‘And?’ Cranston asked.
‘Sir Henry, Sir Oliver and the others used to meet in our chapter-house at Lilleshall.’
‘For what purpose?’
‘They were young knights,’ the monk replied. ‘According to Antony, their brains were stuffed with dreams of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Both Sir Henry and Sir Oliver and the others used to ape such stories. Every month they would meet, with the permission of the abbot, in our house at Lilleshall, where they would feast, recite the legends of Arthur, and hold a tournament in the great meadow outside. The meetings became famous.’ Father Benedict coughed and glanced away.
‘And they took as their title the “Knights of the Swan”?’ Athelstan said.
‘Oh yes!’ Father Benedict leaned down and rubbed his knee. ‘Sir John, Athelstan, I beg of you, I must sit down. I have rheumatism; the abbey is not the warmest place in winter.’
Cranston pulled up a chair and the old monk sank gratefully into it.
‘Do you wish something to drink?’ Cranston asked hopefully.
‘We were talking about the Knights of the Swan?’ Athelstan interrupted, throwing Cranston a warning glance.
‘Oh, if Father Antony were to be believed, they were a glorious band,’ the Benedictine monk replied. ‘Some of them are dead now, God rest them! But there must have been twenty or twenty-four in their company. I once visited Antony at Lilleshall when the Knights of the Swan held one of their great Round Tables. They came riding up to the abbey, preceded by a squire carrying a broad scarlet banner with a beautiful white swan embroidered on it. They’d set up their pavilions in the meadow and the crowds flocked from Shrewsbury even as far as Oswestry on the Welsh border. They all came to see the colours, the gaily caparisoned destriers, the tourney. God forgive me,’ he whispered, ‘even I, a monk, a man of peace, loved the sight. Stirring times! The great Edward was organising his armies to fight in France and, when the news of the great victory at Crécy swept the country, the Knights of the Swan became local heroes.’ He glanced at Sir John. ‘Surely, my lord Coroner, there were such days in London?’
‘Aye, there were.’ Cranston sat on the edge of the bed, a dreamy look in his eyes. ‘I was just like that,’ he murmured. Then he caught Coverdale’s grin. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover, young man.’ He tapped his broad girth. ‘Once I was as sleek and trim as a greyhound, as sharp and swift as a swooping hawk.’
Athelstan put his hands up his sleeves and looked down to hide his smile.
‘There used to be great tournaments on London Bridge and at Smithfield,’ Cranston continued. He wagged a finger at Coverdale. ‘Not like the young popinjays today, traipsing around London in their fancy hose and ridiculous shoes. The only thing they hold out in front of them are their codpieces, and those are usually stuffed with straw.’
‘But Sir Miles,’ Father Athelstan prompted him, ‘you remember Lilleshall surely?’
The captain’s head came up sharply. ‘I was only a child,’ he stuttered.
‘But your father held land in Shropshire, outside Market Drayton, between there and Woodcote Hall.’
Sir Miles blushed slightly, his hand falling away from his sword. Athelstan couldn’t decide whether he was just embarrassed or had something to hide.
‘Was your father a Knight of the Swan?’ Cranston asked.
‘No, he wasn’t.’ Coverdale’s face became hard-set, no longer youthful; his grim, pinched mouth gave him the look of a sour old man.
‘I meant to give no slight,’ Cranston continued softly.
‘And none taken, Sir John. My father’s manor was little more than a bam: he died when I was young. My mother was sickly. We had no time for junketing and tourneys. I left Shropshire as a squire. I served in Lord Montague’s retinue at sea against the Spanish.’ Coverdale moved his swordbelt and sat down on a stool. ‘The Knights of the