.

‘Mistress, this is unwise, this is very very foolish, my lord Hunsdon will…’ droned the servingman in a voice that sounded as if it had been flattened with a hot iron. The maidservant elbowed him and he finally fell silent, looking crestfallen.

Dodd gawked. For all the cunning cut of her green velvet English gown, it was quite obvious the lady was pregnant. She was also tall, lushly built with a haughty expression on her face, light hazel eyes, skin creamy and hardly painted at all, and magnificent rich glossy black hair tumbling down her back in a proudly maidenlike display, only slightly controlled by a rope of pearls and emeralds wound about it.

Dodd felt quite pleased to see something so restful to the eye, especially as her neckline was cut temptingly low. He heard Carey’s breath check infinitesimally beside him. A second later Carey was on his feet, sweeping a tremendous bow. Dodd’s eyes were trapped by the velvet valley above the short bodice as she curtseyed in response. Then the lovely view was cut off because the lady had opened her arms, put her head on one side and Carey had folded her to his chest with a most disrespectfully thorough kiss on her mouth.

‘Mistress Bassano,’ he said caressingly when he had come up for air. ‘What a splendid joy to see you  again.’

Mistress Bassano laughed, put up a hand to stroke Carey’s cheek. ‘Whatever are you doing in London, Robin?’ she asked. ‘I thought you’d run away from me forever.’

Good God, thought Dodd in despair, not another loose bitch, and then bitterly, and not for the first time, how the devil does he draw the women to him like that?

‘I could say that my despair at being parted from you so poisoned my meat and drink that in order to survive I was forced to return,’ Carey suggested.

Mistress Bassano tossed her head haughtily. ‘And I would say you were lying to me.’

‘Well, I am,’ Carey admitted, his blue eyes sparkling. ‘My blasted father ordered me south.’ A worrying thought obviously struck him. ‘It isn’t…er…He hasn’t…er…?’

Mistress Bassano shook her head. ‘No, no. I’m sure he doesn’t know.’

Dodd caught the knowing glance from the maidservant to the servingman and felt his heart sink even further. What the hell was going on here?

‘His lordship was in Chelsea this afternoon,’ put in the manservant. ‘We expect him at any minute. He…er…didn’t leave any orders about you, sir.’

‘Mm,’ Carey smiled kindly on the man. ‘How is it with you, Will, any luck?’

Will shook his head, looking doleful. ‘No, sir. If it weren’t for your father giving me his livery, I’d be in the  Fleet.’

‘Bit of a comedown, isn’t it, after this spring?’ Will shrugged. ‘Can’t be helped, sir.’

Mistress Bassano had swept a glance at Dodd which instantly dismissed him, moved to the virginals in the corner and lifted the cover. She sat down and pressed some of the notes, tilted her head consideringly and then leaned down to find the tuning key. Dodd tried to stop himself from staring at those milky plump breasts that seemed fashionably on the point of bursting out of the bodice. Would they? Could they?

She caught him at it and gave him a coldly knowing glare as she twiddled one of the pegs that was not to her satisfaction. Then she put the key back on its hook and placed her fingers to  play.

Carey stood over her, no doubt getting a leisurely eyeful of the view and she smiled over her shoulder at the  manservant.

‘Will,’ she said. ‘Would you fetch me the Italian songsheets?’

Mystery Delivered Monthly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads