PART ONE: OLD SCARS
May 25th 1481 in the evening, at the old bath house in Ludlow
Descending the steps to the steam-filled cellar led John to his place of nightly refuge, an underworld of vice and licence. How easily he slipped into this familiar sanctuary. Here, in return for a limitless supply of cheap ale, he would turn a blind eye to the whoring and thieving and, if needed, break a few heads. And while he was doing that, here in this crumbling cellar, he could banish other thoughts. This evening he could forget what he had done to Lizzie; indeed when he was in the stews, he could forget his place in the world altogether.
He dipped his hands into one of the warm wooden tubs as he passed and once again rubbed at the guilty knuckles where traces of blood lurked. His hands were still damp when he relieved a startled client of a half-empty pot of ale and headed for his favourite dark corner. There he slumped onto a stool and attempted to fix all his attention upon the pewter pot of ale before him. For once, it did not work and all he could see was Lizzie. Her shocked stare probed into his very soul and whatever she saw there brought tears to those honey-brown eyes. He should have known that the bond between them would end that way. Friendship was for children and they were children no longer. They would not meet again.
He supped his ale for a time, was brought another and drank it slowly whilst he waited for his cousin, Will, to arrive. One of the whores sat down opposite. He knew it was Jessica but he didn’t even glance in her direction. The lasses had been a distraction once but now, nearly seventeen, he had already grown weary of them. She sniffed, seeking his attention. When he dutifully looked across, he was shocked to see that she had a black eye, and a cut lip… and a bruised cheek.
When had that happened? He studied her battered face – still a young face. There had been a time when he thought of little else other than kissing and caressing that face. Although she was at least a year younger than he was, how many other men had touched that face, that body? Yet tonight someone had done a good deal more than touch it.
“There was no call for it,” she murmured, licking away a smear of blood from her bottom lip. She gave another sniffle and pouted hopefully.
He reached across and touched her cheek, turning it so that he could examine the half-closed eye in the dim glow of the rush lights.
She sighed and laid her tiny hand upon his. “You’ve gentle hands, John Elder.”
“Aye, and a soft head,” he grumbled, drawing his hand away. “Who did this?”
“Said he was a draper’s apprentice, but he didn’t look like one. He took me outside.”
“What did he look like?” John asked. “What was he wearing?”
“He wore a blue cap, but he’s wearing a few scratches across his face now,” muttered Jessica.
“Did he get those before or after he blacked your eye?” enquired John.
“After! I told you: I gave him no cause.”
He pushed back his stool – a slow, deliberate movement. It grated across the stone flags.
“Oh, don’t bother yourself now,” said Jessica. “It’s too late. Slack’s already gone after him – and old Walter too.”
John nodded. There was no obligation; he was not paid to protect the girls in the stews – except for the few jugs of ale - but he got up anyway. He eyed the row of steaming tubs, many of which were still occupied though the town bells had tolled hours before. Those in here now would find the gates of Ludlow closed by the time they decided to leave. Picking his way through the puddles of water, he left the warmth of the bath house and headed down the narrow lane that ran parallel to the town wall.
He almost missed Walter in the dark but a low moan stopped him half way along the alley. Walter was slumped at the foot of a wall where the turds piled up and the stench of piss never quite went away.
“You alright?” asked John.
“Would I be sitting here on my arse if I was?” complained Walter. “Took a cut in the ribs. Won’t kill me but, by Christ, he was quick with his blade. Slack went after him – you’d best go find him.”
Walter, though willing, was long past his best and Slack was a mere boy of fourteen. He was as eager to please the girls as a young dog. He was not, though, much of a hand with a weapon.
“You should have stopped the lad!” said John.
“I tried,” protested Walter, “but he wouldn’t listen!”
John cursed under his breath at the thought of following the culprit through the warren of tiny streets that ran outside the wall. Once this part of town had been quite prosperous, hence the old bath house, but now it was a home for every thief and tosspot in Ludlow. It was too dark and too late to be doing this.
“Wait here, old man.”
“Can’t get up anyway,” said Walter.
John moved as quietly as he could, pausing every now and then to listen. There was little to be heard. At a junction of three lanes, John found Slack. At first he thought the lad’s throat had been cut, but when he drew closer he saw that he had been sliced apart high on his chest. He wasn’t dead – at least not quite – but even in the gloom, John saw that the terrible wound could not be mended. Slack stared up at John and his lips moved.
“Soon have you sorted, lad,” said John. The boy drank in the lie willingly. Slack did everything willingly. He tried to speak again.
“You can talk later,” John reassured him. “Be still now.”
But Slack suddenly sat forward. “He said he’ll be back,” he hissed through trembling lips. After the youth fell back, he did not move again.
John tried to recall the last time someone had actually died from a fight around the stews. There were fights aplenty, and many a wound, but few turned out to be fatal.
He glanced along the lane ahead, but there was nothing to see, nothing to hear. With a sigh he hoisted the boy’s body onto his shoulder and retraced his path back to Walter.
“Did you get the bastard?” demanded Walter.
John shook his head. “Can you manage?”
Walter hesitated. “Give me your other shoulder.”
Together the two men stumbled back to the cellar, bearing the corpse between them.
“Seen the villain before, Walter?” asked John, as they descended the steps into the bath house.
“Nope – don’t want to see him again either!” the older man replied.
Several of the lasses cried out at the sight of Slack’s lifeless body.
“See to Walter,” said John, and the girls clustered around him to examine the wound.
John laid Slack down in one of the small storerooms at the rear of the bath house and then returned to see that the old man was alright. He need not have worried, for the girls swiftly bound up his ribs and sat him down at a table with a jug of wine before him. He was well-liked was old Walter, thought John. It would be stretching it a bit to call him a good man, for he robbed his clients blind in every conceivable way. Yet, to his own, he was loyal enough.
The excitement over, the girls quickly returned to patrolling the steamy chamber, but John’s thoughts dwelt upon the fate of young Slack.
“The boy had no family?” he enquired of Walter.
“God only knows where, if he did,” replied Walter. “He came up from Hereford, didn’t he?”
“I never asked him,” said John.
“Folk come and go,” mused Walter. “I know an old woman who’ll lay him out proper.”
“Find somewhere to bury him.”
“And who’s paying for that?”
“He worked for you!”
“It was a loose arrangement,” argued Walter.
“God’s blood!” said John. “I’ll pay then, shall I?”
He observed that Jessica too was back on the prowl so her facial wounds were not going to stop her plying her trade. “I swear these lasses wear less and less, Walter,” he said.
“Not going to get many clients if they’re covered up, are they?” Walter observed.
Jessica paused at their table, leaning forward to be sure that John noticed.
“Take care, Jess,” warned Walter, “you could take a man’s eye out with one of those.”
“They don’t seem to catch his eye anymore.” She gave John a muted smile. “Not seen your pretty coz this even either?”
“No, my ‘pretty coz’ is certainly late,” conceded John.
“You two lads fallen out?” asked Walter.
“No, it’ll be some lass,” said John. “Some lass, somewhere…”
Jessica looked up as fresh voices sounded outside.
Walter’s eyes lit up. “Get to it, girls!” he cried. “New flesh!”
“Some more ale, Jess, if you please,” asked John, “before you have your hands full with… other business.”
With a crash, the outer door was thrown open.
“Christ’s feet! Someone’s in a hurry for a bath!” cackled Walter.
John stood up and moved towards the steps that led up to the outer door. He heard a scuffle, a single cry then silence. He waited at the foot of the steps, his hand lingering upon the hilt of the long knife at his belt.
Walter joined him and they both stared up into the dimly-lit stairwell.
“Take your patrons, Walter – and the girls - over to the tables,” said John softly. “You’d better stay with them.”
“This is my place!” protested Walter.
Then they heard the tramp of feet on the steps – too many feet.
“Oh shit!” said Walter, stumbling away to dive under one of the tables.
Half a dozen men came down the steps with knives already in hand. They stopped when they saw John standing at the bottom, his own blade now gleaming in the candle light.
“I’ve brought back a few friends,” announced someone at the rear of the group and John caught a glimpse of the blue cap.
“Take that bastard blade off the boy,” ordered blue cap.
Several men advanced to the foot of the steps. With a sigh, John lunged at the nearest, catching him in the shoulder. Around him women screamed and men cursed. Couples fled into the curtained cubicles or followed their host’s lead and took refuge under the tables. John backed away from the remaining assailants, his eyes flitting from one to another. To slow their approach, he pushed over one of the tall candleholders. The heavy iron stand felled one of them, who remained on the floor clutching at his knee. The great candle rolled across the floor and guttered.
Tearing down one of the thin, worn tapestries, he bundled it over his left arm. Then he went on the attack with his knife, a blade of considerable length. It had served him well on more than one awkward occasion, but he had never faced so many at once – and none as battle-scarred as these appeared. Nevertheless, his whirling arm drove them back a few yards.
“Put up your blade,” the owner of the blue hat told him, “before you hurt yourself, or worse, another of mine. I like a bit of spirit in a lad – but no real harm done yet, eh? I’m Elias Slade, the new owner.”
John remained where he was with his knife pointing at Slade’s chest. “Walter?” he called. “What’s this about?”
“News to me!” shouted Walter, from beneath his table.
“Ah,” said Elias, “the ancient turd I bettered earlier. Get up old man!”
“Stay where you are, Walter,” ordered John.
He glanced around him. The chamber was still now. No more cries or screams. All were waiting.
“Saints’ blood!” shouted Elias, “I rough up a whore, so I have an old man and a boy hacking at me and now you, a half-grown youth! Step aside, lad - your ma will be missing you.”
John considered the odds: at least five against one, assuming Slade had already accounted for Walter’s two gatekeepers. It was hopeless.
“Put up your blade,” Elias told him again, “and you can go.”
John said nothing.
“What’s it to be, lad?” barked Elias.
John didn’t quite know what he was waiting for, but he hated the idea of surrendering. Laying a hand thoughtfully on the other candle stand, he recalled the little matter of Master Slack’s death.
In the end he wasn’t sure which came first: his launching of the great iron frame at his opponents or Elias crying: “Take him, lads!”
The stand thudded into the nearest man and he staggered back. John’s knife sliced across another’s throat and he blocked two cuts with his swaddled arm.
Elias roared in anger and then all were at him at once. He twisted and turned to avoid the flurry of thrusts. Some he parried, some he managed to evade but the lightning fast weapon of Elias Slade caught him several times, slashing through the cloth wrapped around his arm. He cursed silently; perhaps this was one fight he should have avoided after all.
They forced him back towards the tubs of water beyond which stood the furnace and that was still hot. Behind lay only the storerooms built hard upon the town’s outer wall. There was a last hope there, but not if his pursuers were close. Retreating rapidly, he discovered that the gap between the last two tubs was narrow enough to defend, so he held his ground there.
Several men tried to clamber past the tubs at once, pressing him. His foot kicked against an object on the floor behind him and he nodded to himself, almost laughing out loud. It was a gift from a friend that he had forgotten all about, still lying where he had tossed it so carelessly last week.
He made a half-hearted stab at one of those trying to squeeze between the tubs, expecting the fellow to step back, but the men were wedged together so tight that he couldn’t move. John’s blade jabbed into his belly. With a grunt he fell sideways into one of the tubs and his comrades tumbled over each other as they hastened to pull back. Swiftly, John bent down and retrieved the wooden staff at his feet – a solid length of ash, with an iron-shod tip. It would not have been his chosen weapon to use in a low, vaulted cellar, but in this case…
His opponents watched him sheathe his blade and slide the staff forward through his hands. He could have warned them, but decided it was far too late for such chivalry, so he just stepped forward and cracked the staff into the skull of the first man, who dropped, stunned, to the floor. Two more blows followed: the first punched into a throat with deadly force and the second splintered a few ribs. Two men remained standing. One sprinted for the steps, leaving only Elias Slade with the tip of John’s staff resting against his temple.
“Sorry you came back, Master Slade?” asked John.
Elias was not looking at him. He was staring at the man on the floor with his throat cut.
“I regret I didn’t take you more seriously, boy,” he growled. “That’s my brother, Lawrence, down there, bleeding out. He survived the butchery at Tewkesbury only to be filleted by you, you little cock-sucker. I’ll bring ruin on you and yours for this, so you’d better-”
John smacked him on the side of the head with the tip of the staff. “Spare me the threats,” he muttered, as Elias dropped unconscious to the floor.
“If you can walk,” he told the injured men, “leave your blades on the floor and get out - and take your friends with you.”
Three managed to get to their feet; Elias and one other were out cold and a sixth lay still.
“And take his brother,” he told them. “I’m not paying to bury him.”
They lifted Slade and their other comrades and staggered out up the steps.
“Weak-livered turds!” cried Walter, emerging from under his table.
John followed them out, staff in hand, prodding them into the dark alley. He waited for a while before following to ensure they had truly gone. It was black as pitch out there now, for few homes could afford to burn a light. At the end of the lane he stopped. It was a quiet night, not even a dog barked and that was rare. So quiet that he heard the softest of footfalls and turned to raise his staff as a figure ghosted out of the shadows.
“God give you good even, coz!” a cheerful voice greeted him.
“God’s blood, Will!” said John. “I nearly took your head off!”
“Did I miss something?” asked Will Coster.
John glared at him in the darkness. “Where in God’s name have you been?”
“You seem a little out of sorts, coz.”
“Aye, in part thanks to you – and no, God did not give me a good evening!” snarled John.
When they returned to the bath house, Walter and the others had restored some order but the mood was sombre. It was colder within for the furnace was cooling and most of the steam had dissipated. It was quieter too; the lasses had abandoned their sorry trade now that most of their prospective clients had left. Those that remained were girls, like Jessica, who had nowhere better to go, and men too drunk to walk home or care.
John put one of the candle stands upright.
“You alright, coz?” Will asked when they sat down.
“A few cuts,” replied John tersely. “Ale?”
“Well you look like you need some,” said Will, “so, I suppose I’d better join you. What happened?”
“A fellow called Elias Slade. Aye, Elias Slade happened.”
“And he is?”
“Brutal,” said John, “but handy with a blade.”
“I got wind of Elias Slade a few days ago,” announced Walter.
“Well why in God’s name didn’t you tell me sooner?” asked John, rounding upon him.
“Didn’t know that was him till he said so,” said Walter. “Rumour was he was coming up from Bristol - didn’t expect him to turn up here in the stews.”
“Well, perhaps you should have – anyway, with luck he’ll piss off back to Bristol now.”
“Sorry lad,” said Walter, “but I don’t think he will. You heard him – he’s not going to leave.”
“I heard his boasts,” said John.
“They say he’s got a score of men he can call on,” declared Walter. “I reckon he’ll be back – and he’ll be looking to settle with you.”
“So, why did you allow me to let him go then?” demanded John.
“What were you going to do?” asked Walter. “Kill all six? We can’t fight that sort of muscle. Next time he comes, he’ll take this place. Best you’re not here when he does, or there’ll be more blood – and that’s not good for business. You should stay away for a while.”
“But it’s your place!”
“It is now,” said Walter, “but I got it the same way he’s trying to - and I’m too old for this, John.”
John shook his head.
“Need to get me ribs seen to,” grumbled Walter and wandered off.
“And where were you, Will?” enquired John. “I expected you a lot earlier.”
“I was busy with other matters,” he said sheepishly.
Jessica sidled up to them. “Will, I’ve been wasting away without you – it’s been so long.”
“One day, Jess!” replied Will. “It’s only been one day. I do have other business, you know.”
“Other wenches,” murmured John.
Jessica stroked Will’s shoulder. “I could do with a little comfort, Will,” she said. “Can’t you see I’m hurt?”
“He can see that, Jess, but he’s got no coin.”
Jessica gave a theatrical sigh before kissing Will on the lips. Then, with a brief show of reluctance, she hurried away.
“I make friends so easily,” grinned Will.
“She was mine before she was yours,” said John.
“Aye,” agreed Will, “but you were so green then you didn’t know what to do with her!”
John nodded. “Aye, I suppose. I’ll always treasure the skills you’ve taught me.”
“Aye, coz. But what can I do? I like women and it turns out they really like me.”
“You don’t have to lie with every one of them though, coz!” said John. “By Christ, I’ve had enough of this place!”
“It sounds as if Walter’s throwing you out anyway. Let’s head for the manor, shall we?”
“No, coz, I’ll stay a while, perhaps stay the night – one last night. You go back to whichever warm lass you’ve left.”
“How do you know I’ve come from a girl?” asked Will.
John frowned. “Because, coz, you’ve always just left a girl or you’re about to go to one. With you, there’s always another one.”
“Aye, perhaps,” conceded Will. “But I thought tonight you might want some counsel.”
Will hesitated. “I thought you might want to talk about the morrow.”
“Ah, the morrow,” sighed John. “I’d almost forgotten about the morrow - the one favour Elias Slade did me was to turn my mind from that.”
“You can’t hide in the stews forever.”
“It seems not. You go, coz. I’ll sleep here tonight and let my cuts heal. I’ll send for you in the morning.”
“Bear’s waiting for you outside the Old Gate.”
“Tell him to come down here,” said John. “I shan’t ride back tonight.”
Will stood up and gave a solemn shrug. “Tomorrow’s your day, coz - a new start. You’ll be out of his shadow at last.”
“Will I?” said John, but he embraced his cousin and slapped him on the shoulder. Will didn’t see the fear in his eyes. His father’s shadow was too close to shake off so easily.
After Will had gone, he returned to his pot of ale.
Walter limped back to the table and sat down.
“Thought you’d gone to your bed, Walter. And why are you limping? He cut you in the ribs, didn’t he?”
“Yeh, but I get aches in me legs if I do too much – it’s not good being my age, John Elder.”
“And what age is that?”
“Can’t say for certain, but old enough!”
“You all bound up now, then?”
“Yeh, bound up tight as a nunnery. Jessie did it for me.”
John nodded. “Good, that’s good.”
“But Slade’ll be back,” said Walter.
“You can’t fight them all, John.”
“I know…” He gave Walter a rueful smile.
“You won’t be here after tonight, will you?” observed Walter. “I can see it in your eyes: you’ve made up your mind.”
“Better for all if I go, Walter.”
Walter laid a hand on his arm. “Better if you don’t come back here for a while,” he declared. “Go home, John. It can’t be worse than throwing your life away here with a pack of whores and wastrels.”
“Can’t it?” said John. “Everywhere I go, I’m Ned Elder’s son – Ned Elder the warrior, Ned Elder the legend. God’s blood, Walter, I need to get away from it all - away from family, from Ludlow, away from England. I need to go somewhere that’s never heard the name Ned Elder!”
“You thinking of getting a ship in Bristol?”
“No, London – Will’s brother is there and he’s engaged in the wine trade. He’ll be sure to find us a ship!”
“Does Will know?”
“No, not yet, but he can have tonight. We’ll leave at dawn.”
“Dawn?” echoed Walter. “Best not waste valuable drinking time in idle chatter then!”
John swallowed another mouthful of ale, put Elias Slade out of his mind and closed his eyes. Out of the darkness, Lizzie Holton stared back at him.