Be it death proclaimed throughout our host to boast of this or take that praise from God which is his only...
The king and the Duke of Exeter kept talking and talking, but Michael Williams scarcely listened. Once, even yesterday, he might have thought the proclamation unduly harsh, and said so. Today he didn’t care. There wasn’t much danger that he’d be put to death; he didn’t feel like boasting.
... God fought for us.
“I’ll believe it when I see God fight with us,” Michael muttered under his breath as he stumbled back to the tents. That would be something to see: the King of Heaven slogging through mud and shit, stepping over men with broken limbs, maybe decapitating a Frenchman or two with a swing of his halo.
The thought reminded him of a conversation he’d had with Alec and John once. “What did we got to war for?” Michael had demanded of the universe. “For tennis balls?”
Alec had said that he wasn’t sure the tennis balls were an insult. He’d seen a play when he was a boy in which the shepherds had brought the Christ-child a tennis ball as a gift, and he ventured the opinion that perhaps the Dauphin had intended to pay King Henry a compliment by comparing him to Jesus. Michael had hooted in derision at this theory, but Alec, whose mind tended to wander off in peculiar directions, didn’t take offense; he merely wondered aloud what would happen if King Henry and Jesus played each other at tennis. Michael said that the king would win because he’d surely had more practice, while John had crossed himself and assured the others that Our Lord could do anything. The friendly argument that followed had continued until Captain Gower, shocked at what he considered blasphemy, had set all three of them to digging trenches to shit in.
That had been a week ago. Alec was dead, and John, pious John, had cursed God as the surgeon amputated his leg and cauterized the wound with hot oil. Michael felt that he could well curse God too, but it wouldn’t be as shocking as it had been when John did it.
None else of name, and of all other men but five and twenty, King Henry had said when he counted the English dead. As far as Michael was concerned, that only went to prove that kings and heralds played games with numbers. The tally of five and twenty didn’t include the boys slaughtered in the camp, nor Alexander Court, who had breathed his last an hour after the battle, nor John Bates, who lay moaning and shivering in the surgeon’s tent. It didn’t include those two fellows – what were their names, Nym and Bardolph? – who had been hanged for theft, either, and though Michael knew they might have been hanged just as easily in London without anyone caring very much, the rumors that flew about the camp made him inclined to blame the king. They said the king had known Bardolph of old and had winked at his thieving ways, and so Bardolph had grown bolder, like a mouse in a kitchen where there was an old toothless cat and a rusty trap. And then the trap had sprung shut and Bardolph had dangled on the gallows with his mouth open, astonished. He’d been expecting pardon. He must have thought it was one of the king’s jests, right up until the moment when he swung.
Alec was dead and Bardolph was hanged, and Michael Williams was richer than he’d ever dreamt of being in his life. All because it was the king’s will. He thought of throwing the glove away, but only a fool would part with so much gold. He had considered throwing it in the king’s face, but no man could expect to be pardoned for treason a second time. The most he dared do was refuse when Captain Fluellen offered him a shilling to mend his shoes, and that had been an empty gesture.
Fluellen had been right; his shoes were not so good. His feet were soaking wet and blistered, and he could see his toes through the holes.
“High-day!” shouted Derick, one of the other fellows from Gower’s company, and John Cobbler followed behind, whooping. They had good shoes, Michael saw; their arms were full of them. “See what I have got!” called Derick, hailing Michael by waving a boot in the air. “When the French soldiers are dead, we take off their shoes!”
Michael watched the scavengers for a minute, then turned away. He’d rather go on with his own shoes, thanks.
When he came to the surgeon’s tent, the place was rank with the stench of shit and piss and blood. If the fever hadn’t killed John already, the bad air surely would.
A hand reached up from the heap of dead and dying men and brushed Michael’s face. Michael started away, as if he’d been touched by a ghost.
“Jane?” whispered someone. A living man’s voice, but only just.
“No,” said Michael. “My name is Michael Williams. There are no Janes here.”
“Jane, love. Stay with me.” The man was a Londoner, Michael judged from the accent. He was also clearly in a bad way, but that was none of Michael’s affair. He pulled free of the hand that clutched at his sleeve, and went to look for John.
* * *
He sat beside John all that night and all the next day, giving his friend sips of water from his wineskin when he moaned with thirst, fanning him as his fever mounted. The surgeon was nowhere to be found – looking after other wounded men, Michael supposed, or else getting drunk. Michael couldn’t blame him. He might as well spare his pains for the ones who would live. John Bates would not be one of them.
He died an hour after sunset with an Ave Maria on his lips. “You’d do better to curse than pray, brother,” said Michael, hoping against hope that John would have time enough for praying hereafter. But his friend never heard him.
Michael tried to close his eyes, but the lids sprung open. He lay there, fixing the tent poles with a dead stare. Michael found that his hands were shaking with anger. This was the fame they’d been promised, this was the honor, this was the glory. He couldn’t stand the smell inside the tent any longer. He stumbled out to the entrance, no longer caring that he was treading on dead and dying men.
“Jane?” The fool was still calling on Jane every hour or two, and as Michael passed him, a hand grabbed him by the ankle and caused him to sprawl face down across half a dozen men. He swore, picked himself up, and detached himself from the stranger.
The tent flap was open, and in the moonlight he could see something of the man who had tripped him. He’d lost his leg at the knee, as John had, but he was still living.
Michael had been too angry to stay a minute ago, and now he was too angry to leave. He’d had enough. This man was not going to join John and Alec and the ranks of the uncounted and nameless French dead, not if he could help it.
He tipped the last few drops from his wineskin into the man’s mouth. “What’s your name?” he asked. “And if you say ‘Jane,’ I might have to put you out of your misery.”
The man swallowed and blinked. His eyes focused on Michael’s face. “Rafe,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Rafe Damport.”
“Are you a Londoner?”
“Let’s go.” He placed an arm under Rafe’s shoulders and began to drag him from the tent.
“Jane.” Rafe smiled and closed his eyes. He seemed perfectly content with this plan, which went to show that he was very far from lucid, because Michael knew it was a mad idea. It would be a miracle if they made it as far as Calais.
He slung one of Rafe’s arms over his own shoulders and pulled him upright. The fresh air felt good on his face, but the man was so much deadweight, and Michael had drunk little and eaten nothing in a day. His legs were trembling, and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Walking any distance with Rafe was out of the question. What he needed was a horse. Fortunately there were plenty of riderless ones about.
“Wait here,” he whispered to Rafe, who might or might not have heard him.
The first horse that crossed his path was the color of nutmeg and a very fine animal indeed, although it was draped with a few too many flowers-de-luce for Michael’s liking. He disposed of the horse’s trappings, borrowed a new saddle from one of the many other horses lying dead on the field, and helped Rafe onto its back. Then he climbed up behind Rafe and urged the horse to a walk, doing his best to hold Rafe steady. He swayed from side to side, and it was all Michael could do to keep him from falling off.
All was still; men lay exhausted in the tents, and fires had burnt out. They had almost reached the edge of the camp when Sir Thomas Erpingham spotted them. “Who goes there?”
“Michael Williams, sir. Of Captain Gower’s company.”
“Hath Gower given you leave to go?”
“If it please you, sir, this is my brother. He’ll die if he spends another night without shelter.”
Erpingham frowned. “I knew not that you had a brother,” he said. “You never spoke of him before.”
“He left home,” said Michael. “He ran away to London when he was fifteen, and I but a babe in arms. I never saw him from that day to this.”
Actually, it had been Michael who had run away from home when he was fifteen, tired of his father’s beatings and knowing that his mother would find life easier with one fewer mouth to feed. He wasn’t sure how old Rafe was – his face was so grey and twisted with pain that he might have been fifty – but he had an uncomfortable suspicion that the man was much too young to be his older brother, and in any case Erpingham might know him for who he was.
“I see,” said Erpingham, but he didn’t say whether he believed. He eyed Michael, Rafe, and the horse speculatively.
Suddenly Rafe stirred. “This is not my brother,” he said, faintly but clearly.
“This is my wife, Jane, and I love her!”
The skeptical expression on Erpingham’s face softened into something like pity. “Your brother’s in a bad way,” he said.
“I know,” said Michael.
“He may not live to see the morrow.”
“Then he’ll die with his face turned toward England.”
Erpingham lifted his hand. “Go,” he said. “But look you, let no man see you.”
Michael didn’t need to be told that. He dug his heels into the nutmeg-colored horse’s sides, not giving the army camp a backward glance.
The horse was as swift as a swallow in flight. It hardly seemed to touch the earth at all. Somehow Rafe managed to cling to its neck, and Michael began to breath easily at last. It took him a while to place the jingling sound that seemed to come from somewhere in the neighborhood of his left thigh. Oh, right. He was rich. He’d almost forgotten about that.
Perhaps they would make it to London after all.
* * *
They stopped a few hours before dawn at a spring where Michael refilled his wineskin, and in the morning they came to a village where he bought bread and found a room at an inn. The French folk looked at the English soldiers with none-too-friendly eyes, but his gold was good, and most people would trade honor for gold without a thought. Michael certainly had.
They had a chamber to themselves, a luxury to which Michael was not accustomed, and there weren’t even very many fleas in it. He made Rafe take some water, flung himself down on the bed beside the wounded man, and slept and slept and slept.
It was after sunset when he woke. He tended to Rafe’s leg as well as he could, washing it and wrapping it again with clean linen. Rafe seemed to think he was at home in London. Michael thought this was a mercy, and didn’t try to rouse him from his delirium. He talked incessantly of people named Master Eyre, and Dame Margery, and Hodge and Firk and Cicely and Jane – especially Jane.
He helped Rafe back to bed and ventured downstairs to the common room of the inn, where Frenchmen were drinking and dicing and talking at the top of their voices. Michael sat down in a dark corner and tried to look inconspicuous to everyone except the innkeeper’s daughter, to whom he showed a coin and stammered out a few phrases in broken French. She seemed to take his meaning; at any rate, she brought him a roast fowl and a bottle of wine. They were the most beautiful things Michael had ever seen in his life. The girl wasn’t bad, either.
He had devoured most of the fowl and was on his second bottle of wine when a rout of drunken Frenchmen slouched into his corner, talking loudly among themselves. Michael didn’t understand most of what they were saying, but he caught the word anglais and then cochon. Then one of them spat in his face, which didn’t seem to require translation.
Michael sprang to his feet and hit the brute across the face. The Frenchman staggered backward, but his friends came to his aid, and there were a lot more of them than there were of Michael. Two of them grabbed him by the arms and pinned him against the wall, and a third was pummeling him with his fists when he heard a clatter of shattering glass, a dull thud, and an English voice raised in anger.
“Prepare to die, Hyrenaicans! Je suis moi, le grand pistolet! Holla, ye pampered jades of Gallia, abuse not the lions of England! Agincourt, Agincourt, know ye not Agincourt, recreants? The earth and air did sound like thunder, to the ears of every man! I’ll tear you limb from limb, suck your blood, roast your flesh, and use your bones for toothpicks before ye lay a hand on this my thrice-valiant countryman! Restez-vous in pace, you damned horse-leeches!”
There was another great thud, which Michael was able to identify as the sound of a table hitting the floor.
The Frenchmen scattered.
“Thanks, Ancient Pistol,” said Michael.
“‘Ancient,’ callest thou me? Am I not valiant in battle? Am I not a conquering hero, a second Hercules? Base is that word, ‘ancient’!”
“It looks like you did valiant battle with the tables and chairs,” said Michael, nodding at the wreckage. “Did they fight back?”
“Pshah! A Spanish fig for the imputation!” said Pistol.
The innkeeper’s daughter emerged from the kitchen, where she had been hiding, and started expostulating loudly in French; Pistol swore at her in something that was more or less English; and Michael finally offered her one of his gold crowns, which seemed to mollify her. She even brought more wine.
The sight of the money brought a gleam to Pistol’s eye. “How camest thou by the gold of the Assyrians?”
“Never you mind,” said Michael. He kept a tight grip on the glove of crowns, under his cloak, and hoped that Pistol hadn’t noticed there was more where that came from. “Have some wine.”
“Ah, the elixir of life, the waters of Babylon!” Pistol tossed down the first glass, filled another without asking Michael’s leave, and picked up the leg of the fowl off of the floor. As he ate it, he helped himself to a third glass. Michael was about to suggest that he leave some of the waters of Babylon for the man who had actually paid for them, when it became apparent that Pistol was, in fact, sitting down and weeping. Michael thrust the rest of the bottle at him.
“I was sorry to hear of your friends,” he said awkwardly.
“By one of thy fellows to be led to the gallows, to end in a rope,” sang Pistol off-key. “A base fate for the valiant. Such was the end of Hector, breaker of horses.”
The mention of horses reminded Michael that he had rather a good one in the innkeeper’s stable, and that horses had a way of disappearing when Pistol was around. Not that Nutmeg was his, strictly speaking, but Rafe and Michael certainly needed him more than Pistol did.
He excused himself, went upstairs to bring Rafe a drink of water and see that he was as comfortable as possible, and then spent the rest of the night in the stable with Nutmeg. The autumn rain dripped down through the roof, and there were biting insects in the hay, but at least these discomforts kept him awake.
Toward dawn, Pistol sneaked into the stable and slunk out with one of the Frenchmen’s horses. Michael didn’t raise the alarm.
* * *
It rained for three more days. Rafe’s fever was gone by the end of that time, and he was weak but in his right wits. That meant, of course, that he was aware of the loss of his leg. He’d taken it quietly. Michael would have raged and cursed; Rafe said only that God was merciful, for it might have been his hand.
“Mayhap you’re not in your right wits after all,” Michael muttered, but when he thought about it, he had to admit Rafe was right. A cripple could make a living more easily than a one-handed man.
“What were you at home?” he asked Rafe.
“A prentice?” Now that Rafe’s face was no longer distorted by pain, Michael could see that he was indeed a young man, in his early twenties at most.
“A journeyman,” said Rafe proudly.
“This Master Eyre you spoke of, is he the man who owns your shop?”
Rafe nodded. “His name is Simon Eyre, of Tower Street.”
Michael was not a Londoner, and in any case they’d had little news from home. The name of the man who had lately become the wealthiest craftsman in the city meant nothing to him.
“If you went back there, would he have a place for you?”
“Aye,” said Rafe confidently, as if there could be no question about it.
Michael was not so sure. Men went to war, and sometimes they didn’t come back and sometimes they came back years later, and the world went on without them. Shoemakers found new journeymen, sweethearts married, sometimes families even forgot the faces of their loved ones. Michael wondered if Rafe would find his Jane faithful when he returned. Probably not, he decided, but he kept the thought to himself. “Let’s go to Tower Street, then,” he said, as he didn’t have any better ideas.
“Where is your place?” Rafe asked.
“I have no place,” said Michael.
“Have you no friends?”
“God rest their souls,” said Rafe.
Michael acknowledged this with a grunt. He thought God might have better arranged things so that John and Alec didn’t have to die in the first place.
“Master Eyre would give you work,” said Rafe. After a quick, dubious glance at Michael’s feet, he remembered to add, “If you can mend shoes.”
“I could mend yours for you, if you brought me the leather and the tools.”
Michael shrugged and agreed. If they were going to be stuck in a muddy French village for God only knew how long, it would be well if at least one of them weren’t bored out of his skull.
* * *
It soon became clear that Michael himself would not be so lucky. Rafe, now that he was coherent, proved to be a remarkably boring conversationalist. Most of the time he talked about shoes, or his wife, or his wife’s shoes. Michael tried politics, but that was worse. Just as Rafe had accepted his disability with pious resignation, he accepted the English victory with pious complacency, and refused to hear a word against the king.
“Where is the king now?” Michael finally snapped. “Think you that he is in an inn like this, tending the wounded as I have tended you? Or that he’s on the road with the men who have no coin to pay their way home, and no food but what they can steal from the French? Or digging graves for the dead? No, he’s courting some French princess and making his peace with the men who spilled our blood, and we left to make our way home as well or as ill as we can.”
“He is a good king,” said Rafe mildly, “and it would be well if he made peace.”
Michael began to wish he’d picked Pistol for a traveling-companion instead. He might have been a rogue and a horse-thief, but at least he was interesting.
They hired a second horse and set out for Calais as soon as Rafe was strong enough to travel, Rafe hobbling out to the stable on crutches and Michael wearing his newly-mended shoes.
“Those will last you five years, as I am a brother of the gentle craft,” Rafe said proudly. “I used the best leather, and Master Eyre taught me a trick or two. Besides, I met you upon St. Crispin’s day, and that is good luck.”
“‘Tis a holiday for shoemakers. Crispin and Crispianus are our patron saints.”
“And the king gave you a good holiday gift, did he?”
“He did indeed,” said Rafe with a beatific smile. “An English victory.”
Michael decided not to pursue the subject. “I thought St. Hugh was your patron saint.”
“You can never have too many patron saints.”
Thunder crackled, and a moment later an ice-cold rain began to pelt down. “Could you ask one of them to do somewhat about this?”
Rafe muttered a prayer, which had no discernable effect except to make the raindrops bigger. “May as well make the best of it,” he said at last, and began to sing. Cold’s the wind and wet’s the rain, St. Hugh be our good speed. Ill is the weather that bringeth no gain, nor helps good hearts in need ...
Michael, who was not in the mood for either singing or optimism, let Nutmeg trot ahead.
When it came time to halt for the night, Michael picked the largest and finest inn in town. For once in his life, he could afford it, and after a day of freezing rain and songs about shoemaking, he felt he owed it to himself. The sign outside read Le Lapin et Canard.
The servant girl spoke English – after a fashion. “Will messieurs be having zee rabbi or zee dock?”
“Rabbit,” said Michael, hoping he had decoded this correctly. The last thing he needed was having all the Jews in France out for his blood. “I don’t like duck.”
“I’ll have the duck,” said Rafe.
“And bring some hot spiced wine,” added Michael. “About a gallon, for a start.”
The girl brought the wine long before the food, which meant they were pretty far in their cups by the time they ate. That suited Michael just fine. He attacked the rabbit with more hunger than manners.
“Why don’t you like duck?” Rafe asked.
Michael startled. He had been sinking into a contented wine-soaked haze, and he’d almost forgotten Rafe was there. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Have you ever tried it?”
Michael thought for a long moment. “No,” he said at last.
“Have some of mine.”
Rafe placed a wing of the duck on Michael’s trencher, and Michael ate it without really thinking about it. It wasn’t bad. Then he felt annoyed at Rafe, because he had been absolutely sure he didn’t like duck, and this new discovery confused him. “I’m going to bed,” he said. “Good night.”
He was in the middle of an uneasy dream where King Henry was playing Jesus in one of the mystery plays at York, but he kept turning into a duck and then a rabbit and confusing the audience no end, when the thief came in through the window. Not that Michael understood at the time that he was coming through the window, or even that there was a thief at all. The first thing Michael knew was that somebody was yelling, and there was a whacking noise that turned out to be Rafe hitting the thief with his crutch, and a jingle of coins.
Rafe called for light, and a servant came in with a candle, and they gathered the crowns up from the floor. “Who was it?” Michael asked. “Was it Pistol?”
“I know not. He ran away when I hit him.”
Michael found that he was glad he didn’t know. He didn’t want it to be Pistol, somehow. “Thank you.”
“No thanks needed ... How did you come by a glove full of crowns, anyway?”
“Playing the whore,” Michael muttered.
“In truth?” said Rafe. He looked at Michael in some confusion.
Michael roared with laughter. “Think you that I am not pretty enough?”
“No!” yelped Rafe. “I think you’re very pretty ... I mean, handsome ... I mean, I have no especial wish to play the whore with you, but I’m sure you could make a living at that or any other honest trade if you wanted to ... I mean, I owe you my life and I would not offend you for anything in the world.”
“As Sir Thomas Erpingham used to say,” Michael said when he could talk again, “if you dig a trench so deep it falls in on you, for the love of God stop digging deeper.”
“I shall try to remember that,” said Rafe, who had turned roughly the color of mashed beets.
“You’d do better to remember to bar the windows,” muttered Michael, checking the bolt on the door. But he found that Rafe was growing on him. For a minute, he had felt like he was talking to Alec again.
* * *
“Why did you save my life,” Rafe asked conversationally, “when you dislike me?”
Michael stiffened. They were well along the road to Calais by now, and he had hoped that Rafe had forgotten how rough his manner had been in the early days of their acquaintance. The shoemaker had certainly never seemed to bear a grudge, but Michael was beginning to suspect that his companion was both more intelligent and less resigned than he appeared.
“I don’t dislike you.”
“Well .. aye. And no. I hardly know how to explain. Look you, I lost two friends in the battle. Good friends. I saw their blood spilt like it was worth no more than stale piss. Mayhap it wasn’t. They were poor men.”
“Poor men are made in God’s image, just as the rich are.”
Michael was forced to acknowledge the truth of this, but he doubted that the rich did. “You believe that. The king and his ministers do not, or else they do believe in their hearts but they find it convenient to forget when it serves their turn. So I watched them die, neglected and forgotten, and I swore an oath to myself that I would not watch any more die in that place without trying to do somewhat for them. And there you were, half out of your mind with fever. I took you out of that place because I had to. I could not have done otherwise.”
“Because you had to fulfill your oath,” said Rafe. He sounded almost angry, although it was hard to imagine Rafe being angry.
“Say, rather, because I would that someone had done it for Alec or John.” Michael hadn’t known it himself until that moment, but he was aware that the anger that had smoldered inside of him for so long had been kindled from love, once upon a time, and when it had burnt itself out, love would still be somewhere in the ashes. He wasn’t much good at explaining this to Rafe, but it felt good to talk about it at last, even haltingly.
“And what of everything that happened after that? Why are you still with me, now that I’m well enough to travel alone? Why do you pay for everything?”
“Because someone gave me a large sum of money against my will,” said Michael, evading the first two questions, “and I may as well spend it, for having it gives me no pleasure.”
“I never knew anyone who got a lot of money against his will.”
“You do now. ‘Twas a gift from the king.”
“You hate the king because he gave you money?”
“Aye, I suppose that’s about the sum of it.”
Rafe gaped at this astonishing statement for a moment, and finally said, “Yorkshiremen are strange folk.”
“Up north, we think Londoners are strange folk.”
Rafe either accepted this or found it so preposterous that he gave up trying to wrap his mind around it; Michael wasn’t sure which, but at any rate, they rode along for a minute or two in silence. “You never did answer my question,” Rafe said at last. “Why are you still here?”
“Where else would I be?”
“Somewhere I’m not,” said Rafe, with a simplicity that Michael found at once irritating and endearing.
“You seem like a decent enough fellow,” Michael admitted at last. “You don’t talk too much. A man could do worse for company.”
This was as close as he was willing to come to a declaration of friendship, and he regretted it later, because Rafe said not another word until they came to Calais.
* * *
Somehow they made it to England – mostly thanks to Rafe, who looked after the horse and fended off thieves while Michael was being deathly sick. It was a bleak time of year and a stormy crossing, and when they reached England Michael fell to his knees and gave thanks to God for sparing their lives. It was the first time he’d felt like praying since they’d left for France, although the feeling didn’t last long – because Rafe thought he had fainted and emptied a skin of water over him.
“When was the last time you saw someone faint on his knees, you fool?” Michael spluttered. He wasn’t very angry, though. He couldn’t be, not when they were on dry land, and people all around them were speaking English, and the clouds had broken and the gulls over the cliffs shone white in a beam of sunlight.
Rafe shrugged. “Never. But I never saw you pray before, either.”
“Well, God help me if you ever see it again!” Michael realized, a moment too late, that this could technically be construed as a prayer, and decided to change the subject. He picked himself up from the ground and shook water out of his hair. “Let’s away to London, where I won’t have to look at the sea.”
* * *
They came to London without further incident, and Rafe led the way to Simon Eyre’s shop. Michael supposed that it was past time to leave him, but he found that he was worried about his new friend. There were too many people in the streets, and most of them pushed and shoved and didn’t look where they were going. It was no place for a lame man on crutches. Then, too, Rafe looked here and there with a dazed expression, and wandered down several wrong streets and had to double back, as if the city were as unfamiliar to him as it was to Michael. He said that places looked different now that he had been away so long.
When they came to Tower Street, it looked very different indeed, so empty that Rafe turned to Michael and asked if it was Sunday.
“It’s Wednesday,” said Michael. “Why?”
“The shop is shut,” said Rafe, dazed. “The house is dark, and I see no one at home. I pray nothing has happened to old Master Eyre or Dame Margery.”
Michael hoped so, too – perhaps even more devoutly than Rafe, for his first thought was of plague.
At last he spotted a sign of life – a child of about ten, idly kicking a rock through the street.
“Boy!” called Michael. “Dost thou know a man named Simon Eyre?”
“Everyone knows Master Eyre,” said the boy. “He’s a mad, merry fellow, and he buys beer for all the prentices and calls them his Cappadocians.”
“Is this where he dwells?”
“Aye, but he’s at the Guildhall, and most of his neighbors with him. He’s like to be made Master Sheriff today, and my father says he’ll be the next Lord Mayor ere long, for Sir Roger Otley is getting old.”
“Where is the Guildhall?” Michael asked.
“This way,” said Rafe, “but I dare not hope we’ll get there in time.”
They had not gone very far when they saw, at the far end of the street, two young men escorting a stout, middle-aged woman. She wore orange ribbons in her cap, and her skirts were starched to a truly remarkable state of stiffness. Rafe stopped short.
“What’s the matter?” Michael asked.
“Why, that’s Mistress Margery, and the tall man with her is Hodge, the foreman of the shop. I know not the other.”
Mistress Margery’s shoes were so unsuited to the muddy street that she walked even slower than Rafe, which allowed them to catch up.
“What!” shouted Hodge. “FELLOW RAFE! Mistress, look here – Jane’s husband! Why, how now!” He ran to embrace Rafe, with the other shoemaker and the woman close behind him. So they hadn’t forgotten him, after all.
“Fare thee well,” said Michael softly, so that only Rafe could hear him, and he was gone before Rafe could introduce him. It looked like all would be well with Rafe, and as for the others, they were none of his people and he had no place with them.
* * *
But that wasn’t quite the end, for Simon Eyre became Lord Mayor only a matter of weeks later, while Michael was still in London trying to decide what to do with himself. A few days after that, a messenger-boy surprised him with an invitation to Eyre’s house for something that Eyre called an unwedding. Michael was not quite sure what an unwedding was, or whether it was an occasion for celebration or lamentation. When he came to the Lord Mayor’s house, it turned out to be Jane’s unwedding. She was all dressed up in finery that Rafe couldn’t possibly have afforded, and she and Rafe both looked dazed but happy, and the rest of the shoemakers were getting enthusiastically drunk. Whatever an unwedding might be, it was evidently a good thing. Michael accepted a tankard of ale from Margery Eyre and listened with some bemusement as she explained that Jane had turned down a good match with a rich man in favor of Rafe. “And I say she chose well in the end, though between you and me, our Rafe is somewhat wanting in one of his extremities – but let that pass.”
Hodge began a rousing chorus of “Cold’s the wind, and wet’s the rain,” and Michael was surprised to find himself humming along, though he didn’t remember all the words. Someone thrust another draught of ale into his hand, and he went to find Rafe and Jane.
“I wish you all the happiness in the world, Rafe. And you too, madam.”
“Thank you,” said Jane. She was a little slip of a girl, with red-brown hair; she was no older than twenty, but when she looked up at Michael, he saw that she already had a few worry lines in her forehead. “But ... who are you?”
“This is Michael Williams, sweet. He came with me from France, as I told thee yesterday.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Jane. “But you saved Rafe’s life! How am I ever to thank you!” She started up and kissed Michael on the cheek, which embarrassed him considerably, although Rafe didn’t seem to mind.
“You have no need to thank me,” said Michael awkwardly. He was on the point of adding, “I did not do it for you,” when he realized that this would strike quite the wrong note. “I would have done as much for any of my brothers,” he said instead.
“Oh, are you a shoemaker too?”
“Why, Jane, what a question!” said Rafe. “He’s a gentleman; didst thou not see his horse when he came?”
Michael tried to explain that he was no such thing, but for some reason his protestations attracted the attention of a florid-faced gentleman in his fifties, who slapped him on the back and shouted, “Prince am I none, though I am princely born! Where’s that Cicely Bumtrinket? Bring us more ale, or I’ll tell the whole company thou fart’st in thy sleep!”
“Is that the Lord Mayor?” Michael asked. “Is he mad?”
“Aye, but in a good way,” said Rafe. “You may as well drink; he’ll never let you leave if you don’t.” He snagged a fresh supply of ale from a yellow-haired girl whom Michael took to be Cicely Bumtrinket and clinked his glass against Michael’s. “To coming home.”
“To Alec,” Michael said quietly, “and to John.” Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered, he thought, and then realized with a start that he was quoting King Henry. It didn’t matter. The thought was good, no matter who had said it.
“To the king,” said Jane, and Michael did not argue.
“To brotherhood,” said Rafe, and the rest of the shoemakers’ voices lifted up in song.
Our hearts with care we may not kill; man’s life surpasseth worldly wealth. Content surpasseth riches still, and fie on knaves that live by stealth. This trade, therefore, both great and small, the Gentle Craft shall ever call.