Saving the Kingdom

Now that I’ve introduced you to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard, here’s a taste of what I do with History. This is not a discarded chapter from Murdoch’s Tale. I wrote it as a stand-alone, for fun, as a parallel to Chapter 8.

Master Troubadour Thomas of Bristol followed Raymond, Her Majesty’s favorite page, down the hallway of Rouen Castle to the solar, where Eleanor, Queen of England, sat in a carved chair. Her silk kirtle was dyed blue to match her eyes, and the sleeves green with an oak-leaf edge. Her small hands glistened with rings. As always, her presence filled the room.

The sun shone through the open casement and turtledoves cooed in their nest on the ledge. Imprisoned by her husband Henry she might be, but a queen nonetheless.

“Majesty,” Thomas said, and took a knee. “This is an unexpected honor.”

“Rise, good trouvere,” said the queen, smiling. “One of your years and renown should not distress his knees. Raymond, bring a stool for Master Thomas.”

“You are the very soul of kindness,” the minstrel replied. “Shall I sing for you?” he asked, knowing that her showing such concern could only mean that a greater task would be requested.

He sat on the stool. She looked down at him like a teacher at a pupil.

“Another time, mayhap,” said she. ‘Today I require your talents for a far higher calling.”

He nodded, hoping it wouldn’t involve too much travel. A minstrel may pass where a Royal Messenger would raise suspicion.

“I want you to save the kingdom.”

Madame?

“I have received word that the King has divided his realms among our sons. Geoffrey will get the French domains, Richard the English, plus Aquitaine from myself.”

“But how could this involve me?” He sat silent, waiting for more. A woman’s mind is hard enough to fathom, and that of royalty indecipherable.

“John gets money. A great deal of it, and his father’s permission to try to make himself king of Ireland.”

“Indeed.” A weasel of John’s stature could hardly be left out of reckoning, not that Thomas could say such a thing in front of John’s mother, although she clearly thought so herself.

“He will purchase the baron’s loyalty and try to make himself king. I cannot allow that to happen to my dear Richard.”

“But my lady, how can I possibly be of assistance?”

“You well know the power of a fine tale, how it can capture the heart of men, how it can inspire courage and loyalty. I know you know this, my good trouvere, for I have heard such tales from your lips. I need a story, and I want you to create it.” She proceeded to tell off a list of requirements, which boiled down to this: Richard could do no wrong, and John could do nothing right. Any misfortune, any raise of the tax rates, must be laid at John’s door. Thomas sat speechless. She watched him from the corner of her eye.

“The salvation of the kingdom,” she mused. “Never has so great a task presented itself to a troubadour. You will be recompensed, of course, for your services, in as great a measure as they deserve. And we cannot expect one of your years and popularity at court to travel the length of England singing of this new hero. We will find younger men for that. You need only compose the work and teach it to them, so that they may go forth when Richard ascends the throne. Think of it, good Thomas: the capstone of your career. The name of such a minstrel would live forever in the lore of England. What say you?” She looked at him and waited.

What could he do? Refuse a direct request of the Queen? Hardly.

She slipped a heavy purse into his hand. It balanced the weight of his heart somewhat. “A carriage awaits. You will leave immediately for Calais.”

***

The carriage turned out to be one of those dreadful boxes on wheels with hard wooden benches fore and aft and nary a cushion in sight. The footman heaved his baggage under the seat, slammed the door, and off they rattled to Calais without so much as a fare-thee-well. Thomas sat grumbling as he bounced along. So much for the great honor I’ve earned for taking on this important task. I may as well be a sack of turnips.

The carriage lurched down the road and into the night with only stops for meals at grease-coated inns. The journey went on for days, and he sorely missed his feather bed.

Even in his bed, however, he could not have slept. What in God’s name have I gotten myself into? As he rode along in that blasted box, he worked out a few minor tales, based on stories he’d heard in childhood of the sort of tricks the peasants played to save their skins during the Anarchy. A night in a pub buying rounds for the gaffers would bring a dozen more. But a central figure, a hero, that escaped him. He had no spine to string the stories on.

Making Richard the hero will create problems. It would remind folk that he’s off enjoying himself killing people, not home running the kingdom. I need someone close to home. He looked out the window, into the darkness. And what if John should uncover his mother’s plot? God’s breath. I’m a dead man.

He reached Calais on a bright summer afternoon, with the impenetrable English fog hanging half a mile off the coast. The air smelled of salt water, tar, and dead fish. The carriage door crashed open, torn off its leather hinges, actually, by the longest-limbed young yeoman Thomas had ever seen.

“’Od‘s foot,” the soldier said, standing there, the door in his hand like some child’s toy. “I’m John, Master Thomas, and I’m to escort you to Sheffield.

“Sheffield? I thought I was to go to London.”

“Orders,” he said, dropping the door onto the seat, and grabbing Thomas’ bag with his great ham hand.

No point in asking further questions. Thomas realized it would not be wise to undertake this enterprise under the noses of those gossips at court.

***

After dinner they boarded the ship, a moldy little tub called the Sherwood. The captain, William Scarlet by name, a sturdy, fair-haired sort, greeted them and said they were not to be the only passengers on his little boat. There was a wine merchant from Evesham named Tuck, whose cargo filled most of the hold; an English sheriff unsuccessful in courting the niece of a French count, and a knight returning from the Vexin.

The wine merchant, a great, cheerful barrel of a man, bustled about shouting orders to the stevedores. By and by the sheriff and the knight arrived together. The sheriff was a dark man, with a scowling brow. Not exactly pining for lost love, Thomas thought, more likely a lost dowry. Still, with a little touching up, a brave sheriff loyal to Richard might do. The knight, Sir Guy, a great brute of a man, had scars on every part of him that showed. He wore a long sword and two daggers in his belt, but seemed friendly enough to Thomas. A brave knight, scarred from fighting for Richard, by the side of his friend the sheriff. That has possibilities. They greeted Thomas courteously and went off together to see to their horses, stabled in stalls in the bow.

A moment later, another passenger arrived. He kept himself tightly wrapped, despite the heat of the day, and his hood hung down over his face as he bargained in whispers with the captain for his passage. Even covered by his patched cloak, one could see he was above middling size and broad in the shoulders. He kept to himself, at the point of the bow. “God’s breath, Keep an eye on that one,” Thomas whispered to John. “He could be a murderer or even a leper.”

The tide began to roil, and they heaved off then. For all the fog, the channel seas were smooth for once. The wine merchant broached a keg and handed drinks round to all, the crew included, which brought him huzzahs, although it was perhaps not as good an idea as it seemed at the time. The passengers went below to get out of the damp, leaving the crew and the cloaked man on deck.

The cabin was small, about eight feet square with a table a yard square bolted to the floor in the middle of it and a bench bolted at each side. A lantern hung overhead, and a pile of empty sacks smelling of damp wool lay on the starboard side. The sheriff took the bench at the far end, Sir Guy to port, the merchant to starboard, and Thomas with his back to the door. John lounged on the sacks. They talked, and drank, and told their occupations, and so, of course, they asked Thomas to perform. He told a few short tales, and then the sheriff suggested a game of dice to pass the time.

John shook his head. He’d no money to wager. Thomas had Her Majesty’s silver in his purse and decided he could risk a quarter of it, so he shook the cup in turn and did quite well. Up on the deck, the crew, hearts gladdened by wine, roared sea-songs. After a bit, Thomas noticed that the boat periodically swayed to one side or the other as the steersman corrected his course.

The merchant was out first.

“Why don’t you wager one of those barrels?” asked Sir Guy.

“Not mine to wager,” he says. “That wine’s all bought and paid for.”

“You were free enough handing it round a few hours ago.”

“That one cask only. I brought it for sampling.” He heaved himself to his feet and trundled off to his berth.

It was then that Thomas noticed the cloaked man skulking outside the port window. He looked to John, and saw that his alleged protector slept soundly on the pile of sacks. Feeling safer in the company of the sheriff and knight, Thomas decided to stay. He played some more and won a few and lost a few, but over all was ahead.

Just after midnight, the wind picked up and the seas began to chop. The seamen’s songs had dwindled to silence an hour past, and Thomas heard the occasional snore from on deck. In the silence, the coins jingled on the table with every shudder of the waves against the hull. It was time to take his winnings to his berth and make up for lost sleep.

“The night is young yet,” said the sheriff, and the tone of his voice cut the wine-fog from Thomas’ brain like a dagger.

“Yes,” said Sir Guy, with a wicked grin. “We would hate to lose your company, good minstrel.” The two looked at each other and laughed. A chill ran down Thomas’ spine and he looked to John, who lay snoring on the pile of sacks. No help to be had there. He took the cup and rolled.

Then followed the most damnable string of luck he ever had. No matter which number he called, up it popped, even eleven and twelve, but the sheriff and the knight would not give up.

“Roll,” said the Sheriff, pushing another stack of coin across the table.

“Roll,” said the knight, matching his bet.

“Eight,” said Thomas, and promptly rolled a two and a six.

“Again,” says the sheriff, and they each put down a wager from their dwindling stacks.

“Eight.” Thomas rolled a three and a five and the pair’s scowls deepened.

He’d a handsome pile in front of him and they’d precious little left. “Look,” he said, “Let’s cut this short. Everything I have against everything you have. You call.”

They pushed their coins into the center of the table. “Two,” says the sheriff.

Thomas shook the cup. From the corner of his eye, he saw the cloaked man leave his post by the window, preparing to waylay the winner. He rolled. Two dots stared at him, like the eyes of a venomous snake.

“Again,” said Sir Guy.

“You’ve nothing left to wager,” said Thomas, not the wisest words to ever come from his mouth.

Sir Guy’s hand blurred, and one of his daggers stuck quivering in the table. “There’s my wager,” he snarled. “Roll. Two.” The sheriff slid his sword out of the sheath, and put it on the table as his wager, it’s point aimed toward Thomas. John mumbled and rolled over. The blissful sleep of youth, Thomas thought, and ground his teeth. He rolled, and prayed, and the snake stared at him again.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I see you mean to have these coins. Let me have what I started with, and you can have the rest.”

“You seem a reasonable man,” said the sheriff, “so tell me why we should leave any for you?”

“I’ll warrant there’s more in his purse,” said Sir Guy, his second dagger in hand.

Thomas froze. He glanced at John, still slumbering peacefully on the pile of sacks. The Sheriff followed his glance, and laughed. “I’d don’t think your little soldier boy will be of much use.” Thomas realized that if he shouted for help, he’d have a knife in his gullet and there’d be no guarantee it would wake John or the sailors. These murderous vermin could kill us both and drop our carcasses into the channel. Slowly, he reached for his purse.

The ship hove round suddenly to starboard, and the coins flew off the table and showered upon John where he lay. The empty cups followed, two of them smashing to bits on the floor and one catching John’s forehead. As the ship tilted, Sir Guy was sent onto the table and his knife, firmly planted, sliced his shoulder. He screamed as he added another scar to his collection.

“’Od‘s foot!” John roared, sitting bolt upright, holding his dagger in his hand. The sheriff’s sword slid off the table and clattered to the floor. The sheriff and Thomas each clung to their ends of the table. Then the ship hove round the other way. The sheriff and Thomas held on, Sir Guy fell backwards off his bench in time for his arse to encounter the sheriff’s sword sliding along the floor and he screamed again. All the coins rolled to the port side.

“Help!” Thomas shouted to John, and bless his soldier’s training, he followed orders. He grabbed Thomas by the back of his collar and yanked him off the bench and up the stair. The screams and the sudden maneuvers roused the crew. A sailor shouted, “The horses are loose!”

Thomas and John ran aft, followed up the stairs by Sir Guy and the Sheriff, who ran to the bow to keep their panicked horses from plunging overboard.

Once the sheriff and the knight brought their horses under control, they went below. A great deal of thrashing about and cursing followed. “Fighting over the spoils,” I’ll wager,” Thomas said. John nodded, wide-eyed.

As dawn broke, the Sherwood came out of the fog and Thomas was happy to see the White Cliffs of Dover. The merchant came out of the hold in a black fury, demanding repayment for his wine. The crew, it seemed, had not stopped at the one keg he’d broached, but had gone on to another. He had great trouble making the captain understand, as the man hung over the wheel like a wilted flower. Thomas and John’s protests met a similar fate.

A carriage with Longchamp’s crest on it waited on the dock, but Thomas and John huddled near the captain until the sheriff and knight had ridden away together, glowering. Thomas still had no hero, but he’d found the villains for his piece.

They walked down the gangplank and up to the carriage. John managed to open the door and leave the hinges intact. As Thomas started to climb up, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“This is yours, I believe.”

Thomas turned to see the cloaked man. His hood was thrown back and he grinned, his white teeth gleaming in his sun-bronzed face. In his hand he held a fat bag of coin.

“What?” Thomas said, “How?” quite at a loss for words. John stood there with his mouth agape.

“I’ve had dealings with those scoundrels before, and was careful to keep from their sight and learn their intent. I heard them plotting as they tended their horses. It was I who broached the second keg so the sailors would sleep and I could take the tiller. I’ve paid the wine merchant back from your winnings. I hope you don’t mind.” Thomas shook his head numbly. “I took the liberty of loosing the horses before I took the helm from the steersman. While everyone was running about restoring order, I went below and picked up the coins.”

“Did you now?” Thomas said, “And as one good turn deserves another, here.” He gave him half the coins. “And what might be your name? I’ve a mind to use you in a tale.”

“Robin,” the man said, and went off whistling.

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