Authors: Angus Donald
‘The King would surely welcome a knight of your experience,’ I said, somewhat unkindly, for he had once been John’s man and had tried to persuade me to join that household. Sir Nicholas looked at me hard over the rim of his cup.
‘The Earl of Pembroke now serves King John. But I will not. That is why I left his service. I will not serve that impious, royal, red-haired little shit-weasel again,’ he said flatly. ‘He humiliated me after we surrendered Nottingham to Richard – called me a coward to my face, would you believe it?’ Nicholas laughed grimly. ‘I’ll roast in Hell before I will wield my sword for that croaking, God-mocking popinjay.
‘Do you know that he once asked me if I truly believed that the Devil existed? And then he mocked my answer. No, Alan, I will not serve John or his man the Earl of Pembroke; and so I think my fighting days must be behind me. In a year or two, when my nephew William is old enough to shoulder his responsibilities for my brother’s lands at Horsham, I will leave this world behind and offer myself as a novice at Lewes Priory, our family has long had connections there. I plan to spend the rest of my days praying for my family and the forgiveness of my sins.’
He did not seem old enough yet to retire from the world and take the black habit of a Cluniac monk. However, I could feel a deep sadness in him; I believed that he had always regretted his decision to leave the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, and I sensed that he felt that by joining another religious institution – even as a novice – he hoped to regain some of the comradeship that he’d enjoyed among the Hospitallers.
‘I’d better give you a decent dinner before you take your vows, then,’ I said with a smile. ‘You’ll be on stale bread and cold cabbage broth, with the brothers at Lewes, and nothing to drink but water.’
‘Well, I won’t say no to a decent meal,’ Sir Nicholas replied, smiling, ‘but I’m not hanging up my spurs just yet. I plan to travel a little, see some old friends, make a small pilgrimage or two.’
Over dinner, the best that the servants could prepare at such short notice, I tried to raise Sir Nicholas’s spirits, and we spoke of battles won and lost, or brave men we had known – many of whom were now dead. Goody left us to our manly talk, and in the dusk of twilight, we pulled up stools beside the hearth at the centre of the hall and finished our wine as we toasted our boot soles.
‘There is another reason why I have come to see you, Alan,’ said Sir Nicholas, at last. ‘I apologize for springing myself on you without a word of warning: but what I have to say is important, and I wanted to tell you as soon as possible.’
I had been half-expecting something of this kind. Nicholas de Scras was not an aimless man and I suspected that there was some deeper reason for his sudden arrival, deeper anyway than the urge to see an old comrade. I refilled his wine cup and kept silent.
‘I still have friends in the Hospitallers,’ Sir Nicholas said. ‘A few who understand why I felt it was my duty to leave the Order. And I write to them, and meet up with them from time to time.’ He took a sip of his wine; he seemed almost a little embarrassed. I sat back on my stool and waited for him to come to the point.
‘As you know, there has always been a great rivalry between the Templars and the Hospitallers – we should be as brothers, I know, united in our love of Christ and serving God shoulder to shoulder with humble hearts; but the truth is that the Templars are an arrogant, headstrong lot, obsessed with money and power, for the most part, and we often see each other as our opponents, to be overcome, outdone; that is to say … there have been times when we have, God forgive us, rejoiced at the Templars’ misfortune.’
He took a sip of wine and continued. ‘I heard a rumour of such a misfortune when I was visiting a Brother Hospitaller in Leicestershire – how we chuckled about it together. The misfortune happened to the Templars of France, of the Paris Temple, to be precise – and I’m sorry to say that this rumour concerns you.’
I noticed that he used the words ‘us’ and ‘we’ to describe the Hospitallers, although he had left his Order nearly ten years ago; also, I had a fairly good idea what he was referring to by this ‘misfortune’, but I held my tongue. I wanted to hear what the Knight Templars were saying about me and my dealings in Paris.
‘My Hospitaller friend told me that the Templars had been deprived of a significant sum in silver last year by a clever forgery. Apparently, the thief had got hold of one of the Templars’ promissory notes, the parchment letters that, on production, allow the bearer to draw sums in silver from Templar preceptories across Christendom – and which in some quarters are deemed to be as good as coin itself, perhaps even better, as they are easier to carry through dangerous lands. Anyway, the thief or thieves had possession of one of these letters, and they had copied it and used the copy to draw funds – five hundred pounds! – from the Paris Temple. The canny Knights of the Temple of Solomon handed over five hundred pounds of silver. Can you imagine? They gave a hoard of silver to a plausible thief who came to them bearing nothing more than a letter written in their code. He’d have needed a train of packhorses to carry it away, though I doubt he could sit his own horse for laughing.’
There was a little pause and I felt that Sir Nicholas was waiting for me to say something. So I said blandly, ‘That seems a little foolish, to hand over such a huge quantity of silver to an unknown man on the strength of a little piece of parchment.’
‘Doesn’t it,’ said Nicholas. He gave me an odd, penetrating look. ‘Did I mention that the letter was an almost perfect copy of a genuine promissory note? Save for the sum involved. The original note, the genuine one, was made out for a little over two English pounds. The false note had been rewritten, copied almost exactly by someone who knew the Templar codes, and only the sum involved had been changed.’
Once more Sir Nicholas paused and gave me that strange look, as if he were trying to see inside my soul. I said nothing, so he continued: ‘The Templars are, understandably, extremely angry about this theft. They plan to have their vengeance on the miscreant, and, if possible, to recover their money. In any case, they plan to make an example of the man – to deter others from attempting a similar crime. Harsh words have been spoken, and ugly sentiments have been expressed about the prolonged torture and summary execution of the thief. They plan to move against him, to take him up for trial before the next full moon.’
Again he paused, and again I stayed mute. Sir Nicholas de Scras sighed. ‘The Templars believe that this bold thief was the man for whom the original note, the one for two pounds, was made out. And that man is listed in their records as one Alan Dale, the knight of Westbury in the English county of Nottingham.’
After these words, Sir Nicholas put down his wine cup and looked at me levelly. ‘Alan,’ he said, ‘tell me truthfully, as an old friend, was it you who stole the Templars’ silver?’
I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘No, it was not. I swear by my faith that I am innocent. But it is true that I was the man with the original, the genuine note. And I must shoulder a small part of the blame for the theft. It was not of my doing and, indeed, I did not know about it until afterwards, but I did benefit from it.’
My friend looked puzzled. I carried on. ‘But Nicholas, I am afraid that I cannot say more about this matter. I am bound to silence. It is a matter of personal honour.’
The former Hospitaller nodded slowly. ‘I believe you are innocent of the crime,’ he said. ‘And that makes me easier in my conscience; but it does not materially affect what I am planning to do. If you will have me, I plan to remain here for a week or so until the Templars come: I am your man until then. If you choose to resist them, my sword is yours; if you wish to submit, I will stand beside you at your trial and testify to your good character – and ensure that you suffer no maltreatment at their hands.’
I felt a lump forming in my throat, and I was almost too moved to speak. Sir Nicholas was a formidable fighter: I had seen his silent savagery, his peerless killing efficiency on the battlefield and off it. I could hardly think of a better man to have at my shoulder in a hard fight; but he was also a much-respected knight, a man of influence and family. He could ensure, were I to surrender myself to the mercy of the Knights, that I did not end up screaming in a dungeon under the red-hot knives of the Templar sergeants. It was a noble offer, and I was grateful for it.
‘It would be my great pleasure if you would consent to spend a few weeks here at Westbury,’ I said. ‘The guest hall is at your disposal, and though I must be off tomorrow morning on some private business, we can perhaps enjoy a little sport on my land with hawk and hounds when I return.’
And we clasped hands.
I met Robin the next day at noon by an oak tree half a dozen miles south of Welbeck Abbey. It was an old meeting place for Robin’s men: a vast hollow oak in thick woodland at the edge of the manor of Edwinstowe, the lands belonging to his brother William. The tree was sometimes used to store poached venison carcasses and high up on the inside iron hooks had been hammered in from which to hang the meat.
Robin was not alone when we met, which was fortunate because, without the sight of Little John’s massive form beside him, I cannot be certain that I would have recognized him. His light-brown hair had been made grey by the application of hearth ash, as had his sparse facial hair, which had grown into a disreputable straggling beard and moustache, and he had deepened the laughter creases in his face with the application of charcoal from the same fireplace. He wore a long ragged robe, with a deep hood, and stood so that his back appeared stooped and bent. He was leaning on a long staff, with a scallop shell tied to the end, and had even gone so far as to colour his teeth with resin so that he appeared to have only one or two remaining. I had to look at him twice to see that it was indeed my friend Robin – at first I saw nothing but a bent elderly pilgrim, weary beyond imagining by the long years of his life and with one foot already sunk in the grave.
When I slipped from my horse and took him by the arms to stare into his face, he straightened up and smiled at me and I could see for the first time, from a distance of no more than a foot or so, the skilful artifice that had gone into ageing him.
I greeted Little John and waved a hand at three hooded figures standing by the base of the tree, carrying long yew bows and holding the horses’ heads. One of them I saw was Gavin, the curly-haired outlaw who had so coveted my sword. While Robin and John peered into my face and complimented me on my own disguise – John advising with a guffaw that I stay away from hungry horses which might wish to make a meal of me – I untied my sword belt and handed the weapon over to Gavin. ‘Take very good care of that, my friend; I shall most certainly be needing it later,’ I said with a friendly grin.
Gavin ducked his head and took Fidelity with both hands, almost reverently. Robin vaulted on to his horse, in an energetic bound that belied his old-man’s costume, and we all mounted in turn and headed north towards Welbeck.
A couple of hours later, around the middle of the afternoon, we stopped at the edge of a patch of thick woodland, dismounted and stared out at the high walls of the Abbey that rose forbiddingly three hundred yards to the west across a stretch of marshy low-lying ground and a shallow, meandering stream.
‘This is the meeting place,’ said Robin, looking at Little John and the other three outlaws. ‘Alan and I will do our best to be here before midnight tonight. If we have not come by then, we are likely either dead or captured. And you must ride for it immediately in case the Abbey’s men come seeking you. But until midnight stay silent, stay hidden, stay watchful. Understood?’
Leaving our friends, our horses and our swords in a thick stand of trees, we walked south, with Robin leading the way, his back stooped, a hobble in his stride. We planned to loop round the Abbey and approach it from the other side – the west – presenting ourselves at the main entrance as pilgrims and asking shelter for the night. While I had surrendered my sword to Gavin, I was by no means unarmed, and I doubted that Robin was either. A few weeks earlier I had been in Nottingham looking at jewellers, hoping to find a small gift for Goody and I had walked past the workshop of a saddler in the English part of the town. He was engaged in creating a rather unusual item and I paused for a few moments to watch. The man was making a small breast-and-back plate from cuir bouilli – very tough boiled leather – two thick, square slabs of leather each about a foot wide, connected by strong leather shoulder straps. It would be worn over the head, under a suit of mail, the thick leather flaps providing extra protection to the chest and back. But I noticed that the saddler was also sewing strips of iron into a series of pouches in the chest plate to strengthen it further – and this gave me an ingenious idea.
A week later, the saddler had made me a similar item: a pair of thick leather protectors for my chest and back that could be worn under clothing or mail; in the front, the square of leather was bolstered by three two-inch-wide iron strips, and at the back, the tough flap held a narrow, vertical holster for a peculiar weapon that I had acquired during the wars in France.
It was an old lance blade, sharp and well cared for, but rather than being joined to a twelve-foot-long spear shaft, it was mounted on a short T-shaped handle. It was a stabbing weapon, less than a foot long, held in the fist with the crossbar in the palm of the hand and the lance blade protruding between the second and third fingers. Punched very hard into a man’s chest, it could smash through the cage of the ribs and pierce the heart, and I had discovered, at no little personal cost, that it was a most efficient tool for swift, silent killing. But it was also, I had been told, much more than that. The enemy from whom I had taken it had believed that this blade was the very lance that had pierced the side of Our Saviour Jesus Christ as he suffered on the Cross. I did not know whether or not this was true, indeed I doubted it, but I treasured the unusual weapon nonetheless, as much as if it were that wondrous relic.