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Michael Jecks

No Law in the Land

Prologue

Second Saturday following the Feast of the Archangel Michael, nineteenth year of the reign of King Edward II*

Nymet Traci, Devon, England

Sir Robert de Traci woke that morning knowing that the men would soon die, and all of them solely in order that he should reap a good reward. It left him with a sense of contented restlessness. He was keen to be up and about, but the warmth of his bed was a delicious distraction even without the benefit of a woman beside him. His wife was long dead, and it was a while since he’d enjoyed a willing wench.

It was a glorious morning. He rose and padded over to the window, staring out. The shutter was wide, and he could see from here all the way south over the tops of the trees in the little coppice a mile or so distant, to the dull greyish-blue hills that were Dartmoor. Often at this time of day he would find it impossible to see more than a foul mistiness, but today was most unseasonally clear and bright. Still, from the tang in the air, he had a suspicion that the weather would alter before long.

He dressed quickly and made his way down the steep stairs to his underchamber. There, to his mild surprise, he found his son was still snoring, alone. Sir Robert left him to it. The sot had been singing and whoring the night away again with some slattern he’d acquired from his last riding, and it had been late when he returned to his own bed at last. Sir Robert had been much the same when he was a youth, and he didn’t begrudge his son such pleasures. They were natural to a man.

Walking into his hall, he looked about him quickly, making sure all was normal. There was no sign of rebellion in his men, he noted. A man could not take his fellows for granted, unless he wanted to wake up one morning with a knife in his throat.

There was one whom he trusted above all of them: Osbert, the man who had served with him the longest, and with whom he had lived in virtual exile, an outcast on his own lands. Os was reliable, trustworthy and honourable. But he was off with the men who would be Sir Robert’s victims — it was he who was to lead them to the trap — and their deaths.

There had been a time, only a short while ago, when Sir Robert had thought his fortune had sunk into the sea. He had once been a member of the king’s household, known for his honour and largesse, proud and determined, a knight of perfect chivalry. But then he had made one error, allowing his friendship with Bartholomew Badlesmere to colour his judgement. Bartholomew had become known to be a traitor, and instantly all his friends were suspect. And one of them was Sir Robert.

Those days had been bleak. Instead of the comfort he now enjoyed, he had been cast out. He had seen this little castle of his taken over by his enemies; he had been forced to accept the shame of losing the reputation he had once considered his by birth. Shunned by all those who had once been his friends, Sir Robert had been forced to turn outlaw, robbing and stealing all he might, occasionally killing too.

And then, earlier this year, the surprise proposal.

He had never been a great ally of Despenser, but after this year, he might reconsider his position. For it was Despenser’s offer that had brought him back into the king’s favour. Once he had been beneath Edward’s contempt, but now he was returned to the circle of friends and allies, his lands and castle restored to him, and all was just as it had been. Although this time he was taking fewer risks. The king radiated sunshine to those upon whom he smiled — but it was only ever a short passage to the black thunderstorm that was the opposite side of his nature. Edward accepted him for now, but there was no telling for how long that would last. Soon, very soon, he might decide that the knight in that far-away county of Devon was no more to be tolerated. Some snippet of a rumour, some poison whispered in his ear, that was all it would take, and suddenly Sir Robert would wake to learn that he was again without lands or home.

Well, next time it happened, he would be vastly better prepared. Next time he would have money on his side, and he would collect all he might while he could.

Today, if he was fortunate, he might increase his wealth. Os was with the travellers who were passing near here. They were rumoured to have silver with them, silver that they were carrying to Exeter. Well, with luck, soon they would be dead and Sir Robert would be that much the wealthier.

The land was dangerous. A man had to fight to keep what was his — and take what he wanted from others. There was no other rule in the country. The King’s Peace was a nonsense now. All that existed was the power of the strongest. And Sir Robert intended to prove that his steel was as sharp as any other man’s.

He did not know that it would lead to his death.

Second Sunday following the feast of the Archangel Michael*

Oakhampton

Old John Pasmere had already seen his son in the town when he set off homewards.

The sight of the little market town was not impressive to him. He’d seen Oakhampton before, and he’d even been to Crediton a few times in his life. Once, he’d gone as far as Exeter, although it hadn’t appealed to him. The place was too loud, too crowded and mean. The people were suspicious and made no attempt to hide the fact, and he felt all the while that he was likely to be hit over the head and robbed at any moment. No, he didn’t like the place. It felt too dangerous.

Oakhampton was no better than Exeter, except it was that bit smaller, but it made a pleasant difference to go there once in a while, mainly for the market, but also for the church. He liked the priest there, who gave stirring stories about the men in the Gospels, and enduring examples of the devil and hell itself. There weren’t that many as could do that, John reckoned. No, in his local chapel up at Jacobstowe, the fool kept prating on about the goodness of man and how Jesus wanted all to see the good in each other. Well, if Jesus was willing to see the best of all men, that was fine, but John Pasmere was happier keeping his own counsel and his dagger near to hand. There was much to be said for the man who was good and kindly all his life, but in John’s experience, such men died young and painfully. For himself, he’d keep an eye on the dangers of life and a hand on his knife.

But a priest who could stir the blood with stories of death and glory, that was different. And in Oakhampton the lad could even make John feel almost young again. There were lots of examples from the Gospels of fighting against oppressors, whether they be Egyptian, Roman or any other race, and John took from that the truth: that God was on the side of those who were downtrodden through the ages. If a man was put to great hardship by those who ruled him, then he was entitled to take back what had been stolen.

That was fine for most. But when a man lived in England today, there was little chance of justice. Be he knight, freeman or serf, he was allowed to live only at the whim of the king and his friends. If a man took against another, who had the ear of an associate of the king, he could find himself gaoled, or worse. A peasant would often be discovered dead in his home, or lying in a ditch, while the more wealthy would end up hanging in pieces on hooks at a city’s gates.

John Pasmere was not willing to trust to the justice of the men who ruled this country. He had known too many of them.

Trust was a very overrated trait. Most of those who put their faith in it would die painfully. A man who trusted his lord; a woman who trusted the lord’s son; any man who trusted my lord Hugh le Despenser; and most of all, any traveller who trusted guides and guards.

Those putting their confidence in such people were fools and deserved their fate.

Abbeyford Woods, near Jacobstowe

     

 

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