1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 16
“That, and James Watt in general, I think. It works just fine. And we went back to plain wooden axles. Sticking a reinforcing rod down ’em is what broke the one we lost. There’s bearings in the wheels, and a lot more wood in there now, so I don’t think we need worry so much. And I got that old geezer to cut us a spare set of everything.”
Their first weeks on the road had been utterly frantic. Every sight of horsemen on their back trail had sent them picking random turns off the course they wanted. Alex and Julie had taken turns with their scopes and binoculars, staying behind to watch for pursuit and galloping forward whenever they saw horsemen. Four days of that and they’d made sure they were unobserved as they manhandled the wagon and load up a narrow track to camp in a small coppice. They’d run into an old bodger there, damned near incomprehensible over his treadle-lathe, but surprisingly hospitable with his campsite that he shared with a small crew of charcoal burners, whose smoke was fine cover. Cromwell had spoken quietly but urgently with the men when the horsemen — they’d long passed the stage of suspicion by then and knew they were being tracked — appeared nearby. Whoever they were, though, they’d taken one look at the narrow track from the main road and assumed that no wagon was going up that. Of course, it damned near hadn’t, and Towson was still nursing bruises from where they’d accidentally rammed him into a hedge with the wagon bed while lugging it between four up to the campsite. They’d been more careful coming down, two days after the horsemen had left, and being at that point thoroughly lost, aimed for ‘generally north’.
Both Darryl and Gayle had privately agreed that what England really needed was someone to completely rebuild its road network, someone who actually understood the concept of straight lines and right angles. Roads that maintained the same direction for more than fifty yards at a time, and preferably aligned neatly with the cardinal points of the compass. And, as the roadside vegetation grew apparently by the hour as spring hit its peak and summer made its presence felt, Darryl quietly thought a few planeloads of Agent Orange would be right handy. The natives — Alex and Patrick assured him that the roads in Scotland and Ireland were, if anything, even twistier — didn’t mind the lack of straight lines so much, but the fact that even standing up in the wagon bed visibility was half a mile at best across the rapidly-greening countryside was getting to them. The occasional milestone would have helped if they’d had a map that even showed these tiny hamlets and villages; knowing that you were half a mile from Creeting St. Mary did you not a damned bit of good if, when you got there, it turned out even the inhabitants didn’t have a clue where they were.
For the best part of ten days they’d wandered lost in the wilderness of Hertfordshire, Suffolk and, later, Norfolk. As near as Darryl could figure it, Hertfordshire was reasonably dry and comprehensible, Suffolk was wetter and a bit less comprehensible, and Norfolk averaged ankle-deep in fen with an option on bottomless and if it wasn’t for Cromwell translating the local accent and dialect, they’d not have had a chance. Gayle had remarked that it sounded like they’d been taxed their every last consonant by the king.
They’d manage to replace the horses, one by one, depleting their money in the process as they went; they’d proven beasts of stamina and absolutely damn all else. They had one pace, dead slow, but they could keep it up more or less forever. Eventually they had everyone mounted and the wagon pulled by somewhat more decent draught animals that could maybe be ridden in a pinch, and were making progress having finally picked up the Ipswich-Norwich road. Wildly off course, but at least they had a grasp of where they were and Cromwell was now within forty miles of his home country. Darryl now clearly understood why that counted as a long way hereabouts.
Of course, that’d been too much for the Demon Murphy to tolerate, and they’d broken down about a mile short of Diss, when the clever reinforcement of the axles turned out to be too clever, and the front offside had decided to separate into wood and iron. That meant a pair of new axles, but it seemed Diss was a town of some note hereabouts, possibly having a population of as many as a whole thousand. It even had a market square, proudly named as such despite being triangular, although by this time Darryl was past being surprised by the wild disregard for geometry the English countryfolk seemed to have. There was also a really big lake the townsfolk were quite proud of, a carpenter’s shop, a farrier, and, the Friday after they arrived, a market where they could pick up a healthy supply of what was in season to pack for the road. Mostly greens and the last of the over-wintered roots among the things that would keep, but there were plenty of eggs, a few assorted poultry they could keep caged on the wagon for eggs until they got barbecued, and a flitch of bacon that was nearly as big as Vicky. Darryl figured he’d investigate the greens right after the bacon and eggs ran out; for the time being they were doing all right eating at the inn. It was variations on stew and dumplings, mostly, since none of the really fresh crops were in yet, but it filled a hole.
“So,” Gayle said, “are we good to go tomorrow?”
“Pretty much. Any word from back home?” Part of the torment of being lost in Norfolk had been, whenever they found the privacy and the right conditions to radio back in, was the mockery that the radio-room geeks engaged in. Turned out you could get a lot of sarcasm into sixty seconds of Morse, and Gayle used it all in every return volley. There wasn’t much she could report except to confirm they weren’t dead yet, but she never failed to point out that there was damn all Magdeburg could do to help or advise, so they could stuff it.
“Nothing significant. Word from Amsterdam is that the Warders and their folks have gotten settled in with Becky and Mike as more or less their private security, so that’s nice to see.”
Darryl nodded. That had been a bit of a concern for him. Stephen Hamilton, the patriarch of the group of Yeoman Warders who’d helped them escape from the Tower, had come along as being up for one last adventure before he had to retire, and to watch over his niece-by-courtesy Vicky, who wasn’t going to let Darryl out of her sight if she could help it. But the rest of them had had to up stakes and leave their homeland. Darryl knew their monarch had betrayed them first, but there was no way any king of England was ever going to see it that way, so they’d never be able to come home. And the position of a royal military elite, which was what the Yeoman Warders really were at this time, was always going to be a ticklish one after they defected. Mike had solved it.
“Good. Have you told Stephen and Vicky yet?”
“They were right there with me when the messages came in. Vicky’s getting pretty good at helping out, and Stephen doesn’t mind pedalling as it gets him out of spending all day down by the mere fishing with the other boys.”
Darryl chuckled. “They catch anything yet?”
“Guess that fuss was over nothing, then.”
“Guess so. Although I figure they’d do better if they had bait on them lines.”
Darryl snorted again. Towson, Leebrick and Welch had decided that, lacking any better way to occupy their time, they’d enjoy the fresh air of what was shaping up to be a fine English summer down by the mere, relaxing. A few lunchtime ales, and they decided to cut ash poles, hunt up some string and hooks, and go fishing. Their reaction to being told they couldn’t had involved big smiles and cocked pistols, which they assured everyone they were carrying because the pike in some of these village ponds could grow to monstrous sizes. There’d been grumbling over that until one of the sharper-eyed locals had spotted the lack of bait, and Darryl, to whom the three mercenaries had been a bit of an unknown quantity, had let out the breath he’d been bating. Slightly loopy behavior due to mild boredom he could well understand. Hell, cooped up in the Tower of London all those months, he’d agreed to get married, for Christ’s sake.
Getting those boys on the road before they started on the practical jokes would be a fine thing. And here came Cromwell, his prayers done for the moment. “Oliver,” Darryl said, “any advance on Thetford as our next stop?”
“Nay. I know the way from there, and from here ’tis but fifteen miles of high road, a peddler who came from there was here this morning and firmed it in my mind. We shall be there on Wednesday, if we start early morning. Thereafter, three, perhaps four days to Ely, for there is no straight road.”
“I’m kinda looking forward to what counts as not straight in roads hereabouts,” Gayle remarked, earning a grin from Cromwell.
“Aye, the roads are crooked, Gayle, but the hearts are straight enough.”
“Aaaand I’ll leave you guys to it,” Darryl said, heading over to where the horses were awaiting attention. “I’ll get one of the stable guys to give me a hand with the horses. You go take a walk in the sunset.”
“Darryl?” Gayle called after him, “What’s it worth to keep that nice streak you got quiet?”
He blew a raspberry and flipped her off, which didn’t offend anyone hereabouts. Doing it with two fingers, now, that could get you in trouble. One finger was catching on as a friendly get-outta-town-you gesture, since nobody hereabouts had ever seen it except as between friends. Some liberal-arts professor in about a hundred years’ time was going to come through here documenting folk gestures and get really, really weirded out.
Of course, the nice streak came with a price, but what the hell, he’d already earned his beers today. Be good to earn a couple more. And the inn had a nice little nook next to the fireplace where the innkeeper’s wife figured he and Vicky looked so sweet, she’d bring them a little jug of mulled sack as a nightcap. And, yes, they had a room to themselves. Darryl was, all things considered, very well disposed to notions of romance right at the minute.
And would remain so as long as the rubbers held out.