LONDON Spring 1524
Thomas Devilstone stood in the doorway of the tavern and sniffed in disgust. The air was foul with smoke from cheap, mutton fat candles and from the other odours assaulting his nostrils, he guessed that the soiled rushes on the floor hadn’t been changed all winter. In spite of the stench, the inn was crowded with drunken revellers celebrating the last days before Lent but there was no sign of the man he’d come to meet.
“Here lad,” said Thomas, catching a scruffy pot-boy by his collar, “I’m looking for Master Pynch.”
“What would he want with a flea bitten beggar like you?” said the boy insolently.
“Watch your lip, spawn of a whore and take me to the shylock if you know what’s good for you,” snapped Thomas and he raised his hand to cuff the boy about the ear. As the urchin flinched, he caught the hunted look of the outlaw in the stranger’s grey eyes but he still refused to reveal the whereabouts of the moneylender Samuel Pynch.
“My master only deals with gentleman of quality but you look like something a dog wouldn’t piss over,” the pot boy taunted and Thomas could hardly disagree. Though he was tall and blessed with the well-formed features, athletic build and refined speech of a young nobleman, his thick black hair and short beard were matted with dirt whilst his grubby doublet, torn hose and threadbare cloak only added to his look of shameless poverty. His gold chain and jewelled rings had been sold months ago, for a fraction of their true worth, but he still possessed one item of value.
“He’ll see me and this is my letter of introduction,” hissed Thomas and he turned back his tattered cloak to reveal an unsheathed falchion hanging from his broad leather belt. Thomas’ face may have been be encrusted with dirt, and his once expensive clothes now reduced to rags, but his heavy, cleaver-like sword shone bright and keen in the candlelight.
The boy knew that this bone crushing blade was a weapon much favoured by the lawless bandits of the north and its sight finally persuaded him to take the stranger to his master. The inn’s drunks were too busy filling their bellies with everything forbidden during Lent to pay any attention to a pauper and even the tavern whores ignored Thomas as he followed the boy through the throng. In spite of his dark and brooding good looks, a single glance at his filthy tatters was enough to convince any harlot that this man’s purse was as empty as a king’s promise.
The boy took Thomas to a curtained booth at the back of the inn where Pynch was seated behind a large oak table. A pair of burly, stone-jawed twins stood behind their master’s chair and Thomas recognised them as Nat and Ned, two bareknuckle fighters with reputations for unimaginative but effective violence. By contrast, their master was a corpulent, slug of man with a head utterly devoid of hair and piggish eyes that seemed to be sinking slowly into the glistening fat of his jowls. The pot boy mumbled an introduction but the moneylender said nothing and carried on counting the piles of pennies arranged on the chequered cloth spread out in front of him. It was left to Thomas to break the uneasy silence.
“Good evening sir, do I have the honour of addressing Master Samuel Pynch?” Thomas said politely.
“You do and I’m a busy man so state your business or piss off,” grunted Pynch.
“Very well,” said Thomas, fighting the desire to teach the surly usurer some manners, “You see before you a well-born gentleman of The North who finds himself temporarily short of funds...”
“Cut the crap,” snapped Pynch, who at last deigned to look at his visitor. “The interest is a shilling in the pound with the debt repayable, in full, by Michaelmas. Now how much do you want and what security can you offer?”
“I can offer you my word as a gentlemen...”
“You a gentleman?” sneered Pynch, eyeing Thomas’ ragged clothes. “You look like you haven’t got a pot to piss in, so if you’ve nothing to offer me but your word, sod off and stop wasting my time.”
“Here me out Pynch, I intend to file suit in the Court of Chancery to have certain property restored to me. I need a paltry fifty pounds to engage advocates to plead my case and on the successful conclusion of my suit I will repay the loan tenfold. I tell no lie when I say the lands stolen from me are worth over a thousand a year,” Thomas declared angrily and he almost spoke the truth. His family’s once extensive estates had indeed been lost but he did not want the money to hire lawyers.
“Do you take me for a fool?” snapped Pynch. “I know who you are. You’re Thomas Devilstone, the king’s disgraced astrologer, and as we speak Cardinal Wolsey’s men are searching every Cheapside slum and rat hole for the incompetent warlock who couldn’t foresee his own downfall.”
“Is that so and what’s this man Devilstone supposed to have done?” said Thomas, desperately trying to maintain the fiction he was a landless knight in search of justice.
“Truly you’re a poor excuse for a witch if you haven’t heard,” said Pynch with a wicked smile, “Even the lowliest fishwife knows that Thomas Devilstone stands accused of using foul witchcraft to worm his way into the king’s favour and once he’d bewitched our Sovereign Lord Henry Octavius, he took French gold to curse good Queen Catherine of Aragon so she became barren before her time.”
“Barren before her time? Henry’s Spanish Queen is in her fortieth year and she can no more bear a child than you, though you look like you’re about to give birth to an elephant!” Thomas cried.
“Let me guess,” said Pynch, ignoring the insult. “You want me to lend you money to buy passage to France but you’ve come to the wrong place my disgraced, diabolical friend. I have Cardinal Wolsey’s personal warrant to seize all those who would flee from King Henry’s justice, so surrender peaceably or Nat and Ned will turn your nutmegs into mincemeat!”
Pynch snapped his fingers and the twins lumbered forward to arrest the fugitive but Thomas was ready for them.
“Me surrender to Wolsey’s arse-wipe? Never!” he cried and before Pynch’s men could stop him, Thomas had seized the edge of the counting table and tipped it over. The moneylender’s coins went clattering in all directions and the sound echoed around the tavern like St Peter’s last trumpet. The inn’s sots and harlots gave a great whoop of delight and surged towards the back of the inn to gather up the fallen coins. In an instant, the filthy floor was filled with a seething mass of men and women fighting, biting and scratching for the spilled pennies. Caught off their guard, Nat and Ned were trapped by the crowd but Thomas managed to push his way towards the tavern’s door.
“Seize that filthy wretch, he’s a fugitive from the king’s justice!” Pynch yelled to the landlord. The startled innkeeper dutifully slammed the door shut and stood guard brandishing a cudgel. In reply, Thomas drew his sword and roared at the terrified innkeeper to let him pass but the man owed Pynch too much money to step aside.
The barkeep’s club was hardly the equal of a sword but Thomas couldn’t cut the man down and escape before Nat and Ned reached him so he glanced around for another way out and saw a twisting flight of wooden stairs that led to the inn’s upper storeys. Bellowing threats and curses, he kicked his way through the crowd scrabbling in the stinking rushes but as he reached the foot of the staircase, a steel-tipped crossbow bolt thudded into an oak pillar a hair’s breadth from Thomas’ head. He turned to see Pynch holding a small assassin’s crossbow in his outstretched hand.
“A coward’s weapon? You disappoint me Gore-Belly!” Thomas cried and he leapt up the stairs.
“Nat, Ned, don’t just stand there, get after the bastard!” Pynch roared, as he clumsily tried to re-span his crossbow.
“But My Lord, you said he’s a witch, he’ll turn us into frogs or something,” protested Ned.
“I’ll turn your face into a porcupine’s arse if you don’t get up those stairs!” Pynch bellowed and he levelled the reloaded crossbow at Ned’s forehead. The slow witted brute opened his mouth to ask what a porcupine was but, before he could speak, Nat had dragged his twin to the foot of the staircase. The brothers crossed themselves, muttered a short prayer to ward of the evil eye, and reluctantly began to climb the stairs. They were followed by the sweating moneylender who tried to instil a sense of urgency in his henchmen but Nat and Ned were not men who could be rushed.
Before the twins had reached the first landing, Thomas had reached the top of the stairs and kicked open the rat-gnawed door that led to an attic. Inside, he’d expected to find a skylight or some other way on to the roof but there was nothing except years of dust and cobwebs. Spitting foul oaths, he turned to go back to a lower floor and try another door but stopped when he heard the sound of Pynch and his ruffians lumbering up the staircase.
Growing up in the lawless northern border country, Thomas had bested better men than Nat and Ned but trapped in this small garret his sword would be no match for Pynch’s assassin’s bow. It seemed as if he could do nothing except wait to be dug out of his earth like a hunted fox but as his pursuers’ footsteps became louder he realised there was a way out. Quickly he sheathed his sword, took a deep breath and ran as fast as he could towards the wall at the far end of the room.