[Each week or so we'll feature a new chapter from the soon to be released ebook, Many Worlds Since I First Left Home, Book Two in the Julian Plectrum medieval fantasy series]
The port of Harfleur now appeared off starboard. I hustled below to bring Mary up so she could see, and that we could be together as Barcelona made her landfall. Stephen joined us, and Roger made some haste to get a few things of his own in order, for one of the first things that would be done would be to offload the cart, and get the better portion of the goods into it, before Stephen would lead us on to our next stop— a now eagerly anticipated tavern.
Albertus had command of the wheel and turned the cog in toward the harbor. There were a great many seabirds flying and flapping about us- hungry, obviously eager for what spoils they might take once the boat had docked. Toward either side of us stretched wide marshlands, but they were interrupted by a long deep channel, which led to the harbor proper. There was a great fortification stretching all across the seafront, a great stone wall with tall towers, topped with the strange sculpted images of animals. There were two taller towers, thicker than the others, which we would have to sail through. But we were blocked by great links of chain, which lay suspended between them just beneath the surface.
Albertus put the ship on a line to cross between the towers, in the only spot that allowed entry. He was hailed from above.
“Qu'est-ce navire êtes-vous et pourquoi venez-vous?” A helmeted head peered out of a tower embrasure. The chains stretched across the path of our bow.
“Barcelone, de Penzance en Angleterre. Nous sommes un navire marchand.” Albertus had a better command of French than the rest of us.
The helmeted head disappeared back inside the tower. There was a wait, and then we heard a shout, and the great chains began to drop back down beneath the water, leaving room for the Barcelona to make port. I could begin to see the docks and the wharves where we were to tie up.
We were now inside the harbor, and you could once again hear the noise of the great gears pulling the chain back up and tightening it against unwelcome vessels.
Albertus’ crew hustled to bring in the sails and ready their anchor. Pins were tied, sails furled, and riggings tested. All was good. There was a point in the wharf which Albertus was aiming for, but he overshot his first one, and cursed.
“Now I must take that next one. I mean to. OK, here we go”—
Barcelona eased in, and Albertus’ cringing face relaxed, and he turned to Stephen and gave a weak laugh. “Tis nothing. Once you’ve done it a few times, nothing to it.”
I was not sure he had convinced anyone, his his first mate stifled a laugh, but soon they had the anchor down, and the mate and bosun had laid down the gangplank.
“Well Stephen, my first stop will be to the customs house. Would you care to come along? If not, that might wait for the morrow, but yet I need see the harbormaster, and see about the tackle to get that cart of yours off. Meanwhile, First Mate Regulus and bosun Chelmswadd can see to your horses. Once they are off and you have your luggage, then you need not see me ‘til the morrow.”
“That is fine, Albertus. I should like to meet both of those men, for I am sure to have other occasions in the future, when a good face will show my company well, and again. Anyway, my friends here are in need of food and drink, are they not? For the day is drawing late and we have not had repast since the excellent breakfast. My compliments to your cook, as well.”
“He’s one of the best, and he has yet to fail me.”
A guffaw was stifled on the first mate’s part again, as he led the first of the three horses off upon the gangplank onto the shore, and returned, with the second cart horse, and then Magdalene. Obviously there was some discrepancy between Catso’s meals for Captain Albertus, and his fare for the crew. But it was not an issue for us, after all, and as Stephen had said, we were all eager to get some food and drink.
Mary and I saddled Magdalene with her jingling blanket, and Mary rode with her chest, and her canvas sack of poppets in her lap, as I waked beside, Luisa at my back, my other belongings in a larger pouch I had fitted myself with in Penzance, that morning when we had found our bed, and hastened it home to the house, so far away now, but yet, dear in our minds.
Stephen rode the first cart horse, which was a roan stallion, that was now, older than our horse Magdalene, and the veteran of some eight of these trips. The other, on which Roger was seated, was a roan mare, younger, but that had made five of the trips. So the passage off the Barcelona on the gangplank by both of them was something of a marvel, to me anyway, but in no wise odd for the horses.
“Our first stop,” Stephen declared, ‘is the inn they call La Cove de l’Ogre.”
I laughed. “And have they ogres there?”
“Most definitely,” replied Stephen, “as well as whores, pirates, scum of the sea, water dogs, pickled eel, and oysters on the half shell.”
“Sounds like my kind of place,” said Roger.
“And as we both well know, so it is!” continued Stephen. “For the last time we were here, Roger, you told me it was the best inn in Harfleur! And you weren’t lying about that.”
“Indeed it is, the best damn flesh pot in Harfleur and the entire coast of Normandy! You could do worse, and, so I know, so your father, our departed Sire Richard, was oft of mind to tell me.”
The talk of a fleshpot whore house did not sit comfortable with Mary, who made some irritated faces toward me, but I winked at her. This only caused her to turn her head and look the other way. I would need to be a little more careful. Of course, once we had spent a night there, it might not be less to her taste, or more, I had no idea, but neither did she. So neither of us said a thing. But yet, I would have to watch myself on this.
La Cove De l’Ogre turned out to be located on a street six long blocks into the town, close to the harbor, true, but hidden under the eaves of a larger building, one seemingly used for a warehouse. It was in just such places one might expect to find Roger, in these port towns, where there was business to be tided up, and stevedores for hire to muscle goods on and off cogs like Barcelona, and where—no doubt—tenderfoot landlubbers like us might easily come to blows with rougher customers, armed with cudgel or dagger.
And yet, when we entered The Ogre, as I shall henceforth call it, I was pleasantly surprised. There was little of the type of man which might have put the fear to Mary, nor any rough customer cutpurses lollygagging about. Inside, there was a bar, and it was stocked with many fine and handsome spirit bottles, and there was ale from tapped casks from which pretty pleasant girls of the country drew mugs for —comfortable gentlemen, so it seemed, all the men about were. And there were some fine ladies, as well, dressed in fine silks, sipping from fluted wine glasses, and discussing the finer points of hostelry and embroidery work.
I knew then that actually, Stephen and Roger had been joshing me, and Mary felt quite relieved.
“This is the Ogre,” said Stephen. “It is the last place which father brought me to, and again, it is the place where Roger last burned his worm on French soil.”
“Yes, indeed. This man’s tavern sells only the finest spirit and cider and ale! I could waste away a month here, and well not notice,” Roger affirmed.
“We must speak to Monsieur Luciole,” Stephen said, more to one of the barmaids than to any of us, and she hurriedly ran into the back of the inn, and returned with the man in question.
“Oui, yes, Monsieur! Bonjour! Welcome to La Cove d’le Ogre! I am, indeed, Monsieur Luciole! And you? You seem familiare, but zis, eet could be my meeztake.”
“Monsieur Luciole, I am Stephen of Westchester, from Cheshire, in North England. I am a trader of wool and textiles. My father and Roger, here, had come often here on their trips to Amiens, and this is the purpose of our journey again today.”
The innkeeper looked hard at Roger, and registered some recognition. But said nothing, whether he thought good or ill of him.
“And where eez your fazzair?”
“He is dead, Monsieur.”
The innkeeper regarded Stephen with a bit more kindness.
“Alors, zees is a sad sing, a young man your age but only, and your fazzair has already died! Ah well. And I zuppose, you veesh to have lodgings.” The way he ended the sentence was not one to inspire optimism.
“Indeed. We require a room each, for Roger and myself, and one for the fine couple here, my minstrel friend Julian, and his wife Mary. And a stable for our three horses.”
I gave a slight bow, and Mary, a slight curtsy. We had both been trained in manners, but in England, had so little occasion or need to use them, so often were we among our own. but here in France... we had little idea how these French people might feel about anything. Especially, English country folk!
“Vell, eet happens yes, Monsieur Westchestair, zat I do haff ze rooms vich you require, een zis, you are en le bon chance. Jillian!” he called for the girl who had brought him to the front, who quickly set down a mug she had just filled for a thirsty elder man sitting at the bar, and came running up to his side.
“Jillian! Two rooms for les messieurs, et vun for ze couple! Make sure you haff zem in clean sheets!” he laughed.
Turning back to Stephen, he now named the price. “Zat vill be un sous, good sir.”
“Un sous... hmm- I have no French coin!” Stephen seemed flummoxed, but Luciole put him at ease. “You need not pay ze fare now, good sir. But you shall settle up all before your party leaves. Or else!” He drew a line across his throat with his index finger, and Stephen nodded.
Jillian led all of us into the other side of the inn. The open rooms were on the bottom floor- not a good sign, necessarily, but in France, the bottom floors were always the luxurious ones, and I was not disappointed in the room she led us to. We set down our burdens. Roger was out in the front, seeing to tying the horses, and so he would trust Stephen with the care of his key.
When we met Stephen and Roger again, out in the main dining room of the tavern, they were laughing about the stable hand who had taken all three horses back into the stables. The stables, behind the inn, but yet still a part of the same city block, seemed a little cramped, Roger complained. And the stable boy was slack jawed when Roger threw him a whole groat as a tip.
“I am feeling generous today.” That would have been an understatement!
Mssr. Luciole was soon at us again, but this time, with an apron tied round his waist, he was in his cook incarnation, and ready to ask us what we wished to eat “for ze suppair”.
Stephen smiled. “Julian, do not worry, I will pay for all your meal and drink tonight. Have whatever you want.”
Stephen turned again to Luciole. “For me, I should like your wine-soaked hare, which I well remember, when I was here last fall! Delicious, sir. And give me a red wine, in a full bottle. Roger?”
Roger piped up. “Yes, Monsieur Luciole, well do I remember your deep sea bass. Ah, you are an excellent master of the scaly cold beasts! Give me a pot of best ale to flush it down with.”
Luciole looked at us.
I looked at Mary. Neither of us had been in France before, and she looked quite wan.
“Do you serve lamb?” she meekly asked.
Luciole chuckled with gusto. “Do I have lamb? Why yes, I can get you a little lamb. Would you like him to come with a sprig of mint, or would you like a white crème sauce for his bonnet?”
“The sauce, good sir.” And now, Luiciole made it clear it was my turn.
“I will have what my friend is having,” indicating Stephen, and meaning the hare. I always had enjoyed hare more than I ever had lamb, having grown up with lamb leg, lamb chop, lamb shank, lamb rib, lamb quarters, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, at the house of Davis my father.
“Oui! Dieux hares! Quelle bon! Eet zhall be done!” and then quick as lightning, Luciole disappeared back into his kitchen.
The girl Jillian brought us out two large bottles of wine, one for Stephen, and one for me to share with Mary, and Roger his pot of best ale, which he set to with great gusto, himself.
We now had time to sit and look about us, drinking in the atmosphere of the tavern. As I said, there were groups of well dressed persons in knots around tables, or seated at the bar, and they all had the look of prosperous folk. There was not the least hint of the whores and the pirates and the guttersnipes they had jived me with. Indeed, this seemed to be a very fine place. It was disconcerting, that the “Cove of the Ogre” should be the land of such beautiful people.
All that over with, and I wondered something.
“Stephen, what will they do with your cart? While we have the horses here?”
“Oh the cart, yes. Well Julian, they will have to hire the tackle, first, but once they get it, which they should be doing... very soon, if not right now... then they will lift off the cart, set in on the wharf, and Albertus’ crew will begin moving my goods to it. And then, Albertus’ crew shall move it to the customs house, where it shall stand the night. Then, I shall go to the customs house with Albertus, declare the goods, pay their fee, and we shall then be free to move them.”
“And where or when will we be going?”
“I hope that we might begin the journey to Amiens by tomorrow’s eve, but it depends, of course, how things happen to go with the harbor master and customs people today. Albertus has been through this many times though. I would not be surprised if he ends up setting here, with us, ’ere the evening is up.”
I noted the fine glass windows of the Ogre. As the day was late, and it was around the hour of five, there were still some hours of day left. But the wind had come up from the sea, and while I was admiring the windows, the girl Jillian came over and began to close the shutters. I sighed. I hardly had the time to enjoy that, and this pleasure was being taken from us.
But it was a small complaint, as we sipped at our drinks, and Mary brought it up for me.
“Are we to be expected to perform tonight?”
“Dear, I do not know. Stephen told the keeper that I’m a minstrel, but who knows what he makes of minstrels. This audience, too, are not our usual folk, I can tell. They seem more well-to-do.”
“That should not bother us,” said Mary. “What we offer is different from what they will have known.”
“Maybe,” I said, but in my head, not quite so confident. But then I decided, I should take this as a challenge. What did it matter who they were, those sitting rapt with my tunes in their heads. What matter how deep their purses, so long as I did well enough to gain their trust, and their attention! I made my mind up then, I would bring it up to Luciole myself, rather than to leave it up to him. So I told her:
“I will mention this to him after we have eaten. That we are performers and have been playing all the way down from Chester this season. That we are anxious, even, and would feel more welcomed, had we the chance to offer them a sample of our arts.”
Mary beamed at me, and I knew that, if I screwed courage to the sticking point, I would gain esteem not only in the eyes of these French, but in hers. I continued.
“I think, Mary, that tonight we should both do something. I will play the Hotspur Lay- for there is no danger of our being found out by Henry’s spies here! And the Robin Hood, and the Ulysses, and you will accompany these with your poppets. Then, I shall regale them with some solo lutery- I have a number of things in mind.”
“You should know, Julian, that I am thinking up a new play for the poppets. I call it “Fool and Beau.” All I need do is change the hat on Henry King, and he becomes Beau. And Fool- well, he is good and sturdy as he is, you know.”
“Fine, fine. We ought to wait until we spend more time together though, before we play it to them all. Perhaps our next performance...”
“Well, you say but I want to bring it out soon. For how else can I know how it goes, lest I try? “
“That is somewhat what my predicament is, here, tonight. A strange country! A house, full of well-to-do’s! And all of them, speaking a tongue we know so little well. Anyway, yes, Mary, once we eat, I shall bring it up.
As though it were a matter of no means at all, Luciole appeared once again, but now, he had plates in hand- a large tray, with a fine, fat bass, he set before Roger, whose eyes bugged out like saucers at the sight. Before Mary, he set (theatrically, with some gesture of deference) her plate of lamb. The fillet was cut long, and unlike anything I had ever seen on my father’s table. And it was covered in a deep rich creamy sauce, flecked with bits of chive and dill. Before Stephen and me came the two hares, roast in their skins, and which flaked off so easily form the bone when approached. They had been marinated in a pleasing wine, which of itself, Luciole assured us, was that we had been tippling the past half hour. The first mouthful made me realize that indeed, this Luciole must be some master of his art. There were other meals I had eaten long ago— indeed, the town fairs of Chester served very fine roast capons, and there were sometimes beefsteaks which themselves must have set nobles back a fair penny, but this was a meal to remember!
And we supped, each of us to our own, as guests and customers came and went from the Ogre, greeted and parted from Luciole with jovial French talk which I knew none of, and Luciole getting merrier as the evening hours grew darker.
At the end of our meal, Luciole returned with dishes of flan, the better with which, he said, might set our stomach to settle. It was sweet, and I noted bits of semolina in it, just grainy enough that it was not another sweet treacle sauce.
When I had cleaned my dish of the flan, I caught his eye, and gestured for him to return to the table.
“Master Luciole, that was a most fine meal, and I am glad to have come. I am a minstrel, as Stephen told you. And my wife and I should like to give you a performance. Would you give us the floor?”
“Monsieur English, I suppose you zhould entertain zese good people. Ve haff had novun about heere do so for many a year. I am sad to say zat my own friend, Ranulf, he hass gone afar, and vuss indeed zumone I vould haff summoned to zit here and play for zem...”
“Ranulf? Ranulf, the Breton?”
“Oui. He hails from Morlaix, Bretagne.”
“Why, I know Ranulf! He is one of my good friends! We met in Penzance years ago. And we are set, I hope, to perform at the Christmas feast of our Baron Anselm come Christmastide! Well, bless my stars, Ranulf is a friend of yours!”
“Oui, monsieur, I am happy to hear you know him. But I vish I had zee vay of brinking him here. Zair is no vay I eefen know wear he ees at all.”
It dawned on me, I didn’t know his whereabouts either. So we were both fated, perhaps, upon only time and chance, to meet up with Ranulf again.
“Well, I guess then that changes some of my ideas of my performance! I shall end the evening with some dances which Ranulf taught me. Perhaps these will set your guess here about on their feet.”
“Vell,” he looked at me. I could tell there was something about the Ranulf connection which was entertaining the gears of his brain.
“Vell, zen I zuppose I zhall ask you to play for us, yes.”
Mary, whom I could see just out of my right eye, was obviously pleased, and in a discreet way, began smoothing the length of her dress in her pleasure.
“Then fine! We will be back, with our instrument and poppets! And as we are away, please introduce us! Julian and Mary Plectrum, the Cheshire Players!”
At that, both of us rose, and we hurried back to the room, where we gathered up Luisa and the sack of poppets, and when we returned, Luciole was just winding up his calling the customers to the entrance we were about to make.
And he did, of course, just as I had asked. It was a fine cue to step in on. We took up places near the tavern fireplace, as was our usual wont.
“Greetings, Frenchies,” I began, not too diplomatically “Greetings, ladies and gentlemen,” I began again.
“We are the Plectrums, Julian myself here, on the lute, and my fair wife Mary there, the poppet mistress. We are first going to give you a short musical play, which is titled the Lay of Hotspur. It comes about after a horrible battle, the battle of Shrewsbury, where our countrymen fell defending their freedom against that usurper of the Crown, Henry IV. And who fell in this battle but his good longtime servant Henry Percy, that which they knew as Hotspur. And he was the better man, although he fell.”
At that, Mary’s Hotspur poppet came out, and she made him bow to the guests, who laughed, for they could see that she had a real talent for gestures.
I began the song. As I sung it, she made herself busy with the King and Hotspur poppets. At the very end, she had the Henry King strike with his sword- at such a point in the lay that we had now practiced to occur just right— as the music stopped, and I began the refrain,
“A’lack a’ Dee, for Lack of Dane,
Bad Henry king, Fair Percy slain!”
And although few of them spoke English, there were a few who did, and who appreciated our trouble, and applauded. This encouraged us a good deal, so I now went into the tale of Robin Hood.
May’s Robin and Marian poppets came out now, and the first two were stored back in her canvas sack. I sang of the impish Friar Tuck and Little John, and this actually made some of the folk lean in closer to watch. And when that song was done, even more applauded.
Next was the Ulysses Lay, and for this, Mary used Marian for Penelope, and Fool for Ulysses.
When we ended it, she made some funniness with them, as if they were making love right in front of the crowd, and our audience loved that even more. So that being done, she set her poppets all back in the bag, and I continued with my solo performances.
I introduced the first piece as one of Ranulf’s. At the name “Ranulf” I could hear some of them catch their breaths, and indeed, by the time I had that piece finished, something in their blood had set a couple of them to dancing, for it had to have been a familiar tune to each of them. This was a good sign, so I played my next four pieces specifically of tunes I had been taught by the Breton piper. And these went down so well, I had some of them roaring loud!
“Encore, Encore!” they cried.
I had plenty left in my little bag of tricks, so I settled them all down, and asked them all to be quiet, and to imagine they were aboard a ship, sailing out in the channel. Into this piece I poured all my impressions of our journey there to Harfleur- the birds, the choppy waves, the rattling of the men after the bilge rats, the sunlight over the water, the pretty purples and pinks and bright orange of the sunsets. It was long in doing, but I felt I had the time, and they all offered me their ear. So when it ended, even Luciole came up to me, shook my hand, his eyes near tearing, and assured me I were welcome to return at any time I chose. And when he finished shaking my hand, there was a florin in my palm! It was just the type of night I had hoped for, and even Stephen and Roger, who had been laughing and chatting with Albertus (who had, indeed, appeared in the midst of my show), were clapping and shouting approval when I finally bowed, and exited my seat at the fire.
Mary and I spent time after the others had gone off to bed, and after Albertus had left for the Barcelona, chattering together about her new “Fool” play, and about how well we had gone down. We were both so excited we made love the rest of the evening and when we finally finished we watch the moon set, together, out our little window.