“Right.” Young Ewan placed a hand on the high side of the wagon and vaulted over it, dropping effortlessly to the cobbled roadway and pushing his way quickly into the crowd. La Rochelle was France’s greatest and busiest port, and the high, narrow gates of its southern entrance, directly ahead of him, were fronted by this wide approach that narrowed rapidly as it neared the check points manned by the city guards.
Tam watched the boy go and then swung himself down after him, albeit not quite so lithely. The wagon driver was a strong-looking man, still in the prime of life, but the ability to do everything his apprentices could do physically was something he had abandoned gladly years before. Glancing intolerantly now at the people closest to him, he made his way to a small oaken barrel securely fastened with hempen rope to the side of the wagon. He took the hanging dipper and raised the barrel’s loose-fitting lid, then brought the brimming ladle of cool water to his lips and held it there as he looked about him, seeing nothing out of place or anything that might explain the blockage ahead. He did notice a heavy presence of guards with crossbows lining the walkways above and on each side of the high gates, but none of them appeared to be particularly interested in anything happening below.
In the meantime, young Ewan had moved forward aggressively, anonymous among the crowd. He was soon aware that he was not the only one trying to find out what was happening, and as he drew closer to the gates he found it increasingly difficult to penetrate the noisy, neck-craning throng. He was eventually forced to use his wide shoulders to clear a passage for himself, elbowing his way single-mindedly towards the front, ignoring the deafening babble of shouting voices all around him. He was almost there—if he stood on his toes he could see the crested helmet of the Corporal of the Guard—when he became aware of louder, shriller voices directly ahead. Three men came charging towards him, plowing through the crowd, pulling at people as they went, pushing and shoving and trying to run, wide eyed with fear. One of them shouldered Ewan aside as he surged by, but the young man regained his balance easily and swung around to watch the three of them scrambling into the throng behind him, dodging and weaving as they sought to lose themselves among the crush.
The crowd, like a living thing sensing the terror of the fleeing men, pulled itself away from them quickly, people pushing and pulling at their neighbors as they fought to keep clear of the fugitives, and in so doing exposing them to the guards in front of and on top of the gate towers.
The Corporal of the Guard’s single shout, ordering the fleeing men to halt, went unheeded, and almost before the word had left his lips the first crossbow bolt struck the cobblestones with a clanging impact that stunned the crowd into instant silence. Shot from high above the gates, and too hastily loosed, the steel projectile caromed
off the worn cobblestone and was deflected upwards, hammering its point through the wooden water barrel from which Tam Sinclair was drinking, shattering the staves and drenching the man in a deluge of cold water that soaked his breeches and splashed loudly on the cobbles at his feet.
Cursing, Tam dropped down onto the wet stones, landing on all fours and rolling sideways to safety under the wagon’s bed as the air filled with the bowel-loosening hiss and sickening thud of crossbow bolts. His other apprentice, Hamish, jumped from the wagon bed and dived behind the protection of a wheel hub, fighting off others who sought the same shelter.
None of the three fleeing men survived for long. The first was brought down by three bolts, all of which hit him at the same time, in the shoulder, the neck, and the right knee. He went flying and whirling like a touring mummer, blood arcing high above him from a jagged rip in his neck and raining back down and around him as he fell sprawling less than ten paces from where he had begun his flight. The second stopped running, almost in mid-stride, teetering for balance with windmilling arms, and turned back to face the city gates, raising his hands high above his head in surrender. For the space of a single heartbeat he stood there, and then a crossbow bolt smashed through his sternum, the meaty impact driving him backwards, his feet clear off the ground, to land hard on his backside before his lifeless body toppled over onto its side.
The third man fell face down at the feet of a tall, stooped-over monk, one outstretched hand clutching in its death throes at the mendicant’s sandal beneath the tattered, ankle-high hem of his ragged black robe. The monk stopped moving as soon as he was touched, and stood still as though carved from wood, gazing down in stupefaction at the bloodied metal bolts that had snatched the life so brutally from the running man. No one paid any attention to his shock, however; all their own fascinated interest was focused upon the dead man at his feet. The monk himself barely registered upon their consciousness, merely another of the faceless, wandering thousands of his like who could be found begging for sustenance the length and breadth of Christendom.
So profound was the silence that had fallen in the wake of the shattering violence that the sound of a creaking iron hinge was clear from some distance away as a door swung open, and then came the measured tread of heavily booted feet as someone in authority paced forward from the entrance to the tower on the left of the city gates.
And still no one stirred in the crowded approach to the gates. Travelers and guards alike seemed petrified by the swiftness with which death had come to this pleasant, early evening.
“Have you all lost your wits?”
The voice was harsh, gravelly, and at the sound of it the spell was broken. People began to move again and voices sprang up, halting at first, unsure of how to begin talking about what had happened here. The guards stirred themselves into motion, too, and several made their way towards the three lifeless bodies.
Tam Sinclair had already crawled out from his hiding place and was preparing to mount to his high seat, one foot raised to the front wheel’s hub and his hand resting gently on the footboard of the driver’s bench, when he heard a hiss from behind him.
“Please, I heard you talking to the young man. You are from Scotland.”
Sinclair froze, then turned slowly, keeping his face expressionless. The woman was standing by the tail gate of his wagon, white-knuckled hands grasping the thick strap of a bulky cloth bag suspended from her shoulder. Her shape was muffled in a long
garment of dull green wool that was wrapped completely around her, one corner covering her head like a hood, exposing only her mouth and chin. She looked young, but not girlish, Tam thought, judging from the few inches of her face that he could see. The skin on her face was fair and free of obvious dirt. He eyed her again, his gaze traveling slowly and deliberately but with no hint of lechery, from her face down to her feet.
“I am of Scotland. What of it?”
“I am, too. And I need help. I need it greatly. I can reward you.”
This woman was no peasant. Her whisper had been replaced by a quiet, low-pitched voice. Her diction was clear and precise, and her words, despite the tremor in her voice, possessed the confidence born of high breeding. Tam pursed his lips, looking about him instinctively, but no one seemed to be paying them any attention; all eyes were directed towards the drama in the nearby open space. He sensed, though he knew not how, that this woman was involved in what had happened here, and he was favorably impressed by her demeanor, in spite of his wariness. She was tight wound with fear, he could see, and yet she had sufficient presence of mind to appear outwardly calm to a casual observer. His response was quiet but courteous.
“What trouble are you in, Lady? What would you have of me, a simple carter?”
“I need to get inside the gates. They are … People are looking for me, and they mean me ill.”
Sinclair watched her carefully, his eyes fixed on the wide-lipped mouth that was all he could really see of her. “Is that a fact?” he asked then, his Scots brogue suddenly broad and heavy in the rhetorical question. “And who are these people that harry and frighten well-born women?”
She bit her lip, and he could see her debating whether to say more, but then she drew herself up even straighter. “The King’s men. The men of William de Nogaret.”
Still Sinclair studied her, his face betraying nothing of his thoughts although her words had startled him. William de Nogaret, chief lawyer to King Philip IV, was the most feared and hated man in all of France, and the woman’s admission, clearly born of a desperate decision to trust Tam solely on the grounds of their common birthplace, invited him instantly either to betray her or to become complicit with her in something, and complicity in anything involving the frustration of the King’s principal henchman surely led to torture and death. He remained motionless for a moment longer, his thoughts racing, and then his face creased beneath his short, neatly trimmed beard into what might have been the beginnings of a smile.