Somewhere in the North of England, Autumn 1642.
“You must think us a strange company, Master Lennox,” the man he knew as Matt said quietly, when the room had settled again, tapping out his pipe and putting it away, his brown eyes lost above a full beard. “Or if not strange, perhaps misguided.”
Which was not precisely the kind of conversational ice-breaker Gideon had anticipated.
“I don’t think I’m qualified to judge,” he said carefully. “I haven’t spent too much time with mercenary soldiers.”
“Mercenaries, are we?” The older man sounded amused. “Aye, maybe we are at that. Well, some are for sure – Tom Garland there, the farrier? He keeps carefully accounting of every hoof he lifts, written up in a ledger. And Bela Rigo, he’s the bald one with his face half-broken, he was only today telling me how he’d be leaving us to go home and take up lace-making if it came up short a penny on his reckoning.”
“You are saying you are not here for money?” Gideon found it hard to keep a derisive note of disbelief from his voice. Matt seemed to give the question some careful thought.
“If there was no money, I wouldn’t be here,” he said at last. “After all, a man has to live, to feed, shelter and clothe his family. And my family is all women so they take a lot to clothe according to their fancy. Saying ‘nay’ to my lass Bridget when she has her heart set on a new shawl or some ribbons, I am not sure I have the strength that needs.” He broke off as if shaken by the dreadful gravity of the thought and shook his head dourly.
“I can see why you get on so well with Philip Lord,” Gideon said, knowing his tone sounded sour.
“Oh aye, you learn a lot about clever talk if you stay about him,” Matt agreed without rancour. “I used to be as mild as mother’s milk, back in the day. We all were.”
“I wouldn’t know. Most of this company seem to have taken pains to avoid speaking with me.”
The older man leaned forward slightly as though sharing a confidence.
“If you will keep looking daggers at the one man everyone here respects the most, you can expect to find more than a few of us’ll turn you a cold shoulder in one way or another. Not that you need me to tell you that.”
“So why do you bother talking with me?” Gideon asked, his anger kindling.
Matt leant back again, picked up his ale and drank some down before he replied.
“Well, partly because me being seen talking with you in a friendly way will make it a lot less likely that I’ll need to waste my time tomorrow pulling your body out of the river. But mostly because Zahara thinks well of you, and she is a lass who sees further into people’s hearts than anyone I know.”
The anger which had quickened to a blaze at the first part of Matt’s answer, turned suddenly inside out as he finished. Gideon felt himself flush slightly and covered the moment by taking a swallow of ale. Matt, if he noticed at all, gave no sign. His gaze was sweeping the room like a farmer overlooking his fields.
Lord had started a game of dice with the men he had taken aside and a fair number of the company were now gathered around to watch or play. A loud whoop announced a winning roll, with groans from the loser. When Gideon looked across, Lord was pounding the winner on the back and laughing as he took up his coins. As the next man shook the dice, Mistress Ryder appeared in the doorway beyond them and was looking at the gamers with tightly pursed lips. Lord saw her and moved lightly from his place to take her hand, making a bow over it as if she were a lady of high rank, before tucking her arm firmly under his own and leading her, resisting, over to the game.
“He certainly has the common touch,” Gideon muttered grudgingly.
“Is that what you see?” Matt’s tolerant tone sounded slightly strained. He stood and picked up his ale mug. “You should get some sleep soon, Master Lennox. We rise early.”
From ‘The Cat’s Head’ by E.M. Swift-Hook