(Extracted from Will at the Tower)
Will rubbed the ache from his eyes. He could remember nothing of the night. The mattress beneath him was coarse and sank sharp shards into his naked back. The sunlight seared across the ceiling rebounding off the lime wash. There were no familiar scents in the air, but the odours he detected troubled him. One was like sweat, but was not sweat, at least not his sweat. Another was a flavour he recognised but could not name. Another was the taste of hair.
He sensed something substantial close to him. It was still. He turned towards it and saw her face incompletely, pale and white, through a shroud of black hair. Her eyes were very slightly open. She looked slender and lovely and slightly incongruous. Something was missing. Where was her arm? He focussed on her shoulder and traced the line of that limb. It disappeared behind her back. That’s where it was. Something else was missing. Where was movement?
He felt cold. A tremble shuddered through him. His eye itched and he put his finger to it. There was something crusty round the socket and he withdrew his finger to look at it. His whole hand was smeared dark and he strained his pupils to pull focus and identify the stain. A double recognition struck him. The smear on his hand was dry blood; and she wasn’t breathing.
Within a bolt of breath he was beside the bed, standing unsteadily and gasping for air. He now remembered the smell that he knew but couldn’t name. Blood. That’s why she was so white. Her blood filled the bed behind her and spread a blanket on the floor. He moved round and stepped in it, leaping out again, but he had already seen the knife in her back. A second lay on the floor at his side of the bed. So much blood.
His clothes were in a dry pile by the window. He skipped over and grabbed them leaving a small pattern of toe prints. Somehow a smear of blood was printed from his foot onto his shirt. He dropped his clothes again and for the first time started to think logically. His memory began to creep back. He was in the Golden Lion Inn, overlooking Preston market square. He had to get out. But between him and the door was the blood lake. He could not have blood on his shirt, his hands or his face. What should he do? How quickly must he do it? What was the hour?
Noises below. Muffled voices. Indistinct shouting. Laughter.
A blanket lay crumped close to the unsheathed dagger. He grabbed it and rubbed ferociously at his hands and face. Small flecks of the dry stain were taken by the abrasive vigour of his action but most remained. His mind said he could hide his hands but not his face. He found the window and knew the time, for the day was well underway with the market below. There was too much light for the glass to be a good mirror but there was sufficient grime on the glazing to give a slight silvering and show him the contrast between innocence and guilt. There was a stain all about one eye and on both cheeks. A little water could clear him, but water there was none.
An ale jug stood by the wall at the dry side of the deathbed. There was a just a little left in. He poured it on his hands and wiped it all round his face then took to the blanket again and rubbed hard. There was nothing else he could do, there was no more liquid in the room except for that which would incriminate him. He got dressed. The stain on his shirt could be almost hidden by fastening his doublet tight but one cuff signalled suspicion. He pulled his hat as much over his brow as he could. Dressed and shod he was as ready to leave as an arrangement of clothing could concoct. Between him and the door lay the crimson lake. Beyond the door was the passage and the stairs and then the drinking parlour where he must surely be challenged. He had no option; that was the way he must go.
He threw the blanket on the blood and stepped on it. In a single move he opened the door and, without looking, stepped out onto the corridor then scuttled down the stairs and through the parlour. It was empty, probably. He didn’t pause to look and no one called to challenge him.
He was amid the market and edged and bustled his way through the traders and their customers. He felt sure he must not have eradicated the stain on his cheeks. He powered on, keeping the Golden Lion Inn at his back. By sheer good fortune, or the benevolence of kindly spirits, he found himself heading towards the shambles, where the butchers turned livestock into dead meat.
Without a pause for rational thought, he executed a comedic stumble and fell slithering onto the stone sets where the slaughtering took place. He made sure his cheek and both hands splattered against the slime, and then in his supposed daze put his palms to his face. The laughter told his tumble had been generously witnessed. A butcher cursed and kicked him but it was sweet pain. Now he was truly blooded head to toe, and many could bear witness how it had occurred. He suffered a few more obscenities before gathering his composure and easing his way across the square in the direction of the Stony Gate road.
A few were gathered at the gate and his blood-smeared appearance spawned smirks but a self-deprecating shrug seemed to satisfy them and then he was out of the town, and a mere two hours’ traffic from the tower.
His waist was grabbed and he fell tumbling to the roadside ditch.
He rolled in a wrestle of thrashing limbs, his hat was over his eyes, but he crabbed to one side and stood ready to let fists fly, or to leap for an escape.
Fulk – his fellow player from Hoghton – faced him.
“Will? What’s this?”
The other players, Andrew, Solomon and Piers, emerged from the foliage in the ditch.
“You’re covered in blood.”
“Next to me,” said Will. “In the Golden Lion. Blood everywhere. Next to me.”
Piers said, “Is this her blood?”
“Some of it.”
“Did you strike her?”
“No, no. No.”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. We drank a lot. We talked.”
Will shouted “I don’t know!”
Andrew calmed him. “Easy, Will.”
Will swallowed air, then said, “She took me to her bed, then I fell asleep, then woke and she was dead. One knife in her back and another near my hand.”
Piers questioned. “Whose were these knives?”
“Hers I think.”
“She wore one at the tower,” said Fulk. “I saw it.”
“Do you remember a fight?” asked Piers.
“There was no fight.”
Solomon spoke. “Someone did it while you slept, then made it seem like you had done what they had.”
“And that is how it looks,” said Will.
Piers said, “Anyone in the inn that you recognised?”
“I know no-one in this town.”
Fulk said, “You know one less now.”
“But I gave my name to the tapster.”
Piers said, “Which name?”
“Well no one knows you’re at the tower.”
Fulk said, “She and her kind do.”
“Lord Alexander will protect you,” said Piers
Andrew broke the silence. “We should get moving. Go to Lea. Down to the river and if the tide is right we can be there in the hour. Martin would ferry us. He’s trustworthy.”
The group was quiet while Piers considered. “And if the tide is wrong?”
“Walk the bank path. And if it comes to the worst we push Will in the water. That’ll wash things out.”
“One of us will have to go back to the tower. Tell the news.”
“All of you do,” said Andrew. “I’ll take Will. Martin is my cousin. He’ll keep good peace for me.”
“Let’s not delay,” said Piers.
So Will and Andrew split from the others and hurried down the road to reach the bridge well ahead of them. Then they made their way along the Ribble bank until they came to ferry points. Andrew stopped at one and spoke to the boatman. Fortune was with them. The tide had turned some two hours earlier and Andrew’s cousin Martin, steered and rowed them downstream with speed and ease.
Martin smiled at Will but hardly spoke to him and made no comment regarding his appearance. The sky was still thickly overcast but a dull sheen flecked the surface of the water. Its serenity lulled Will and his recollections began to gather a little more coherently. Parts of the conversation he’d had in the inn came back to him: what she had said about his father and how it had had both a ring of falsehood and a chime of truth about it. He remembered too, the penetrating courage of her gaze, and how predatory and yet compelling it had been. She was a falcon. She was a witch. And now she was neither.
Now she was a ghost.
The above extract was published in the Lancashire Evening Post on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death: Saturday 23rd April 2016.
Another excerpt from the novel can be read in my earlier post: Sliced Mistletoe
The historical background to the book can be read in my earlier post: Where there was a Will
More recent archaeological revelations are reported in the post prior to this one: Finders Keepers
The novel is available as an eBook and as a paperback from Amazon.
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