Authors: Jeri Westerson
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To Craig, my true knight
CRISPIN GUEST SNEEZED AGAIN
and wiped his reddened nose on the grayed scrap of cloth he kept tucked in his belt. As he trudged over the mist-slickened lane, his tired eyes rose to a bright full moon riding on a froth of night clouds. The light’s reflection shimmered off the black Thames as it churned past the piers of London Bridge. A few windows of the shops and houses lining the bridge’s span still glowed from candle flames, but most were dark. It was late. Sensible citizens were already abed. Crispin shivered. Pity he was no longer one of the “sensible citizens.”
He gripped his cloak tighter. Illness was miserable in any season, but this October night seemed particularly icy. He did not recall Octobers being as cold as this but perhaps the winds were changing. Summers were colder, winters longer. First it was plague and now this. Why was God so angry? Was not his anointed on the throne of England?
He coughed, trying to quiet it with his palm.
Crispin thought about the throne, about King Richard. Times had changed since the boy came to the throne and Crispin was cast from court. The king was nearing his majority. Soon he would be twenty-one and his handlers would have to step aside.
Crispin’s boot slipped on the slimy paving. He swore and righted himself. Yes, Richard might still be a young man, but Crispin was nearing thirty-two and sometimes he felt far older. He’d just finished a particularly rough job with a difficult client. It had been quite a puzzle finding that stolen necklace. Were all families so greedy and calculating, forging lies and deceptions behind masks of fawning compliments and false loyalties? He was glad to be orphaned, then, if that was what it meant to belong to a dynasty, even if it was a dynasty of wealthy grocers.
A half-smile formed on his chapped lips. It had been a good puzzle, though, and well-deserved coins clanked in the money pouch at his side. If he could avoid the Watch he could get home with a decent purse for a change. He hoped Jack had something warm on the fire, though he felt almost too weary to eat. Perhaps some warmed wine. That would fill the cold hollow in him.
The Shambles seemed farther than ever but he could not make his weary limbs hasten. Thirty-two. He couldn’t be an old man yet! He had many good years ahead of him, surely. Look at Lancaster. He was ten years older than Crispin and there he was, off on a campaign to Spain. If Crispin still possessed his title, he would most likely have been on the road with Lancaster, one of the many thousands of valiant knights he had taken with him to the continent. Crispin would have been armed and ready for battle with the others, not weary and sick.
He stopped and turned toward the Thames, watching the lights from the bridge play on the rippling waters. Certainly he was just as fit as before, but how could that be true when exhaustion plagued him from so short a walk across Westminster to London? There had been a time when he had practiced with his sword all afternoon. Battles would go on for hours with few breaks. His muscles used to revel in the exertion.
Of course, that had been almost a decade ago …
“God’s blood,” he whispered. “A
? How can that be?”
Nearly ten years since he picked up a sword in battle? Ten years? He supposed he was fit enough for a man whose limbs had forgotten how to balance a blade. Fit enough to recover the jewelry of vain women and protect the households of undeserving men.
He sneezed again and snuffled.
He should be the one at Lancaster’s side in Spain. It
have been him if only …
No. No sense going down that deadly path in his thoughts. There was enough to worry over now. All of London feared the imminent threat of a French invasion and there was no lack of soldiers on the streets trying to keep order. Four months ago the king had declared that all London’s citizens were to stockpile a three-month’s supply of food, and prices had risen, fostering panic. King Richard and his minions were little better than street vendors when it came to controlling the populace. And where was Lancaster when you needed him? In Spain! Of all the foolish enterprises. Mustering all the chivalry of England to invade Spain while France watched and calculated, awaiting the moment to strike. How much more ransom did Lancaster need? How many more titles? For the first time, Crispin grumbled at his former mentor, perhaps begrudging too much the man’s endless ambitions.
Disgusted, Crispin turned away from the placid Thames, determined to hurry home … and ran right into the Watch for his trouble.
The three men were just as surprised to come across Crispin as he was to find himself face-to-face with them.
The first man held aloft a burning cage of coals hanging from a staff. He stepped forward, showering light and embers on all their faces. “The evening bell has been rung,” he said. He was young, face barely flecked with traces of a blond beard. “What are you doing abroad?”
“Harken,” said his dark-haired companion, a poleax resting upon his shoulder. “Don’t you know who this is?”
Crispin waited, tensing. Three against one and they were far better armed. He was damned if he was going to give up any of his hard-earned coins for fines or bribes.
“This here’s the
.” He spit the word. “Heard of him? He’s the man the sheriffs are always nattering on about.” Lazily, he switched the poleax to the other shoulder. “He’s a man who
things. Even finds criminals, they say. Brings them to the hangman.”
The others looked at Crispin anew, eyes bright under their kettle helms. Crispin realized they were all quite young, perhaps only as old as the king. But it wasn’t admiration in their gaze.
“So,” said the one with the poleax. His grip tightened over the staff and he set the butt of it into the mud. “‘Tracking’ tonight, are we?”
“Aye,” said the one with the light. “What poor innocent have you swindled good coin from?”
“I assure you,” Crispin answered with gritted teeth, “that they were no innocents. And I do not swindle. I earn my coin with hard work. Not by harrying men on the streets.”
The one with the poleax frowned. “‘Harrying’ you? Are we harrying him, lads?”
The one with the cresset grinned. The flames from the burning cage made his teeth gleam. “Not yet, we haven’t.”
“He’s definitely breaking the law,” said the other. “All good citizens know well enough to be indoors after the bell and in such a time as this.”
The third man, silent till now, drew his sword and pointed it in Crispin’s direction. “That’s true enough.”
Crispin’s hand inched toward his dagger. “Is this how London’s Watch conducts itself? Like ruffians?”
“I think he’s up to no good,” said the torchbearer. “And I further think he needs to be taught a lesson for his sharp tongue.”
The poleax lowered toward him. Crispin grabbed it and swung both man and ax into the torchbearer. He tumbled to the ground on all fours, gasping for breath. The flaming cresset rolled into a puddle and extinguished with a hissing cloud of smoke.
The long-haired swordsman made his move. Crispin swung toward him, hands closing over the blade as if it were a quarterstaff. As the surprised man tried to pull away, Crispin leaned back with all his weight, and curled into a roll. The swordsman was vaulted into the air as Crispin braced his feet against the man’s chest and tossed him, sword and all, over his head. The guard landed behind him with a hard crunch and a groan.
The torchbearer recovered and staggered to his feet, proffering his sword. The only light now was from the moon. The blade gleamed then faded with the passing whim of a cloud. He and his poleax-wielding companion flanked Crispin on either side. Crispin let instinct guide him as the men slowly closed in. Each moved his weapon, trying to decide who should strike first.
Crispin glanced back. With the discarded sword too far away, the blade currently pointed at him would have to do.
The man began a chopping stroke toward Crispin’s head, but Crispin ducked under the blade and elbowed the man’s sword arm up, blocking the stroke. Using the curve of his shoulder to upend him, Crispin forcefully rolled him into the poleax man. Together, they tumbled to the ground in a heap, swearing and grunting.
Now there was time to scramble for the other discarded blade … but it was no longer discarded. The third man had recovered and with sword held high, advanced.
Crispin pulled his knife and caught the blade’s downward descent with the cross guard of his dagger. With brute strength he forced the sword up and away.
Taken by surprise, the man left himself open. Crispin sneezed suddenly into his face and they both froze. Smiling apologetically, Crispin said, “Sorry,” and then punched his fist squarely into the man’s nose.
Down he went just as the others behind him had gained their feet.
I’m getting too old for this
. Crispin huffed a rattling breath and spun, clamping his armpit over the swordsman’s arm. Using that leverage, he launched his leg outward and kicked the poleax man in the chest. He went down. By Crispin’s reckoning, he would not be up again.
Still clutching the swordsman with one hand, Crispin’s other fist found the man’s face, and with a sickening crunch and a gush of blood, he knew that man, too, was down.
The other swordsman, spitting blood, uneasily climbed to his knees when Crispin swung out, delivering his boot to the man’s head. So much for him.
Panting, he felt the hot blood that had kept him fighting slowly drain away. Crispin surveyed the carnage with aches and pains slowly creeping upon him, including a bruised jaw from when his face had hit the ground. The men at his feet groaned and writhed but made no move to rise. He sheathed his knife, shook out his dagger hand, and slowly straightened. Wincing as pain shot through his shoulders, he grabbed his arm. His foot hurt from kicking and all his muscles rebelled.
Definitely not in fighting form.
He leaned over, trying to catch his breath. He’d still have to make a run for it should they recover sooner than expected. Of course they knew where he lived so he’d still most likely have to spend the night in the sheriffs’ company, but if he was very lucky and very clever, he might yet escape a fine.
He raised his head, ready to flee. Then he saw it. The moon spread the clouds and shone a bright face, shining dazzling silver over London Bridge and the Thames below. And just when the moon was at its brightest, a man—clearly a man from all his spread limbs—fell out of an upper-story window from one of the bridge’s houses and plummeted into the depths of the Thames.
Crispin hesitated only a heartbeat before sprinting for the shore. “Alarm!” he yelled. “Alarm!” He slid down the stony embankment, pebbles flying in all directions. He stumbled and rolled, then righted himself and made it to the water’s edge. The tide was out, and the muddy shoreline stretched wide in both directions.