I was born a rogue. I fell in young with a passel of outlaws, and we dwelt in forest and glen and oft-times upon the highway or the king’s taverns. ’Twas in the time when the white Alban martyr blossomed blood for Lancaster that first we came to the Three Bells. Having grown to manhood in Alban-town, I knew the country thereabouts more than passing well. Our erstwhile leader (or so he fancied himself) had given us shriving of our sins upon the Fens and told us with his guts puffed out, “Boys, ’tis time we had our share of London town and her merchants, taxes, and wealthy lasses.” This played well good with all the boys and up we jumped right then and there to make passage south to Hertfordshire.
Now you must gather that then, at that hour, our good king Henry was faring less than middling poor. He was a soft one, our king was, and wrong in the head. From child to man, he governed the realm not upon his own more than a handful of years. This suited us fine, our merry band, for while treason was being cast about at the royal court as though a new fashion and heads parted from necks faster than apples from their branches, we lot could do as we liked upon the roads. For who could care that a farmer’s hay rick was stolen or a merchant’s purse nicked at point of crossbow quarrel when noble brows were pressed upon the block and sour sweat of fear mingled well with curdling blood? So Henry’s madness was our blessing and our cloak, which we wore all too well.
Yet I go in haste. I have yet to number the band of murderous jackanapes with which I traveled. There were thirteen of us, as close to twelve apostles and the traitor Judas, who roamed the wood in those days. We carried knotted clubs for bashing, bows for catching game, and knives for playing cross the visages of travelers. ’Tis wondrous fast the speed a man may match when tip of knife touch cheek or bollock. You may cross yourself and cry out, but do not say I did not warn thee: I was born a rogue. And of me fellow rogues there were Long Jack Piper (who no man could best at the pipe or fiddle), Roger Lackhand (what once was a knight and now no longer), Curtis Strongbow, and the right cunning Roger Wormwood what was our sometime leader. Afore ye ask, we called him naught but Wormwood for his game had been poisoning back before he was driven from the streets of London. You see, he was a physik in his time, but one what poisoned patients for the color of their coin.
After Henry recovered and Warwick turned on the old fellow, there was a great row at Saint Alban’s. ’Twas the place for picking off knights and messenger-folk carrying purses heavy with silver. We lived high the hog, did we, at the Three Bells. Each job would see us convene there when it were complete and we would spend our earnings drowning in ale and soft women. Lackhand sang songs of our battles ‘till the whores would pour beer on his head just for a moment of silence. Curtis would often dance a jig, making pretense as though he were the afflicted merchant and we would guffaw ourselves into a stupor at his antics. “’Twas precise how he ran!” Wormwood might chuckle. “Nay, nay, with more fear in his step,” Lackhand replied.
My own fair sister lived in the town, not but a few blocks from the Bells. Yet I never thought to visit her and her mawkish husband. She married a goldsmith when she was but a lass and nevermore did I see her again. While mother and father lived we rare-times would meet upon a Christmas or a Candlemass that I might be home to share some of my ill-gotten wealth. Always a sermon would result from the pious Master Whitman and his wife, my former sister. Once I was made to endure the summoning of a priest so as to exorcize the demons my brother of the law was certain must reside in me to “make me behave so.” I damned them both for fools and told my mother to crawl into an early grave for spawning her. There’s no surprise, then, that I was not eager to see her anew.
It was upon a dark evening when our work was just finishing when the sarjent and his men discovered us. We had dug in haste to conceal our quarry—a knight riding with dispatches out of Lincoln, methinks, but I remember it only poorly. He would not yield the few silvers in his purse at the point of bow and knife, but he had no horse to ride away on. What had become of it I never knew, save it made him short work for us. So into the ground he went. I was cleaning my blade upon the ragged tails of my blouse and Wormwood was hauling the grave earth. Lackhand sat beneath a tree and Curtis played lookout. I remember the mists crawling over his slender frame that eve. He let out a whistling ca-caw, which was a trouble sign. At once I played my dagger into my hand, ready to fight and die. Lackhand sprang to his feet. From the shadowy fogs came there a sarjent and five men, all dressed in plate-and-mail. “Who are you?” grumbled the sarjent in a voice gone hoarse from shouting. I saw mud upon his boots and the fringes of his fine tabard. There were only two parties in the country then, and this near to London it was safe enough to guess who they were.
“We serve the king,” Lackhand boomed. I would have said the same, had he not been as quick to do it.
The sarjent leered. “The king? Is that it? You heard them, boys. They serve the king.” Evidently the man was in the party of Warwick and his rebels, for no sooner had Lackhand realized his mistake than was a blade introduced to the region of his belly. He lowed like a stuck heifer and dropped to his knees. I was out before any more could happen. I trusted Curtis and Wormwood to do the same. Ever was our plan a simple one: split up and convene at the Bells. Lackhand might be dead, but there was nothing I could do for him if he was. And if alive? Well, better I remained quick as well, to help him should the opportunity arise. But when I reached the Bells, I saw more of Warwick’s soldiers lined up at its door. By God, thought I, they’ll take London this night! They didn’t, of course: only melted into the countryside a few hours later. But I was spooked and my back was up. I had nowhere safe to turn, and had just seen Lackhand skewered straight through like a pig for roasting. To whence could I run? My sister and Whitman.
Their house was a fine one, with a workshop and hall, grain stores and servant’s quarters, a stone kitchen and a garden of quinces and well-tended lemon trees. They thought they were lords, I suppose, or at least as good as ‘em. Of course the windows were darkened and the fires long since put out when I arrived. I made no knocking and no fuss but rather jumped over their garden wall and hid myself in the dark of the apprentice’s workshop. Had I known my sleeping quarters were shared with another lout, I would have up and gone to the main hall. For I was not afeard of being discovered by my sister—she would never turn me over to the law to swing, pious hypocrite that she be—but when I woke in the morning it was to the thund’rous roar of blood in me ears. You see, the ‘prentice (Harriman, by name) found me snoring by his fire and proceeded to beat me about the skull with tools more proper used for bending and hammering upon gold and steel.
My sister and her husband came at the hue and cry to find their dim-witted ‘prentice Harriman thrashing me while I rolled about upon the rush mat like a beaten dog. “Harriman, Harriman, get off him! It’s my brother, Harriman! It’s my brother!” This was my sister shouting, of course, the venerable Mistress Whitman. She had grown since her youth, her belly puffing out big where the children kicked from within, her breasts sagging where they’d sucked. Oh my sister, thought I upon seeing her, blood trickling from my brow. What has that Whitman done to you?
Master Whitman was behind her, he in his too-short tunic and skin-tight breeches with the hint of his cock lying beneath. I wanted to grab the tongs from Harriman and rip Edward Whitman’s bollocks off, but instead I put on me best and most pitiful face and moaned, covering my head. “Ohhhh, I think they’ve done me,” I wallowed, rolling to and fro. Certain was I to spread the blood of my brow upon the mat. Let them see what’s been done to poor old me, the family rogue. “By God, this is how I die.”
“Alright, enough,” Edward Whitman said. Harriman drew off. “Why are you here, Harry? We don’t want you.”
“Don’t want me?” moaned I. “I never meant for you to find me, Edward, believe me. I was only here for the night. For the night!” And that much was true; if Warwick’s scouts were gone, I would be as well. “Have some Christian charity!”
“Oh, let him alone, Edward.” Thus did my sister call off her husband and give me leave to stay. But Edward frothed and boiled, accusing her of usurping his household, of making it into a haven for the infirm and evil. Evil was, as I supposed, myself. Yet who could be infirm? “You begrudge even poor Sir Dartmore?”
Edward slapped his head in huge dismay and ground the tips of his fingers into his temples. He stomped and stalked and puffed his cheeks with great anger. “Christ on High, woman, we are nursing, in our home, a bosom enemy to our good and rightful king! I trust you to be more discreet about it than that!” But sweet Olivia, bless her evil little heart, pointed to me and insisted that I be allowed to stay. After all, I had been badly mauled by their prentice. Imagine, if you may, my surprise upon being led into the hall only to be greeted by a visage of death. My breath was held captive, drawn out as though by bellows. For there, lying senseless upon the great trestle table, as none other than the knight me and the Thirteen Apostles of the Road had laid out the evening last and marked for the grave. His face was drawn and gaunt, his stature that of a man in his final hour. The terminal wound, one I had helped deliver, crusted his mail with blood.
The weakness in my legs at seeing his face I disguised as a religious fit. When I collapsed I had presence of mind enough to burble a short prayer of the kind most folk say when they see something awful. This put Edward at unease, I think, for he had not taken me as the kind of man to pray. Capitalizing on this, I grabbed at the hem of his ridiculously fashionable tunic. “Good Jesu Christos, look at this poor fellow! Had I known you were tending to one in such need…!”
“Stop yer drivel, Harry. Yer in at last, and enough of trying to make your way any further in my good graces. Let me assure you—I have none.” No sympathy to be had at that teat. Time to try another. Forgetting, for a moment, my own bloodied features, I bowed my head to my sister.
“Olivia, is there aught I can do to make my stay less trouble? Work you need done anyhow?” I did my best to look as pathetic as I may. “Trouble not the servants, for whether it be sweeping, or—“ But she stopped me there and took me to break my fast, for which I am truly grateful. I had no desire to toil away chopping firewood or whatever it is they have their serving lads run about doing. Drawing water from the well, I suppose. I’ve spent enough time with the charcoal-burners in the wood to know that I’ll have no part of a servile life. I was ne’er born to be a servant, after all.
My sister’s mania for reform had saved me. Yet, I burned to leave, to find out who amongst the Thirteen had survived the ambush laid for us. So after my hasty bread and sops (with a slice of onion, bless her heart) I made for the way out. There, Edward barred my way. “Under no circumstances will you leave this house while that man,” his gesture towards the fallen knight was clear, “is alive. You’ll endanger us all.” No argument could sway him. The longer and harder I fought, the higher stoked the fires of his rage, until I thought he must pummel me or thrust me into the forge to incinerate. Seeing this, I left off and went to sulk in the garden. The ‘prentice Harriman watched me like a hawk and promised he’d give up the shout as soon as I slipped the noose.
Having no desire to find myself arrested in my path and dragged to some manor to await trial (for Edward would surely report me as an outlaw), I bided my time. In fact, I now recall that the wounded Sir Dartmore was indeed on his way from Lincoln, for it was that road we found him—the northward route from London. I fretted about this knight out of Lincoln for what seemed hours. If he recognized me, I was as good as hanged by the neck until dead, and I knew I would never see Saint Peter at the far end of a gallows-dance. While my sister tended the very reaper with cold compress and medicine I but wished I were clever as Roger Wormwood to concoct an unction which would plunge the bastard born knight into the grave. How had he survived? It wasn’t till after Edward mumbled something about “damn soldiers” I realized the truth—Warwick’s men must have deposited the fool here before they left, having found him in the shallow pit we lads of the road meant to be his final resting place. And a fine resting place it would have been, too, alive or no. No man may breathe with four feet of dirt resting heavy upon the nose. Earthlings all, we be, and doomed to return to’t, live or dead.
My chance came when Olivia was called away to pay a merchant for a shipment of white lead delivered in the yard. Edward and the ‘prentice Harriman were both hard at work on some gold trinket or other, crafting jewels for the very lords who ravaged our England and lived off our backs, and I was left unwatched. Oh, not to escape, that was clear, for as soon as my absence was discovered the time of the merry highwaymen in Saint Alban’s would come to a terrifically awful end. No, no, ’twas rather time to creep and slip across the hall to the slumbering Sir Dartmore and plant a dagger firm in his throat. That would do him, and end the chance he might recognize me from the robbery. So soft I went, and drew my knife for sawing. What? Are you surprised, then, at the lengths I would go to keep my neck? Why should I be different from the lords and ladies ye love so? I will do what I must do to survive. I was made no different than Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.
You’ll be relieved then, that as I approached with quiet steps the dying Dartmore opened his eyes. “You’re the husband,” he mumbled through fat lips numb with pain and shock. For a moment I paused. My legs did tense from tip to toe, ready to spring with all speed and stifle a scream. Yet, he did not cry out. “The one called Edward.” The bowstring tension of my form relaxed. He did not know me.
“Aye, sir,” I said. My knife found its way back into my belt. What was the purpose, now, of killing the fool? I would gain nothing and stood to lose much if the wound were discovered. Let things take their course. The Wheel was turning, perhaps now in my favor. “And you Sir Dartmore, the brave knight out of Lincoln.”
“Lincoln, Lincoln,” he mumbled, “how did you know Lincoln? Is my errand revealed then? It must be, it must.”
“Aye,” said I again. Let the fool spill his guts to me, and the better for it. Secret errands oft have profit attached.
He touched his cheeks with finger pads, as though surprised they were still attached to face and form. “Then the Lord Warwick is lost. All is exposed.” Oho, thought I, what’s this? An errand dire, the failure of which could endanger a rebellion whole? Not oft is it that a chance such as this falls God-sent into the laps of clever rogues such as I.
“Exposed, sir? No, say not exposed. For I have sympathies with the Lord Warwick, though my wife may not. I will keep your secret and take it to my grave, if I needs must. Only…” Here I paused to let him think. Only, only, only what? “Only, tell me plain. That I may know, forsooth, what I conceal. I’d hate to think I’d nurtured a turn-coat beneath this very roof.”
He was aghast. “Turn-coat, friend? Say not so! I have gone south fast as hoof and foot may carry! My horse was slain, my message nearly lost! My God, sir, if you be in the camp of my good lord, perhaps the mission is not yet run. Will you bear the message for me? Tell the Lord Warwick where his treasure lie?”
Where his treasure lie! By the Lord on High, this was rich! Hardly could I suppress a smile, the work to keep my face from bursting light fair strained me sore. But I put on a somber scowl and shook my ragged locks. “Oh, fair sir,” said I in a voice all of honey sweet, “I will carry upon these slender shoulders whatever words ye give me, and straight to Warwick too, else I am a knave.” He leaned in and let drip from groaning lips the resting place of such a treasure in silver that, were I to take but a small sack and hie out to the wood where it lay buried, I would be fat and fed for all my days.
Now, I knew the countryside fair crawled with spies for the rebel force, and that perhaps my face had come to be joined with this dying knight, Sir Dartmore. Care was required, and speed, for as soon as I bolted my sister’s house, the word would spread that I were free and prowling the Alban squares. My one destination, my shining goal, was none other than the Three Oaks where I might lie up in hiding, pull a handle of ale, and find bedding with one or two of the less lice-ridden whores… but only after, I reminded myself, I found the treasury of the rebel Warwick. Still, I couldn’t go half-way to Lincoln on empty stomach or sagging rucksack. I would need my boon companions who were to meet at Alban inn. Thus, that way I stole.
Wormwood was the first that I espied, for light of candle and of lamp glints across his broad and hairless brow and his eyes, all sunken in the waxen mask of his face, stare with black intensity. I sat by his side speedily as I might, and mutter my greetings. “Where ye been, Harry boy?” Wormwood wondered in low and angry tones. “Long Jack hangs as rotting meat above the road. Have ye any part in that?” Long Jack gone! By God, the piper fair with his curly hair of beaten gold, all twisted red and starved of breath with hempen rope for pendant. I gulped air and wiped my eyes.
“Piper and Lackhand,” I said. “Any else in death’s kingdom?”
Wormwood growled. “None else, Harry, though we thought ye’d joined ‘im. What kept ye abroad in the high street?”
I rolled my eyes and told him the tale of my sister. I wondered at leaving out the bit of the ambushed knight, his dying request to tell the rebel Warwick of the treasure, and my subsequent escape. Not out of any interest in actually assisting the Yorkist cause, mind, but merely as the thought crossed me that I might uncover the treasure alone and unaided. Midway through recounting, there came into the commons of the inn a man who bore an uncanny resemblance (or so I thought) to one of the soldiers we’d seen in the misty eve. Fearing for my life more than my share in the treasure, I spilled the story whole to Wormwood. As I spake his eyes grew wider and wider, until at last his face was all open and astonished.
“I’ll rouse the lads,” he said at once. Curtis the Strongbow had returned to the inn, and Lackhand turned out to be wounded but not yet dead. So we four men would comprise the band. I wondered at what a fourth of such a vast treasure might yield. A lordship over the Channel in France, or a lifetime’s drinkings of wine and womanly virtue. Lackhand looked well for his wound, limping only a little when his belly tightened and the linen wrappings seeped with blood.
The trip to Lincoln’s shadow was a short one. We evaded burning rick and farm, skirted by patrols wearing the roses of mad King Henry and hid behind hedgerows when Warwick’s scouts thundered past. There was no more feel of merry comrad’ry as there had been in days before. Each night we ate cold hen and hard bread, fearing to start a fire lest we be spotted by prying eyes. Each noontide or thereabouts we found a hulled out farm where we might retrieve more provisions, filling our skins from broken butts of ale and spoons from still-warm bowls of peas porridge. The scape of land betwixt Lincoln wall and Westminster was a bloody field of unkind battle. Each farm was brought to account. Those who stood for lords loyal to the king were raided by York; those who served the Yorkists, plundered by Lancaster.
Yet as each day went on and grew longer, I noticed our friend the Lackhand moved with less alacrity and grace. Rising or sitting upon the earth, he groaned and clutched his wounded side. Brown were the linen wrappings, fair soaked and dried with blood, and sweat stood upon his brow. By God, I thought, if his halting steps do turn us over to foemen, I’ll slit his throat myself!
We came to the place Sir Dartmore described in his dying delirium sometime before dawn. It was a vale of pine and gorse. In the gray morning it seemed an Eden, still untouched by war or strife. No parties of burning pillagers looking for easy forage had come this close to Lincoln. Betwixt the sheriff and the bishop, the place lay firmly in the camp of Warwick and York. We crept on softest feet through dawn and mists and passed the outlying farms of the little township. There were maidens newly wakened with white caps and long dresses out to milk the cows in the pre-dawn gloom. I watched ‘em from afar and felt the familiar stirring in my prick, but now was not the time to push a lass to the earth and hear her laugh. Nay, for there also were young men about the task of chopping wood and drawing water, girls of tender age just up and about to take the swine upon their walks, and lads awake for mucking out the stalls whilst pigs were gone. So we had to fare creep with care, lest we be uncovered.
Now, the spot was a spreading maple by a brook which runs some miles west of the city, and without trouble we reached it. There were no patrols nor eyes this time of morn upon the roads, save for a large party off by the highway where fires burned merrily. Warwick’s men, thought I, and the other rebels sure encamped. We kept our backs to that distant beacon and ensured no soul could lay eye upon us. There were a whole small town and hamlet betwixt us and the road, and beside the place lay in a deep fall of the earth. Without some devil’s art no man could espy us from the gate of Lincoln, this I was certain.
But the rebel men had clear been here in the past. Wherefore, we wondered aloud, and it was I who said perhaps they knew the treasury had been buried here for safe keeping but they had no notion where. For the earth was churned to mud by heavy hob-nail boots and there were holes dug here and there as though an incontinent trenchman were shitting his breeches each tenth step of the way. “Did yer knight say from whence the treasure was taken? Why he was bearing a message south and not north? Why the damn thing was concealed within a far-ranging piss of the Lincoln wall?” Wormwood began to grow restless, as he always did. He saw traps in every shadow and no wonder, for he among us had been bandit longest and fled the law at every turn.
“Twas gathered from Warwick’s house in London,” said I, “and as for going south, the army was on the move. The treasure was concealed so as not to let it fall into some lesser rebel’s hands, less the lordling’s prick harden and he turn the whole lot over to Henry for a pardon. Lincoln is a strong seat of Warwick’s power, and our knight Sir Dartmore was certain the lord Neville’d return with time.” This all Dartmore told me, or I concocted myself upon the road. I no longer recall which was truth and which my own confabulation.
It was enough to satisfy the murderous physician. He gave a sharp nod and directed me to find the place for only I knew where it lay. This is where the trouble began. Lackhand was doubled up in pain, his wound giving rise to a sweet stink. Curtis perched upon a stone and hummed a tuneless ditty. I hunted along the ground, looking for precise the spot whereof Dartmore spoke. At last I hit upon it, for it was marked by a small cut in the base of the maple tree. “Here,” said I, “Here we dig.” So at once the shovels were unpacked. Lackhand was left to watch the road, burping and groaning as he went to find a spot in the brush from which to stand our lookout.
Wormwood’s mind had already begun to turn, and Curtis must have gone not long after. We struck upon the first chest with a clatter and a clank and all at once we went quiet; till then we’d been telling ripping tales of elder days when we first roamed upon the Fens, laying abbots and townsfolk way and taking from them shining silver. But now we were all hushed anticipation. No lock adorned the dirt-logged trunk, but it was clear a nobleman’s belongings for it were plated all about with gold and topaz. “Ope the box,” Wormwood hissed.
Strongbow knelt and pried the lid, and lo there spilled out into the dewey grass a pile of silver plate and candlesticks. This fortune was but the beginning of the haul. Our eyes grew wide. I remember looking to Curtis to share a glance Lackhand’s way. What good had he been upon this trip? Damn, but he was slow and ungainly. He’d like as not die before we e’re returned to London. But when I looked at Wormwood he looked not back; his eyes were all turned below, to the treasure spread upon the earth. His sunken eyes glittered horrible cold and his balding brow was all asheen. God, if ever I have seen the look of purest avarice, it was in that moment!
A second trunk, and then a third. A fourth and fifth to follow. “We need Lackhand to carry this weight,” I muttered. Without a barrow we would not be able to move it all, three men. Curtis gave a sigh and a nod, but Wormwood, without once even giving glance to the Strongbow nor I, breathed, “There are farms aplenty here. Go with Lackhand and find a cart or barrow.” He glanced at me. “Go!”
Hesitant I was to take my leave, lest Curtis and Roger Wormwood somehow take the treasure for themselves. Never before in all our lives had such riches been before our fingers. We were to be transformed from lesser men into noble princes by the act of a morning! But how much greater would we each be if there were no other long-time friends for us to split the treasure with? How much more grand, how much more noble, if all that glimm’ring hoard be mine and mine alone? But such thoughts were ever the bane of bandits, ’twas merely that the stakes were never quite so high.
So off I went to gather up a means of transport. Lackhand was laying on the grass along the path. He gave me our old salute as I passed, and I scowled at his prostrate form. What a lookout he turned out! This hardened my heart against him, methinks, so that what came later was less a shock. An outlaw without a good watchman is an outlaw hanged, you see, and thus to fall at less than the mark when giving watch… that is the most radical and basest of sins.
I found a barrow and hauled it back, pausing only for a moment’s time to avoid the farmer from which it came. When I was returned, Curtis and Wormwood began at once to load the silver. “Go and dispatch Lackhand,” Wormwood said. “His time is come, our will be done, on earth as it is in heav’n.” He gave a lopside grin and I felt a stone within my throat.
I whistled to the crippled knight. He turned from his bed of grass and bracken to look up upon my face. “You know what comes next,” whispered I to him. I knelt at his side.
“Just leave me be,” he spake with husky voice. “I ask you nothing more. No treasure, no aid, not even a morsel left for eating. Just leave me here. I’ll not follow.” Had he known we would turn upon him since we left the circuit of London? He seemed, if left, certain to die. But greater certainties have been denied by Providence. Leaving him behind us, even to die, might leave him also to warn the forces of our lord Warwick that we’d absconded with a great treasure that was by rights his own. No, the risk was too great.
I took my cloak and made a wad. This I placed upon his face. He tried his valiant best to throw me off, kicked and flailed his arms, but it was not enough. My knife found flesh soft and pliant, and slipped with ease through throat and pipe. His blood bubbled from the wound, his whistling breath came ragged through the hole. Then, once more, he was still.
I returned. “The duty’s done and all discharged,” I said. Wormwood nodded and off we went.
Lackhand’s cloak we now threw over the treasure. Mine own we used to cushion the plate and candles so they neither jangled nor clanked upon the road. For ourselves, we made pretense that we were three brothers, farmers all, who were returning after long pilgrimage to our homes. Thus we took to the roads and trusted our cunning and our tale to keep us safe. We wended our way south and kept head down when patrols came thundering by upon the road. The whole countryside was in a continuous uproar when we reached Cambridge town. We huddled beneath a grain barn owned by the commune while we waited out a great rainstorm that swept down on the land from the North Sea.
Rain ran amongst the thatching and dripped upon my brow. Wormwood fingered his knife which rode high upon his belt. How long, I wondered, before we fell to? Curtis would stand by me, I was certain, for though Wormwood had a certain force to his speech and a kind of low and evil suasion to his voice, he was never well-liked by the band. There was too much of the rat in him, and too much of the wolf. He never did belong in the company of other men. The rest of us had come to our outlawry by mischance, misdeed, or, in my own case, the ease of a life away from the torturous work of the field and lane-house. We were men without skill, save that of plying our one good trade. Wormwood was not like us. He had been a wealthy man, upon a time, in the ranks of the Company of Grocers as a bonded apothecary and medicus of the capitol. He was a man of means.
This, he had thrown away. Ministering poisons instead of med’cines, murdering those poor souls he’d sworn to protect. Verily, we had all done a bit of murder here or there… but he alone had been secured a place amongst, perhaps not the noblest of the land, at least the wealthier crew. I came from tradesmen who never brushed shoulders with the local lords and sheriffs. Curtis was the son of a huntsman from Devonshire who was himself half-outlaw and lived in the wild wood with his mother. We were men of a kind. Wormwood, that creeping crawling creature, was something else entirely. We’d only ever seen the insides of gaols; Wormwood had been entertained in houses just as fine as the Earl of Warwick’s. For him this was not a theft but a return to position. All this I thought upon the road.
Roger Wormwood carried always upon his person a little satchel filled with crystal vials. These, he stocked with death’s swift messengers. In Cambridge we waited for rumor of the stolen treasury (which had then begun to spread throughout England like a wildfire caught in dry thatch) to pass into memory. It would not do well for three men to of a sudden appear laden with silver and gold on the heels of such turmoils for no doubt at once we’d be suspected and rightly of being the thieving parties. So of a night in Cambridge I came to Curtis and laid bare my plan: I would, like the creeping shadow, steal into Wormwood’s pack and procure a single draught of some deadly distillate. This we would feed him in his mutton or his wine. When well dispatched our physician was, we would split the treasure and flee for France where we could yet be lords. All this Curtis took in stride, as though he’d thunk the selfsame thoughts without my prodding. This set my soul at once to rest: there’s nothing for a thief and murderer such as knowing you’ve a fellow friend in the doing.
But on the night I was to steal his fatal drug, I fell into a such a stupor of ale that I could neither recall my position nor my name. I spoke of treasures fine and told tales of caverns of Arab gold that were hid but a hair’s breadth beneath the earth of Lincolnshire. All of Cambridge round must have come to heard my tales, for the barman kept me afloat while taking none of my coin—so much did I increase his custom. The drunker I became, the louder I spake, and all the time Curtis whiled away the lonely watches waiting for me to appear with death’s draught. He came to seek me near the dawn and, finding me in such state as I’ve already told, he dealt me a cuff and dragged me back to our lodging.
“Fool’s work well begun is half way gone to being hung,” he reminded me. We outlaws have a great stock of such aphorisms with which to beggar and cheat the common man. Just as kings keep their secrets, so, too, do we. I begged his apologies and swore I’d not let it happen again. We were both afeard of Wormwood’s wrath when he discovered I’d been blabbing to the townsfolk of our prize, even if it were well-disguised in faerie story. More, I feared our friend and one-time leader was growing impatient with us altogether and meant to remove us to the shroe of some distant undiscovered country; the banks of the River Styx, with nary an obol to pay our fare.
Thus, that night Curtis made certain I did not speak a word to any man, but rather stole into our Roger’s room and plucked the poison from his bag. Come morning we fed the drug to Wormwood and watched as his face twisted over his mulled wine. He fell gurgling, knowing not what had murdered him, and died in the mud. Thus pass all men from this world.
Our goal then was not to tarry, but to move with all speed to Dover. There we’d catch ship to Calais and become lost amidst the French. I fancied the south, while Curtis spoke often of Bretagne. Let him go to the French Cornwall and live as a king there; I would be a mere baron on the southern sea the Romans called theirs. Our course was set.
But on the road from Cambridge there waited no fewer than fifteen of King Henry’s men, and they stopped us with our barrow. “Whither do you go?” asked their leader, all dressed in the Tudor rose.
“Devonshire,” said I.
The sarjent of the king’s service sneered at me. “You are not the man who told fabulous tales of gold in Lincoln’s hills? Not, perhaps, the very thief who took the treasury of Warwick and disposed of your companion to flee south?”
I balked. Curtis said naught. We were caught. The sarjent chuckled at our discomfort. “Never fear, my lads, for you’ve done your good king Henry a favor. We’ll take that treasure—and you’ll be on your way.”
What could we two men of the road do but yield? My strength did drain away as we unveiled our haul. For a moment I thought Curtis fool enough to stand up to this foraging party, but he was wise enough to bow down. Well, thought I, this has all come to naught. The murder, the stealth, the lies… here we end upon the highway as we began, with nothing left but the clothes upon our backs. The king’s men took even the barrow. They wheeled it off laughing, glad to carry such triumph back to London. Meanwhile, Curtis and I stood dumbfounded upon the high road.
We got to walking and after a moment’s time, Curtis said, “I kept some of that treasure, you know.”
Clever bastard! A few silver goblets, a fine dagger, a handful of coin. He’d squirreled it away. When? To get it out of the accounting of shares back when we first dug the damn thing up, most like. I was surprised and yet horrified to see that Curtis had been cleverer than I. That night we counted the remains of our haul by firelight. Not enough to make lords of us, but more than plenty to buy a little house in some upland place, away from the tax assessor and the machinations of the court. We toasted that eve with rancid sour ale. “To the new barons!” said Curtis. “To the lords of the realm,” said I. After all, it were the lords what gave us this windfall when it came to it—squeeze it from us, so to us should it rightful return.
Perhaps ye’ll think it sad to say that in the morn Curtis was stiff as an old log. I gathered up what was left of our great haul. Not much, not pitiful much. A farm would it trade for, and little more. I needed no farm. Wine, then, and women, and followers a-plenty to ply the road. If I could not be a nobleman of the countryside, why I would do just as well upon the highway. I tapped out the last black medicine of Wormwood’s vial lest I drink of it by accident. Then I was off. After all, I was born a rogue.