It’s been a while since I sat down with Richard to hear about his life. It might have been longer if it hadn’t been for the Friends of Stank Hall Barn. They invited me out to take a look at the building they’re trying to renovated in Beeston. It’s a remarkable place, one of the oldest secular buildings in Leeds, dating from around 1450. While I was there, one of the members suggested it might be a good setting for a Richard Nottingham story. And it is, in part, at least.
Originally I’d planned to publish this as a standalone short story on Amazon. In the end, for many reasons, I decided against that. Instead, it’s here, for everyone, not just those with a Kindle or Kindle app. And it’s free. But I’d like to ask one thing. It’s your choice, but if you can, please donate a little money to the Friends of Stank Hall Barn. Your choice of how much, how little, or nothing. No names, no pack drill. You can read about the Bran, the work that’s going on, and give your money here. Whatever you do, here’s the story, and I hope you like Richard’s return…
And, of course, you can follow the links on the site here to buy the Richard Nottingham books (I’m told that Gods of Gold, the start of a series Victorian series, isn’t bad, either!).
Richard Nottingham stood close enough to the bonfire to feel its heat. It was comforting on bones that chilled too quickly these days. Something sparked, and a tangle of flares spiralled up into the darkness.
‘Did you see that?’ Mary asked, and he saw the wonder on her face, caught in the light. He squeezed his granddaughter’s hand lightly.
Farther up Briggate, by the Headrow, there was another fire burning, one more on the far side of Leeds Bridge. Every year the same celebration of Gunpowder Treason Day. Remember, remember, the fifth of November…the rhyme caught in his mind.
The Town Waits had paraded up and down, playing their music with a raucous scrape of fiddle and bellow of horns. The members of the Corporation had followed, the mayor nodding grandly, the others looking embarrassed at being on display. He’d seen Tom Williamson, the merchant, marching among them and given a small wave. Then, close to the back, the Constable of Leeds, his son-in-law, Rob Lister, face grim as he took his place in the parade.
Men had been loud and full of ale, firing off their guns, the way they did at every holiday. But he could detect the fear behind it all, so strong he could almost smell it. Prince Charlie had gathered his army in Scotland and soon he’d be crossing the border to make his claim for the throne. When that happened, the gunfire would be in earnest.
Rob would have to fight. Everyone would. 1745 was a dangerous year to be alive.
‘Grandpapa?’ Mary asked, staring up at him. ‘What happens now?’
‘Now I take you both home,’ he said with a smile. ‘You should have been in your bed long ago. Where’s your brother?’
She pointed with a small, chubby fist at a boy running round the blaze with all the others.
‘Richard,’ he called. ‘Come on now.’
The lad stopped suddenly, a crestfallen expression on his face. He was eight, a wild mop of hair on his head that refused to be tamed by a comb, with his father’s rangy body and his mother’s soft features. His sister, three years younger, looked completely different. Every time Nottingham looked at her he saw Rose, the daughter who’d died so soon after she was married. She had the same gentle manner, but underneath it all the steel of her mother, Emily. A few more years, he felt sure, and the tussle of wills would begin.
Before they moved away down Kirkgate he glanced back towards the Moot Hall, only the white statue of Queen Anne visible in the firelight. Two horsemen were dismounting, people crowding around them, too far away to make out anything but heavily bundled shapes.
Richard kept running ahead then dashing back, making a game of it, the way he did with everything. But why not? He had all the joy in the world. Well-fed, a family to care for him. Let him enjoy it while he could.
Mary clung to his hand as he walked. He was leaning a little on the stick. Some days he needed it, others he felt as if it was more for show. But better to have it with him when his legs grew tired.
The Parish Church sounded the hour as they passed. Eight o’clock. As he breathed out he could see his breath bloom in the crisp air. He wished his own Mary could be with him, to walk at his side instead of lying in the graveyard, here to see her grandchildren grow and tumble and laugh and cry. The little girl named for her and the boy after him. At Timble Bridge he paused for a moment to stare down at the beck. The water seemed so loud in the silence all around.
‘What do you see, Grandpapa?’
‘Just memories,’ he told her softly and hoisted her in his arms so her face was next to his. ‘Do you see them?
He felt her nod, her hair tickling his face.
‘They makes me feel sleepy,’ she said, settling against him. ‘Can you carry me home?’
The door was open wide. The boy had run ahead, bursting into the house, full of words and excitement. By the time Nottingham arrived, still carrying Mary, he’d almost finished, taking a deep breath before the last sentence.
‘Then they lit the bonfires and everyone looked happy and we ran round and round. There were people firing guns and Papa looked very important when he went by.’
Emily smiled. The books for tomorrow’s lessons were open on the table. She still taught at the charity school she’d founded. Not as often these days; running it and raising money took time. Lucy, the girl who’d once been their servant, took most of the classes these days.
‘If you were just running, how did you get so dirty?’ she asked. ‘Go and wash before bed.’
Mary wriggled out of his arms and ran to her mother to be cuddled.
‘How was it?’ Emily asked him. She looked tired as she brushed a strand of hair off her face. But with all the work she did, the weariness seemed to have seeped into her skin.
‘The same as ever.’ He shrugged. ‘The children love it.’
‘Any news from the north?’
‘Not yet. But I saw two men riding in as we left. Maybe they know something.’
Rob and Emily had married shortly before Nottingham had retired as Constable of Leeds, eleven years before. The corporation demanded it, in order to give Lister the position; any other arrangement was sinful and abhorrent. Emily had never wanted marriage. To her, it seemed like putting chains on love. But in the end, practicality won over principle.
The house on Marsh Lane came with the job. Nottingham had been prepared to move out, to find lodgings somewhere and leave the place to them. But they’d insisted he stay, adding a room large enough for a bed, a chair and a cupboard. He needed no more than that.
He ate with them, then spent his evenings alone, thinking or walking. Sometimes he’d call at the White Swan for a mug or two of ale. But these days, when he strolled around Leeds, he saw too many ghosts. The people who should still be alive but weren’t. Mary for one, and John Sedgwick, his deputy, his shade still lanky and grinning as he loped around town.
‘You,’ Emily told her daughter as she tickled the girl under her arms, ‘I want you in bed.’
‘Yes, mama.’ She strode off into the kitchen. Charlotte, the servant who’d been with them since Lucy left to marry her young man, would look after her.
‘Do you think they’ll come, Papa?’ Emily asked. He didn’t need to ask who. It was all anyone had talked about since the summer. Unless General Wade and his troops managed to stop them, they’d come.
‘Let’s hope not,’ he said quietly, placed a hand on her shoulder, then went through to his room and settled in the chair.
He must have fallen into a doze. Someone was shaking him. He opened his eyes and saw Rob standing there, his face serious and grim.
‘They’ve crossed the border at Carlisle,’ he said.
He was instantly awake and alert.
‘How long ago?’
‘Two days. Wesley rode in this evening with the word.’
‘The preacher?’ Nottingham asked. The last time he’d been here, two months before, a crowd had heckled and stoned him when he stood in front of them.
‘Yes. He’s staying in Leeds tonight then going south.’ Lister rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I’ve spent the last few hours with the magistrates, making plans. By the time I came out, town was deserted. Just a handful of children left by the fires.’
‘Can you blame them?’ Rob asked.
He’d grown into a lean man, but the ready smile he’d possessed when he was younger had never vanished. And he’d become a good constable, handling his men fairly, a just, responsible man, a fine husband and father. But this would test him. It would test them all.
‘What can I do to help?’
‘I do have something, boss.’ It was still the word he used, as if he took pleasure in saying it, although the days when Nottingham was constable were only wispy memories. ‘There’s someone I need to bring to the jail from Beeston tomorrow. I’m going to be busy until…’ He didn’t finish the sentence. No one knew yet how it might end.
‘You want me to collect him?’
‘I’d be grateful. I’ll make sure you’re paid.’
He didn’t need the money. There was a small pension from the job, enough for his wants.
‘Just tell me what you need.’
‘It’s a man called Ned Taylor. I had a murder three months ago, and two of the witnesses swear he did it. A farmer out there’s holding him. All you need to do is bring him back here. It’s nothing you didn’t do a hundred times when you were working. There’ll be a horse at the ostler for you.’ He unbuckled the sword from his belt and put it on the bed. ‘Take it. Better to be armed than not.’
‘Are you sure you want me for this?’
‘I think I can still trust you with the small jobs, boss.’ He gave a deep sigh. ‘I’m going to need all my men. God only knows what’s going to happen. Will you do it?’
Nottingham woke early, the way he’d done all his life. Still full night beyond the window, the first hushed songs from the birds outside in the trees. He’d dreamed he was young again, that there weren’t enough hours in the day for all he wanted to do, and that his love was new. Then he opened his eyes.
He dressed for the weather, the ancient greatcoat on top of everything else; these days it almost seemed too large for his body. In the kitchen Charlotte had the cooking fire lit and dough rising in the bowl. He took the heel of a loaf and a piece of cheese, winking at the girl, and stole out of the house before the children could come clattering downstairs with their endless questions.
He paused by the church, standing for a moment by the graves of his older daughter and his wife. They lay side by side, the grass long since grown over them. A few yards away, John Sedgwick. A small bunch of withered flowers was propped against the headstone; his widow, Elizabeth, must have visited a few weeks before.
At the top of Kirkgate he passed the jail. Lamps were burning inside, and he saw Rob’s silhouette as he bent over his desk.
Saturday morning, and down Briggate men were setting up the trestles for the cloth market. It was still two hours before the bell would ring, but they were already working steadily. The inns were open, the smells of roasting beef and ale floating out on the air.
Nottingham turned on to Swinegate, past the mill and into the ostler’s yard. A lad was shovelling dung, adding it to a pile against the wall. How many years since he’d been here, he wondered? Not since his retirement, that was certain.
But there was a gentle mare for him, and the stable boy adjusted the stirrups. He’d forgotten how strange it felt to be up so high, easing the animal into a walk along the road, through all the night soil tossed from the windows, then over Leeds Bridge, the river flowing dark and dangerous beneath.
He passed men on the road, on their way into Leeds, travelling in ones or twos and leading packhorses laden with cloth, the hope of a good price bright in their eyes.
There was no hurry, he decided as he turned and set out along the road to Dewsbury; he had all day. Dawn was just rising in the east, a band of blue glowing across the horizon. Clear skies and a chill in the air. But soon enough there’d been a pale November sun with its faint hint of warmth to last him through the day.
Out here, away from the town, it was all farms and fields. A few buildings and an inn at a crossroads. A man came out carrying a bucket and slopped the contents on the ground.
‘Stank Hall?’ Nottingham asked.
The man pointed along the road, eyes carefully assessing the stranger. There’d be much more of that soon, he thought. People would suspect anyone out on the road.
‘About two mile,’ he said after a few moments. ‘Off to your left, up a rise. You can’t miss it.’
‘Thank you.’ He smiled as he spoke. ‘How’s the ale?’
‘Good enough,’ the man conceded with a nod. ‘Brewed last Sunday.’
‘I’ll try a cup.’
He climbed down off the horse, tying the reins to a branch, then stretching. He’d covered little more than a mile, but his legs and back ached already. The only horse he’d known in the last few years was Shank’s pony. Nottingham smiled ruefully; after this, he’d be sore for days.
The landlord appeared with a mug and he took a drink. None too bad; there was some taste and bite to it.
‘Where are you from?’
‘What are they saying there?’ the man asked, as if it was on the other side of the county.
‘The Scots have crossed at Carlisle.’
He saw the man’s eyes widen with fear.
‘Where are they now?’
‘They can’t have come too far. It only happened on Wednesday. And the Pennines should keep them away from us.’
‘Mebbe,’ the landlord answered warily. ‘And mebbe not. If they come we’re all dead.’
‘Then let’s hope they don’t,’ Nottingham said.
‘Where’s Wade and his army, anyway?’
‘I don’t know.’ He turned his head and gazed off to the northwest. Somewhere up there things were happening. People would be leaving, carrying what they could, making sure they were gone before the Young Pretender and his army arrived.
The man spat on the ground.
‘God help us all if he comes, friend.’
Nottingham drained the ale and wiped his mouth.
‘Indeed,’ he said as he remounted. ‘Look after yourself.’
He felt like the devil’s messenger, carrying bad tidings. Twice as he rode, men stopped him and asked for any news. He told them, seeing the way their faces darkened. No thanks, but that was no astonishment. Who could be grateful for words like those?
By the time he reached the small path up to Stank Hall, the sun was up, a fragile thing with no real heart. But better than a gale from the west. He reined in, stopping to gaze at the place. An old stone house built for the centuries, and next to it, in the low corner of a meadow, a barn of timber and limewash, slates missing from the roof.
Nottingham led the horse to a trough and let the animal drink as he gazed around. It was quiet out here. He’d become so used to the noise of Leeds, the voices, the carts and feet on the streets that the silence seemed as empty as the sky. Off in the distance a hawk circled, its wings spread wide, watching its prey before swooping down in a sudden dive to the ground. He followed it with his eyes, turning only as he heard a door open.
‘Who art thee?’ The woman stood with her arms folded and a knife in her fist.
‘Richard Nottingham.’ He took off his hat and gave a brief bow. ‘You have someone here to go back to Leeds.’
‘Tha’ll need to talk to mi husband first.’ She had a pinched face with hard, unforgiving eyes, half her teeth missing when she opened her mouth. Still, her clothes were clean, darned and mended often, and she wore heavy men’s boots over thick woollen hose.
‘Where is he?’
‘In t’fields.’ She put two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle. Two short blasts. ‘That’ll bring ‘im.’
‘Where’s the man I’ve come to collect?’
‘In t’barn.’ The woman gave a cruel smile. ‘Tha’s welcome to him, too. Let someone else feed him.’ She closed the door and he was alone again.
The doors to the barn were open wide, the ground outside heavy with mud and cow dung. Nottingham picked his way through the worst of it, trying to keep his balance, one foot sliding into a puddle.
Inside, it was dark. He stood, letting his gaze adjust to the gloom. An earth floor, scattered with straw. Plinths for the thick tree trunks that held up the roof. Paths of grey flagstones leading here and there. But he couldn’t see a man.
Finally he heard it. A small groan coming from the far corner. He strode across the room. There, hidden in the shadows behind a pale of hay, he saw him.
He was lying on the ground. The flesh all over his face was raw, his hair thick and matted. All he had was a shirt and a pair of filthy, torn breeches. No stockings or boots, no coat. His arms and calves covered with heavy bruises.
The man’s wrist were bound with rope that had cut through his flesh. A chain had been wound around his waist and fastened to one of the supports.
‘Are you Ned?’ The man stared fearfully, trying to push himself away. But there was nowhere to go once he backed up against the stones of the wall. ‘There’s no need to be scared,’ he continued softly. ‘I’m Richard Nottingham. I’ve come to take you away from here.’
He glanced around. Three yards away stood a jug. It was a taunt, just too far for Taylor to stretch. Nottingham knelt, feeling the ache in his legs, and picked it up. He sniffed the liquid. Brackish water. But it was all there was and better than nothing
‘Have a drink of this.’ He tipped a little into the man’s mouth. Only a few drops at first, barely enough to moisten his lips. Then a little more as Taylor gulped at the water gratefully. Somewhere beneath the grime he had a young face. Twenty or less at a guess. Not old enough to remember Nottingham as constable.
What in the name of God had happened here?
‘You’re Ned?’ he asked again. ‘Ned Taylor?’
The man gave a wary nod. Then his gaze moved to the side and Nottingham saw his fists clench.
He turned to see a man standing in the doorway. Slowly, he pushed himself up.
‘Thee from Leeds?’ the man asked.
‘That’s right. I’ve come to take him back.’
‘About time, an’ all.’ He took a ring of keys from the pocket of his coat.
‘What have you done to him?’
The man shrugged.
‘He tried to steal two of my chickens about a week back. Caught him and put him in here.’
Nottingham came closer. The farmer was a squat man, arms and chest heavily muscled from years of work.
‘How did you find out anyone was looking for him?’
The man gave a dark smile and shrugged
‘Nowt difficult about making a man talk if you do it right. I told them in Beeston he were here. I suppose they sent word to thee.’
‘I suppose they did.’ He glanced down at Taylor. The man was cowering, trying to make himself small. His bruises were fresh, the dark colours bright. ‘You caught him a week ago?’
‘Close enough. Don’t keep close track of the days out here.’
‘Someone’s beaten him more recently than that.’
‘My lads like a little sport when they finish work. Makes a change from taking the dogs out to course hares. Trying to thieve from us, he had it coming.’
‘Where are your sons now?’
‘Off hunting. Not much to do this time of year. They might as well find some meat for the table afore we have to kill the pigs.’
‘How was Taylor dressed when you found him?’ Nottingham asked.
‘Way thee sees him.’
‘Really? I don’t believe you.’ He put his hand on the hilt of the sword and stared at the farmer. ‘I’ll ask you again: how was he dressed?’
He saw the man’s gaze slide down to his boots for a moment. They weren’t new, but they were solid enough. The stockings were worn, but they were wool; they’d help a man on the road.
‘Tha can have him as tha finds him.’
‘No,’ Nottingham told him. ‘I’ll have him as he arrived.’
‘Tha reckon, dost tha?’ The farmer chuckled.
He didn’t bother to answer. He began to pull the sword from its scabbard, drawing it halfway out before the man held up his hands.
‘He’s the bloody thief, not me.’ But he bent and unlaced the boots, then removed the socks, standing barefoot on the dirt floor.
‘Unlock him,’ Nottingham ordered.
The key scraped as it turned, then the chains fell away from Taylor.
‘Thee can have ‘im, for all the good it’ll do you,’ the man said. ‘But I’ll give tha fair warning. Tha’d best be gone before my lads come back, and don’t show thisen around here again.’
He strode away.
‘Hold your hands out,’ Nottingham said, and sawed at the bonds around Taylor’s wrists with his knife. As the rope fell away he could see the wounds, already festering, scabbed flesh meeting blood and pus. Taylor flexed his fingers and winced. ‘Have another drink and put on your boots. Then we’ll get you back to Leeds.’
How, though? He watched Taylor struggling to stand, weak, bruised. He wouldn’t be able to walk all the way to town and the mare wasn’t strong enough to seat two. He sighed and shook his head.
It took ten full minutes before Taylor was ready and pushed up into the saddle. His fingers were so tight around the pommel that his knuckles were white. Nottingham looped the reins in his fist and began to walk back down the hill to the Dewsbury Road.
He watched Taylor breathe deep, savouring the freshness of the air and looking around.
‘First time on horseback?’
‘Yes.’ His voice was still a croak, but at least the look of terror had vanished from his face. Going so slowly, the man was safe enough up there. And he wasn’t likely to escape; Nottingham doubted Taylor would be able to run twenty yards and he’d be too scared to try riding off. Safe enough.
‘When did they feed you last?’
‘Yesterday morning,’ he answered after some thought. ‘Stale bread and some meat that had turned.’
‘They’ll find you something to eat at the jail. An apothecary to look at those wounds, too.’ He glanced over his shoulder.
‘They won’t come after us,’ Taylor told him. ‘Too cowardly for that.’ He was quiet for a minute. ‘You don’t look like a constable’s man.’
‘I’m not. You might say they’re all busy in Leeds. The Pretender crossed the border three days ago.’
‘Christ,’ Taylor said softly. ‘Where?’
‘Carlisle. If they come, it won’t be soon.’
‘They’ll want to butcher everyone.’
‘If they can. It won’t be that easy.’ Fifty yards passed before he spoke again. ‘The constable wants to talk to you about a murder.’
‘I know that. Why do you think I ran?’
‘Did you do it?’
‘Kill him?’ He stared ahead. ‘Does it matter?’
Taylor pursed his lips and gave a hollow laugh.
‘All they want is someone to hang.’
‘Is that what you believe?’
‘It’s true enough.’ He gave a shrug. ‘Folk say I was there, so I must be guilty. The noose will fit me as well as anyone else.’
‘Did you do it?’
‘No,’ Taylor answered simply. ‘Do you know who died?’
Nottingham shook his head.
‘My brother,’ the man continued. ‘My own brother. Who’d kill his own kin?’
‘Plenty,’ he answered. He’d seen it often enough. Brother, sisters, parents, children. No one was safe in this world. ‘Don’t you know your Bible?’
‘Just words in church.’
‘The first murder’s in there. One brother killed another.’
He remembered learning it, word for word. The tutor had beaten it into him, wanting the words written deep in his soul. The creation, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel…back when he was a merchant’s son, before his father threw him out along with his mother and he became a whore’s brat.
‘I didn’t kill Paul. Why would I?’
‘I don’t know,’ Nottingham told him. ‘I don’t know anything about it.’
‘You want the tale?’ Ned asked. Why not, he thought, it was better than silence. ‘Pass me that jug of water.’ He drank, spitting it out at first, then swallowing. ‘You know the Talbot?’
‘I do.’ There’d been a time when he knew it all too well, back when Landlord Bell ran the place. Cock fighting, whores, and half the criminals in Leeds. He’d had to spend more time there than he’d ever wanted.
‘We were in there, drinking, playing dice with two men we’d met. I went off to the jakes. Came back and one of them was holding Paul. He moved back and Paul just reached out for me.’ He paused, remembering. ‘I’ve never seen a look like that on anyone’s face.’
‘He’d been stabbed,’ Nottingham guessed.
‘Aye, that’s right,’ Taylor said slowly. ‘It was Saturday night, the place was full. I pulled the knife out and started shouting for someone to help.’
‘The other two had vanished?’
‘Gone. But I only cared about Paul right then.’ He shifted his grip on the pommel and stared up at the sky. ‘By the time someone came, he was dead. Bloody deputy started asking questions and people told him I’d been holding Paul. They saw me pull the knife out of him.’ He shook his head. ‘What would you have done? I ran. Kept running until that fucking farmer and his lads caught me.’
‘No one mentioned those other men?’
‘I tried to tell him. He didn’t want to listen.’ He turned his head. ‘Has anyone ever killed anyone you loved? Someone close.’
‘Yes.’ He didn’t want to say more. All these years and it was still raw. The guilt still rubbed against his heart.
‘What did you do?’
‘Less than I should.’
‘In a way,’ Nottingham said after a few moments.
But he hadn’t done it himself. He’d been too upright, he still believed in the power of the law then. It had fallen to Sedgwick and Rob to do what he didn’t have the guts to do himself. And that was the guilt that pressed down on him every night when he closed his eyes.
It had changed him. When the deputy was beaten to death, he’d gone after his killer, knowing he’d show no mercy. He let the anger boil and relished the shot that killed the man. It seemed like penance. But it wasn’t. When it was done all the old feelings still remained, roiling and painful.
‘You’re quiet, constable’s man.’
‘Just thinking. Remembering.’
‘Going to come and watch when they string me up? See me do Jack Ketch’s dance?’
‘No.’ He’d seen too many of them. He hadn’t attended a hanging since he retired. He didn’t need to see more death. But if the Pretender came, he’d have no choice. It was all in God’s hands.
‘What happened to that man?’ Taylor asked. ‘The killer.’
‘There were two of them. They disappeared.’
He’d never known the details; he’d never dared to ask, too afraid of a truthful answer.
‘Your friends take care of it?’
‘I could use some friends like that.’
‘It was a long time ago,’ Nottingham said. But all too often it felt like it had happened yesterday. There were still nights when he turned and could swear she was beside him. He’d reach out and feel her skin under his fingertips. But it wasn’t real. When his eyes opened, it vanished like smoke.
He could see the inn in the distance, two carts outside, a horse standing, ears pricked. The sun had lifted enough to blunt the edge of the cold. Autumn falling gently into winter. If a man didn’t know what was happening out in the world it might almost be peaceful.
A stone had worked its way into his boot, digging against his sole as he walked. Time to stop. Something to eat and drink, be ready for the final part of the journey.
Nottingham tethered the horse, knotting the reins to the branch.
‘Don’t try to leave,’ he warned, hand resting on the sword hilt. ‘I’ll find you.’
Inside, he ordered bread, cheese and a jug of ale, glancing back to make sure Taylor hadn’t tried to escape. But he simply sat there, staring around. As if he’d given up on life already.
‘Here, this will help.’ The bread was fresh and soft, the cheese still white, no mould clinging to the edges. Taylor took a long drink of the ale, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘I think I needed that more than anything.’ He dipped his head for a moment in thanks, then took a bite of the bread, a satisfied smile crossing his face. ‘That tastes right.’
Nottingham chewed slowly, washing the food down with sips of the ale. Taylor wolfed down his meal, reaching for the jug to refill his cup. Finally they were done, and Nottingham eased off his boot, shaking it to remove the stone, keeping a close watch on the prisoner for any sudden movement.
‘I thought you might try to run,’ he said as they moved slowly down the road. His legs were stiff, even after the rest, and he wished he’d brought his stick. But Leeds wasn’t too far. He would see it in the distance, beyond Hunslet. The towers of the churches, St Peter’s, St John’s, Holy Trinity, the smoke from the chimneys. They’d be there soon enough, back among the crowds and the stink.
‘Why bother? You’d find me, or someone else, or I’d end up on a Scotsman’s knife.’ Taylor sounded weary. He sat in the saddle with his shoulders slumped, letting his body move with the horse’s rhythm.
‘When you were playing dice that night, whose dice did you use?’ Nottingham wondered.
‘My brother’s. Same as always.’
‘Yes. If you don’t believe me, try them yourself when we get to the jail. They’ll still have them.’
‘Did you play the others for money?’
‘What do you think?’ Taylor asked, as if it was a stupid question.
‘Who was winning?’
‘Paul. Five pennies up when I went to the jakes. When I came back, the money had gone.’
Five pennies. Hardly worth a life. But he’d seen blood shed for far less. Careless words when men were deep in their cups. A look. He’d come close enough to being killed himself before. His body was a map of scars. Wrinkled these days, growing flabby in some places, thin and weaker in others. Once he’d been so proud of his hair, wearing it long and tied back by a ribbon. Now what remained was straggly, coarse and grey. All that vanity worth nothing.
‘Did you see the other men leave? Could you describe them?’
‘They weren’t local,’ Taylor said. ‘Acted as if they’d been on the road a while. I was looking after Paul, trying to get him some help. He died right there with my hand under his head.’ He pointed to a dark patch on his shirt, lost among the dirt of the last weeks. ‘You see that? That’s his.’
‘What work did you do?’
‘This and that,’ Taylor said quietly. ‘Nothing steady. Nothing that pays on offer these days.’
He knew what that meant. Work for a little while, then let it go when he’d had enough. Drift. Thieve, gamble.
‘What was your last job?’
‘Setting up the trestles on market day. Cloth market in the morning, move them up Briggate for the ordinary market when it was over. Clear everything away when it was done.’ Honest work, hard work, but only two days a week. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Taylor told him. ‘I can see it on your face.’
‘And what’s that?’ Nottingham asked.
‘That you reckon you know me. My sort.’ He stared, eyes dark and angry.
‘You’ve stolen before.’
‘I have,’ Taylor admitted. ‘And what about you? Are you so bloody pure, constable’s man? You don’t look it.’
Of course he wasn’t. After his mother died and he was on his own, with no money, no one, he’d done whatever he needed to survive. He worked. He stole, and prayed he wouldn’t be caught.
‘No,’ he answered.
‘Then don’t judge me. Isn’t that what you Christians say? Judge not?’
‘Maybe they do. But it’s the law that judges.’
‘Aye, and the law’s fine if you have money. Show me a poor man who can find some justice.’
Nottingham stopped, tugging on the reins so the horse halted its pacing.
‘I’ll ask you once more: did you kill your brother?’
‘And I’ll tell you again. No, I didn’t. You can keep asking for the rest of the year and it’ll be the same answer.’
‘Right.’ He began to walk again. Each step brought a nag of pain moving down from his hip. Even limping, trying to ease the weight to his other leg, didn’t help.
‘We’ll be there very soon.’
He could see people moving about on the streets. Light glinting off windows. He could smell the place, so familiar, so welcoming, so full of his past.
‘There’s no rush,’ Taylor said. ‘They’re only going to hang me.’
‘That’s for a jury to decide,’ Nottingham reminded him.
‘We might as well just carry on to Chapeltown Moor.’ He gave a weak laugh. ‘The jail’s just another bloody stop on the way.’
‘At least you’ll have a bed and food.’
‘For a while.’
‘Rob Lister’s a good man. He’s fair.’
‘He’s like everyone else. He only sees what’s in front of him.’
Had he done that, too? Seven years the Constable of Leeds. Had he hung innocent men? He’d never believed he had. When he’d been uncertain, he’d given the accused man the benefit of the doubt. It was too final, too brutal to risk being wrong. Was Rob that way, too? He’d taught the lad, but those lessons had ended eleven years before. Who was to say what he’d become since then? He’d watched when Lister came home with a wound or a beating from trying to capture someone. It could harden the heart; he knew that.
‘He’s fair,’ Nottingham repeated. It was the evidence of his own eyes, seeing Rob with Emily and his children.
A few folk stopped to stare as they crossed Leeds Bridge. Not so many around, too worried to be outside unless it was vital. What caught their curiosity, he wondered? A ragged man riding, or did they remember his face, surprised to see him working again?
He’d been happy to leave office. It was time. Time to let go of all that weight. It had simply grown too heavy for him. And since then he’d kept his distance. Rob asked his advice on this and that, and he gave it freely. But he never asked after the trials he read about in the Mercury. He’d bid all that farewell, gratefully. And now he was back. Once more. The final time, he hoped, although God alone knew they’d all be needed if the Scots came.
‘What are you thinking, old man?’ Taylor’s voice was almost a taunt.
‘About the past,’ Nottingham replied easily. ‘Like every other old man.’
‘But you still have a future,’ Taylor said. ‘I don’t.’
At the jail he waited as the man dismounted and led him inside. The building still smelled the same, feat, sweat, piss. Everything but hope. As if it was part of the stone and the wood. Hopkinson, the deputy, took Taylor through to a cell.
‘Simple enough?’ Rob asked. His face was drawn and his fingers were stained with ink from the quill pen.
‘The farmer who caught him mistreated him.’
‘Nothing I can do about that.’ He shrugged and stood. ‘Come on, let’s go next door. I’ll buy you a drink.’
At the White Swan they settled on the bench and Lister signalled for a jug of ale and two cups.
‘Thank you for doing that. I’ve been run off my feet all day. We’re looking at positions for defences.’ He ran a hand through his hair; there were already ample flecks of grey. ‘The problem is, we don’t know which way they’ll come.’
‘Or if they’ll come.’
‘They will,’ Rob said with certainty. ‘We just have to make sure we’re ready.’ He took a long drink and sat back. ‘Did Taylor give you any problems, boss?’
‘None.’ He smiled. ‘You should stop calling me that. You’re in charge now.’
‘Habit,’ Rob replied. ‘And you still deserve it. What did you make of Taylor?’
‘Honestly?’ Nottingham moved the mug in small circles on the table. ‘I’m not sure he’s guilty.’
‘He convinced you?’
‘No,’ he answered after a long pause. ‘But I’d want to ask some questions.’
‘What if I told you he was one of the best liars I’ve ever met and that I have two witnesses who saw him put the knife in his brother?’
‘The men they were playing dice with?’
Rob shook his head.
‘At the next table. I know one of them, he’s as honest as anyone who goes in the Talbot.’
‘That’s not saying a lot.’
‘I believe him, though. And as soon as Hopkinson arrived and began asking questions, Taylor ran. I was starting to think we’d never find him.’
‘So he’s guilty,’ Nottingham said bleakly.
‘He is, boss,’ Rob said quietly.
In one long swallow, Nottingham downed the rest of the ale.
‘Just as well I’m not in the job any longer.’ He stood. ‘I’m going home. It feels like it’s been a long day.’
‘I’ll still need you when the Scots come.’
‘There’s time enough for that.’
Slowly, painfully, he walked down Kirkgate and back towards Marsh Lane. To Emily and Richard and Mary. To the past, a sweeter country.