When the soldiers took him from the King’s tent, he still had on the paper crown. One of the soldiers eyed it, and Lambert thought he’d be cuffed. Instead, the man just sighed, and chivvied him further into the fire-lit darkness. He still felt the warmth of the King’s arm around his shoulder, and he still trembled with fear.
He desperately needed to relieve himself, but it was only fear of humiliating himself in what mud-smeared remaining finery he wore that allowed him to whisper, “Good men … I mean, good sirs, can I step behind that bush?”
They took so long to answer that he was on the brink of disaster, until the taller soldier spoke.
“Will, take the lad over there.”
“Yes, you, now. I’ve no wish to hand him over to the turnkey any more stinking than he already is.”
The soldier pushed him toward the bushes. “Try to run off, and it’ll go badly for you.”
“I won’t, my good — I mean, no, sir, I won’t.”
He couldn’t imagine it going much worse than it already had. From the heady joy of being carried on the shoulders of his men as the Irish crowds cheered, to the shock of my Lord of Lincoln laying hands on him and shouting such ugly words, thence to the despair of watching from under the wagon as all his men died, or ran … he could not erase from his sight the vision of Lincoln bonelessly sliding to the ground after the mace crushed the back of the man’s skull ….
Still, he told himself, no one had stuck a sword through him, or strung him up on any of the trees adjacent to this Stoke field. That must count for something. If he was still alive come morning, he thought, that would be a victory.
“You done yet, my lord?” The soldier snickered as he said it, and Lambert wanted to cry. Only fear that crying would bring him nothing but a blow to the side of his head stopped the tears.
“I am. Thank you, sir.” Lambert made a little bow before the soldier grabbed his shoulder and turned him back toward the path.
As they headed toward what smelled like a cook tent, the taller soldier swiped the paper crown from his head. Some instinct made Lambert try to grab it back. That did net him a cuff.
“You keep your hands to yourself, boy. Be thankful we’re just relieving you of this and not anything else above your neck,” the man growled. “His Grace’s mercy is sending you to the kitchens and not the gibbet.” After a moment, the soldier cocked his head and eyed him narrowly. “They said you told the king you knew how to serve wine. That true, boy?”
With one hand to his recently-bruised ear, Lambert nodded. “I did so. I was taught by Father Simmons —” That ended in a hiccup, as he realized that he would probably never see his odd and violently worshipful mentor again. He abruptly wished for the days when, after hours of abuse-filled training, the priest would relent and let him practice his increasingly good reading skills with the few manuscripts Simmons used to teach him.
The words, the manuscripts … they were such magic things, and he would never see them again …. He could no longer hold back the tears.
The younger soldier made as if to strike him, but the older, rougher man, for a wonder, stopped him. “Hold off, Will. He’s a boy.”
“He’s a traitor,” the other retorted.
“Nah, he’s naught but a pawn. Like as not he’d have ended up in the Tower or worse, if the traitors had won. I hear Lincoln would have done for him, and had himself crowned king. This one? Ah, never mind … if His Grace can show mercy, so can I.” He looked at at Lambert again, and, apparently approving of his obedient lack of motion, nodded. “What did you say your name was?”
Lambert thought of what he’d told the King’s Grace; that he’d had so many names he didn’t know who he was. When he thought of himself as Lambert, his face stung with the good Father’s blows, and that of his own father’s, for that matter. When he thought of himself as Edward, his stomach began to rebel.
“I am … my name is John, sir,” he said, remembering what his Nan had called him when he was very little. “John Simnel.”
"Well then, John, you be a good boy, and do what they tell you in the kitchens, and you’ll be fine. Kitchen’s always warm, and they’ll feed you regular.” The soldier smiled as he said then, then gave John an almost gentle push forward.
Around them, the fires warming Henry’s victorious army were dying to coals. The false dawn was transforming into the true morning. John Simnel looked above, to the sky. He thought he saw a falcon in the distance, over the ridge from which he’d watched his brief kingship disappear like this morning’s mists.
“It’s beautiful,” he whispered.
The older soldier followed John’s gaze, and he saw the falcon. “It is that, lad.”
“Maybe. But there’s many a falcon comes to rest on the wrist of fine lords. Falcons like to eat, too.”
John sighed, and nodded. The three of them walked toward the kitchen tent, and John thought about making his own future, free of kingmakers. It seemed a good thing to him, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, he smiled.