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It was a fine day in London for picking pockets. Never mind that a cool pall hung over the town and a light mist struck the cobbled streets. Hanging days were good days, what with poor folk, merchants and shoppers alike hurrying toward the White Tower to watch the dangle. Their hoods were drawn, their heads down. No one would notice me slip amongst them, a dark-cloaked young boy reaching for a heavy coin pouch or two.
The air was smoky from the cookshops along the riverside. I couldn’t help but slow, looking at the way blackish curls from the fires and the mist gave the quay a ghostly look. My gut churned—not from hunger, but from a memory three years past when crowds hustled to see my da hanged.
I don’t remember my real da. He died when I was a babe.
But I do well remember the man my mama made me call da.
I watched guards march him to the gallows. It weren’t here in London town, but some small village, north, I think. His bare feet kicked up mud. He snarled and spit, slogging along the road, jabbing the air with his bound hands.
He cried. And prayed.
I was mayhap all of six summers when they hung him. If I had been a bit taller, I might have see bloodstains on the well-worn wooden platform. A man’s head had rolled off the block the day before. Da trudged up the stairs, and I counted each step on my hands. Mama noticed my fidgeting and laced her fingers through mine. Her small hands were rough and smelled of garlic and onions.
Tears streamed down her face. I didn’t understand. How could she cry for that man? He was a drunk and an arse.
He beat her.
He beat me.
The scent of fish and pitch rising from the London wharves intruded on that memory and I glanced toward the waterfront. The smells were different from that place I had called home. But I was used to them, month after month living, working, and thieving along the river in the shadow of the great tower.
The docks thronged with people. Boats bobbed on the river. Passengers disembarked and boatmen unloaded goods despite the steady drizzle that had begun to fall. I pulled my cloak tighter round me, but a dull ache spread down my leg. I rubbed the burnt flesh there. It had healed, but was still tender. Cool rains made it worse, and dragged me back to that day in the kitchen…
Mama chattered with the girls whilst she chopped leeks for the lord’s midday meal. She blushed at Hawise’s story, or rather how Hawise kneaded the dough into a shape she said looked just like Sir Hugh’s arse, he being one of the knights in the master’s mesnie.
“A dimple right here,” Hawise said, poking the side of the dough.
“Just one?” ginger-haired Matilde had asked, not missing a beat while crushing herbs with her pestle. She smiled at me and winked.
Hawise nodded, cupping her hands round the mounds. “And the rest tight and smooth.”
The girls giggled and I wasn’t sure why the newly-knighted man’s butt raised such a ruckus.
“Allan,” Mama said, “bring more wood for the fire.”
She didn’t want me to hear the gossip, and I hid my disappointment—something I’m quite skilled at. I scooted away, but hung back by the door to listen.
“That one’s going to rip out hearts, Betha,” Hawise said. “Those eyes as green as the hills in spring, and soft golden hair.”
“And a smile that wraps your soul,” Matilde added.
I would never rip out a heart. I swear…
“Why are you standing there?” It was him I had to call Da who spoke, his voice nasty and slurred. He carried a slab of beef in one arm, but grabbed my hair with his free hand and yanked it hard.
I wanted to cry out, but would not. He would take the leather to my backside for it later, but I didn’t care.
“Chores, you lazy cur!” He dragged me into the kitchen. His clothes reeked of raw meat and his breath of ale. “Wife, your boy needs a switch to remind him that idleness invites the devil to lead him into sin.”
Mama was smaller than the ugly brute, but a flash of fear in her eyes turned to anger. “Leave him be.” She was across the room in three steps and dug her nails into his hand. He wobbled, kept hold of me, his fist clamping tighter in my hair. God’s blood, did that hurt.
He shoved me to the floor at Mama’s feet.
“You, talking of sin?” Hawise shouted at him. “Don’t need no devil when he has you.”
No devil—not even this da—would make me sin. I heard stories about Hell and had no wish to end up there.
His splotchy cheeks turned as red as blood. He tossed the meat on the trestle and grabbed the butcher knife, waving the blade at the cauldron. He thrust it toward Mama and the girls. Always threatening with that blade…
“Fire’s not hot enough to cook the master’s beef,” he snarled.
“Allan,” Mama said, brushing the straw from my tunic and helping me up to my feet, “get more wood.”
“It shoulda’ been plenty hot by now if your brat had done his job. How will this be cooked by midday, and who will get the switch then? I’m tired of this boy lazin’ round, causing me trouble.” He speared the beef with his knife.
Mama stirred the leeks into the broth. “It was old Thom who set the fire as he does every morn,” she said, “and you’d have taken note it wasn’t hot enough had you not been…” Mama let her voice trail.
It was the wrong thing to say. The girls all drew in a breath, and I took a step back.
Da snorted down his piggish nose. “Hadn’t what?”
“You know what she means,” Hawise said.
He snarled at her. “Stay out of my business.”
“Don’t blame Allan,” Mama said, “when you and Thom have been into the ale. You can’t hardly stand straight without a grip on the trestle. And where is Thom? Flat on his back in the buttery?”
Matilde nodded. “Heard ‘em both in there.”
He ignored Matilde, and glared at Mama.
“I’ll get the wood,” I told Mama, looking from her to Da.
But it was too late ‘cause he was like an angry bull. He charged Mama, scaring us all, but she didn’t move. Thank the Good Lord the knife was buried to the hilt in the meat on the trestle. He almost stumbled into Mama, which made him redder than the master’s banners that fluttered from the castle keep. He swung the rod holding the kettle above the fire, grabbed the handle—
He was going to throw the pot at Mama!
“Stop!” I shouted. I ran, shoving Mama backwards. The cauldron struck me. Heat ate through my torn hose. I screamed as boiling broth splattered my tunic and spilled down my leg.
“Allan!” Mama cried.
It was scalding, burning, my leg afire. Mama was on her knees beside me, shaking her head, talking without end. I felt dizzy and couldn’t understand what she was saying.
Da’s voice echoed off the stone walls. “Stupid wretch. Got no sense.”
“Get out!” Mama shouted.
Hawise and Matilde cursed and chased him from the kitchen.
Their rage collided with my daydream. The rain fell softly now, cool, but not icy like it had been that first day Mama and I arrived in London. Nearby, a deep voice pealed. A brother was enticing the faithful to Mass at St. Paul’s. Mama and I had sheltered in her eaves to escape the rain. A priest there gave us some food, and Mama asked him for work. “I can cook for you and your brothers. Sweep the abbey. Clean. Please…” she had said.
The priest told me to sit in the nave. He took Mama behind the altar, gave her work… on her back. She whimpered, and he grunted—just like Da did. Like other men who left Mama coin to get us by another day.
I saw the way they stared at her. Lust. I didn’t really understand that look when I was six, but knew it was a reason Mama pleaded with the master’s wife before we’d come to London.
“Please don’t send us away,” Mama had cried. The answer came in harsh-sounding words I didn’t know. Whore. Swive. I know them now…
“It’s not true, my lady,” Mama said, but her pleas went unheard. We were ordered away from the castle, with nothing but a bundle of dried meat and bread given to us by Hawise. I still remember her tears, and Mama’s, as I snuggled close to her in the back of a trader’s cart. Hay fresh as a summer meadow pillowed us, the creaking wheels taking us away from… from… Where? I should have asked Mama, not that it mattered I suppose.
“We shall find a new home,” Mama had repeated each day of that journey.
Gulls swooped noisily over the quay looking for a meal. The fishermen and stallkeepers ignored the brother’s appeal to Mass and the squawking seabirds. They kept to their work, but more than one passerby glanced up and crossed themselves.
Mama and I attended services at St. Paul’s many times, standing in the nave with the poor folks. There might be as many of us there as on the bustling streets beyond the thick oaken door, but the quiet and peace of the place was a wonder.
Sometimes I got a glimpse of the priest at the altar, his voice ringing rich and deep with words I didn’t understand. We remained long after the faithful departed, and Mama went with him until she got ill with an ague and her belly swelled. “It can’t be mine, fool woman,” he had said, and wanted nothing to do with us after that.
Mama was never well again. I saw the priest once to tell him Mama died. He gave me a ha’penny, some bread and cheese. Colors were bursting then, as now, about London. Just more than a year I’ve been without her.
Mama loved gardens and took care I knew every variety of flowers and herbs. I earned my keep yanking weeds from the beds of the fine houses. Earned a smack on the hand from one lady’s servant when I took a rose for Mama. She dried my tears, hugged me, and said girls like flowers, that I should remember that. Now that I’m near nine summers I know why she’d say such a thing. Giving flowers to a pretty girl might get a man a kiss, but I’d sooner sell them.
I miss Mama…
She was a smart one, wise to set me on a path that earned me coin and some food. Fine houses toss out the finest scraps with the offal. ‘Course, I wasn’t the only one who learnt that. A beggar named Jasper tried to shoo me away from the bishop’s palace, but he’d hurt his leg and nearly got caught, so I shared my take with him. He treated me more kindly after that.
There were tricks to getting a meal every day, though it might not mean a full belly. On some days I had nothing but a moldy chunk of bread, or a hunk of meat the butcher could not sell.
Jasper had me wash my face. He pilfered a nice tunic, breeches, and a dark woolen cloak for me. The old codger dressed well himself, and looked the respectable type. He would distract shopkeepers with his tall tales while I slipped our midday meal beneath my cloak. I’m quite good at it, if I do say so myself.
At the fine houses, Jasper taught me to watch the cook leave for the market. I’d sneak in through a kitchen door or open shutters, past a maid setting a fire or others preparing for the household to wake. They’d never miss a couple of eggs or day old bread. I’d snatch whatever I could, and then when my weeding chores were done, I’d knock on the door, point to the garden, and extend my hand for a coin. One house, double my take. A man must eat after all…
Out on the river, the wind blew fierce. The crew of an approaching barge brought down her canvas sails, but not in time to keep the boat from striking the dock hard. As soon as she was tied up, people shoved their way down the ramp.
One boy watched faces fretfully and held back. He looked near my age. A big man leaned toward him. The captain? After a moment, he led the skinny boy off the boat and shooed him away. But he stood there, staring, at the boat, and around the quay. Looking lost. Missing someone.
And then the sky opened and the rain came down sideways. I pulled my hood up, but the boy didn’t budge. The storm soaked him to the skin. But it wasn’t rain glistening on his cheeks. Those were tears.
The captain came back down the ramp. I thought he’d have pity on the boy. In a way, I guess he did. He handed him a blanket and a parcel—food, I reckon. The boy climbed beneath a nearby cart and draped the cover round himself.
“I should mind my own business.” I huffed a sharp breath.
Folk hustled past me. My stomach rumbled. It would be louder than thunder soon if I didn’t partake of these lovelies’ generosity, so I hurried amongst them, matching their long strides. Heads down to keep the rain from their eyes, not one person noticed me. Dressed as I was in my fancy clothes, I could easily pass for the son of any one of them.
A gust of wind lifted one silver-bearded fellow’s cloak. I could near hide beneath it. The scuffle and scrape of boots on the cobbles and the driving rain hid the rustle of my hands at his belt. A swift cut of my blade and I had his coin pouch.
It fit nicely up my sleeve, and I faded to the back of the crowd. They moved on without me, the old man none the wiser. I slid into an alleyway, the coins clinking softly. A good take.
I looked back toward the wharf. The little one was still there, huddled against the storm, likely scared and definitely alone. I knew what that felt like.
The sign over a nearby baker’s shop creaked, and my mouth watered at the thought of warm bread. I fingered my pouch. I should venture in there to buy a meal for me and Jasper. But the boy beneath the cart had food, and he would share if he was a smart one. I am a kindly sort—I’d even give him a coin.
The sky grew darker still and the wind so harsh the rain pelted down sharp and stinging. Jasper would just have to wait. I kept my head down and strode toward the dock. Squatting beside the cart, I looked at the shivering dark-haired boy. “Is there room there for one more?”
He was pale, whiter than the gulls overhead. His lip quivered, and he clutched the parcel to his chest. It was still wrapped—he had not touched a morsel. He nodded, but fear shone in his eyes. I remembered that feeling when I thought a man aimed to take what little I had.
He shook his head no, but his eyes welled with tears, and then he nodded. “Mama didn’t get off the boat.”
I looked at the craft bobbing in the water, wondering if he meant she wasn’t allowed to leave.
“When I woke yesterday she was gone.” He didn’t look my way, but rubbed trembling fingers over the raised patterns of greens and blues on the blanket.
“My mama is gone too,” I told him.
He sniffled, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. It would take the hands of more than ten men for me to count the number of boys and girls like us on London’s streets. Orphaned and poor. Many ill-treated, whored out. That wasn’t going to happen to me. Or to this boy just off the boat.
“I’m Allan. What do they call you?”
“John.” He smiled at me, and then unwrapped the package the captain had given him.
The wheaten bread wasn’t fresh, but my gut growled. Laughing, John ripped off a piece for himself, and then offered me the loaf. There was cheese in the pack and he split it, giving me the larger chunk and devouring his own.
I chewed on the bread, frowning, but not because I was thinking it would taste better slathered in honey. I rubbed my chin. “I already know a John. How about we call you Little John?”
song: It’s the Hard Knock Life from Annie
Read more of Allan and Little John’s adventures in Char’s Battle Scars series. Men of the Cross, Book I, opens four years after this short story. Sign up for Char’s Newsletter and you can download the Kindle or EPUB version of this story.
Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian by trade (recently retired), a U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. Her Battle Scars novels include three award-winning tales: Men of the Cross, For King and Country, and Swords of the King. The recently published anthology, Betrayal, includes her short story, “A Knight’s Tale,” a prequel to Battle Scars. Her current WIP is Rogue, another medieval tale set at the end of King John’s reign. Char’s other love is science fiction. Echoes of the Storm was published in July 2020.
Char loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.
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