attempts to place efficacious drugs in his mouth, but he spat them out. Others tried soothing words, but these too were of no avail.
Marshal Brunte, de facto commander of Brum, and a tough, thickset hydden used to getting his own way, failed utterly to get any sense from Stort who, as the second day wore on, grew wilder and weaker at the same time. ‘Inform me if death threatens him,’ said Brunte, ‘or if he recovers his sanity. Meanwhile we must fear the worst and set in motion plans for a military funeral or a ceremony and will present him with posthumous honours . . .’
Stort might not look much of a military hero, but only his quick thinking at the time of Brunte’s insurrection against the Fyrd had saved the life of Lord Festoon. Without him it was unlikely that the irascible citizens of Brum would have ever given the Marshal the support they had.
Lord Festoon, High Ealdor of the city, was still wearing his chain of office from a function he cut short when he heard a new rumour that Stort was dying. He was an admirer and friend of Stort, at once authoritative and kindly. His prematurely grey hair gave him a magisterial air.
‘If only he would let us examine and tend him properly,’ he said sadly. ‘He once saved my life at considerable risk to his own and I cannot understand why he will not let us help him now.’
Brief could not but agree.
‘It is odd, is it not, that he seems to gain strength without our help but will not let us so much as wash or feed him? If it did not defy all reason I would suggest that something apart from ourselves is affecting him.’
Finally, it was Ma’Shuqa, daughter of Old Mallarkhi, wizened owner-proprietor of the Muggy Duck, the finest and most historic hostelry in Old Brum, who broke the deadlock.
Her affection for Stort, who had lodged with her in his youth, ran deep. She asked for a goodwife she knew well to be sent to his house and told Brief that he should be taken home at once.
‘Goodwife Cluckett is strict but fair,’ she said. ‘She’ll sort him out.’
These words, spoken as if Stort was not in the room, appeared to have a sobering effect on him.
He opened his eyes, sat up and said, ‘I do not like goodwives. They frighten me and in any case I am rapidly getting better.’
Ma’Shuqa said, ‘That’s as maybe. But I bain’t stopping her now. We’m taking you home and Cluckett will have you spright as a sparrow in no time!’
Half an hour later, by the light of a dozen lanterns, Stort was carried through the narrow lanes of Digbeth to his home. By the time they arrived he had so perked up that he was able to stand, with a little support, and dig about in his pockets for his key.
He opened the door himself, his strength returning even more. Someone lit a fire, someone else fetched water, a third some sweetmeats and provender of the kind that tempts jaded palates. Candles were lit and all made as comfortable as was possible in his dusty, untidy, cluttered home. Then everyone was sent packing but for his closest friends, Brief and Mister Pike and Barklice, the city’s Verderer and in the past a frequent travelling companion of Stort’s.
‘Promise you will not leave me in this goodwife’s hands when she comes,’ he implored. ‘Look! I am well after all! She will be the death of me.’
They no sooner promised than there was a sudden and peremptory knock at the front door, the kind of solid, heavy knock-knock-knock that people who expect to be admitted at once generally make.
Brief opened the door.
Stort took one look at the female standing there with a formidably large leather bag at her feet and an impatient look in her eye. He fled into his parlour and locked the door.
‘You are?’ she asked Master Brief.
‘Me?’ said Brief, taken aback.
‘Yes, sir. You, sir. Who are you?’
‘Well, I’m Master Brief and this is Mister Pike . . . we . . .’
‘Where is my patient?’
‘In the parlour,’ said the mild Barklice, ‘behind that
Jerry B. Jenkins, Chris Fabry