Jake and the Angel
Jake groaned. His neck hurt. By God’s holy bones did it hurt. This was a new way of suffering from a hangover—it was usually the top and the sides of his head that hurt and of course his stomach that rebelled, turning against the rest of the body by trying to throw its contents onto the ground next to wherever Jake had slept the night before. Jake sat up and rubbed the back of his neck. Pale sunlight washed the alleyway. It was a drab January day two weeks after Christmas and mild for the time of the year, but after a night sleeping rough Jake still shivered. The insulating numbness of a night’s drinking was wearing thin. A rough woollen blanket covered him and he had been sheltered from the wind that nipped now at his face by a line of barrels placed across the alley. Had he thought to put them there last night? Where had he got the blanket from? He didn’t remember.
There had been a fight, he knew that. He raised his right hand and inspected the knuckles. They were red and bruised. But nothing else hurt apart from his neck. He guessed that he had come away the winner from the scrap.
A shadow blocked out the pale January sunlight. Jake looked up. A tall man dressed in a plain grey robe stood over him. There was something bulky on the man’s back, but Jake couldn’t make it out—a sack of some sort also covered in grey cloth. The man’s head was bald and his grey chin jutted un-bearded at the bottom of a craggy but handsome face. The man nodded.
“Good,” he said.
“What?” Jake scowled. His tongue felt like a it had been tied in knots by an ale-soaked badger. He coughed and spat phlegm onto the ground. It landed next to the dried vomit from earlier.
“You need water then,” the man said, rather than asked. A wooden cup was the next moment in his hand and he passed it towards Jake.
Jake glanced at the man not knowing what to think. Who was he, why was he offering him water?
“Is it poisoned? Were you in …” he nodded towards the wall of the tavern next to the tavern. “Did I hurt one of your friends last night in there and now you’ve come for your revenge?”
“I wasn’t, and it’s not poisoned. It’s clear, pure water. Just what you need. I know you’d hoped for more ale. But that wouldn’t be good for you. This will start to help clear your head. But you’ll need more of it and sleep and food when you can stomach it.”
Jake nodded. “Aye, I will that.” He took the cup and gulped down the water. For something so simple it had never tasted so good, so pure. He wanted more. The man took the cup that Jake offered him back.
“I will fetch more,” he said. For a moment Jake was dazzled by the light as the sun moved round to shine directly into the alley. The man was gone and returned in a matter of seconds. He held the cup towards Jake again and placed a small barrel of water beside Jake just away from the dried vomit and phlegm.
Jake drank greedily from the cup and then took the barrel in both hands and swilled the water down his throat. He wanted to sluice the fresh cold water off his head, but it seemed a pity to waste such vital fluid as that in such a way. He drank until he couldn’t drink anymore and then took some in both hands and glanced up at the man.
“Wash your face—water has many uses and it would be well for you to clear your head, for I have something to show you now for which you will need your full attention.”
Jake didn’t like the sound of that, but he splashed the water over his face anyway. He felt revived and almost sober.
“Come,” said the man holding out his hand. Jake reached to take it but the man withdrew his hand and turned walking purposefully towards the entrance to the alley. Jake stood up without his help and followed, compelled to go after him.
The man pointed into the market square. There was a wooden platform set-up—freshly built for the assize—those found guilty would be hanged there.
“If I had not come,” said the man, “that would have been your fate this morning.”
Jake shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“Take this as a warning, Jake—curb your habits before they curb you.”
Sunlight glinted from the new glass window of the guild-hall on the side of the marketplace. Jake raised his hand to block out the glare and turned his head. When he looked back, shading his eyes, the man had gone. Jake turned and turned again, looking for him. He was nowhere to be seen. But on the ground near his feet lay a strong white feather—from a goose or a swan even freshly brought to market, Jake guessed. He picked up the feather and turned it in his hand and wondered.