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A Deadly List

Learmouth laid the first parchment flat and began to read, at some of the names even he, gasped in amazement, at the top of the list was,

Lord Frankham Kings Chancellor

De’Merly Merchant Valorholm

Charnley Merchant Valorholm

Sir John Rochester

Bishop Gormley of Durham

Lord Norwich Kings Warden

Admiral Sullivan Kings Ships

Lord Glendenning Kings Guards

Sir Mitchel Fitzgerald

Rickmansworth Merchant York

Sir Rob McEwan Warden of the Boarders

Lord Lewisham Kings Council

Lord Mordridd

 

Thirteen traitors and thirteen pieces of silver to bind the traitors to their evil covenant. Learmouth smiled then thought to himself, knowledge is power! Now how shall I use it? He looked again at the parchments, shaking his head slowly from side to side in wonderment this faded yellowing parchment scroll was priceless! To the best of his knowledge these noble and powerful men had never met as a group, so how and when had they all signed the parchment and did they know of each other, and if they did would any know all of them? What would Learmouth do in Blackmorns place? He would never disclose all of it, and neither would Blackmorn while he was still sane and yet, he had the vaguest feeling of disquiet a nascent sense of foreboding, what was it that troubled him? The list was where it should have been, it had lain undisturbed  for decades he knew it was impossible to fake the accumulation of dust. The parchments were the correct age he’d forged enough in his time to recognise genuine aging when he saw it ,and yet there was something he had not yet recognised, what was it?

 Still, time enough, he thought, travel back North as soon as possible.  Could he trust the Crone with this knowledge, perhaps some of it, he reasoned, but he would keep some back for security, after all knowledge is power, and the power of blackmail one of the strongest, for this list was a death sentence  just as sure as winter follows autumn. Another thing was certain, for the moment only he, Learmouth, knew them all. Play the long game he thought to his  innermost secret Mardokite self.

 

 

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Jealousy Conquers All Emotions

 Blackmorn was consumed by his jealousy of the young King Idris. That was it, thought Learmouth, it would have something to do with his hatred of the King. Learmouth stood back and looked again, going over every inch, still nothing, growing more and more exasperated he pondered again and again. Then he saw it, the Kings’ coat of arms, beautifully carved, coloured and painted centred on the top shelf of each bookcase! Blackmorn would never have allowed this in any of his Manors or Castles, thought Learmouth. He examined them closely, too far apart to be used together, and  Blackmorn would never trust anyone with this knowledge not even the Crone . I wonder, he thought after a good time had passed without result. He pressed one of the small embossed intricately carved coats of arms with his thumb and turned it upside down,  it clicked with a dull metallic sound, instantly he went to the other; this turn was no good, so he tried the other way, and click, the floor board nearest to the fireplace slid underneath the hearth.

The oaken casket, covered in dust, lay exactly where it had been for the last twenty year; clever little twist, thought Learmouth, the little insult of the upside down royal coat of arms known only to those clever enough, and of course Blackmorn at the beginning of his madness.

Learmouth lifted the casket from its hiding place and wrapped it in his cloak. The candle in the lantern guttering, Learmouth turned the embossed wooden coats of arms the right way up and the floor board slid back into place. The candle light guttered and died, as he crossed the kitchen in darkness Learmouth felt with his feet his way forward to the door, once outside there was just enough moonlight to lock the door with his lock- picking tool and to see the way back to his wagon and camp site.

Once there, quiet as a dormouse, he stowed the oaken casket between the wool bales and hid it from view. Learmouth’s curiosity was on fire, desperate to know the contents of the casket. But no, he had waited, plotted and schemed for twenty years, he could wait a little longer; he would return directly to the Admirals Halt and only then in the safety of his room would he open the oaken casket.

A Dangerous Drink

“I know you’re a bit young for this stuff but you’re welcome to a small glass if you wish.”

 He did not press them, simply left the glasses near their places. With a glass or two of mead on board even Jeb became talkative; Learmouth fetched a lute and began to play, Jeb sang in a surprisingly good voice the songs he had learned in his youth, sea shanties and songs of fishing boats. Jack and Rob pitched in with some songs of their own, Jeb’s lad banging his fists in time with the chorus. Without thinking Rob was first to sip some mead

“It’s really nice,” he said to Jack, “quite sweet”.                    

As the meal came to an end Learmouth offered them all a final toast saying, “Health wealth and happiness to all here.”

 As he refilled all the glasses except his own, neither Rob, Jack, Jeb or his lad noticed the sleight of hand as Learmouth gave them each a good measure of sleeping powder.

 “Down in one,” cried Learmouth and drank off his own. Jack and Rob wished them all a goodnight and went off to bed in the Manor House.

As they undressed for bed Rob said, “Goodness me Jack I’m a bit dizzy, I had some mead last Christmas but it wasn’t as strong as this.”

Jack didn’t answer because he was fast asleep, lying on top of his blanket. The last thing Rob remembered was the room beginning to spin as he too fell into a deep, deep sleep.

 At his encampment Learmouth watched Jeb and his lad very carefully, until one after another they slumped forward and fell deeply asleep at the table, resting their heads on the their arms.

 Learmouth took down a lantern and blacked it out leaving only a narrow slit for the light to escape, draped his black cape over his shoulders and made his way to the back door of the manor house. The locked door presented no difficulty as he picked it expertly, and silently entered the manor. Through the large kitchen, across a hallway, he followed the narrow slit of yellow light from his lantern until he reached the main hall. There at the end beside the inglenook fireplace were two solid wooden bookcases. Now which one thought Learmouth? He was in no hurry, the boys would be out cold for hours yet; he took off his cloak, laid it by the hearth and, using the slit of light from the lantern, began examining the bookcases for a concealed and secret compartment. Nothing on the first bookcase, nothing on the second; he looked again and again expanding his search around the fireplace of the well-cared-for hall, still nothing at all. Learmouth rested in the darkness for a moment, trying to put his mind in the same place as Blackmorns mind  when he had owned this Manor, and before the madness over took him entirely – where would Blackmorn hide the oaken casket?.

Jenkin’s Home

Stamford Manor lay basking in the evening sunshine when Learmouth arrived, and looked upon as fine an example of a manor house as could be found anywhere in England:  two storied, stone built with a fine grey slate roof, tall beech hedges separated the gardens and orchards full of apple, pear and plum trees. Smoke from one of the chimneys rose thinly in the gentle breeze that brought the smell of baking. Learmouth had done well as a wool trader, and he now had a large wagon almost full of wool-bales pulled by a team of four, as well as the two pack horses. Jeb and his lad riding on the wagon and Learmouth mounted as they crossed the ford, just a foot deep at this time of year. They passed a fenced paddock where two young men were practicing archery. Learmouth stopped for a while to watch them casually at first and then with increasing interest as he saw their obvious skill, these two had the makings of very fine bowmen indeed.

Jack and Rob noticed the wool trader and his wagon, gathered their arrows and walked off to meet him. Learmouth had taken to wearing a broad brimmed dark green felt hat so that his face remained in shadow, and despite his skeletal frame and features, he could, when he wished, assume quite a pleasant demeanour.

          “Good evening to you young Bowmen,” he said, “I compliment you on your marksmanship.” Rob and Jack wished him good evening in return and thanked him for the compliment.

“Might I enquire if the Master of the Manor is available and if he may have wool for sale, I see the shearing is done, but I still have room for a few bales and would like permission to camp for the night nearby.”

Jack replied, “Unfortunately our Master is visiting his daughter with his wife, his first grandchild due any day, and the last of the wool was sold last week, however, please put your team of horses in the paddock, there’s plenty of grass as you can see and water from the stream for them to drink.”

“I’m most obliged, young Sir, I’m John Morpeth,” he lied, “wool merchant, and this is Jeb and his lad, the lad is mute since birth, but is an excellent shearer for all that.”

Jack and Rob introduced themselves, going on to explain that this was Master Bowman Jenkins home and lands and they were apprenticed to him. Learmouth could be generous and charming when needed and he practiced these skills to their full extent. He needed a reason to stay overnight and so, while moving the wool wagon, contrived to loosen a wheel damaging the axel hub.

Jake and Rob repaired the wheel, since Jack had learned how to repair cart wheels with his father. In return Learmouth offered to pay them, when they refused he insisted that they join him in a meal at his camp.

“ We are very well provisioned, having beef and cold hams and all kinds of fruit, and he would be delighted with your company especially since Jeb was not very talkative and his lad didn’t talk at all,” said Learmouth. He borrowed a trestle table and chairs from the manor house and laid out a very pleasant open-air meal for them all. They talked freely of the wool trade, the terrible winter just passed, hopes of a good grain harvest, of archery and hunting, of Jenkins skills, and his wonderful teaching methods. At the end of the meal Learmouth brought out a bottle of mead saying,

“I know you’re a bit young for this stuff but you’re welcome to a small glass if you wish.”

Welsh Tom Regrets!

The late spring sunshine warmed him as he rode towards the south side of the estuary of the Wirral, he arrived at the Admiral’s Halt late in the evening, took a room and stable for the horse. At one time, Admiral Halt was a thriving prosperous place, but now fallen on hard times indeed, a refuge for smugglers, part time slave-traders and pirates if the chance arose. The Inn, such as it was, was a single storey, stone slate- roofed building with stables attached. The windows were covered in grime so thick that they were occluded, whilst dead and dying ivy covered the outside walls. Learmouth took a seat on the hard wooden bench that ran the length of the only public room. He ordered ale, bread and cheese and looked around the dingy place. Smoke from oil lamps filled the air in the room with a faint blue haze. He sensed all eyes in the room were looking at him, though none directly. Strangers did not often pass this way and some of those that did were never seen again. As his eyes adjusted to the poor light, he could see that the room was quite full. Ten or so men sat in groups around grimy tables on rough chairs, drinking from pewter tankards. The room had fallen silent when he arrived, but now low murmurs of whispered conversations began. A pretty blonde barmaid brought his food and ale, but she looked concerned. She whispered softly to Learmouth as she placed his meal upon the table in front of him.

“Perhaps the gentleman would prefer to eat in his room?” she said nervously glancing over her shoulder

“I believe I will eat here,” he answered, assertively.

She looked into Learmouth’s cold reptilian grey eyes, bobbed a curtsey and left.

          The men in the room were now staring openly at Learmouth –  the largest of them, a huge black- bearded man, barrel chested, wearing rough seaman’s clothes and a sleeveless leather jerkin. He had hook in place of his left hand and a dagger sheathed on a belt around his ample waist. A livid red scar ran from his hair-line  down the left side of his whiskered face. Learmouth appeared unconcerned as he watched the huge man cross the worn stone-flagged floor. He used his hook to drag a chair and sat, uninvited, opposite Learmouth, took a bite of bread and cheese from Learmouth’s plate with a lopsided grin that showed discoloured and missing teeth.

“It’s the custom here that strangers buy a tot of rum for me and my friends,”  He boomed as he waved his arm around the room.

  Learmouth could see the rest of the room leering in his direction. The pretty blonde barmaid was peering around the corner of the doorway to the cellar when Learmouth caught her eye.

     He smiled pleasantly, counted up and said, “Ten tots of your best rum please, my dear, no… make that eleven I will have one as well.”

The young barmaid filled the tots of rum into not too clean glasses, placed them on a tray and brought them over, trembling so much that they were spilling over.

“I be Welsh Tom,” he continued, “Who be you, stranger?”

At that moment, two of the men in the room changed their positions so that they were standing either side of Welsh Tom and intimidatingly close to Learmouth.

 “Tell about the stranger tax, Tom”, said one of the men grinning as he tossed down his rum.

“It be our custom here that strangers pay a tax.”

Welsh Tom hesitated, gauging Learmouth’s wealth,  “Twenty-five gold pieces.”

”Don’t ye forget the horse tax now!” yelled a man across the room.

“Aye thankee Ned, horse is ten gold pieces.”

“Don’t forget the horse-shoe tax!” cried another, and the room dissolved in laughter.

          Learmouth shook his head and looked directly into Welsh Tom’s darkened eyes saying, “Who I be is no business of yours, Welsh Tom.”

          The room fell silent. There was were not many  men alive who would dare speak to the gargantuan Welsh Tom in such a way. Behind the bar, the barmaid gasped loudly, dropped a flagon which distracted Tom’s two henchmen, forcing them to turn to see where the commotion was coming from.

Learmouth took the disturbance as an opportunity to reach for a hidden blade concealed in his boot . He grasped his dirty glass and splashed rum into Tom’s face. Tom attempted to step back as the drink burned his eyes, impairing his sight, he moved his left arm toward his face to wipe away the burning beverage. Learmouth, quick as a flash, slammed his blade through Welsh Tom’s right hand, between the bones and through into the table twisting the dagger forcing the tiny bones apart. Tom howled in pain, and his two companions turned back to see what had happened.  Learmouth kicked his own chair away, dove into his pocket and grabbed his coin purse which he kept tight in his fist and drove his fist through the jaw of the first henchman, then the second, leaving both men unconscious by Welsh Tom’s feet. Tom, still writhing in pain, glanced away from his hand at looked into Learmouth’s incredibly calm face. Learmouth smiled surprisingly softly, then grabbed Tom’s hooked left hand and drove it into the top of Welsh Tom’s own right shoulder.

Blackmorn’s List

Learmouth and the Crone were eager to bring back to life their old network of spies and informers, to accomplish this they needed Blackmorn’s list. They knew where it was concealed; a secret compartment under the floor- boards in the hall of Stamford Manor, the home for the last twenty years of Master Bowman Jenkins and his family.

In the secret compartment lay a small oaken casket, a miniature coffin inside it two parchment scrolls were concealed. One was a list of the thirteen conspirators and the other was a list of the lands, estates and treasure promised to each conspirator in return for their treachery.

Learmouth and the Crone were convinced that the oaken casket remained undiscovered because, while they did not know all the names, they did know of three; Charnley, De’Merly the merchants and of course Lord Mordridd. The contents of the small oaken casket were a death sentence to all that were named and Mordridd, Charnley and De’Merly still lived.

Attached to the signed list-of-names parchment was half of a small thin silver bar with the Blackmorn coat of arms etched into the metal. Each of the small thin silver bars was cut with a serrated edge, in a slightly different angle, through the centre of the coat of arms, so that each could only be a perfect match to the other half. A portable and deadly token to be matched as a proof of authenticity. One half remained in the casket, attached through a hole by a thin red ribbon beside each of the traitor’s signatures. The other half of the thin silver bar was kept by those that were named. If Learmouth could recover the oaken casket, then blackmail or simple fear would guarantee the revival of the conspirators ring, no matter the passage of time or how well they had done during King Idris’s peace.

 The oaken casket and its contents must be recovered at all costs, even the thought of other gaining possession of the small coffin shaped box was not to be countenanced. Learmouth smiled to himself, thinking that, though clearly insane at the end of his life, Blackmorn had at least been cunning enough to leave the oaken casket behind.

Learmouth and the Crone began planning the theft of the oaken casket, sitting by a roaring fire in the study. Learmouth would become an honest wool merchant; he would buy wool fairly, and at good prices in the north of the country. When he had sufficient produce, he would cross England from east to west at its narrowest point following Hadrian’s Wall, and there load the wool on to a trading ship to take him south to Anglesey. Once there, he would trade the wool for gold. The gold to be used to pay for the people he needed to help him steal the casket.

A Poisonous Little Thief

Learmouth intended to stay at Netherton until the spring. During the rest of the harsh winter he became a surrogate father to Mirless. He bought the boy a pony, taught him to ride, and took him for long rides out in the fresh air. He taught him that he need not beat the pony so that it would trot, canter, and gallop, and more importantly this cruel side of his nature must be deeply hidden from all eyes. Learmouth and the Crone could know but no one else. In the evenings, they would play innocent games such as hide and seek, and when Mirless became very adept at concealment, the Crone added lock-picking into his childhood play time.

         The Crone would lock the door to her chambers and hide inside while Learmouth taught him how to open locked doors without keys. During the day the Crone taught him to read and write and the beginnings of arithmetic, whilst spending more and more time outside with Uncle Learmouth, he was taught how to use the shrubs and wildflowers that grew locally, especially the poisonous plants. Gone was the pudding-basin haircut and the ill-fitting smocks, for he was now dressed as a young Lord of the Manor, and certainly looked the part.

For a special treat one early spring evening, for a very special reward, his own bow and arrows made especially for him, he was to break into his mother’s poison cellar and bring out a jar of hemlock without getting caught.  That evening, an excited but confident Mirless wished his grandfather and mother “goodnight” and politely went off early to bed.

 Once in his room he waited in silence for half an hour, opened his bedroom door, and came back down by the servant’s stairs and passed unnoticed out into the stable yard. In an unused stall at the end of the stable, he pushed away the straw on the floor, picked the lock and pulled up the concealed cellar door. There was just enough moonlight for him to see the steps down and the shelves filled with neat jars of poisons, he could not read well enough to tell which was which. Puzzled, he looked along the rows, he recognised HEM from the letters the Crone taught him and pocketed the jar hoping it was the right one.

He left the cellar, locked the hidden door and replaced the straw, and now he did something extraordinary for a boy of not quite seven: he retraced his steps back to the manor, but instead of going back to his own room, he picked the lock of Learmouth’s room, stole the bow and arrows, locked the door from the inside, opened the window and looked out to see if the Crones’ bed- chamber window was still open.  Seeing that it was, Mirless slung the bow and quiver over his shoulder and climbed along the ivy-covered wall and in through the window. He placed the poison on the Crones’ pillow as though it was a loving gift, and let himself out of the Crones’ room and went contentedly to bed.