Only the haunting call of a distant owl broke the silence of the night. John of Gaunt flicked his cloak behind him as he strode toward the royal apartments. Two paces behind shuffled Cramper, puffing and wheezing.
“That fool boy needs our counsel,” gasped Cramper. “He is too young to see for himself what needs to be done. The situation is urgent.”
Minutes earlier, King Richard had been woken from a troubled sleep. In the council chamber, his valet had hurriedly lit five fat candles. Their dim glow cast soft shadows on vast Bordeaux tapestries that dominated three of the walls and the sturdy oak table littered with books, ledgers and maps. Richard yawned and stretched impatiently.
The Regent and his weasel-faced assistant were ushered into the room. Richard spoke first as protocol demanded.
“Greetings Uncle, what reason do you need me at ungodly hour?” he snarled.
“Please accept my apologies, sire.” Richard noted the sarcastic tone but forced his face muscles into a fixed smile. “Cramper’s news can wait no longer. His agents report to us day and night about major gatherings of armed men in Kent and Essex. The situation has deteriorated further over the last forty-eight hours. What we thought at first to be random unrest, now looks more like a well-organised plan of attack.”
Richard straightened his silk night robe with one hand while running his hands through his flowing, blond locks with the other. After a few seconds thought, he whispered in his secretary’s ear. The man hurried from the room.
“Who is behind this trouble?” Richard asked.
“Difficult to be sure, sire, though our spies hear rumours.”
“Rumours? We need more than common tittle-tattle.”
“Of course sire, though the same names crop up time and again. John Ball, Wat Tyler …” Cramper shuffled from the shadows and picked up the thread.
“These men are the mere pawns, sire. Less than an hour ago, my men arrested a storyteller, who told us of the real treachery.”
“Who has betrayed me?”
“The storyteller knows no details, but tells how a young knight was despatched from a lord in the north east to carry a secret message to Maidstone. We’ve been watching Montfort of Guisedale for some time. He is known to sympathise with our enemies. My men followed a group of riders that hurried from his castle at about the same time, and they bolted when my sergeant challenged them. One of them escaped. We’ve put a price on his head. The storyteller dictated the message he was asked to memorise to my secretary. We are still trying to decode it. The man actually asked for a reward.”
“And will he get one?” the King enquired.
“Oh yes, sire. He’ll certainly get what’s coming to him. I shall see to it myself.” Cramper curled his lips, relishing the prospect.
The King stroked his eyebrow. “You have bid me stay quiet until now and not speak to the people of England. Is this still your advice, sir?”
His regent had come well-prepared. He withdrew a parchment from his pocket. “Sire, I have drawn up a proclamation, to be announced by you on the morrow.”
As Richard read the document his face turned puce with rage.
“These are the words of a weakling, not a king.” Gaunt tried to interrupt, but was cut off. “I am tired of following instructions.” He flung the parchment to the floor. “The time has come for me to stand up, like a man. I am King of England.”
“Indeed you are, sire. The people love you and they will return to their villages if you make this proclamation. With your help, calm heads may still prevail.”
“You mean you may still prevail,” Richard rasped bitterly. “I warned you months ago, the latest taxes were set too high.” The young King rose from his chair and stomped to the window. “The peasants are tiresome, but we have pushed them too far.”
John of Gaunt’s patience was exhausted, but he fought the urge to respond. Unless things went his way, one day this foppish boy would rule with full authority, with no need of a regent.
“Sire, a country in revolt cannot be properly governed.”
Richard stood straight, and pushed back his shoulders. “Governed by you, Uncle … or by me?”
Spragg gave Tyler a report on the defences at the prison, then slipped into the saddle behind Guy. His stomach was still heavy with bread and cheese washed down with ale. Alongside them rode Rowan, looking equally uncomfortable on a sturdy mare. Two hundred men lined up behind.
“Releasing John Ball won’t be easy, the prison be heavily guarded, ” Spragg whispered to Guy.
“Keep your eyes open and stay close,” Guy advised.
Spragg need not have worried. As soon as the four prison guards on the gate saw the approaching horde, they scrambled inside quick as sewer rats. Tyler galloped into the muddy courtyard unchallenged.
“Right lads, the gaoler knows he’ll lose his head if he loses a prisoner, so he won’t want to lose either. I doubt he’ll be as accommodating as those spineless oafs on the gate.”
He spoke to Guy. “Go with my lieutenant and accompany half the men to the east wing, I’ll go west. Leave the priest outside.”
Spragg shivered when he saw the sorry state of prisoners of all ages cowering on dirt floors crawling with cockroaches. The whole place smelled like a dung pit on a hot summer’s day.
Prisoners began banging the walls and doors with their wooden piss pots. Above the din, Spragg heard a loud cheer from the other side of the building. He reached the main courtyard just in time to see Tyler standing on the first-floor landing swinging a man’s severed head from side to side.
“Seems I was wrong, the gaoler did lose his prisoner,” he triumphed, “and his head.” Spragg was appalled at this brutish act.
“Tyler prices life cheaply,” he told Guy. “We must stay on our guard.” When they looked up again, an imposing figure strode out onto the balcony. Fiery eyes flanking a large, flared nose seemed to fix every man individually. Broad shoulders and a thick neck supported a completely bald head. It was only the habit hanging carelessly about his substantial frame that marked him out as a cleric. John Ball raised his hands to get the crowd’s attention.
“Brothers, God be with you all. The King and his friends will soon learn, to their cost that you cannot imprison freedom. A man may be confined within four walls, but his words are free as the birds of the air. God willing, we will prevail!” His audience exploded into a frenzy of wild shoving and shouting.
Tyler called his lieutenants together and brandished the gaoler’s keys. “Release the prisoners,” he ordered. “Any fit enough can come with us to Barking. Leave the rest to rot.”
Spragg remained suspicious of Tyler’s true motives. “If the rebels succeed I suppose there’d be jobs and riches for them that fought on the winning side?” he asked Guy.
“Yes, but Tyler is not in this just for glory,” he replied. “Remember, the man is a soldier and soldiers love a fight.” The prisoners began to file out beyond the walls of the prison to the road outside to join the rebel ranks. Ball spotted Rowan and slapped him heartily on the back.
“Good to see you, my friend. I have plans for you in Canterbury. Grand plans. Prepare for greatness,” he chuckled. Tyler caught up with Spragg and Guy outside the gate.
“God-thanks. Without you boys I couldn’t have organised all this. With these extra men and those mustering elsewhere, we have strength in numbers and victory will surely be ours.”
Spragg could hide his feelings in no longer. “Why’d you kill that gaoler for no reason?”
“Ah sweet youth, you’ve never been to war. Men need a leader such as me, a real man who they know will stop at nothing. Do you think most of the rogues here are angels? If I can’t spread fear, tough men will sense weakness. We go soon to the city of London to confront a king’s army.”
Guy understood something of leadership from tales he’d been told, but Spragg’s conscience struggled with the use of violence to achieve anything, however logical it may seem. Rowan embraced John Ball, then Spragg asked Tyler what would happen next.
“I’ve given the men the night to celebrate, it may be the last chance they get. Tomorrow John Ball bids us go to Canterbury. He has business there that needs our support.”
Spragg prayed it did not involve chopping off more heads.