John Hooper was used to looking over his shoulder – a man who poached from the King’s Forest as often as he did either developed a second sense – or he soon would have no senses at all. As he stepped down the dark and crooked lane which led to the Stews, he had the sense he was being followed. Well, he thought to himself, this was his territory, and if a stranger was venturing into it, he’d better keep his wits about him. As he knocked on the tavern door, he still had the sense of being followed. He told the wench on the door to keep an eye out for newcomers, gave her a peck on the cheek and went into the smoky parlour to find Johanna. Seeing John, she pushed her latest client from her lap and embraced him; there was business and then there was pleasure for her sort. She called for two cups of sack, then sat on John’s lap whilst they talked.
It was, she’d noticed early in her career, a habit of men to assume that women whose sole source of income was the selling of their bodies, were without senses other than the physical; she’d learned much useful information by keeping her ears open; men often talked freely when they thought they’d a captive audience. She was able to tell John that there was an army on its way north; she knew this because the gatekeeper at the Abbey had been told to be on the look-out for its vanguard, and the cellar-keeper had told her how many extra hogsheads he would have to purchase for them. All of this could be sold for hard cash, but John wanted more than that from her.
‘There’s a traveller visiting you here, I gather.’ John’s knowledge of what went on in the Stews never ceased to surprise her, and she knew him too well to play dumb. She admitted that there was a callow young man who strayed from the Abbey to see her, but he was soon going back to the south. She wondered what it was to John, but, keeping her own counsel, she knew she’d find out in his good time.
There was, it turned out, a purse of gold on offer, which John thought they could share if she’d do his bidding. She gave a guffaw and replied that he well knew she’d do what she was paid to do; but he became serious. ‘No, Johanna, this time I need to know you’re not for hire to the highest bidder, as there are those who would outbid my masters.’ Taken aback by his sudden seriousness, she switched tack: ‘You know I’ve a special fondness for you Jack, so if you tell me it matters, I’m not for sale.’ He gave her a kiss and told her she was a good girl. ‘That’s not what the friar tells me’, she laughed, ‘but then he seems to find that all the more enticing.’
John Hooper pulled a letter from his sack. ‘This’, he said, ‘needs to go to the friar’s master, the earl of Pembrook. Will he take it for you?’ She smiled and assured him that she had ways of ensuring the friar would do almost anything for her other than pay her fees. She knew better than to ask silly questions about why John’s ‘Masters’ (and who were they, she wondered, but thought she could guess) could not use a normal messenger, or even John himself. In these evil times men on the roads had to be ready to be challenged, but a wandering friar and his tiny retinue would attract no attention. He’d travel slowly, but very surely. Thrusting the letter down the front of her tunic, Johanna assured John that she would do as he said. It was good, she thought, to have someone who trusted her, and treated her like a woman and not a strumpet. As he left, John smiled; his little investment in that one was, he thought, paying off in more ways than one. It was, he thought, good he’d not taken much sack, as he spotted the shadow over the way move.
His senses were on high alert as he stepped into the centre of the lane; too close to either said and a footpad could grab him before he could act; walking in the centre was messier, but safer. His hand gripped his dagger. His brain worked the angles. Someone had followed him to the Tavern, why? He suddenly dodged into the doorway. He looked back, and there was no doubt, someone was quickening their pace. Using the old footpad’s trick, John put his foot out as the man began to run, sending him tumbling into the muck. ‘Now, my friend, who are you and what are you doing here?’ he asked, putting a dagger to the stranger’s throat by way of incentive.
I nominate Geoffrey to take the tale forward