The sound of rain falling in the garth and the gurgling of the sluices became a constant accompaniment to the holy offices of the day at the English abbey of Meaux. Water brimmed over the margins of the dykes, the canal burst its banks, and the land reclaimed by the monks over six generations returned to marsh. Drowned sheep with bloated bodies wallowed in the brackish waters. The abbey itself, pinnacled and serene, was reflected in the standing pools, like a palace in a magic lake.
In another part of the county, two men were talking secretly within the upper chamber of a castle by the sea. The younger of the two listed allies and enemies and gazed through the lancet at the grey surge of the northern ocean where it reached to the rain-bellied sky. Breakers crashing on the rocks two hundred feet below sounded like a siege-ram battering the castle's foundations. The guest, shrouded in an expensive velvet cloak, with fur at his neck and a ring on his first finger, inched his goblet towards his host, indicating that he wanted it refilling.
The younger man reached for the wine flagon with an ill grace. 'So can we count on your brother or not?' he demanded. 'After all, he is admiral of the northern fleet.'
'Leave my brother to me,' advised his guest evenly. 'More important is this question of sedition.'
'My bloodhound has been dispatched. He'll finish the job.'
The man in the velvet cloak raised his brows.
'I was sent north with a task to do and I'm doing it,' snarled the younger man.
The guest sipped his wine and made no comment.
At this same time shortly after Candlemas when darkness came early, a lone figure appeared out of the gauzy air not far from the abbey of Meaux. He was wading through the puddles on a ribbon of track that wound through the marsh, travelling from an easterly direction, from the iron-bound coast across the moors. It meant the wind was at his back so that his tattered cloak flew before him and hurled his hood over his face.
As he approached the abbey his progress slowed. Before risking each step he began to prod the pools before him with a stave of hazelwood and only when he was convinced that he was not going to plunge in up to his neck did he go forward. In this way he reached the drier ground of the foregate and came to a halt. There was no one about. Pulling his hood more securely over his face, he turned onto a narrow path that ran along beside the abbey wall. Still testing the ground like a man who trusts nothing, he proceeded until he came to a back gate set under a small, stone arch. He slipped through like a shadow. The gate creaked as he closed it, the sound instantly lost in the roar of water gushing between the banks of the canal.
Hastening into the shadow between two buildings, the traveller peered across the garth towards the gatehouse. A few flurries of snow were beginning to fall from out of the freezing fog that crawled over the slant rooves.
He had been walking across country for five days. His boots were encrusted with mud to the knees. His nails were black-rimmed. The hand-bindings worn as protection from the pinching frost were torn and caked with dirt.
A guttering flare was brought out of the gatehouse, lighting up the scene and gilding each separate snowflake, as if gold coin fell from heaven. The traveller watched them turning and tumbling out of the void.
A group of pilgrims had preceded him. They were jostling in a cheerful bunch within the lambent glow of the flare while a ruddy-faced porter took down their names and destinations. By the sound of their voices they relished the imminent prospect of food and bed.
A bell began a summons to the next office. Compline, he thought with satisfaction. He had timed it perfectly.
Joining the tail-end of the group, he soon found himself sitting in the warmth of the refectory, holding out a trencher for some thin gruel. No one questioned him. He bit into the bread. It was sour. As soon as he had taken his fill he would get a horse from some unsuspecting fellow traveller and be on his way. He glanced round at the other guests. They were living in a dream of angels and incense; the real world was a different place.
Living rough, dodging the law all winter, he had hatched a plan in the long hours of darkness. An old Welsh astrologer in Scarborough market place had set his seal on it. 'The time is nigh!' he had told him and a lot more besides that didn't make sense. But holding back until the time was at its most auspicious made it sweet.
It had been November when the nun had nearly done for him. He could be dead now but for his brute will to survive.
His fingers touched the scar that ran crookedly down the side of his face. She had disfigured him as surely as if she had hurled the rocks at him herself. God's bollocks, the mare had all but drowned him.
Wiping his mouth, he got up and left the pilgrims cackling among themselves.
He had business here. It meant gold in his pocket. But after that he would be off, first to the nun in the priory at Swyne, then on the road to the killing fields. He would go by way of Ravenser, taking ship to Flanders, then over the mountains and down into Lombardy. There he would join one of the free companies, maybe the one commanded by John Hawkwood, the greatest mercenary of them all.
His grandmother, the heartless old crone, had told him one thing: shift or starve. But he had had enough of starving. And he had had enough of being treated like a dog in his own country. He would get clear of the place and make his fortune. It was sure, neither God nor man would do it for him.
But first, and maybe best, to Swyne.
THE RED VELVET TURNSHOE. Copyright © 2009 by Cassandra