Hell has its Demons – Chapter 1

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 Hell has its Demons by Mark LordHell has its Demons

Volume 1 of The Sotil and Savage Adventures

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Chapter 1

“Pass me your helmet and I’ll piss in it for you, you old fool,” said Jake. “Come on give it here, or do you want to watch my bladder explode?”

“You can drink your own piss before I’ll give you my helmet,” said Hugh. “And who are you calling a fool?” The man-at-arms swayed over Jake, put an arm out to steady himself against Jake’s shoulder and fell over into the middle of the tavern. Jake leant over and helped him onto a chair.

“Right, that’s enough, all of you get out,” shouted the innkeeper. With a few shoves and curses the three men, one a soldier by the name of Hugh, another was Jake, a servant, and last John, a student, stumbled into the bright sunshine. Jake put his hand to his forehead and blinked. Now where had he put his horse? He knew he was meant to go somewhere this afternoon. He had something to do for Master Roger, but what was it?

“What was it?” he shouted at Hugh and John.

Hugh and John both laughed. Hugh replaced his pot helmet and grabbed his halberd from the innkeeper. Hugh took John by the arm and they lurched up the street singing songs about football and glory. Every time that Jake met them it was the same: boasting about their glorious football exploits while drinking too many pints of ale. Sometimes when he woke up the next morning to a furry tongue and throbbing head, Jake wished that King Edward’s attempts to ban the sport had succeeded.

“Hey, Jake, don’t forget this.” The innkeeper passed him a wax-sealed letter, slightly wet from ale, but the address still legible. That was it. Roger wanted him to find a messenger to despatch the letter. Where was it going again? To St. Brett’s, to Abbot Peter. St. Brett’s was a Benedictine house, which meant he must ride south to Abingdon Abbey to send it by one of their riders. Jake looked in the stables for his horse and after tipping the stable-lad a penny asked for a foot up into the saddle.

“Are you right enough to ride, sir?” said the boy.

“I’ve ridden with a bigger ale-stomach than this,” said Jake. He nudged his mare Lois in the flanks with his boots and let her trot off. Turning back to the boy he shouted, “next time you mock me I’ll give you a beating.”

“Watch the tree,” shouted the boy. But it was too late. The branch of the tree hanging over the wall of the inn’s yard whacked Jake hard on the head. His head fell forward over the neck of Lois and he whispered to her: “Come take me away from this shameful place.” Another nudge and Lois was trotting fast down the road, towards the Grandpont and onto the road south to Abingdon.

Lois’s fast trot combined with the rush of fresh air through his lungs had the effect that Jake both expected and dreaded. After a mile, he reined Lois to a halt and half fell out of the saddle and vomited into a drainage ditch by the side of the road. A peasant with his cart passing in the other direction crossed himself and hurried on.

“I haven’t got the plague, you idiot, it’s just the drink,” muttered Jake.

Despite the pain in his guts and the taste in his mouth, Jake’s head felt clearer. Recent memories came flooding back like excrement from an open drain. St. Brett’s was it? Bugger that. No wonder he had been in a mood to drink that afternoon. He hadn’t needed much persuading. After Roger passed him the letter, he had gone to find Hugh to tell him that he couldn’t play that Sunday. The man-at-arms had cursed him. He would miss the final against Oxford borough, and although he wasn’t as fast as he used to be, Hugh and the others regarded Jake as a wily player. Jake had promised to buy Hugh a drink in recompense, but he also wanted a drink to help him forget about the prospect of returning to St. Brett’s. They had met John, another member of the team that played in the colours of Merton College. John was a student there, and although the Merton College team accepted any players as long as they weren’t members of another College or the borough, most students looked down upon unlettered players, but John seemed to enjoy the good company of his older and rougher men. John had just been leaving, with a plan to attend one of Master Roger’s lectures by happenstance, but had been convinced to stay. That had been at sext when the sun was at its highest, and now it was past vespers, so they had drunk there full and fast at the White Hart for six hours.

Of all the towns in the kingdom of England why did it have to be St. Brett’s? He had told Roger that the Abbot’s letter was wrong-headed and pure monkish make-believe. Daemons indeed! Such spirits were the fancy of the Church, lies concocted to keep people fearful. But the danger with such lies was that there was always the chance that some idiots would decide to believe them and think they or others were possessed. But for the people of St. Brett’s to imagine such a thing? Jake knew the inhabitants of that town very well. The largest and most prosperous vill owned by the Abbey of St. Brett’s, the town was a small but growing trading centre north of London, but still not recognised as a borough, despite its pretensions. He knew that those people cared more for throwing off the yoke of the Abbey’s lordship than they did for religion. Some of the richer bastards might fret about the affects of avarice upon their souls and pay for the monks” prayers, yet they were not a pious lot. But daemons? Smelt of dabbling in witchcraft. Smelt of the fragrant Isabel perhaps? Smelt of her bullshit.

Jake gritted his teeth and decided that once he returned to Roger’s rooms at Merton College he would confront his master and refuse to travel with him to St. Brett’s. Master Roger must travel without his manservant, and if he wasn’t happy with it then that would be the end of their time together. Roger was his master and not his friend, he must remember that. No use becoming sentimental. So if he wanted to dismiss him then that was fine. But what then? Either thieving or soldiering he supposed, but somehow he would get by. There were always wars to be fought, and there were places where men could disregard the law and turn a profit. He had been a fool to think he could be in the same country as that woman again and forget her remembrance.

Jake and Lois came to a junction where the road from Cirencester joined the road to Abingdon. Three men on horseback were approaching at a fast trot from the direction of Cirencester, each with a laden sumpter in tow. He would have companions it seemed for the last mile into Abingdon. Three different looking men you could never expect to see, but they were accoutred like soldiers. Despite not wearing any armour or carrying weapons openly Jake knew the type. He had been that type.

He could see the bulge of helmets covered in cloth and hear the clink as they bounced on their horses” harness. He could see the padded jerkins they wore, stained by the rust from mail. The swords at their sides were not unusual (any careful traveller would wear a sword), but on their sumpters he could see long, cloth-wrapped poles, he had seen poles wrapped like that before to protect against their elements, amongst the baggage of men-at-arms, or their cursed lighter brethren, the hobelars.

One of them looked too young to be a soldier, not yet thirteen, while the man who rode in the middle was old enough to be anybody’s great grandfather, with his thin wispy beard and bald liver-spotted head, but something about his build spoke of strength in his body’s scrawny muscles, and the third was so fat and bloated like a bull frog that it seemed impossible his horse could bear his weight.

Jake proffered a greeting. “Well met gentlemen. Do you ride for Abingdon?”

But the old man, the boy and the man the size of a whale only glanced at him and carried on without a word. They hurried their horses and set off in a canter down the gentle hill into Abingdon. Jake wanted to call after them to tell him what utter ungentle fuckwits he thought they were, but knew better. The odds were bad despite the motley appearance of the three soldiers. Foolishly he had travelled with only a dagger at his side, while they were carried the full equipment for war.

“Let’s hope they aren’t stopping in Abingdon,” he said to his horse Lois. “I don’t fancy sharing a tavern with them.”

He rode onwards through the gloom of dusk navigating by the lights of village settlements until in the low valley below he saw the silhouettes of the Abbey and town of Abingdon, with its large stone bridge straddling the broadening flow of the Thames.

At the Abbey a helpful young monk showed him into the Prior’s office, who as well as the second in command to the Abbot was also comptroller of the Abbey’s messenger service. A small fire and a single candle on the man’s desk provided the only light and Jake glanced with concern at the growing darkness outside the single small window.

“A letter, at this hour?” said the Prior once Jake had stated his business. After watching him come in the monk had not looked away from the rolls of parchment that lay on the desk in front of him. “Where is it bound?”

“To Abbot Peter at St. Brett’s,” replied Jake.

“And who sends it?” asked the monk, still not looking up at Jake.

“Does that matter?” said Jake.

“It will to the rider. You’ll need to agree your price with him.”

“Fine,” said Jake. “Where can I find him?”

“I would like to know as well. He was expected today.”

“So will he come tomorrow?”

“Who can say?” said the monk. “Let me have the letter and 10 marks and I will arrange everything once the rider comes.”

“I thought I had to agree my price with the rider. I think I’ll pass on your offer,” said Jake. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Wait,” said the monk. As Jake turned he saw that the man had actually stood up. “You may think I am trying to swindle money out of you, but that is not my intention. We have our own letter to St. Brett’s, so I know yours will go straight there and quickly, the rider won’t be stopping in London first. I can swear to you on the Bible that his price will be 10 marks. That’s what we will pay him too.”

Jake sighed. His head hurt and he needed to rest, perhaps another drink as well. He wanted rid of this letter and rid of Roger and the madness of returning to St. Brett’s. He reached for his jacket pocket and drew out the folded and sealed letter. The monk reached out his hand and in the flickering light Jake could see underneath his black cassock the edge of his shirt’s sleeve, and there unmistakably were two letter Ss intertwined, silver stitching on a black cuff. He was one of the Duke’s men.

He knew that Abingdon like many Abbeys received donations from the nobility. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster was known to patronise several religious houses, including St. Brett’s. But for a monk to wear John of Gaunt’s livery hidden beneath his habit? That was unusual, why would the Duke retain a monk like the prior, and why would the Abbey accept it? The Duke was, after the King and his eldest son, the richest man in England, and could afford to spread his largess far and wide. Jake himself had worn that badge while on campaign in France, having joined the retinue of a baronet from the Duke’s affinity, yet at home in England the Duke also retained a wide network of officials and other influential men such as judges, financiers, wardens of forests, castellans, many local gentry and even it seemed members of the clergy.

The fact that the monk hid his allegiance or at least made an effort to not flaunt it made Jake more suspicious. Was it a sign meant only for him?

The monk’s hand closed around the letter, but Jake didn’t let go. They stood for a moment both gripping the letter. “I have changed my mind I will come back tomorrow and speak to the rider myself,” said Jake.

But the monk would not let go of the letter.

“Did you hear me?” said Jake.

“As you wish,” said the monk, letting go at last. “You had better be here early. If the rider comes and your letter is not here he will not wait.”

Jake left the Abbey’s walls and walked his horse down the High Street of Abingdon looking for an inn where they could spend the night. Abingdon attracted several traders as well as pilgrims who visited the Abbey, so there were a few places to choose from. Jake walked past the two biggest inns, which were right on the marketplace and near the Abbey, and instead found a smaller establishment on the street leading towards the river.

Jake ordered a pint from the bar. He had found a nice little tavern. The food on offer looked good, a roast pig was being turned over a fire in the open kitchen behind the bar, which was not too busy, and the pot-girl had a friendly look about her. He hoped he could spend a pleasant evening there. A bit of time on his own might be good for him, let him get his head around things. St. Brett’s and Isabel. St. Brett’s, Isabel and his father.

“Peace be with you pilgrim,” said a shuffling man in a long habit who walked past Jake’s table. The man’s staff clacked on the hard earth floor, not yet muffled by fresh reads, as he walked a circuit of the room, repeating the same phrase to each person there, yet not looking any of them in the face. The man stopped at the bar and bowed to the pot-girl.

“Boiled water if you please,” he said in a soft clear voice. Jake and the other men in the bar all looked at him. He was stooped and wore a cleric’s habit, and could have been a friar, but he lacked a tonsure, instead boasting a full head of bushy hair.

A couple of men drinking by the small window onto the road chuckled to themselves.

“Stupid beggar,” said one of them, a stout ape with a loud-voice. His friend, as well built but with a weasel thin face and greasy black hair snickered and glanced over at the man in robes.

Jake wondered about another ale and with a grunt stretched out his legs and levered himself off his bench. Too long sitting in one place did that to him now. He nodded at the beggar with the staff who stood blowing on his cup of boiled water as he approached. The beggar looked up and stared at Jake with a fool’s smile on his lips.

“Go with peace in these troubled times and go ye not to war, my son,” he said.

“I have no plans to go to war, father,” said Jake.

“We are all God’s children, you should call me brother,” he said. Jake shook his head and walked back to his table by the stairs.

He supped on the warm beer and felt a glow of pleasure flood his throat. Lovely stuff this Abingdon Ale, he would have to ask the tapster for the recipe.

“Horsemen, where is your forth rider?” exclaimed the beggar, still standing at the bar, pointing at the stairs behind Jake. The three soldiers he had passed earlier, the youth, the old man and the fat man had at that moment walked down the stairs and entered the room behind Jake.

Jake didn’t have a mind to talk to them again, so turned away, but the loud-mouth by the window laughed and said, “Meet our madman, friends.” His weasel friend laughed through his nose with a high-pitched squeal.

Jake heard one of the soldiers behind him mutter something, and they walked past his table and went to sit at the far end of the bar. The beggar swivelled to watch them walk past and nodded at each as they did so. “Yes, yes, three have come, and a fourth one will join them. Is it you?!” He pointed at Jake. Jake scowled and got up to leave.

The tapster waved him to sit again. “I’ll get rid of him. Look you, there is a Church step down the way, why don’t you get alms there, and stop disturbing my patrons.”

The beggar bowed low to the tapster and withdrew bowing to Jake and then to the three soldiers, who talked quietly amongst themselves over pints of ale and chunks of bread and cheese the pot-girl had brought them. Jake returned to his beer and thought about whether it might be worth ordering some food. He also thought about whether he might take himself and Lois to another tavern, but the horse’s board and his were paid for the night. He could pay extra and get a room, but he wasn’t sure if he could sleep yet and besides he felt daft paying more just to be away from these three soldiers.

Probably another beer would help. Where was that pretty pot-girl? Over by the door, busy talking and smiling to a young man who had just walking in, a bundle of leathers over his broad shoulder. He walked with her to the bar one hand holding his merchandise and the other on the girl’s plump arse. He hurled the sheets of leather onto the bar with a slap and put his other hand round the girl’s waist and kissed her. The tapster was smiling and didn’t seem to mind.

“Been better market days,” said the young man in answer to the Tapster’s question.

“Trade still bad, my love?” asked the girl.

“Too many taxes and too little money I’d say. Means people make do for as long as they can with their old leather, bit of a repair here and there, but won’t buy new unless they need to,” said her young man.

“Been that way since Gaunt started fucking up the wars with the French,” said the tapster. “Always seems to be more money for no return, and then the purveyors take what they want for the army.”

Moaning about war and taxes, what a monotonous bar-room topic, thought Jake. He caught the eye of the pretty pot-girl and ordered another ale and told her to buy one for herself too. She shook her head with a smile and a blush and fetched his order. He was old enough to be her father, but she was a pretty young thing, and looked like no stranger to the ways of love as she kissed the broad-shouldered leather-maker again full on the lips.  Jake wondered if the young man might be the tapster’s son. Tall and handsome where the tapster had a full belly and sloping shoulders, but the facial features were there, the tapster might have been almost as handsome once. And that would explain why Sir Broad-Shoulders didn’t pay for any of his drinks. He kissed the pot-girl once more and took his leathers over to the table where Loud-Mouth and Weasel sat by the window. All three knocked their ale cups together and shared a toast to their friendship and against all taxes and purveyance. From what Jake overheard of their conversation Loud-Mouth and Weasel were craftsmen too, who had fallen back to the tavern being fed up with the slow trade at the market. Jake heard the odd snatch of debate from them bemoaning heavy taxes, the avarice of their landlord (the Abbey of Abingdon) and the greed and incompetence of those running the war against France.

As they drank more their words became louder, even Loud-Mouth boomed with more noise than before. Jake wished they would shut up. Jake glared at their table and at Loud-Mouth in particular, but they paid him no mind. But, he did see that they were also getting the attention of the three odd-looking soldiers at the far-end of the bar. The young-man, the old-man and the fat-man, all cast long glances at the noisy, opinionated table by the window, and then turned to talk again amongst themselves. They didn’t seem the type of men to welcome loud company.

“Better hope that Parliament will stop the taxes. Every year like pissing in the river, we don’t know where it goes do we,” said loud-mouth.

“Gaunt won’t let them get out of London without granting a fifteenth at least. He’ll fix them with his dark eyes and they won’t be able to deny him. Their knees will tremble that their coin, and ours, will spill all over the earth at his feet,” said Weasel.

“Gaunt’s back now, isn’t he, from Flanders,” replied loud-mouth. “They say he got a treaty that will give away the whole of Gascony to the French, but in return they help him help himself to Spain. That’s what he really wants.”

“That’s bullshit,” said the broad-shouldered young man, whose girlfriend buzzed around their table keeping them all well supplied with ale, roast port and bread. Occasionally her hand would rest on his shoulder and he would slap her bottom gently, but without breaking conversation with his friends.

“Gaunt,” continued Broad-Shoulders “wants nothing more than the crown of England itself. His father’s dying, his elder brother too, and then there’s only young Prince Richard, a boy of nine in his way. Be easy pickings for him. That’s why we’re going to be paying more taxes and he’s making a truce with France, so he can build an army to take over here.”

“Doesn’t need an army,” said Weasel. “Just kill the boy and put it down to the plague and that’s it, done and gone.”

“Excuse me please, if you can drag yourself away, could I get a beer over here,” said Jake as the pot-girl brought the craftsmen more drinks. Jake stood up. Woah! His legs were a bit shaky. He steadied himself against the bar and waved at the girl. She nodded with a blush in his direction. Nice piece of young bird she was and no mistake and it didn’t seem like her man had much time for her tonight. But it looked like those soldiers were interested in them  and more so after those words about Gaunt. The soldier-boy had stood up and was striding over to the craftsmen’s table a glove clutched in his pale thin hand, and his other hand on the pommel of a long dagger or short sword that hung from his fine leather belt.

“What would you like? Sure you don’t want something to eat?” asked the pot-girl, as Jake approached where she stood by the bar. He steadied himself and smiled at her.

“Well what you got,” said Jake. He winked and looked at where her breasts peeked over the top of her blouse.

The girl blushed. “There’s suckling pig turning on the spit, still some good bit of haunch left.”

“Give me some of her rump then,” said Jake, moving closer. He was about to put out a hand to touch the girl’s blushing cheek when broad-shoulders stood up and shouted “what the fuck!”

But Broad-Shoulders hadn’t cried out against Jake’s pass at his wench. He was clutching his cheek which was bleeding from a thin cut, and was red and sore all over from where the boy-soldier had slapped him with a metal studded leather glove.

“I call you on your honour, sir,” said the boy-soldier. “Stand by your words like a man, or withdraw them.”

“I’ll grind you into the dust for that, you little runt,” roared Broad-Shoulders.

“Hey come back you hussy,” said Jake, as the pot-girl rushed up to the side of her man. But he brushed her aside with his strong arm.

“Get me a poker from the iron. I’m going to teach this boy a lesson.”

The boy had drawn a short stabbing sword from its sheath  and held it in a guard position ready to duel with the broad-shouldered craftsman.

“What’s this, what’s this,” blustered the tapster. He came out of hiding from behind the bar, a large rolling pin clutched in one hand and a frying pan in the other. “What do you argue for? You, young lad,” he said turning to the boy-soldier, “just a pup, and you, my son” he turned to broad-shoulders, “a man of peace, why do you want to fight?”

“Can’t you see what that evil little thing did to my Hugh,” screamed the pot-girl passing a poker into his hand. She had wrapped the scarf from her head round the bottom of it to form a grip for her man to hold. Her hair was let free, soft and blonde. But Jake preferred Isabel’s darker locks. The little tart, she wanted her man to kill that boy, lusting for his blood like that. She should be lusting for him instead, thought Jake.

He shook his head. Get those thoughts out of there now, or you’ll end up in this fight too. He glanced over at the other soldiers. They sat at their table, watching but showing no emotion.

“A man must defend his honour and the honour of his liege lord. You outraged the honour of mine, so for that I demand recompense,” said the boy. The sword, although only a short and thin looked like a full-sized broadsword in his slender hand. His thin arms must be strong to wield it so freely, thought Jake.

“You one of Gaunt’s brood then?” said Loud-Mouth. He had stood along with Weasel, outraged at the attack on their friend. Now he stood behind Broad-Shoulders, happy to throw insults at the boy, but not happy to get near his sword. The boy didn’t reply to Loud-Mouth, but addressed Broad-Shoulders:

“Are you ready?”

Broad-shoulders waved the heavy poker in the air to get the feel for it. It was longer and fatter than the sword, and if it connected would do much damage with the power of that man’s large frame behind it.

“I’m ready,” he said, and lunged forward the poker high above his head. The boy ducked aside and sliced at the man’s side as he flew past. A long cut opened down the man’s jerkin and blood began to well from it. He clutched his side to ease the pain.

“You fucker, you’ll pay for that.” He attacked again, but with more care. The boy parried or dodged aside with ease, using the tables and chairs of the bar to his advantage. Jake saw his own pot of beer go flying. It was an interesting fight. The boy was no novice. He had the experience of a good swordsman, he could see that, and must have fought in similar places, bar-rooms or houses before. He glanced at the other soldiers. Was it part of a con trick, he wondered, the other soldiers seemed unworried and almost bored.  They had a good view of the fight though as did he, but they paid little attention. The pot-girl had gone scurrying back behind the bar, as had the tapster as he watched his furniture take some punishment as Broad-Shoulders chased the boy around the room. A poker smashed through the back of a chair, demonstrating the damage that the man might do the boy if he got hold of him. Jake shook his head and laughed quietly to himself. It was like a childhood game of a youngster playing with an adult, teasing him to do his worst, but the adult was full of anger and spite and the boy was calm, controlled and in deadly earnest, rather than a cheeky scamp trying to bait an elder.

Loud-Mouth had withdrawn to the stairwell, where he thought he might be safe. But Weasel hadn’t fled the fight. Jake saw him skulk in a corner. He’d gone to fetch something. And now he returned with a long stick, with a cruel hook on the end, most likely used for lifting up bales of wool. It was sharp though and could do some hurt to flesh if it was used with malice. He approached behind the boy, who parried and occasionally jabbed at the enraged craftsman. Jake guessed that Weasel was looking for the right moment to strike out at the boy and cut his throat.

That wasn’t fair, thought Jake.

“The skinny one’s behind you,” Jake shouted at the boy. The boy pushed a table in front of broad-shoulders to buy some space and then lunged behind him where weasel stood. The sword cut his hand and he dropped the hook with a gasp of pain.

“Whose side you on, you old drunk?” said Broad-Shoulders to Jake as with a roar he jumped on the table and swiped at the boy again.

“Fat old lecher! Are you on their side?” shrieked the pot-girl at Jake.

“It’s not right, not chivalrous, two of them against one boy like that,” replied Jake.

She shook her head and cheered as her man swung his poker, but he missed the boy and hit a tall cupboard instead, which then fell knocking the boy of his feet. The boy still held his sword, but Broad-Shoulder’s foot was on his hand in an instant and the boy let go with a whelp of pain. Weasel and Loud-Mouth hurried to help Broad-Shoulders hold the boy down.

“Now we’ll see about what’s right and wrong,” said Broad-Shoulders.

The boy grunted and struggled to get out of the grip of the three men. Many boys his age would be in tears by now. So would many men, thought Jake.

“Aren’t you going to help him?” he shouted to the two soldiers. At least they had stood up now, and had walked over to get a better view of what was happening on the ground. The fat man raised an eyebrow and shook his head at Jake.

“Call yourselves soldiers, men of honour. That’s not how we did things when I was at war. We always stood together, or we were nothing.” Jake spat out the words. The pot-girl glared at him hatred in her eyes.

“You’re one of them aren’t you?” she snarled. “Always the same. They pass through here on the way from the wild places up north where they breed hard cruel men like these on their way to Hampton or another port, and they leave violence and suffering in their way.”

Jake pushed the girl aside, and drew his dagger. “Turn you caitiffs, you’re all cowards. I’m here to fight you, so turn damn you,” he shouted at the scrum of three men and a boy that struggled on the floor of the bar. “Ahh! He bit me,” cried Weasel.

Broad-Shoulders stood up. “Keep the boy still, I’ll deal with this fat old git.” Poker in hand he faced Jake. Then he thrust at Jake with it. Jake had never been much good at sword-craft, always better with a bow or swinging a mace or pole-arm, but he easily twisted his own long dagger around the craftsman’s improvised weapon and sent it spinning across the bar to thud into a wall. He jabbed at Broad-Shoulders forcing him back through the bar.

“Get him, he disarmed me,” said Broad-Shoulders to his friends. Loud-Mouth let go of the boy and went to stand by his friend, but they both cowered away from Jake as they had no weapons except broken chairs held before them for protection.

That was enough. The boy wriggled out of weasel’s grip, clutched his sword from the floor and smacked the man across the face with the flat of the blade. The man fell stunned to the floor.

“Let’s go,” said the old soldier.

The boy brushed the dust off and cast a hateful glance at the three craftsmen. “I should finish what I started,” he said.

“You should have yes, but now we go,” said the fat soldier. He tossed the boy his knapsack and the soldiers strode out of the tavern. The fat soldier stood by the door, hands on hips, while his two comrades went round the back to fetch their horses.

Jake looked around the bar. “I had better be off then,” he said.

No-one tried to stop him leaving, but a chorus of insults, mostly about the size of his paunch and the lack of his virility, sent him on his way into the dimly lit street. He gathered his own small bag and went back to the stables. The boy and old soldier passed him leading their own mounts.

“You’re lucky,” said the boy.

“Pardon?” said Jake. “You’re lucky I came to help you. Your friends here would let you have been killed by all accounts.”

“Lucky I don’t ask you to fight. You prevented me from gaining my satisfaction with those men.”

“What? You ungrateful bastard!”

The boy drew his sword and pointed it at Jake’s throat.

“Put it away, that’s enough for one night,” said the old soldier, moving the blade aside with a gloved hand.

“You will have to excuse this one,” the old soldier said to Jake. “As you can see he wants to test his mettle. You are a soldier I can see that, you talk of honour, but you are not gently born.”

“I know about killing if that’s what you mean,” said Jake.

“Which lord do you fight for?” said the old soldier.

“No lord, and I don’t fight, not anymore if I can help it, but I work for a Master at the University,” replied Jake.

“A clerk?” The old soldier laughed and the boy curled his lip in contempt. “It is a sad world when men of war lose all pride and courage. Good luck in your dotage.” The soldiers turned their backs on Jake, mounted and rode off. Without a word of thanks, and another insult! That ancient must have been twice his age and he was calling him old!

Jake led Lois by the bridle down the street looking for another tavern.

“Come on girl, let’s go and get drunk.”

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