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A Wolf Wandering Westminster

 

By Grim Wendlewulf

The boy raised the sword up into a high guard and rocked his weight forward onto the balls of his feet. Swaying slightly backwards, he then suddenly thrust the steel buckler in his left hand forward, swung his right leg forward and brought the sword swinging through the air in an across and downward movement. The swishing blade narrowly missed removing the head of his uncle, who had just ducked into the darkened barn.

‘Hell’s bells boy,’ the man’s solitary eye lanced into the youngster’s own green eyes. ‘I thought I could trust you with a blade!’

‘Sorry Uncle Wulf; just practicing.’

'Practicing what Gareth? Killing me?’

‘Never Uncle, I’d never want to see you dead.’

‘Just taking out my remaining eye out then?’

‘Uncle!’

‘Damned near succeeded boy.’

The youth hung his head, and drooped; his arms hanging low making the tip of his short sword touch the dirt floor. Breathing deeply Gareth drew little circles in the in the dust with the blade’s point. ‘I suppose you won’t take me with you tonight now.’

‘Hmmph.’ The man studied his nephew and marked the boys reddening cheeks. ‘Can I trust you boy?’

Gareth raised his eyebrows and peered cautiously at his uncle; ‘Trust me?’ Gaining confidence he lifted his head slightly. ‘Yes Uncle Wulf; I’ll be ever so well behaved.’

Geffrey ðe Wulf, Household Archer to his something cousin Sir Alan de Boxhall, Constable of the Tower of London to His Grace Richard II, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland and overlord of Scotland, snorted. ‘There’s always a first time for everything I suppose.’

Gareth grinned, dropped his blade and buckler to the ground and rushed over to wrap his arms around the tall slim figure of his uncle, yelping with delight.

‘That’s it,’ gasped Wulf from within the tight embrace of his much shorter relation. ‘If you can’t cut me head off you’ll break all me ribs instead.’

‘Sorry Uncle,’ smirked the totally unrepentant Gareth as he let go.

Wulf screwed up his non-existent eye hidden under its leather patch; 'Hmm: I can’t say you look it.’ He stared at the boy hard; ‘Pick your blade out of the dirt and put it away before you do any harm with it, then help me get some chaff and corn to bait the oxen. They have a hard day ahead of them pulling the hay wain’

The two walked to the lidded troughs along the wall, Gareth fumbling to get his short sword back in its scabbard, Wulf peering high along the wall for the nose bags. A slight noise outside made the old man stop and stiffen, the barn door opened slightly, letting slim light shafts pierce the air. Wulf threw an arm across Gareth’s back, pinning him to the wall whilst his free hand felt for the dagger that always hung at the front of his belt.

Slowly the door opened wider. Wulf relaxed his hold on Gareth, confident he would make no noise and the boy lifted his squashed face from the wall and turned quietly round to face the door, easing his sword from its scabbard. A head broke the light beam and dust motes danced around it: Gareth was aware of his Uncle’s slow deep breathing as he too eased his blade out.

‘All clear,’ a high voice exclaimed and a slight young maid slipped into the barn dragging a tall gangling youth with her. The girl turned and wound her arm around the boy’s waist and pulled him to her, her right foot moved in exploration in the air until it found the edge of the door. ‘Owww Lachlan,’ she rocked back to put weight on the door and gave it a push, the door, protesting with a groan, swung closed, cutting out the light and thus dimming the highlights in her nut brown hair and those in the bright ginger gold of the boy’s. The darker the barn became, the closer the girl snuggled into the boy.

‘Put him down Gwyn; you don’t know where he’s been,’ Wulf boomed.

‘Oh yes she does’, Gareth muttered as his sister gave a scream and Lachlan made to bolt for the door.

‘Oh Uncle,’ sighed Guinivieve, placing a hand over her heart and fluttering her eyelashes, ‘you gave me such a fright. I was just bringing the thrall, Lachlan, to fetch the oxen’s nosebags,’ she smiled prettily.

‘Were you now? Not from where I was watching.’ Wulf shook his head in despair; his niece’s fondness for the lowest status boy on the holding was getting beyond reasonable bounds. ‘I am tempted to beat Lachlan and then tell your father what I saw.’

Guinivieve slowly sidled over to her uncle’s side, fluttering her eyelashes for all they were worth. ‘Thought you saw uncle, surely’, she reinforced her statement with a winning, winsome smile.

‘Hmmm,’ the old archer looked uncertainly at his niece. ‘I’m quite sure I saw what I saw young lady.’

Guinivieve slipped her arm around Wulf’s waist and widened her smile until her face started to ache. ‘But if you are sure?’

Wulf looked at his niece questionly. 'Am I?'

‘Oh indeed uncle,’ the girl looked up into the tall man’s face. ‘You know your eyes are just a little bit dimmer these days. I mean; what else would I be doing with such a lowly creature as a thrall?’

‘I could tell you,’ Gareth whispered under his breath.

‘Come Uncle, reassure poor Lachlan, he looks all afraid,’ Wulf allowed his niece to propel him towards the ginger youth who was now kneeling on the dirt floor, head lowered.

‘Ach Mistre Wuulf, I was ney do’n ahnything awfie wrong,’ the boy lifted his head slightly to check he wasn’t going to get cuffed around the ears by his master. ‘Wez just came frae the scran fae tha beasties.’

Wulf looked at his thrall with a bemused look on his face. ‘One day I’ll understand the Garlic that boy speaks.’

‘Gallic Uncle,’ interrupted Gareth.

‘Garlic, Gallic; it’s all Greek to me boy.’

Gareth shook his head, knowing that any attempt to try and correct his uncle’s often unique pronunciations or use of words would only get him into a cyclic argument that could possibly leave his uncle in a bad mood and him without his breakfast.

‘Honestly Uncle,’ Guinivieve’s voice had a slight tetchy edge to it. ‘You know he is speaking Lalan Scots, which is but badly spoken English.’ She moved over and pulled Lachlan to his feet. ‘He said we came to get food for the "beasties" that is the oxen. We wanted to save you the trouble: we were only thinking of you – honest.’

‘Yes, well; all right then.’ Wulf turned to Gareth; ‘Come on boy let’s get some breakfast. We have a full day ahead of us haymaking.

‘And an errand to do tonight?’ Gareth asked in a low voice.

‘Quiet boy. If your Aunt Lucy knows I intend to take you with me she will put a stop to it. As it is she thinks I’m rabbiting in Wandsworth common woods. I need you for a lookout tonight. Lookout mind – nothing else.’

‘As a pair of eyes that can actually see once it gets dark more like,’ the boy whispered to himself. He caught up and kept pace with his long legged uncle ‘Right oh, but I can take my sword & buckler can’t I?’

‘As long as you can keep them under control boy, as long as you can keep them under control.'

Guinivieve watched the man and boy head towards the cottage that was the den and domain of Wulf’s wife, Lucy. Seeing them disappear inside she reached up, grabbed a handful of Lachlan’s hair, and pulled his head down towards her before delivering a full mouthed kiss; the barn door closed with the assistance of her foot.

***

Geffrey ðe Wulf peered across the mist covered Thames; water dripped from the willow tree onto his hood, ran round the rim and silently plopped onto the sodden ground at his feet.

‘See any thing Uncle?’ asked Gareth, struggling to see the river between the two ponies whose bridles he was holding.

‘Ssshhhhh,’ Wulf hissed, not looking round at the boy and trying not to disturb his own pony, which was sniffing the archer’s wet hood with nose twitching interest.

The boy sighed and observed his uncle, tonight wearing a stained dull green outfit rather than the fancy bright blue & yellow parti-coloured livery of his employer, Sir Alan de Buxhall, Constable of the Tower, or even the more discrete green and white of the King’s Cheshire archers his uncle often unofficially wore. Gareth eased his hands on the bridles and found the ponies had relaxed into bored indifference. He glanced at his steel buckler hanging from the hilt of his short sword and moved his lips in a silent mutter; the normally bright steel had been caked in cow dung at his uncle’s insistence. Letting go of the ponies, he edged forward slightly and saw that his uncle too had a dung encrusted buckler instead of his usual hardened leather one embossed with Sir Alan’s blue lion. ‘Uncle,’ he hissed. ‘Uncle why three horses?’

Wulf ceased his staring into the river mist and eased back from his pony’s side to be alongside his nephew. ‘So you can count? Just shews the value of a good education, and my brother said he was worried you weren’t taking your lessons seriously, preferring sword work to pen work.’

Gareth gave a deep sigh; ‘Right, but Uncle; why do we have three horses?’

‘Because we need them; that’s why.’ Wulf sniffed and lifted his head. ‘Ah; good. It has started drizzling at last.’

‘Uncle, firstly; why is it good that it has started drizzling? Aren’t we wet enough from the mist?’

‘Drizzle is good, you can see better in drizzle than in mist, but folk don’t like to be out in it.’

‘Right,’ Gareth answered cautiously. ‘And secondly you said "at last" as if you expected it to rain. The weather has been fine all day and you yourself set the day for gathering in the hay. So how did you know it would rain? And if so; why didn’t you think it would rain earlier? And if you knew it would rain; why the hay raking? And …’

‘Save your questions for your school teacher boy. I just know things. Now stop your talking and listen.’

‘Ah!’ Gareth gave a smile. ‘You are going to instruct me in how to read the sky for weather.’

'No; I need you to hear what I can’t hear above the noises in my ears. I’ve never been the same since that damned Frog tried to stove my head in with a war hammer back at the Battle of Petters.’

‘Right. What am I supposed to hear?’

‘Anything of interest. And whilst you are at it keep an eye open too.’

‘Cos you are becoming as blind as a bat?’ Gareth quietly asked himself.

‘Because my eyes aren’t as sharp as they use to be young man.’ Wulf gave his nephew a hard look as he led his own pony round to join the other two. He left Gareth looking and listening whilst he spoke quietly to his beasts and gently started to apply hobbles to them.

‘Selective deafness!’ the boy moved from one chilled foot to the other. ‘He never hears what he should hear, but say something you don’t want him to hear and …’

‘Stop your mumbling boy and keep watch.’

‘Yes Uncle,’ Gareth called back in a lowered voice. ‘I don’t suppose you would be interested in a small boat that is coming across stream would you?’

Geffrey Wulf slowly stood and gave a last whispered assurance to his own pony before joining his nephew. ‘Where away?’

‘There,’ Gareth pointed to his right where a small wherry struggled against the current, its waterman hunched over his oars.

‘You sure boy? You aren’t having me on?’ Wulf squinted his only eye.

‘Uncle you can even hear it now.’

‘Maybe you can. I used to such an owl when I was younger now…ah; there it is.’

The waterman glanced over his shoulder and changed course slightly to head towards the willow tree and the dark shadows beneath its weeping branches. As he rowed he started to whistle a tune. Gareth nudged his uncle and cupped his ear. Wulf took the hint and strained to pick up the sound. As the boat came nearer the bank waterman started to quietly sing:

‘Lift up your hearts Emmanuel’s friends

And ta-ste the pleasure Jesus sends.’

Wulf relaxed his stance and a small smile touched his face.

‘Let nothing cause you to delay

But ha-sten in the good ol way,’ continued the waterman before stopping.

Wulf nudged Garth and nodded towards the wherry. 'Sing boy, sing.’

‘For I have a sweet hope of glory in me soul

I have a sweet hope of glory in me soul.’

The waterman joined the boy’s sweet melodic voice in his own gruff one.

‘For I know I have and I feel I have

A sweet hope of glory in my soul.’

The wherry grounded into the soft mud of the bank.

‘Greetings Brother.’ Wulf stepped into the boat and signalled Gareth to join him. ‘All quite on the other bank?’

‘Like the grave we will all lie in one day Emmanuel’s Friend.’ The waterman dug an oar into the river bed and pushed off, heading downstream towards Westminster.

***

The waterman nudged his wherry into the reeds some distance from the horse ferry landing. ‘Sorry Brother, but its wet feet for you. I durst not risk bringing you closer Brother.’ Reeds scraped against the boat’s side till it stopped with gently sigh against a clump.

‘Better wet feet than burnt ones if we get caught.’

The waterman gave a grunt that had a hint of ironic amusement.

‘Burnt feet Uncle?’

‘Nothing boy, nothing, just a joke on the habits of the Church established ‘

‘Yes but what practices Uncle? I mean …’

‘Now is not the time boy. Later, later.’ Wulf turned to the waterman as his nephew eased himself out of the boat. ‘Some one will be here for us when we need to return to the Surrey shore?’

‘God and the tide willing,’ the waterman answered.

‘Amen to that.’ Wulf eased himself into the shallow water, using the reeds to steady his exit.

‘The waters’ cold isn’t it Uncle,’ commented Gareth as the waters lapped at his knees.

‘As cold as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s heart boy and just as dangerous. Now stop the chattering, pull up your visor and lead us to the firm bank for I don’t see so well in this light.’

Gareth reached down and pulled up the cloth mask round his neck and fitted it over his nose and then took his uncle’s hand and brought them through the reeds onto solid ground. Leaking water from their sodden hosen and boots, the pair slunk into the shadow of the willows just up from the reed bed. Keeping to the trees they made their way towards Westminster, the Abbey’s dark bulk, visible even through the increasing drizzle.

Houses started to appear, small wisps of smoke from fires that should have been extinguished at curfew escaping through the smoke hole in the thatch of some.

The nearer to the Abbey the pair got, the more the houses and fewer the trees until they entered the streets that clustered around the Abbey. Wulf caught Gareth’s shoulder and stopped. ‘What can you see & hear boy?’

‘Cats and rats playing hide & seek in the midden down the road’s centre. Darkened houses, but no sound of people.’

‘Good.’ The old archer eased past the boy and looked around for himself. ‘There is an alley over there; it backs on to the Abbey. That is where we go boy. Now listen once more. I don’t want to bump into the Watch.’

Gareth eased his cloth visor down so that his hard of hearing uncle could hear his voice better: ‘All clear Uncle’ he hissed, ‘and keep close; you mustn’t tread in that stinking stuff flowing from the middle heap, or Aunt Lucy will never let you indoors.’

Hanging to his nephew’s belt, Wulf obediently followed behind. ’Yes, well, I doubt she will be pleased by the smell of the mud from that reed bed either,’ Wulf whispered back. ‘Very particular about me being clenly is your aunt.’

The pair entered the dark alley, the overhanging upper stories of the houses providing some shelter from the rain. Wulf tugged on his nephew’s belt. 'Easy boy. On the left hand side is another alley. We go down there.’ They trudged through slopping muck that gave off a deep stench, and made between the houses that were far less grand than those they had passed earlier. Wulf gave Gareth’s belt another tug. ‘Look for a gate to the left between the far hovels; it is little more than a wattle hurdle, trees either side of it.’

Gareth stopped and, on seeing the gate his uncle wanted, headed towards it. He put his hand out to open it.

‘Easy lad, easy,’ Wulf pulled the boy back and lent his head towards Gareth so that his voice would overcome the muffling of the visor. ‘You don’t want to get bitten by the guard dog do you?’

‘And you do?’ Gareth’s eyes gleamed in mischief.

Wulf gave a grunt and rummaged in the old linen bag that hung from his belt; he pulled out a strip of dried meat. ‘That dog knows me, but not thee.’

Wulf gave a soft whistle and a dun coloured mastiff begrudgingly left its shelter under the eves of a rundown outbuilding and walked stiff legged to the gate. ‘Hello my handsome,’ Wulf proffered the meat to the dog. The mastiff sniffed it with distain and then condescendingly took the meat and walked back to its dry resting place where it commenced to tease it apart.

‘He knows you then Uncle?’

‘Oh yes. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but I have been making his acquaintance long enough for him to not fret when I come to visit him.’ Wulf gave a furtive glance along the rain sodden alley, squinting in the rain. He turned back to his nephew; ‘Right boy we now open the gate but keep to my side opposite the dog – let him smell me not thee.’

The hurdle gate cut through the mud of the yard as Wulf eased it open and the pair moved to get under the eves of the dilapidated house. Wulf gently made his way along the wall feeling with his hand. Finding a shuttered window he stopped. He wiped his wet and muddy hands on his equally wet & muddy shirt before easing out his single edged dagger and commencing to slide it up the crack between the two panels of the shutter, feeling the latch he gave a yank and then eased the shutter open.

‘I trust you used the blunt edge to do that Uncle, you would …’

Wulf’s baleful glare stopped the boy in mid whisper.

‘Sorry, force of habit; I’m used to Gwyn and her ignorance of how to treat a blade.’

Wulf signalled to Gareth to hold one side of the shutter whilst he used the sharp edge of the dagger to cut through the uncured skin of the window pane. He turned, put a finger to his masked lips, and then eased himself inside the house before turning to help his nephew inside. ‘Latch the shutters boy, latch the shutters.’

Gareth did as he was told, then looked to his uncle for further instruction. ‘Now, quietly boy there should be some stairs over there, guide me to them and then find the door under them that leads to the cellar. Hanging onto Gareth’s belt and shortening his normally long stride to match that of the boy’s, Wulf shuffled across the rush covered floor of the room, leaving a snail trail of watery mud behind him.

‘Here Uncle, but the door is locked.’

Wulf motioned the boy away from the door. Delving into his bag he brought out a bent piece of wire which he poked into the door lock and commenced to ease it around until he gave a quite smile and withdrew it. Another rummage in his bag produced a small bottle. Taking out the stopper, Wulf dropped some of its oily contents over the hinges of the door. He bent his head to Gareth’s hooded ear. ‘Even quieter now boy, even quieter.’ The two made inside the door and Wulf signed Gareth to pull the door closed. ‘Keep it shut boy. I must have some light and it durst not been seen.’ A candle was found by Wulf in his bag, which he got his nephew to hold and, after clumsily fiddling with his flint, Wulf managed to light the candle. ‘You stay here young Gareth and keep guard.’

‘Where are you going Uncle Wulf?’ For the first time that night an edge of worry had crept into the boy’s voice.

‘Just down the stairs to find what I am looking for. I won’t be long.’ Wulf took the candle in his left hand and keeping his right on the cellar wall, made his way down the stairs, one gentle step at a time.

It took longer than he though, but eventually Wulf found what he was looking for, a bundle of dirty rags tucked away in the corner behind some empty beer barrels. He bent down and placed the candle on the floor well away from the rags. Wulf cautiously gave the rags a gentle shake and was rewarded with a groan. ‘Lift up your heart,’ he whispered.

‘Emmanuel’s Friend?’ the rags replied.

‘Sit up Brother Ball.’ The heap of odorous rags obliged and Wulf fiddled with a rope that was encompassing a small lump at the top. Grabbing the top most piece of sacking, Wulf pulled and exposed a bald blinking face speckled with dried blood beneath its nose. ‘I see you have been enjoying the Archbishop of Canterbury’s famous hospitality again Brother.’

‘Something he may yet regret Friend. A day of reckoning will come,’ John Ball hissed back.

‘Vengeance is mine sayeth The Lord,’ Wulf reminded him as he cut through Ball’s bonds and commenced to remove the sacking from the man’s body.

‘Well naturally,’ John Ball reassured him as he uncertainly stood, trying to work some feeling back into his hands.

‘I know thee, John Ball, and that tongue of yours.’ Wulf retrieved the candle.

‘You do?’ Ball raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘And who are you?’

‘Just one of Emmanuel’s Friends. Who I am and where I get my information is my concern.’ Wulf started back towards the stairs. He stopped at the bottom. ‘Lollard beliefs is one thing; your egalitarian prattling is another. The first has got you into trouble with the Church established and thus questioned in dark cellars by the Archbishop’s men. Your political agenda will bring you into conflict with the state, and then God help you.’

‘His Grace of Lancaster protects us.’ John Ball made to get past Wulf, but the old archer put a hand on his chest.

‘John of Gaunt will protect and guard us Lollards as it suits his purpose, not because he too is one of Emmanuel’s Friends. He will not protect those that threaten his status, power or wealth. Remember that Brother Ball.’ Wulf pushed Ball up the stairs and joined him on the landing. Nodding to Gareth to open the door, he snuffed the candle and stuffed it back in his bag.

Gareth put his head into the room, seeing it still empty and quite, the boy led the others towards the shuttered window, there Wulf took over and opened the shutters. He pushed Gareth forward to check the yard was clear. The boy looked, listened, and sniffed the fetid air before easing himself out. John Ball heaved his not inconsiderable bulk through the window to be followed stiffly by Wulf.

They had just closed the wicker gate when the men jumped them, emerging at frightening speed from the shadows of the alley. The leading man grabbed Wulf by the throat with his right hand, his left holding a dagger swung back in preparation for gutting the archer. It was then that the mastiff leapt the fence, its aim was at Wulf’s bag, containing its strips of dried meat, but Wulf had staggered sideways with the attack and thus hound’s misaligned snout buried itself into the groin of the man attacking Wulf; the hound made a snap decision and decided to have fresh meat, rather than the dried variety, and sank its teeth into the man’s nether regions. The confusion this created was enough for Wulf to stagger back and arm himself and for Gareth to smash his steel buckler’s boss into one of the other attacker’s face with a resounding crunch of bone & teeth.

Wulf moved forward with a speed that belayed his age and took a third man in the throat with the edge of his buckler before swinging round and chopping his short sword down into the man’s neck. Sensing rather than hearing, he spun round and brought his buckler up to block a blow from a wooden stave; the force jarring every nerve in his arm. Gareth high kicked Wulf’s attacker in the kidneys before squaring up to the fifth man in the gang.

Wulf, finding his would be attacker on the ground, stomped hard on the man’s throat before thrusting his blade deep in the ribs of his nephew’s opponent.

‘Finish them off!’ Wulf sheathed his sword, cast down his buckler, drew his dagger and slit the throat of the wheezing man huddled on the ground by the fence. ‘They were waiting, they were waiting, and they wanted us as well.’

Gareth looked about him and saw his first attacker staggering up the road, a hand held to his shattered face.

‘Do it boy, we can’t afford witnesses; they brought this on themselves.’

The boy ran forward and caught up with the dark clothed man; shoulder charged him to the ground, dropped his buckler and used his left arm to pull the man’s head back. He turned and looked at his uncle.

‘Do it boy, it has to be done,’ Wulf called out.

Gareth still hesitated.

‘They are the crippled rouge rams of Canterbury’s flock. It is no more than culling boy. Do it!’

Closing his eyes Gareth placed his short sword against the prone man’s throat, drew a deep breath and then pulled it hard across sending a hot stream of blood across the alley. Gareth slumped over the dead body, eyes screwed tight fighting tears and nausea now that the adrenaline was starting to drain and the realisation of what he had done sank in.

Now that the attack had been crushed Wulf was suddenly aware of the mastiff. It had found what it had originally bitten to be insufficient for a meal and had changed its area of attack to its victim’s throat, which it was still mauling whilst uttering deep muffled growls from its throat. Wulf cautiously stepped round the beast. Seeing the lifeless face of the animal’s attention, Wulf gave a snort.

‘He’ll not be carrying Canterbury any tales, let alone prisoners.’ The old archer ran his single short sighted eye around his surrounding. ‘Time to be gone from here before the neighbours gain enough courage to investigate the noise.’ He looked for John Ball.

The excommunicate priest was flattened against the wall of the hovel he had been incarcerated in, gnawing his knuckles in fear. ‘The killing? The killing?’

‘Self preservation Brother. Nothing more; them or us. Leave a witness and we would be tracked down, faces covered or no. At least we killed quickly; do you think that, in their hands and being put to the question, they would have been so merciful to us?’ Wulf turned to Gareth; ‘Nephew, get up boy and get us out of this God damned place and back to the river.’

Gareth pushed his hands to the muddy ground and eased himself up, glad that the rain was washing away his tears. Slowly he walked towards his uncle, who smiled gently at the boy before putting his arm across the lad’s shoulder. ‘Cruel necessity,’ he whispered in Gareth’s ear. ‘Cruel necessity.’

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Gareth started to lead them out of the alley.

‘But the killing!’ Ball exclaimed from the rear.

Wulf halted, causing Gareth, whose belt he was holding, to stagger. He turned to face the ex-priest, a look of annoyance on his face; ‘Consider your talk of social equality Brother: there are those who on hearing it may try and bring it about by force - then you will see far more killing than you did tonight; far more!’

***

‘You were lucky,’ the boatman commented as he passed a still shocked John Ball out of the wherry to the waiting hands of Wulf. ’Much longer and the tide would have been against us. It would have been a long wait for you in the rushes with you no doubt playing moorhen avoiding the Archbishop’s men till the next chance for you to be got out.’

‘The Lord has smiled on us; it has even stopped raining.’ Wulf grabbed Ball’s shaking hand and pulled him ashore. ‘Thank you Brother and God speed.’

‘And you Emmanuel’s Friend,’ the boatman jammed an oar into the silt of the river bed and pushed off, quickly disappearing into the gloom of the night.’

Wulf watched for a while until he could no longer see the boat and could no longer distinguish the sound of its oars above the hissing in his ears.

‘Uncle’ Gareth hissed. ‘I have my horse and the spare for your friend, but your bad tempered one won’t let me near it.’

Wulf slowly turned round and walked up to where his pony was tethered. ‘It’s not bad temper boy; it is character.’

‘They say the same bout you,’ Gareth muttered to himself.

Wulf took an old sack that had been split to form a crude hood and passed it to John Ball. ‘Best cover yourself Brother, even with these clouds that bald head of yours shines out.’ Wulf mounted his pony and brought it alongside Gareth. ‘Get our friend to ride in the middle. We take the riverside route to Wandsworth via Battersea Island. Keep close to him; I don’t want to have gone to all that trouble to rescue him from the clutches of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hands only to have him drown, or worse, sucked into the quick sands taking my pony with him.’

***

Wulf looked worriedly at the lightening sky. ‘Are you sure you can’t hear anything boy?’

‘Nothing Uncle it is as quite as the grave.’

‘Not a good choice of words boy, in view of tonight’s goings on, not a good choice of words.’ Wulf’s pony deliberately shoved its rump hard against John Ball’s in an act of gentle but assured dominance.

‘Wait though … yes, yes; I can hear horses.’

‘Ease back into the trees boy, make sure our friend keeps quite.’

A bittern boomed.

‘A bittern uncle … bit early in the …’

‘Ride forward, but not out of the trees. Sing the first two lines of verse three from the old song.’

Gareth moved forward and hummed to himself to loosen his vocal cords: he had a fine voice and was proud of it.

‘Lord Satan may his spurs employ

Our ha-apiness for to destroy.’

The words hung in the air.

Nothing happened, no sound, no movement. Wulf was just about to recall his nephew and take them all back into the wilderness of Battersea when he heard a cough followed by a rather crack voiced:

‘Yet never fear we’ll gain the day

By ma-arching in the good old way.’

Wulf smiled at the contrast between his nephew’s sweet rendition and the rough edged reply.

‘Uncle: I know that voice. It belongs to …’

‘You do NOT know that voice,’ Wulf’s hash response unsettled his pony and it took him a while to get it back under control. ‘And pull up your mask boy. We know no one and they don’t want to know us.’ The pony gave a final attempt at yanking the reign out of Wulf’s hand before condescending to behave itself. ‘Right you two; ride on.’ Wulf led this party out of the woods towards to coppiced willows the other side of the open ground and over the small brooks that dissected it.

‘Sorry I am late Brother,’ the gruff voiced hooded figure rumbled. ‘Got a bit slowed down by the rain we had earlier. This the Friend to be passed along the line?’ he jerked a thumb towards John Ball.

‘Indeed.’ Wulf turned to Ball: ‘Remember what I said Friend: keep your head low and stick to scripture and leave man’s estate alone. This time I could help but next time I might not. If it involves His Grace of Lancaster, I most certainly will not be able to help as my family are part of his affinity. Now get off my spare horse and mount the one brought by our friend here.’

John Ball hauled himself down from his mount and stood before Wulf. ‘Thank you Brother, and God will bless you for this night’s work,’ he turned and tried to mount the long legged horse held by the other hooded man. The man dismounted and came to give Ball a lift into the saddle.

‘Come John Ball, let’s get you to safety.’

As the hooded man and the priest rode off Gareth sidled his pony up to Wulf’s ‘John Ball? The hedge priest? He who preaches: "When Adam delved and Eve span – who was then the gentle man?" Was that really him?’

‘It was him. Whilst all should acknowledge that we are all are equal before God, for so scripture tells us, his teaching that it applies to a man’s standing in society too will get him hanged one day. Come boy; it has been a long night and we have to get this dried blood and mud off us before your Aunt Lucy gets to see it. She isn’t stupid and will know that it comes from more than a bit of rabbit poaching.’

***

Geffrey ðe Wulf stood with his brother Robert outside the water mill at Waddon watching Gareth and Lachlan loading sacks of milled flour onto a waiting wain.

‘I hope my son wasn’t too much trouble whilst staying with you Geoff.’

‘He’s a good lad and he has his uses.’

‘He can still get into trouble though at times.’

‘Oh he didn’t get into anything he couldn’t handle whilst he was with his old uncle; trust me. I always keep an eye on him.’

‘Yes, well you do only have the one,’ Robert gave a chortle. ‘And young Lachlan: thanks for lending him to me. It’s a busy time for me at the mill at present. Guinivieve says he is proving to be most handy.’

‘More handy than you think,’ Gareth muttered as he stomped past, heading into the mill to get another sack.

‘Well Robert I must be off,’ Wulf walked to get his pony that was being held by two other archers who, like Wulf, were resplendent in the bright livery of Sir Alan de Buxhall. ‘It seems that there was trouble in Westminster last night that needs investigation.’

‘I thought the Church had jurisdiction there, not the Constable?’

‘Ah, five men dead and, although he says they are nothing to do with him, His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has asked Sir Alan to send his best man there to sniff out the culprits and bring them to justice.'

Robert stood by the pony’s head as Wulf settled himself into the saddle. ’And of course Sir Alan’s best man is his something or other cousin Geffrey Wulf?’

'Indeed Robert. In fact I have just come from a briefing with his nibs The Archbishop at his palace at Croydon. John Wycliffe would have a word to say about such luxury in the Church, let alone that fire brand hedge priest, John Ball. That is beside the point, the interesting thing about these killings is that one of the dead men, they say, looks like he has been savaged by a wolf! I ask you, in this day and age, a wolf wandering Westminster? I doubt that I will be find that to be the case.’

Robert shook his head in disbelief. 'Yes, well. So? Do you think you will in fact find the killers?'

Wulf gave a sigh; 'I doubt it, there are so many doubtful characters around these days.’ With that he turned his temperamental pony and rode off along the banks of the River Wandle with his men, Lyulf and Hakon following behind on their better behaved mounts. As he rode he broke into song:

‘For I have a sweet hope of Glory in my soul …..’

***

John Ball’s Lollard beliefs and advocacy of ecclesiastical poverty and social equality had caused him to be excommunicated in 1376. In 1381 he had been imprisoned at Maidstone on the orders of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, from whence he was freed by Wat Tyler’s men at the start of the so called ‘Peasant’s Revolt.’

After taking London, with the connivance of its citizens, the rebels captured the Tower of London (by then Sir Alan de Boxhull had died) and executed member’s of King Richard II’s Council, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. They also sacked and burnt down Savoy House, John of Gaunt’s London residence.

At a meeting with King Richard on Smithfields, the rebels were promised that their demands that serfdom would be abolished, together with feudal service and restrictions on buying and selling removed, would be met. At a later meeting Tyler was killed by the Lord Mayor of London when he approached too close to the king. The young Richard saved the day by proclaiming himself the rebels’ new leader and confirming the earlier agreements with the rebels. He lied. Once dispersed, the rebels were hunted down and the leaders hanged. John Ball was taken and at St Albans suffered the penalty for treason; hanged, drawn and quartered.

>Geffrey đe Wulf).