Dispensation of Death
Monday, Morrow of St Hilary in the eighteenth year of the reign of King Edward II 1
River Thames near Westminster
It was a grey, dank morning when the assassin floated quietly downriver to the house on the Straunde. He sat huddled in the back of the boat with his greasy, grey woollen hat pulled down low over his brow against the fine drizzle thrown against his face. With his chin resting on his breast, he was confident his face was hidden, but he still eyed the river traffic warily. Many craft passed up and down: barges and boats with gaily painted sheers flaunted wealth he could only imagine. Many stopped and pulled in to bump at private jetties, while above the noise of the oars and the wind, the shouts and curses of sailors came clear across the flat water.
It was alarming to a man devoted to remaining inconspicuous. There were officials here, fighting men with good vision, and if one of them caught sight of him now, that man might recognise him in the future. Best always to be still, silent, a shadow in the corner of a wall — never a person who could be spotted and brought to memory by a guard at the wrong moment.
It had taken two days of hard travelling to get here. Two days, and the man at the hall up there towards London must have been keen to have paid him in advance, just to get him here. Very keen indeed if the cost of the rounsey be added to the account. It was a magnificent black stallion, a fast, powerful beast, with a richly ornamented saddle and bridle, and he’d climbed onto it with trepidation, for a man like him didn’t learn how to ride at an early age like a lord. He was born to a lower class. If he hadn’t managed to be born illegitimate, he’d have been a serf. Fortunately a bastard had to be assumed to be free — the law refused to condemn a man to serfdom unless there was absolute proof that the father was a serf, no matter what the status of the mother.
Yes, with the amount of money already advanced, this must be a serious commission. That was good. But there was a double-edged quality to money — too little and a man like him had to reject it with disgust. He had some pride still. Not much, but some. Still, if there was too much money, that would mean that the task was inordinately dangerous. There was no profit in an early grave.
They were passing by the King’s Great Hall now, and he allowed his eyes to study the Palace with the interest of a traveller, unaware that this was the place where he would die.
Westminster was a strange area. It was there at the bank of the river, almost an island, with the River Tyburn just to the south of it, the new mill turning gently with the tide. Then there were the main buildings. This was where the King’s councils met, where he held his parliaments and met his people when he held court, but it wasn’t purely designed for law-giving and law-making. This had become the King’s home, too.
The boat swung into the river a little further to avoid the first of the landing stages, and looking down its length like an archer aiming down his arrow, he could see the chapel at the edge of the buildings. Then came a small block with pleasant lancet windows — the Queen’s rooms, so he had heard. Behind the chapel’s windows was a flickering light, and he thought how warm it must be in there, out of this chill wind.
Next was another two-storey building, the King’s, and a little beyond was the new chapel. This one filled the gap between the Great Hall and the King’s rooms, and was built on two levels as well. On the ground floor of the King’s apartments were all the King’s household, while the uppermost chamber was for Edward’s family and closer friends.
Everyone knew who his ‘closer friends’ were now.
The man in the boat pulled his old russet-coloured cloak tighter about his shoulders, grunting to himself as he tried to knot his belly muscles to keep in a little warmth.
Yes. The money implied that the man he was going to be asked to kill was someone important. This would be no easy assassination: no quick dagger between the ribs in a tavern when all others were so drunk they wouldn’t notice the corpse till morning; nor a thong whipped about an unsuspecting throat and the body allowed to slip into the river to float off downstream in the dark. This was more likely to be an attack that would risk his own neck.
And yet he could not afford to throw away such an opportunity. Oh, he could put bread on the table and wine in the cup when he wanted, but life without the little luxuries was empty. Women, choice meats, new clothes, perhaps a hawk again … there were so many little things he could desire.
A twinge made him shift his position. At eight and forty years, he was growing old. He had endured too many campaigns, too many cold nights sleeping rough on the damp ground, too many mornings waking with a sore head and a purse emptied by a whore’s pimp. Perhaps one more kill could earn him enough to survive a little longer. Others he’d known were living rich lives with great houses and servants. He’d heard tell of a comrade who’d been made Sergeant of a castle for the King. Others were granted corrodies in convents, where they would live out their lives in relative comfort with a gallon of ale a day. Perhaps he could too.
They were past the Great Hall itself now, and soon they passed the last jetty and the dock, and all he could see on the bank was the low-lying lands which swept back and up to the roadway. Merchants and lawyers kept small houses out in the waste beyond the island, but there were few here, at the riverbank. The land was too soggy and prone to flood this close to the Thames. There was just a scattering of rough dwellings for some of the servants of the court and lay brothers of the Abbey. Through them all cut the King’s Street, which headed northwards along the line of the Thames until it joined up with the Straunde and thence Fleet Street.
When he had been here last, maybe fifteen years ago, houses were thinner on the ground, but now he could see that the area was much more built up. It was natural enough. Since the Exchequer had moved here from Winchester, a lot more people needed access to the place. Now it looked as though all the spaces between here and London were gradually filling.
But after a scant eighth of a mile, the rough houses gave way to substantial properties. These were owned by the rich, the men who would rule the land, those with power residing in their armed men, and those who would command a man’s heart and soul. He could remember these houses. That was the Archbishop of York’s, and beyond it he could see the Savoy, the palace of the Duke of Lancaster, with its new wall and castellations — and then came the mansions: first the Bishop of Norwich’s, then the Bishop of Durham’s, the Bishop of Carlisle’s, the Bishop of Bath and Wells’s — and the Bishop of Exeter’s. And then, last of all for him today, was this enormous place.
It was a strong site. Standing just west of the River Fleet, it lay behind a ditch and wall. From here on the river it was impossible to see much inside the precinct, but it didn’t matter. He looked up at the walls as the water gate opened; and thought to himself that they were daunting. Entering here was like being pulled in through Traitor’s Gate at the Tower; the idea made him shiver.
As the gate closed, he saw a flaming torch coming down steps slick with water; two men were approaching. The boat stopped at the jetty and he sat for a moment, eyeing them with that expanding sensation in his belly he recognised so welclass="underline" pure, simple fear. So often in his life he had known that feeling. It was in part a mark of his existence. There were always men about who wanted to kill him for what he had done, or for what he planned.
Not today, though. He stood, letting the old cloak fall away and looked about him.
‘Jack atte Hedge? My Lord Despenser waits for you,’ a man said.