1501: London, England
Can a man turn his back on all hope when called to the fight?
Reacting from an instinct honed over a lifetime, Thomas Berrington falls foul of a cartel of thieves on the first day of his return to England. When the bonemen come to punish Thomas he is forced to kill one of their number. He dismisses the danger when he leaves London in the company of Arthur, Prince of Wales, only to discover his dismissal was a mistake that might get both himself and others killed.
Thomas has been sent to England by Queen Isabel of Spain to watch over her daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who is to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII. Thomas intends the duty to be short-lived before he returns to his beloved Granada. But he hasn’t reckoned with the bonemen, or the calls from the family and friends he abandoned forty-seven years before. When Thomas’s own family arrive in Ludlow he has to protect both them and the Prince. As danger mounts Thomas is no longer sure he is the man he used to be, but has no option but to fight. As he has always done.
Politics and crime collide in Tudor England in a brand new series of adventures for Thomas Berrington and Jorge Olmos.
Thomas Berrington had managed to avoid much in the way of trouble for several years, so it came as a surprise at how easily it found him on his return to England. Not that it was his fight when it came. Such had never concerned him in the past, but the last few years had changed his mind on the matter. He had seen far too much death and bloodshed to want to welcome more.
When the trouble came the circumstances were mundane. Thomas needed a haircut and a shave; nothing more.
He had arrived in an England three days before, grateful that the late September weather was kinder than he feared. The waters between northern France and southern England had seemed rough enough, but the crew only laughed when he commented on it. They told him to come try it in October or November.
A good south-westerly had brought the small crayer from Fécamp to Southampton in only two days. Once the crayer was safely tied up Thomas stood on the narrow gangplank and stared at the cobbled dock, a strange reluctance filling him. One step and he would stand on England for the first time in forty-seven years. He feared that once the step was taken he might never to return to where he had come from. This was meant to be an assignment of limited duration, but so had been his leaving of England at the age of thirteen.“Move on, sir,” said a voice from behind. “Unless you’ve changed your mind, but it’ll be the same price to take you back as it was to bring you.”
Thomas took the step. The world continued to turn. The sky didn’t fall. Though after the crossing the cobbles beneath his feet did seem to be moving.
He found a stables that would sell him a horse and paid the price asked without haggling, which confused its seller no end. The ostler told Thomas the horse’s name was Ferrant, but he could change it it if he wished. He saw no reason to. It was a placid beast, which pleased him, and answered to his touch.
Thomas’s mind stilled as he rode from the bustle of the port town of Southampton. Three days later it grew anxious again when he saw the smoke-stain of London ahead. He reached into his jacket for a scrap of paper and read the two words he he had written in far off Spain: Bell Savage. It was the name of an inn he would find if he followed the road into London from the west. He had instilled the same name into his family two months earlier before leaving them to journey north. He could think of no other means of them finding him other than to seek the same lodgings and ask his whereabouts. The name of the inn was provided by an English nobleman come to witness the grandeur that was Granada and the palace of Alhambra.
As he approached the walls of London Thomas still had no idea if the man had intended to make a fool of him or not. So it came as a surprise to discover the Bell Savage was a large establishment consisting of thirty well-appointed rooms, together with stabling for sixty horses. It sat near the Fleet on a wide thoroughfare named after the river, not a hundred paces from Ludgate, which offered entrance through the city walls. Thomas handed Ferrant over to a young stable-hand and took his saddle-bags inside, together with a leather satchel almost black with age which contained some of the tools of his trade. Thomas was a physician. A surgeon trained in the best infirmaries of Moorish Spain. When it still existed; which it had not done for over nine years.
Inside the goodwife showed him to a room and handed him a heavy iron key for the lock. Thomas dropped his saddlebags on the bed and set the leather satchel beside them.
“Are you hungry, sir?” asked the goodwife. “I can bring food to your room, or there is a fine table set downstairs. Four pence either way.”
Once more Thomas had no idea if the cost was reasonable or not, but he had no hunger in any case. Not yet.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Ask away, but I don’t have long. My customers complain if I’m away too long.”
“Then two things. First, do you know if the King is in London? Second, do you know where I can get a haircut?”
The woman laughed. “Both easy questions to answer, sir. Yes, the King is in town. And there is a barber’s shop less than two hundred paces along this road.”
Which is where Thomas found the trouble.
When he reached the shop it was busy and he had to wait. As he did so he had more questions which he directed at the man standing beside him, who was waiting his own turn. There were two barbers working, one an older man with very little in the way of hair on his own head, the second a young woman with luxuriant black tresses and a pretty face.
“Tell me, sir, for I am newly returned to England after some time away, what is the fashion these days? Do men wear beards? Do you know how long the King wears his hair?”
Thomas nodded. “King Henry, I believe.”
“You are right in that, sir.” The man looked Thomas up and down. What he saw was a man taller than most, rising to a good six feet. Strangely dressed, with a long blue scarf of some kind wrapped around his neck and shoulders. A man whose hair was too long and his beard the same. “Can you not look around to judge the fashion for beards? Few gentlemen sport them these days. As for the King’s hair, I do not believe I have ever seen him.”
When his turn came Thomas asked the young woman, who had called him to a chair, about the King.
“He wears it to his chin,” she said. “Though it is thinning these days.”
“And clean shaven?”
“Of course.” She examined Thomas. “Will you need a shave too?” She ran her fingers through his hair but made no comment on its quantity or quality. Thomas had stripped off and washed his entire body, including his hair and beard, the night before in a river he believed was the Thames. Watching the other clients it appeared cleanliness was not something required by either of the barbers.
The woman picked up her scissors, the two blades hinged with a curved steel hoop which required some strength to use.
“How much shorter do you want it?”
“I want it as short as the King wears his.”
“A good four inches, then.”
She began to work, starting with the shave before moving on to his hair. She cut the bulk of its length off quickly, then returned to apply some measure of style to what was left. There was no mirror, so Thomas had no idea how good a job she was doing. She had used the same scissors to remove most of his beard before scraping the rest off with a sharp blade. She was almost done when she gave a gasp. Her hand jerked and cut Thomas’s cheek.
“I am sorry, sir.”
Thomas glanced at the door to see what had bothered her. Three men had entered the shop with a swagger, all dressed in similar clothes, with red felt caps on their heads that sported a small pale sliver of something as a badge. Several of those standing to wait their turn found themselves unwilling to wait any longer and eased past the three to leave.
One of the men went to the male barber and pushed him backwards against the wall. A second came to the woman and put a hand on her breast. She made no effort to push him away.
Thomas didn’t know how much trouble there was in this, and he had lost the spirit to respond to such situation some years ago. But the assault on the young woman brought him to his feet. He wiped his face with a linen cloth.
“I wasn’t finished with my shave,” he said to the man. “And the lady would like you to release her.”
The man turned to look at Thomas. “You’re finished now. Leave if you know what’s good for you.”
Later, Thomas would wonder why he acted as he did, but supposed it was instinct. There had been many years when he thought nothing of protecting others. A strange reluctance held him back for a moment, until the man snatched at the girl’s dress and ripped it to reveal her breasts.
Thomas hit the man square on the nose, feeling a satisfying crunch as bone shattered. At one time he would have taken his life without a second thought. Now, life held more value to him; the lives of both the innocent, the vulnerable, and the guilty.
The man raised both hands to his face and gave a great cry.
Another who had waited at the door came at Thomas, a short blade appearing in his hand. Thomas waited then, as the blade struck out, he caught the man’s wrist and twisted hard, forcing him to drop the weapon. Thomas pushed it away with his foot, then hit him even harder than the first man, this time on the side of the head. The man’s knees went and he fell to the stone floor, unconscious. The last of their small group released his hold on the barber and came at Thomas. As he approached, the man with the broken nose stopped wailing and put his arms around Thomas in an attempt to hold him in place. Thomas pushed backwards as hard as he could, smashing the back of the man’s head into the wall. When his arms went slack Thomas twisted to avoid the blade coming at him and kicked out. His heel caught his attacker’s knee and he heard it pop out. It was an easy task to fix it, one Thomas had done on many battlefields, but never without significant agony. The man screamed and hopped away. He dragged himself to the door and disappeared through it.
Which is when the young woman punched Thomas hard on the cheek. When she reached for the shears she had cut his hair withThomas caught her wrist before she could pick them up.
“What do you think you are doing?” she said. “You have killed us all, you fool.”
The male barber came across. “You,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at Thomas, “get out of here and never come back.” He looked at the young woman, then the men on the floor. “Do you think they are dead, daughter?”
“Both alive,” Thomas said, “but they’ll be sore when they wake up.”
The barber ignored him. “We have to get them out of here before they come round. Take his feet.”
“I’ll take the other one,” Thomas said.
The man looked at him. “Why are you still here? Do you want to die?”
“Not particularly.” Thomas knelt and lifted the larger of the two men beneath his arms and dragged him out through the door. By the time he had leaned him against the wall outside the barber and his daughter had brought the other out. The street had been busy when Thomas entered the shop. Now it was almost deserted.
“Where do you want them?” he asked.
“We should toss them both in the river,” said the woman, but her father shook his head.
“Drag them down the alley, then we must come back and lock the doors.” He shook his head. “They’ll be back soon enough, and more of them next time.” He stared hard at Thomas. “This fool has no idea what he has done.”
“We have to leave,” said his daughter. “We can’t stay here now.”
“This is our living,” said the man.
“There is work for cutters of hair and pullers of teeth everywhere. All we need are the tools of our trade. I hear Oxford is better than here, and there are no bonemen.”
The man went inside, leaving his daughter standing beside Thomas. He could see little resemblance between father and daughter but that meant little. Thomas’s son and daughter looking nothing like him.
“Show me this alley,” he said, lifting the larger man, who was starting to show signs of waking.
The woman led Thomas along the road a short distance. A narrow alley ran away between two houses, the roofs so close a man could step from one to the other. They left the unconscious man half-way along then went back for the other. They dropped him beside his companion, his head cracking against the flagstones. The alley stank of discarded food and worse.
“Who are they, and what did they come for?” Thomas asked. “Was it nothing more than trouble?”
“They call themselves the bonemen, and they came for their monthly payment. Same as they have done this last four years. Oxford will be better, I am sure.”
“You must be a stranger to this town if you don’t know who I speak of. Once a month the bonemen visit our shop and all the others in this street. They demand a shilling from each. We are told it is to protect us from villains, but they are the villains.”
“Does everybody pay?”
“If they value their lives they do. You should get out of town before they make an example of you. The one who escaped will run back to his master to report your resistance.”
“I don’t think he’s capable of running,” Thomas said. “A fast limp at best.”
As they approached the barbershop the man emerged. He carried two small hemp bags and handed one to his daughter. “Come then, let us run from here while we can. It will not be long until they return, and there will be more than three of them.” He glanced at Thomas then turned away, uninterested in his fate.
Thomas watched them walk away towards the west. All around him the busy life of the street began to start up once again. Soon, the unconscious attackers would wake. Thomas wondered if they would be able to describe him. For a moment he considered entering the alley and killing them both. It would take no time at all and put an end to any chance the bonemen would come after him. But Thomas had grown tired of killing. He had turned his back on it years ago. He only hoped it would turn its back on him in return.