Elegy – A Richard Nottingham Story

Richard Nottingham rarely makes an appearance these days. Right now, at least, my focus of Tom Harper (and The Leaden Heart is just out – please buy a copy!) However, eighteen months ago Richard was in Free From All Danger, the first book in several years to feature him. Yet people still seem to love him. They ask if there will be more. A few weeks ago I had a spate of requests that me me back into things I’d written about him. I came across this, a story I’d started and never finished.

This time I completed it, looking back into the far past, to Cold Cruel Winter, a pivotal novel for me. The second with Richard, my first for Severn House, one that was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal in 2011. It established him and it helped establish me.

Hopefully, this story – and it’s small, it’s personal (although longer than I expected) – does Richard justice.

 

 

Leeds, August 1736

Two years. It always surprised him. It should be longer, he thought. It felt longer. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock. A chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.

Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, brilliant light through the cracks in the shutters. He’d woken before first light, just lying in bed and letting his thoughts wander. He heard his daughter Emily leave to go and teach at her school. Then Rob Lister, her man, now the deputy constable in Leeds, had gone with his clank of keys and the solid tread of his boots across the boards. Lucy the servant moved around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.

Life went on.

He poured water in the ewer and washed, then dressed in old breeches and thin woollen stockings.

 

The road was dusty and rutted, the hot air tight in his lungs. Sun flickering through the leaves onto the water of Sheepscar Beck. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked along Kirkgate to the Parish Church, then over the path he knew so well.

Two years, eight months, and thirteen days since she’d been murdered.

 

 

He went to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing in particular. Just a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends once more, although he already knew she forgave him.

And then he saw it. The pieces smashed and scattered across the grass.

For a moment he couldn’t move. It had to be a dream. Then he was on his knees, scrabbling around all the pieces, the fragments, and piecing them together on her grave until her name was Mary Nottingham once more. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose was intact.

Why? Why would anyone do that? He looked around and saw that a few others had been damaged. But he didn’t care about them. Only this one.

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‘You must have heard them.’

Jeb looked after the ground, sleeping in a small shed at the back of the burying ground. He was tall, like a long streak of water, a man in his fifties, back bent, straggly hair grey and thin.

‘I din’t,’ the man insisted. ‘I told you.’

He stank of ale, eyes rheumy.

‘For God’s sake, Jeb, someone took a hammer to that stones,’ Nottingham said in disgust. ‘And you were so drunk you never stirred.’

His mind was raging and he strode away to the jail. The smells in the building were so familiar. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat. Simon Kirkstall. The new constable.

‘Visiting old glories?’ The man had a politician’s face, smooth and shiny, the periwig clean and powdered, his long waistcoat colourful in sharp reds and yellows.

Prissy. Exact. That was how Rob had described his boss. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated, glad to be gone from the job. He’d chosen to walk away from being Constable of Leeds and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.

‘I’m here to report a crime, Mr. Kirkstall.’

The constable picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink and waited.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Someone’s been destroying gravestones at the church.’

Kirkstall put the pen down again.

‘I see.’

‘My wife’s was one of them.’

The man chewed his lip.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘You know how it is. Too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll make sure they ask around and try to find something. But that’s all I can promise for now.’

Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man and seething.

‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’

 

He wandered. Down to the bridge, watching carts and carriages lumber along in the heat. Past the tenting fields with all the cloth hung to dry and shrink, through the rubble of the old manor house and around, back to Lands Lane.

Sadness, anger, emptiness.

Why?

Up on the Headrow, as he walked by Garraway’s Coffee House, a sharp tap on the glass made him turn.

Tom Finer sat at the table, his hand resting against the window.

‘You look like a man with the world on his shoulders,’ he said as Nottingham settled on the bench across from him. ‘Would a dish of tea help? Coffee?’

‘Not today.’

Nor any other day; he’d never developed the taste for them. Ale was fine for him.

After almost twenty years away, older and claiming to have left his crooked past in the capital, Finer had returned to Leeds. Nottingham had still just been a constable’s man when he first knew him. Finer had a finger in everything, but nothing was ever proven against him before he vanished one night.

He seemed smaller than the last time they’d met, as if he was slowly withering away with age. In spite of the warmth Finer was well wrapped-up in a heavy coat, with thick breeches and socks.

‘You must have been to the churchyard.’

Nottingham looked up sharply.

‘Why? What do you know?’

‘Not much more than you. I heard talk first thing so I went down there. I’m sorry.’

‘Do you have any idea who…?

Finer shook his head.

‘If I did, I’d tell you.’ He paused. ‘But did you notice which ones they were?’

‘My wife’s. Why? Who else?’

Finer was silent a few moments, chewing on his lower lip.

‘Go back and look again,’ he suggested. ‘Look outside your own pain.’

‘Why?’ Nottingham asked. ‘What is it?’

Finer stared at him.

‘You’ll see.’

 

He stood by Mary’s grave, resting his hand on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. He understood what Finer had been trying to tell him. If he’d been thinking he’d have noticed straight away.

One was the memorial to Amos Worthy, the man who’d kept Leeds crime in his fist until the cancer rotted him and pulled him into the ground. Someone he’d hated and liked in equal measure.

The other was the stone for John Sedgwick, Nottingham’s deputy, beaten and killed in his duties.

Messages for him. From the past.

He gathered the remains, puzzling them whole again on the grass.

Why? Why would someone come crawling out of history now? He was no one these days. No longer the constable, not a man of note. Nobody.

 

Nottingham walked the courts and yards, asking his questions. He had no position any more but folk remembered. But all his talking brought nothing. No one knew, no one had an answer. Not even a hint. The closest he came was at the White Swan, when the landlord said someone had been asking for him.

‘Who?’

‘He wasn’t much more than a lad.’ The man shrugged. ‘No one I knew. Looked like a Gypsy, if you ask me. Left his lass and bairns standing in the doorway.’

Strange, he thought. Were the two things connected?

Morning became dinnertime. He pestered men as they ate. Nothing. Over the bridge and south of the river, into the streets that led off the London Road. No Joe Buck to ask these days. He’d left Leeds, searching for something more, the black servant Henry gone with him.

The town he’d known for so long was changing.

 

The church bell rang four as he walked back up Marsh Lane. Head down, lost in his thoughts as the dust rose from his footsteps. He’d go out again later, round the inns and the beershops. Someone knew and he’d find out.

‘I heard about it.’ Lucy the servant eyed him. ‘Who did it, have you found out yet?’

He slumped into the chair and shook his head.

‘I will, though.’

‘There was someone here looking for you earlier. Came at dinnertime.’

Nottingham cocked his head.

‘Just a lad. Not much older than me. Had a lass and little ‘uns with him.’

‘What was his name?’

‘Didn’t tell me, just that he’d come back later.’

‘Did he look like a Gypsy?’

Lucy thought.

‘Aye, happen he did. Who is he?’

‘I don’t know.’ Very strange indeed. He gave the girl a strained smile. ‘We’ll find out if he comes back.’

 

Emily returned home in a fury. She’d been to the churchyard and seen it for herself. Nottingham listened to her, seeing so much of Mary in her face.

‘Why would they do that to mama?’ she asked.

‘To hurt me.’ It was the only answer. Some sweet destruction to shatter his past. Before she could say more, there was a knock on the door. Maybe one mystery would be solved, at least.

Yes, he was young, dark hair hanging straight to his shoulders. Ragged clothes, a bright hoop in his ear. But tall, bulky, already a man from the look on his face. Someone half-familiar, a face he believe he almost knew. A man with a smile on his lips.

‘Hello, boss. How are you?’

With those words, it flooded back. All Nottingham could do was stop and stare. Joshua Forester, the young cutpurse he’d taken on five years before. His girl had died, the lad had been beaten and he’d chosen to go off with a band of Gypsies. But he looked well from it.

‘Come in, lad, come in. Your family, too.’

Soon they were seated around the table. Lucy brought bread and cheese and small beer, standing by the door to catch this glimpse into Nottingham’s past.

‘I don’t remember your wife’s name,’ Josh said and reddened.

‘Mary. She’s dead.’

‘Boss, I’m sorry.’

‘I should tell you that John Sedgwick’s in the ground, too. Someone killed him.’ The boy always had high regard for Nottingham’s deputy constable. Old days, probably best forgotten. ‘And you, what have you been up to?’ He smiled at the children. ‘I can see some of the results.’

‘That’s Frances,’ he said, indicating the girl. The name of his girl who’d died. ‘And the boy’s called John. My wife, Nancy. She’s part of the Petulengro clan. I work with them. I’m a horse dealer now.’ He lifted his hands to show the thick calluses on his palms and fingers. ‘We’re camped on Woodhouse Moor for a few days, on our way down to Buckinghamshire. While we were here I wanted to see you.’

‘And you’re very welcome’

It did make his heart soar to see someone doing so well, the new life amongst all the death and the senseless destruction. They talked for almost an hour until Josh gathered together his wife and family. At the door he saw them off just as Rob Lister was returning. Emily’s man and the deputy constable of Leeds.

‘Company?’ he asked.

‘Someone who worked for me a while ago. Passing through Leeds.’

Lister glanced at the family walking towards Timble Bridge.

‘They look like Gypsies.’

‘They are. And you and I have something to discuss.’

‘Aye,’ Lister agreed. ‘We do.’

 

The night was balmy. It wasn’t hard to keep watch over the graveyard, and he wouldn’t trust Jeb to stay awake and sober. Nottingham never slept much any more. He sat in the church porch, letting the darkness wrap around him. He listened to the soft snuffling of animals in the dark, the last sounds of humans fading, then felt the embrace of the hours.

A few times he stood and walked around, as silent as possible.

But no one came. No more damage.

With first light, he ambled up Kirkgate, smelling the cooking fires the servants had lit in the grand houses. Briggate was beginning to come to life, the butchers in the Shambles under the Moot Hall opening their shutters for early customers. He passed without a word, fading into the background.

Tom Finer was up with the lark, already in Garraway’s, reading the London newspapers and enjoying his coffee.

‘You look like a man who’s spent a restless night,’ he said with a smile.

‘I have.’ He settled back on the bench. ‘How did you know?’

Finer raised a thick eyebrow. ‘Know what?’

‘About the gravestones.’

‘A little bird told me.’

Nottingham wrapped his fingers around the old man’s wrist. It was bony and brittle in his grip, as if it might snap all too easily. He stared into Finer’s eyes.

‘Which little bird?’ When the man didn’t answer, he squeezed. ‘That was my wife’s gravestone.’

‘A young man I pay to gather gossip.’ Finer tried to look unaffected, but his mouth as stretched and the skin was tight over the bones of his face.

‘A name?’

‘You wouldn’t know him.’

Probably not, now he was no longer constable. But Rob Lister might. ‘A name,’ Nottingham repeated.

 

‘I know the lad,’ Lister said as they ate dinner in the White Swan. Stew for him, bread and cheese for Nottingham and mugs of ale on the table in front of them both. ‘I’ll find him this afternoon.’

Rob had grown into a thoughtful young man. Hard when the job demanded, but compassionate, too, and utterly in love with Nottingham’s daughter, Emily. Seeing them together, the tenderness and humour between them, he was always reminded of the way Mary approved of the match: ‘They’re perfect for each other, Richard. Like two halves finding each other.’

Nottingham would go home this afternoon and rest, ready to be out again tonight. What kind of man harmed gravestones like that? And why those three? What grudge, what anger could move someone like that? All through the night, as the stars moved through the sky, he’d tried to come up with names and found nothing that fitted.

Who?

 

He’d been wearier than he imagined, sleeping into the evening to wake disoriented and with aching limbs.

Downstairs he sat with Rob as he ate. A young man’s hearty appetite after a long day of work.

‘He’ll meet you at eight on Timble Bridge.’

‘Does he know who did it?’ Nottingham asked.

‘He wouldn’t say.’

‘He’ll tell me.’ He’d make damned sure of it.

‘Watch out for him. He’s a little weasel. He’ll try to rob you if he can.’

‘But will he tell me the truth?’

Lister considered the question for a moment. ‘If you don’t leave him any other choice. Take your knife.’

 

First, the graveyard. Still full light, the evening warm enough to sweat as he worked, picking up all the fragments. He’d cleaned up Mary’s headstone yesterday. Now he tidied Amos’s and John’s. He’d almost finished when he felt someone kneel beside him and looked across.

Josh Forester, with a sad smile on his face and a colourful scarf knotted at his neck.

‘I went to your house, boss,’ he said. ‘Your lass’s man reckoned as you’d be here. Says you visit all the time.’

‘Every day. It’s all I have left of her.’

‘I understand.’ He ran hard fingertips over the carving in the stone. ‘I don’t know who’d do this, but I’ll tell you something I’ve learned. It’s probably not worth much, but a headstone doesn’t mean anything.’

‘I know.’ Nottingham’s voice was hushed.

‘Frances, she went in a pauper’s grave. No markings. You remember that, boss.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘But she’s still here. They’re alive as long as someone remembers. This…it’s just trappings, isn’t it?’

‘Maybe it is.’ He pushed himself upright, feeling the creak in his knees. ‘But it means something to me. I have to meet someone. It won’t take long. If you wait, we can go for a drink.’

Josh smiled. Bright white teeth. Young teeth. ‘Aye, I’d like that. I’ll be right here, boss.’

 

He stood on Timble Bridge, hearing Sheepscar Beck burble and flow under his feet. It had been a dry summer and the water was low. The sound was pleasing, musical and rich. It filled his heart. But he was ready as he heard footsteps approaching.

A boy? He didn’t know why he was so surprised. The lad looked to be ten or eleven, with suspicious eyes that darted around, dark, matted hair, and dirt ingrained into his skin.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Nottingham said.

It was like coaxing a feral animal. Like the wary boy he’d been himself at that age, living for three years on the streets, surviving by wit and cunning and ruthlessness.

He placed two pennies on the ground and moved away.

‘I only have one question – who’s been damaging the graves?’

‘I’d never seen her before.’

‘Her?’ The word shook him. He couldn’t believe it. It was impossible to imagine any woman doing that. He took a deep breath. ‘Tell me about her.’

‘I couldn’t see much. It were dark and she had a shawl over her hair. And a hammer in her hand. I wun’t going to get too close to that.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Sleeping. There’s a dip in the graveyard near High Court. I were in there and heard her.’

‘Is there anything you remember?’

‘She meant it,’ the boy said. ‘Not just for the sake of doing it. Like she hated those people. She knew which ones she wanted.’

‘I daresay she did.’

‘And she weren’t young. You could see that. She moved slow, like it hurt her.’

‘You’re an observant young man.’

The boy shrugged and scooped the money from the ground.

‘Wait,’ Nottingham told him and brought out his purse. The boy darted for it, knife out to cut the strings. But Nottingham turned away, grabbing him by the hair and pushing him down to his knees. ‘Don’t. You’re too slow. I was stopping this long before anyone even dreamed of you. I was going to give you tuppence more.’

‘I’m sorry, mister.’

‘Maybe you are.’ He pushed the boy away, took out the coins and threw them on the dirt before walking away towards Leeds.

 

‘A woman?’ Josh Forester frowned, cupped the mug of ale and drank. ‘That seems odd.’

They were sitting in the White Swan, a welter of conversation all around their heads. It felt strange to be here with Josh. His memories of the lad were of someone so young, so full of pain. And here he was, grown, filled-out. A man with a life that suited him.

‘It surprised me, too,’ Nottingham admitted. ‘But why not? Women can hurt, too.’

‘Do you think she’ll be back?’

‘I don’t know.’ He leaned back. The woman had done her damage. Why would she need to return?

‘And you’ve no idea who it is, boss?’

‘None at all.’ He gave a weary smile. ‘I’ll be out there again tonight. Maybe she’ll decide she hasn’t had enough yet. Who can tell?’

Josh smiled. ‘Do you fancy some company?’

He stared at the young man. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. We’re going south tomorrow, this will be the last chance.’ He took another drink. ‘You changed my life, boss. I’d like to spend more time with you.’

 

It was a companionable silence. A warm, dry night, with just enough moon to throw light across the graveyard. They settled in the church porch and waited. The last drunks rolled and sang their way home. The nightjars called and turned silent.

A snuffle of animals in the distance. A badger, a fox.

He found himself starting to doze, chin settling on his chest, then quickly sitting upright, stretching his neck and looking round sheepishly at Josh.

It must have happened again. He was aware of the touch on his shoulder, then warm breath and words whispered into his ear.

‘Footsteps, boss. In the churchyard.’

Silently, he stood, ready, feeling the other man stir behind him. But he waited. Impossible to tell yet who it might be. A couple seeking out a private place. Someone with no better place to sleep.

Time seemed to stretch. He breathed slowly, listening for the faintest sound. Then it came: the tapping on steel on stone.

Nottingham pressed himself against the church wall, turning his head, waiting to hear it again, to know where the woman was in the graveyard. Josh had already disappeared, moving like a ghost through the night.

It was unmistakeable. Mary’s headstone once again. Without thinking, he started to run, feeling every stride in his knees. He needed to get there before too much damage was done.

He knew every inch of this ground, moving sure-footed without even needing to look.

But he wasn’t fast enough.

Josh had beaten him to the spot, big hands clamped around a pair of thin arms, stopping her from struggling.

‘She’s not going to cause a problem, boss.’

‘Keep her still. I want to see her face.’

Nottingham pulled the shawl away. A small, faded woman with stringy grey hair. A thin mouth, most of the teeth missing. Eyes filled with hate. She drew back her lips and spat at him. But there was no power. It dribbled down her chin.

He didn’t recognise her. Nothing about her.

‘Who-’ he began, but her rusted voice cut through his question.

‘Abraham Wyatt.’

The years turned away and he groped for her name. Caroline. Something like that.

‘Charlotte.’ The word seemed to come of its own accord and he saw her cold grin.

‘Now you remember, don’t you? You killed him, you and Worthy and that other man.’

They had, and the man had needed to die for all he’d done. Back then he’d let her go, though, never expecting to see her again.

‘Why? Why try and demolish my wife’s headstone?’ He didn’t understand that. But the answer was simple.

‘Because you don’t have one, and I’ve watched you come here and spend time with her.’ Her eyes glistened. ‘I knew this would hurt you.’

She understood too much, he thought. Nottingham tried to picture her as she’d been when he last saw her, but the image refused to come into his mind. All he could see was the woman as she was now, living on the past and her anger. She’d loved Wyatt; that had never been in doubt. She’d remained devoted to him through all the years he’d been exiled, transported to the Indies.

‘What do you want to do with her, boss?’ Josh’s question interrupted his thoughts.

‘Take her to the jail.’

She fought, pulled against him and dragged her feet. But the young man was bigger, stronger, used to wild beasts. A few minutes and the night man had her in a cell.

‘What’s the charge?’ he asked.

Nottingham didn’t know.

‘Ask Mr. Lister in the morning.’ Rob could think of something.

 

Outside, the night was still, heavy with the scent of flowers.

‘Thank you,’ Nottingham said.

Josh smiled and shook his head.

‘The least I could do, boss. I told you, I owe you a lot.’

‘On your way tomorrow?’

‘We pack up first thing.’ He raised his head and studied the sky. ‘In an hour or two. Then south.’

‘When you come through here again…’

‘I’ll stop, boss. I promise. You look after yourself.’

‘You, too. And that family of yours.’

They shook hands. Nottingham stood and watched as Josh strode up Briggate, out towards the Gypsy camp on Woodhouse Moor. Finally he turned and began to walk back to Marsh Lane.

A headstone could be replaced. But the woman could never destroy his memories. Josh was right. Mary was remembered.

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Richard Nottingham is Back

Well, sort of…this is the beginning of something, at least. What it will become remains to be seen. Maybe a book, maybe a story, maybe nothing. Still, it’s been a while since Richard had anything at all to say to me.

Perhaps you’ll like it, perhaps you’ll still care about him. Let me know, please.

Leeds, August 1736

Just two years. It always surprised him. It felt as if it should be longer, like a path that stretched out across the moor. Two years, eight months, and thirteen days. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock.

And that suited him. More of a chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.

Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, with brilliant light through the cracks in the shutters. He’d woken before first light, just lying in bed and letting his thoughts wander. He heard his daughter Emily leave to go and teach at her school. Then Rob Lister, her man, now the deputy constable in Leeds, had gone with his clank of keys and the firm tread of his boots across the boards. He could hear Lucy the servant moving around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.

All around him life went on.

He poured water in the ewer and washed, then dressed in old breeches and thin woollen stockings.

The road was dusty and rutted, the hot air of the day tight in his lungs. The trees over Sheepscar Beck gave shade, the sun flickering through the leaves onto the water. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked to the Parish Church and along the path he knew so well.

Two years, eight months, and thirteen days since she’d been murdered.

Three days since someone had shattered the headstone on her grave.

He’d gone to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing as he walked along the path he knew by heart. Just time for a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends again, although he knew she forgave him.

And then he saw it. The pieces smashes and scattered across the grass. For a moment he believed he was imagining it.

Why would anyone do that?

He looked around. It wasn’t only her stone. A few others, almost at random,in other parts of the churchyard. But he didn’t care about them. He knelt and gathered the fragments, piecing them together on the grave until she had her name once more Mary Nottingham. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose stood intact.

He’d risen and gone straight to the jail on Kirkgate, all the smells so familiar as he entered the building. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat.

Someone prissy and exact. That was how Rob had described him. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated. But Nottingham retired. It wasn’t his problem. After so many years he’d chosen to walk away from the job and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.

‘Visiting old glories?’ The man had a politician’s face, smooth and shiny, the periwig clean and powdered, his long waistcoat colourful in reds and yellows.

‘I’m here to report a crime, Mr. Peters.’

The constable picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink and waited.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Someone’s been destroying gravestones at the church.’

Peters put the quill down again.

‘You’re the third one in here today to tell me. It happened last night.’

He knew that. He visited the place every morning.

‘My wife’s was one of them.’

The man chewed his lip.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘I have too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll see they ask around and try to find something. For now I can’t promise more than that.’

Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man.

‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’

He wandered. Down to the bridge, watching carts and carriages lumber along in the heat. He passed the tenting fields with all the cloth hung to dry and shrink, through the rubble of the old manor house and back to Lands Lane.

Sadness, anger, emptiness. Just the pointlessness of it all, the sense of loss falling on him once again.

Why? Just the question, why?

Up on the Headrow, as he walked by Garraway’s Coffee House, a sharp tap on the glass made him turn.

Tom Finer sat at the table, his hand resting against the window.

‘You look like a man with the world on his shoulders,’ he said as Nottingham settled on the bench across from him. ‘Would a dish of tea help? Coffee?’

‘No. Not today.’

Nor any other day; he’d never developed the taste for them. Ale was enough for him.

Finer was a criminal who’d vanished to London, back when Nottingham was still young, no more than a constable’s man. He’d returned eighteen months earlier, after almost twenty years away. Older and claiming to have left his past in the capital.

He seemed smaller than the last time they’d met, as if he was slowly withering away with age. In spite of the warmth Finer was well wrapped-up in a heavy coat, with thick breeches and socks.

‘You must have been to the churchyard.’

Nottingham looked up sharply.

‘What do you know about it?’

‘Nothing more than I’ve heard or seen with my own eyes. I was down there first thing. I’m sorry.’

‘Do you have any idea who…?

Finer shook his head.

‘If I did, I’d tell you.’ He paused. ‘But did you notice which ones they were?’

‘My wife’s.’

Finer was silent a few moments, chewing on his lower lip.

‘Go back there and look again,’ he suggested. ‘Look outside your own pain.’

‘Why?’ Nottingham asked urgently. ‘What is it?’

Finer stared at him.

‘You’ll see.’

He stood by Mary’s grave, his hand resting on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. Another headstone demolished in the corner, a third by the wall. And he understood what Finer had been trying to tell him.

One was the memorial to Amos Worthy, the man who’d kept Leeds crime in his fist until the cancer rotted him and pulled him into the ground. A man he’d hated and liked in equal measure.

The other was the stone for John Sedgwick, Nottingham’s deputy, beaten and killed in his duties.

Messages for him. The past.

By The Law – A New Richard Nottingham Story

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!).

One

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.
‘I did.’
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.

Two

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.’
‘They’re scared.’
‘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?’
Lister grinned.
‘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?’
‘Of course.’

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?’
‘Just Leeds.’
‘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.

Three

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.’
Nottingham chuckled.
‘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.’
Taylor snorted.
‘I know that. Why do you think I ran?’
‘Did you do it?’
‘Kill him?’ He stared ahead. ‘Does it matter?’
‘It matters.’
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.’
‘No revenge?’
‘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?’
‘Yes.’
Taylor laughed.
‘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.’
‘Clean dice?’
‘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.

Four

‘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.’
Rob grinned.
‘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.