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The palace that was originally designed for some nobleman and his enormous establishment becomes first the tenement house and then the rabbit-warren, the plague spot, crowded from garret to cellar with dirty poverty stricken wretches.

Elizabethan Life in Town and Country

St Clare Byrne



The mansion bulked large in the darkness. They were in a small piece of open space that couldn’t decide if it was a field, a garden, a midden, or an orchard behind some houses. From the number of tumbledown sheds and shacks that littered the space, a fair amount of people called the area home. The mansion was at the far end of the space, towards the river.

The group of them, Helmsley and Denby still leading the way, had made their way here via a winding path of side streets and alleys. Nick knew his boots were a lost cause and shuddered to think of what Meg’s shoes and the hem of her dress must be like. He also knew that he was distracting himself with these thoughts of clothes. His situation was grim and there had been no opportunity for escape. That mangy bastard Jean was a constant worry. He was a killer to his bones and Nick felt that even on his best day, he’d have trouble besting the Frenchman. And none of his days lately had been his best.

And then there was Meg. Any chance of escape had to be a chance for both of them. The only bright spot was that these fuckers still had no idea who she was, still assumed she was just some whore. In the end, it might be her who started the blood spilling. Nick kept himself alert for any sign from her.

The path wove its way towards the mansion. As they got closer, there were more and more people. The huts and lean-tos became more closely clustered together. From the smell, there was a distinct lack of privies. Pigs and chickens added their own unique pungencies to the miasma. There was a constant background noise of snores, coughs, farts, fucking.

When they approached the mansion, its front door opened and two men came out. The larger held a lantern to show the way for the smaller. There was a club in his other fist. The smaller was dressed in ragged finery, clearly acquired from one of London’s many used clothing shops. His hat had clearly had many previous owners, one of whom, given the crumpled nature of the hat’s crown, had hated the hat very much. The fingers of his left hand picked at a boil on his neck; the torchlight gave the growth a disquieting sheen. He nodded to Denby without ceasing the squeezing. “It’s all as you ordered. Got you a room up in the middle. Had to throw a few people out but wasn’t no matter, not with Big John here, and his persuader.”

Denby looked down his nose at the man. “And there are no windows? And sturdy locks on the door? For if there’re not, you’ll see no coin, but rather my anger.”

“No worries, Sir, no worries at all. All locked away and sturdy. You’ll not be disturbed at all.” He shifted his gaze from Denby to leer at Nick and Meg who were revealed at the edge of the lantern’s light. When he caught sight of Meg, the expression drained off his face like a man who had just been knifed.

Meg made a quick small gesture.

Boil Neck swallowed and picked up the thread again. “Yes, not disturbed at all. If you like, I can show you there now.”

Nick was sure that Denby had missed this by-play but he worried that Helmsley might have caught something amiss.

Denby waved irritably. “Yes! Let us get to someplace warmer.”

“Right this way, Sir, right this way.” He ushered Denby in. Helmsley followed close behind.

Lummox jabbed half-heartedly with his club. Nick noticed he took special care to make sure the club came nowhere near Meg. They all entered, followed by the remaining bravos of Denby’s.

It had been a fine mansion once, that much was clear even through the grime and neglect of years. The floor felt like tile beneath his feet. They had entered into a large hallway with a stair leading upwards at the far end and doors leading to rooms on either side. Nick shot a glance into one of the rooms as he walked past. The wood paneling on the walls had been pulled down to feed fires in the past, but enough remnants remained to give him a clue of its existence. A window that had once contained glass was now blocked with rag and paper. Since it was inside, and out of the cold and wet, space was even dearer. Which meant only those who could spend coin or cunt could afford it. Given that it was three women who were bundled up and sleeping next to an embered brazier, Nick guessed it was the latter for them. He and Meg were shoved up the stairs, past several forms huddled there. A baby coughed fitfully.

Boil Neck hadn’t lied. The room was as snug as some of the prison cells that Nick had been in.

The room was one of them off the hall at the top of the stairs. From the door, it might have been the bedroom of the owner and his wife, back when the place was a proper mansion. It was a sturdy door, one of the few not yet broken down for firewood. The door opened onto a small room that had been created from the space of a larger room. Rough wooden walls, clearly not from the original building, defined the space. Windowless, the only way out was through the door. Proof of earlier occupancy lay in a stained pallet against one wall and a few sad bowls next to a brazier yet warm. Some previous occupant had knocked a small smoke hole in the ceiling.  

Denby gestured to one of his bravos to stay outside. “Be on your guard. Let none approach unchallenged.”

Nick saw the man nod in obedience as the door shut behind him and Meg. The solid sound was a dispiriting one, but Nick reminded himself that he’d survived worse situations. But he had to be honest with himself, he couldn’t think of any offhand. Yes, it’s bad. But stay alert. Wait for your chance. There’s a long way ‘fore they get you to Flanders. Many chances for them to fuck up. And then there’s Meg.

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