“Ye did what?!”
“Aw, Simon, it ain’t no big deal, I jest need–”
“What ye need is ter have yer head examined! Wright! Did yer ma drop ye on yer head when ye were a baby?”
Clarence narrowed his eyes. “Hey, now, don’t be callin’ me dumb fer pointin’ out the obvious.”
Simon sighed. If he were to be completely and totally honest with all parties involved, he had no idea if Joyce Pelles was a slut or not. She’d never put out for him, and he’d never seen her put out for anyone else, but who knew what she might or might not be doing behind closed doors? After all, she was a dancer, women didn’t take those kinds of jobs unless they had a certain sensuality about them, and a certain brassy boldness to carry off wearing those light skirts that floated upward whenever they kicked or turned.
But none of that was the point.
“Clarence, did ye ever see her with a man?”
“Eh, she’s always hangin’ on Berach –”
Simon slapped his own forehead, since he had learned from bitter experience that you only hit Clarence if you were willing to back up the smack with a full-fledged knife fight. And unfortunately, his good knife was on the table, where he had been sharpening it. “I don’t mean with a man like talkin’ ter a man! I mean with a man like sleepin’ with one!”
Clarence leered. “Oh, I wish.”
If Roma hadn’t told him, so shyly and sweetly, that she liked the way his hair felt, how thick and smooth it was, Simon would have torn whole fistfuls out. “You idiot! Then ye don’t go callin’ her a slut in front o’ Berach!”
“I was jest tryin’ ter warn –”
Simon smacked his forehead again. “Clarence, shut up! Unless ye saw her with her legs wide open and some man in between ’em, ye ain’t warnin’ the man!”
“Then what I am I doin’?”
“Insultin’ his sweetheart, and therefore insultin’ him!”
“… I don’t follow.”
“Fer Wright’s sake! How would ye feel if someone called yer girl a slut? An’ ye … ye were certain-sure she weren’t?”
“… Simon, I only sleep with whores.”
Aye, because the only way a woman will put up with you is if you cross her palm with silver! Simon sighed and passed his hands before his eyes. This was not a conversation he wanted to be having with Clarence at any time — never mind after a week of nights spent either house-breaking or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.
“All right. All right. Clarence, ye ever have a sister?”
A shadow crossed Clarence’s face. “Aye …”
“How would you feel if someone called her a slut?”
Clarence lunged for him and Simon had to jump out of the way. “Who ye callin’ a slut?!”
“Nobody! Nobody! By the Blessed St. Brandi, I ain’t ever met yer sister! How the hell would I know,” or care, Simon thought, “if she was a slut?!”
“She’s married, she is! Married with three — maybe more, now –”
“Clarence! Shut up! I don’t care about yer sister! I’m tryin’ ter make ye think!”
“Think about what?”
“Think about how mad ye’d be if someone — which I’m not — called yer sister a slut!”
“Oh, I’d split him from his dick ter his throat! I’d gut him so his guts fell out on the floor! I’d –”
“Yes, Clarence, that’s very nice. An’ that’s what a man would do to ye if ye called his sweetheart a slut without cold hard proof that she is one.”
“… Berach only punched me in the nose.”
Simon knew that, for now his dish-cleaning rag was ruined, since Clarence had grabbed the first rag that came to hand in order to stop the bleeding.
“That’s because Berach is a mighty patient man, an’ even once he’s provoked, he ain’t too violent.” Most folks aren’t as violent as ye are, Clarence.
“Ye mean he’s weak.”
That too. Not that he would tell Clarence that — Simon still liked Berach, and he would prefer not to see the other man murdered by Clarence. Besides, if he was murdered, and Joyce ever found out about Simon’s connection to Clarence, she would probably come after him with her famous sheep-shears. And she’d be aiming them for the jugular.
“I mean he fights with his fist before he fights with his knife, because unlike you, he don’t want ter get into trouble with the guards!”
“I can’t get into trouble with the guards! That’s why I run away!”
“I know, Clarence, I know.”
“So ye’ll let me stay here, then?”
Simon blinked. He stared. He blinked again.
“Let me stay here! I can’t go nowhere else. An’ if ye go ter pick up me things, Berach won’t be callin’ the town guards on ye,” Clarence pointed out. That was all true enough. “Plus I know ye’ve got room up in the loft. Two whole beds! I only need one!”
“Clarence, I don’t –”
“An’ it’ll be nice an’ convenient-like! If ye need ter plan or something, boom! I’m right there!”
“Very convenient for me. And very convenient for the town guards, too, if they find out where ye’re hidin’ — or just who I am, fer that matter.”
Clarence’s jaw snapped shut.
“Gettin’ caught livin’ in the same house could get both of our heads stuck through a noose — ye ever think o’ that?”
Clarence gulped and rubbed his neck. “But, Simon,” he whispered, “I ain’t got nowhere else ter go.”
“Ye know I’m gettin’ married in about a year or so — don’t ye?”
“A year! I won’t stay around that long!”
“But my girl comes around from time to time — cleanin’ up, bless her soul — I don’t want ye meetin’ her!”
“We’re gonna have ter meet after ye get married,” Clarence pointed out.
Simon had already thought that out. “No, ye ain’t gonna have ter meet ‘er, because before then, we’re gonna find someplace else ter meet — the less she knows, the safer we all are.” Clarence couldn’t, he thought, argue with that.
“But Simon … I ain’t got nowhere else ter go.”
Simon groaned and smacked his forehead, again. They kept coming up against the blank wall. A homeless Clarence was a dangerous Clarence; he might start frequenting inns and pubs for a room for the night. Simon didn’t give a damn how much of his savings the thief spent — if Clarence even had any savings — but the more time Clarence spent in public and out of Simon’s sight, the more likely something would happen that would bring him to the attention of the guards. And if that happened, who knew whom Clarence might turn in an attempt to save his own skin?
Better to keep him in sight until Simon found a safe place for him to live.
“Fine! Ye can stay here! But only–”
“Aw, thanks Simon! Ye’re the best!” And before Simon could lay down any more ground rules, Clarence had already scurried up the ladder and into the loft.
“Wright damn it, Clarence — wait up!”
Once Simon made his way up the ladder, he found Clarence already seated on one of the beds. “This is nice!” he said, bouncing a bit. “I only had a pallet on the floor at Berach’s place!”
Simon wondered if there was any way he could get the bed frames down the ladder before Clarence decided to stay.
“So did Berach,” Simon muttered.
“Aye, but he had a bigger one.”
And I care? “It’s his place, Clarence.”
“Still! It was bigger! And the little brat had the best bed in the house!”
“It were off the floor!”
Simon sighed and rolled his eyes. “Listen, Clarence — before ye get too comfortable, let’s get a few things straight. There are gonna be rules if ye want ter stay here.”
“Rules?” Clarence pouted. Simon was pretty sure Berach’s three-year-old would have reacted to the word better.
“Yes. Rules!” Simon took a deep breath. “First of all, ye’re ter stay away from Roma. Ye got that?”
“The –” Simon hesitated. “She’s the girl I’m marrying. If ye see her comin’ down the road –”
“What’s she look like?”
Simon hesitated, not sure he even wanted Clarence knowing this … but if he didn’t give this much information, how would Clarence know her if he saw her? “She’s got black hair. Kinda curly. She usually keeps it tied back with a red ribbon. Fair skin –”
None o’ yer damn business! “If I didn’t think she were pretty, would I be marryin’ her?”
“Ye might, if ye thought she were worth yer while in other ways.”
Simon sighed and rolled his eyes. “She’s pretty enough ter me, all right?”
“Oh, good, we’ll see jest how bad yer taste is!”
“Clarence, shut up! She’s pretty, all right! She’s damn pretty!” Simon swallowed. “Now listen to me! If ye see her comin’ an’ I ain’t around, ye go out the back an’ hang out somewhere else until she leaves! Got it?”
“Aye, aye, I got it.”
“And except fer that, ye don’t leave this house unless I’m with ye or the guards are attackin’ it!”
“Because I can’t trust ye, Clarence!” Simon snapped. “Ye got Berach Brogan angry ter the point where he punched ye! Ye were this close ter havin’ the town guards haulin’ ye off in chains!”
“They wouldn’t haul off a man in chains fer callin’ a slut a slut.”
Simon rolled his eyes heavenward, even though he probably wasn’t worth to be calling down heavenly assistance. “They wouldn’t haul off a man fer that, but they might haul ye off if they got a good look at yer ugly mug!”
“An’ that’s why ye ain’t goin’ nowhere unless I’m with ye,” Simon said. “Now about food an’ such …”
Clarence sighed and leaned his head against the wall, but Simon didn’t give a damn. As long as Clarence didn’t leave without Simon accompanying him and keeping him out of trouble, they would be golden.
An’ as long as I keep him from snoopin’ around, Simon thought with a grimace, I’ll be in silver.
Hours later, the sky was dark, the candles doused, and the gang had no plans to rob anyone. There was no whore in Simon’s bed. Hell, there was no one in Simon’s bed but himself — even the cats had found other sleeping places. The only sound to be had was that of the crickets singing through the open window, and Clarence’s snoring in the loft above.
But Simon could not sleep.
The snoring should have been a lullaby to him. It should have been reassurance. It should have told Simon that he was safe, safe from Clarence’s stupidity and his nosiness.
Instead, it kept him awake in fear — for would he still be safe if the snoring stopped?
His heart pounded, and despite the cool night air, he felt slick sweat pouring out from him, dirtying the sheets. Simon finally sighed and tossed the blankets back. He got up and padded on silent footsteps to the door.
He would not feel safe until he had checked. Maybe then he could sleep.
The steps still bore faint traces of the sun’s heat, but the dewy grass clung to and soaked his feet — it was almost like sticking your feet into a cool stream on a warm summer’s day, but the air around carried as much of a chill. Simon cursed himself. He should have brought a cloak before he went out.
But if he put on a cloak, he would have that much more to explain if Clarence should catch him outside. If he caught him now …
I’ll say I heard one of the cats tryin’ ter get in. Clarence already hated the cats, and the feeling was mutual — he’d snort and pout, but he would accept the excuse.
His foots let him without hesitation around the side of the house, under the flowering apple and orange trees, to the small wooden shelter he had built for the cats for those nights when he didn’t get back home at a decent hour in order to let them inside. On the way, he grabbed the shovel he always left “carelessly” leaning against the wall of the cottage.
The spot was three paces behind the cat-shelter. Even in the dim light of the moon, he could see the thin line of dirt, where he had carefully cut the sod and grass before he buried the evidence. If you didn’t know it was there, you would never notice it — but Simon knew it was there, and he noticed.
He removed the sod and cast a glance at Clarence’s window. No pale face stared down on him. Still, his paranoia whispered, What if Clarence see ye diggin’?
I’ll tell ‘im one o’ the cats died.
He began to dig.
As he dug, he thought of how he had gotten himself into this predicament.
It hadn’t seen like a predicament at the time. Hell, at the time it had seemed like a wonderful opportunity. He had been walking in the market, trying to select some foods for supper, when a hush descended over the marketplace. The only sound was that of a creaky wagon. Simon turned around to look.
The tax wagon.
Simon was sure that his eyes had lit up with anticipation and greed. The tax wagon! He couldn’t believe his luck! Oh, true, there were half-a-dozen burly guards surrounding it. Oh, sure, it was driven by the strange creature who was the King’s steward, the creature that looked no more frightening than a knight in armor but was actually a ghost or demon who only wore the armor to make him less frightening to ordinary folk. Yes, it was in fact a capital crime to be caught stealing from the tax wagon, since that money was not, the King insisted, the King’s but the kingdom’s.
But all that copper and silver, just sitting there … what kind of thief would want to pass that up?
But Simon wasn’t stupid. So he didn’t go near the wagon. He didn’t so much as look at the guards. He just continued to shop, or pretend to shop, and to watch the wagon from the corner of his eye.
When it stopped at a house and the demon-knight knocked at the door, Simon took his chance. He still didn’t touch the wagon.
But he did shy a stone at the horse.
As he remembered, Simon heard his stone scrape something that wasn’t dirt or stone. He knelt to brush the crumbs of dirt away.
That day, he had thought the worst-case scenario would be if the horse didn’t do anything. He was wrong.
The horse did do something — it reared, it whinnied, and it broke into a canter. The guards stood in shock, then followed horse and wagon, waving their weapons in the air like so many fools. The horse was faster than they, though, and as it ran, one of the wagon wheels hit a stone, and one of the bags of money went flying from the wagon and landed by the side of the road.
Simon waited ten seconds to see if one of the guards would turn back to get it, but none did. He swooped in.
But he wasn’t stupid. If he were seen walking away with the bag, even if it was full of farthings and clipped coppers, it would be over with him. So he was sure to wave the bag high in the air, run after the guards, and shout as loud as he dared, “Hey! Ye lost this!”
It was a risk, but it was a necessary one. And it paid off. None of the guards even turned around. Simon continued to run after them, calling but never so loud that they could hear him. And he was sure not to run at his top speed. Finally he supposed he had run far enough, and stopped, panting theatrically for all who cared to watch. Then, with the bag in full view, he walked into the nearby church.
When he walked out again, the bag was no longer in sight — but that didn’t mean he had explained the situation and given the money into a monk’s good keeping, as any honest citizen of Albion would.
When he finally got home, and the doors were barred and windows covered with curtains, only then did he survey his prize — just as, now, he brushed the last few specks of dirt away from the treasure buried beneath his lawn.
Silver shone in the moonlight.
Simon stared at the pile and sighed.
He had counted it once, twice, three times. He had scarcely believed his luck when he saw the pile of silver the first time. Now, though, he could believe his luck, for its full implications had sunk in.
Simon was the richest peasant in Albion. He had enough money to, even if he paid his taxes in full like an honest man, buy his and Roma’s freedom the day after the wedding — assuming Sir Bors didn’t up the price.
Or rather, assuming Sir Bors didn’t leap to the right conclusion and have him arrested and hanged.
He had more money sitting in his backyard than most men of his class saw in their entire lives. He had the way to make his dreams come true sitting right in front of him.
And if he tried to spend it — or if he was caught with it — he was a dead man.
What the hell, Simon wondered, am I going to do now?