Nicholas Brembre 4
The sun had pulled down its last fire and allowed no moon to take its place. Torch light drew the world in jagged pieces. St Peters’ loomed like Magog on the left, after which the troubled light threw itself into the moat. The Tower ignored it, rising through its three levels of defence: the squat outer curtain, coy inner walls and the heights of the keep, with its four pointed towers, nipple-ends up to the night. The white box stone was spotted with yellow to match the few stars abroad. Candles had been lit that waited only for the king, and his banner was flying from the walls. They entered from the south west, taking the two bridges over the moat before arriving at the Byward Tower, gateway to the Outer Ward.
‘William Walworth mayor of London and Nicholas Brembre merchant.’ It did not sound so grand here in the far corner of their realm. The tower was cold in the June night and Nicholas felt it to be smaller within than without. This sense of reduction made him shudder and he adjusted his belt, which was suddenly too tight.
William pushed on, passing in his enthusiasm the servant who had been sent to show them the way. Nicholas followed more steadily, regaining his breath with care so that he could understand where he was.
Skirting a chasm, Nicholas felt the movement of a huge body, as though it had leapt up against him. But this was not the touch of a solid object, rather something felt through air and sound. He heard the shudder in the atmosphere as a large thing, a monster, took its path in the deep. William, who hated cats of any size, alive or skinned, refused to look down, but Nicholas strained by the meagre light to glimpse the beast in the pit. There were more, he knew, though he could barely see the one. They were unhappy heroes, imprisoned like those condemned to die but denied even that means of escape. The lion was half-asleep, roused by the late opening of the gate but disappointed as ever by the lack of antelope in its wilderness. The city fed the beasts: three lions, a bear and a wolf – or it paid for the feed anyway, as it paid for many things that the king enjoyed. Nicholas had brought Robert to see the beasts, as he had the other children in their time. Short time. Robert did not like the lions or the bear. He preferred the wolf. He was a lonely child.
They crossed more space in the direction of the Garden Tower, which Nicholas recognised from its proximity to the White Tower itself. The whitewash of the latter was still striking in the starlight. Nicholas had watched the great cosmetic exercise progress on several occasions from the safety of the city. No-one wanted scaffolding used against the tower, so long ladders were substituted, increasing the loss of labour. Once he had seen a man fall. Distance separated him from the tragedy. Something very small had fallen from something very far away and he had not heard a sound. Now, however, as he started up the external staircase, he allowed himself to feel the drop. He was relieved to swing inside and transfer to the interior spiral before rising to the second floor.
Even at this hour there were at least ten people in the chamber. Only one of them was seated. Figures dark with purpose and opinion spaced themselves across the floor and in the middle sat the king on a carved chair.
A tapestry stretched high on the wall beyond the king, sprouting thistles, leaves and country flowers. In the candle-light the gold thread glinted false like snakes’ eyes in the undergrowth. The king’s advisers circled slowly. Their fur hats wove patterns in the air that were as old as the tapestry, but without its detachment. Their bodies hung with fine cloaks, tunics of silk, velvet, cloth of gold. But I could buy better, thought Nicholas Brembre.
‘Mayor William, I greet you. And Nicholas. Go you to God.’
‘The king needs a loan,’ said treasurer Hales to the left. ‘That and your forces to repel the rebels.’
‘We are here to assist the king, in whatever way we are needed,’ replied William performing a bow that marked in its subtle sweep the power and the deference required of him.
‘You are welcome in the Tower tonight. Tomorrow will bring a grand meeting of the council.’