Bastard to the Crown
There was a hamlet, on the road to Crécy. A hundred souls and twice as many pigs. The English had fought and burned their way through France, but their train marched in silence through that place. There was no smoke, for the embers of night-fires had died out in the hearths; and the cows lowed that wanted the knowing hands and the milk-pail. The dogs did not bark, for every furry throat had been cut; and the families lay a-tangle in blood and bowels in their own beds. The children looked like sleeping angels who had their haloes removed with an axe.
There was great talk at all this, though the columns did not slow the march. Some companies sent out to round up beer and animals told of a bloody trail in the mud and grass from house to house, and gore-stained weapons left discarded where they fell, broken and useless from toil. Among the camp followers, looters and whores who prized off shoes and sewing needles whispered how the corpses on the western side of town were stiff, while those on the east were supple and fresh. Of a pair of lovers run through with a sword as the lay in a bed of straw, and how the same stable held a good stallion, which a captain added to his train.
It was a single line in the chronicle of war. Then came Crécy, and that tide of noble blood washed out all memory of the hamlet on the road. Some later day, the bodies were discovered and received burial by the French, who cursed the English.
They were 12 and 9, well-formed English boys with flowing locks, pale skin, and crooked teeth. The knight bore no sigil save a broken cross beneath a crown, and spoke not a word as he gave them their cloaks and led them from the room. The princes learnt more of the secret ways of the Tower in that final hour than all the months they had lived as prisoners in that castle. In some quiet tunnel miles away they rested, as the knight looked forward and back for pursuit. The Thames dripped from the wall and ceiling, and Edward held his cloak over Richard, who had sniffled at the cold and the damp.
When the knight returned, it was with a naked blade in one hand.
No one else heard their screams, or their prayers.
Thomas was old, but there was still strength in his hands and arms, and he had worked his blade with purpose and skill. The fogs of London were thick and choking compared to the mists of Scotland; they reeked of cheap gin and offers of cheaper quim, but they had not turned his head from his purpose. They had allowed him four, to cover the deed, and he had done a proper bit of work. A tide of blood to cover the whiff of scandal, and it had worked. It was, he thought, the last that Thomas would do to honor the crown and broken cross. Then he saw the man waiting for him as he went to board the coach to Glamis, and Thomas allowed himself a smile.
When he did not return, they walled off his room, and never spoke of him again.
She laid down the file, manila stuffed with vellum and foolscap pale against the dark skin of her hand.
“Why me?” The streets of London echoed in her voice.
“Malum necessarium.” Her handler touched his moustache. “Britain still needs bastards.”
He set a small badge before her, all shiny black and white, of a crown over a broken cross.
“There is a situation in Kosovo. It will provide cover for your initial assignment. Your blooding, if you care about the tradition of it all.” He brought out a thinner folder, and set it next to the badge. “A small village, near the war zone.”