Black Dog Part I
I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 147
“Eleven at once!” Richard Oldcastle laughed, the grating cackle accompanied by his fist pounding out its emphasis on the irregular surface of the table. “Only reason that tree didn’t sprout a full dozen fruit t’were it bad luck in hanging the same number as the Apostles. Pay me, you purblind wretches.”
A reluctant pile of silver groats and pennies were deposited before the playing troupe leader, including a clipped silver Dutch stuiver that spun and rolled across the table before rattling into the collection. Christopher Tyburn regarded the coin with a rueful eye. He should have known better than to bet with Oldcastle.
“Never seen that many turned off in one throw…”Thomas Mundy peered into his tankard with a slightly shocked expression on his face.
“It’s that Tree.” Edward Alleyn commented. “Makes its too simple. Hanging eleven men at once.” He snorted. “No showmanship! It’s better when they dangle ‘em singly. That sets you up for a full afternoon’s entertainment.”
“We weren’t here for those dead ‘uns, nor for your amusements. We had good takings from that noon performance.” Oldcastle crowed. “Always a good crowd turns to for a hanging.”
The playing troupe the Earl of Worcester’s Men had left London in the early morning, crossing Holburn Bridge with the thick, heavy stench of the Fleet ditch clogging their nostrils. It was a dreary walk under thin grey cloud, and the patchwork sprawl of the Chancery inns soon gave way to broader fields and gardens of Southampton House. By the time the group of players, accompanied by their squealing cart topped with a fluttering silver, blue and red livery pennon, had reached the village of Tyburne, the blanket of grey had dispersed and the thin slated sunshine of early autumn emerged to tentatively cast the hangings in a buttery light.
Oldcastle, the troupe’s leader and chief shareholder had planned well. Executions at the Tyburn Tree teemed with people. Apprentices from London, students and lawyers from the Inns of the Court and Chancery Lane, foppish bloods, merchants, farmers, labourers, clerks, thieves, pickpockets, car-men and whores thronged into the village to enjoy the grand entertainment of watching men hang. Though executions happened with clockwork regularity, spectacle and notoriety always pulled a large audience. The unusual sight of eleven simultaneous hangings on the unique Tyburn Tree coupled with the execution of the infamous “Cutting” Ball, a noted London cutpurse, had drawn an excited and expectant crowd. The Tyburn Tree had only been erected three years before and was still regarded by most Londoners as a novelty. The gallows stood in the middle of the roadway like an ungainly three-legged stool, topped by a horizontal wooden triangle, which gave the executioners the option of hanging singly or in batches. It was a tree known to bear fruit year-round.
Worcester’s Men had timed their performance for the lull after the drop, catching the crowds as they dispersed to the local innyards before the dull walk back to London and the tedium of the everyday. At two pence entry to the yard, a kickback for the draw from the innkeeper and some takings from a group of drunken Flemish mercers, it had been a good day.
“New ‘un’s usually pay the round on their first road stop,” Jacob Willens noted, “but as you’re fleeced and we’re flush, we’ll make an exception.”
“No one poor like a soldier.” laughed Alec, making a lewd gesture at Tyburn who gave the tall blonde man a thin smile. Willens laughed. Jacob Willens was a sharer, one of three owners of the Earl of Worcester’s Men along with Mundy and Oldcastle. The remaining members of the troupe were players-for-hire, of whom, Christopher Tyburn, ex-soldier and cast-off flotsam from Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s recent war expedition to Holland and Flanders, was the newest. Tyburn, freshly cast in the role of Vice, was a barely tolerated neophyte, thrust upon Oldcastle as a favour by the troupe patron, the Earl of Worcester.
“Drink you bastards, we’ve a road to be on.” Oldcastle said, scraping the remaining coins into his purse. “Unless you’d care to toss some bales? What? No coin left to spare?”
The door to the tavern banged open. Voices fell like a cold wind blowing out a candle. Tyburn looked up.
The man that crowded the entryway was tall and broad, his eyes black as buttons set above a coal-dark beard, and a head as sharp and angular as a hatchet. He wore a long cloak threaded with thin patterned ribbons of gold and silver. A dagger hung on his belt, alongside a long wood-handled maul war hammer. It was a battlefield weapon designed to free an armored knight’s soul by fatally punching the pick-side through a metal-clad helmet.
“ ’Od rat it.” Tyburn wasn’t sure which of the troupe had uttered the quiet curse but when he looked down the long table, he was surprised to see almost all of them were busily examining their cups. The conversation that had paused upon the man’s entry slowly resumed, at a lower, more muttered level. The noisy laughter had fallen into whispers and muted conversation as the man threaded his way to the serving counter. A number of men arose and hastily made their way to the exit, stiff-backed and moving with metronomic precision.
“Who’s the tinsel?” Tyburn asked.
Much shuddered. “That’s Roose. He’s a black dog, the Black Dog.”
“Black dog?” asked Tyburn puzzled.
“It’s a rooker for the prison, thief-taker, blackmailer. Someone owes you coin, you hire some of the Roaring Boys to collect, or you can pay the black dog to drop him in the Hole until they pay your debts.”
“Except,” Alec said, “Roose doesn’t like waiting. He plucks his birds without a writ. They cross his hand with silver, or they rot in Newgate. Annoy him, fail to pay, look at him sidelong, and you end up on making the black dog walk. He’s a cold bastard.”
The hatchet-faced man turned and gazed around the room, a bored expression on his face. This, Tyburn thought, was a man with few friends. The gaze settled on Worcester’s Men, and the man pushed his way through the thinning crowd and leaned in over Oldcastle’s shoulder.
“Still drinking that cheap bastard lire?” he asked Oldcastle.
Oldcastle visibly fidgeted away from the heavy hand that had dropped onto his shoulder and forced a thin smile. “It does the job, Roose, it does the job. What brings you to Tyburne?”
“Came to watch Cutting Ball swing. He was one of mine, don’t you know?”
“I thought he was knackered by the catchpoles in Aldgate?”
Roose snorted in derision. “Those dotterals couldn’t find their own cocks to piss with. I hauled him out of the Ale Bush. His own sister gave him up.” The hand tightened. “’Course it twern’t til after I broke a pair of her fingers that she decided to speak free.”
The man hooked a stool out from a neighboring table and sat, leaning in. “So who’s the new face?” he nodded in Tyburn’s direction.
“Kit Tyburn, plays Vice.”
Roose gave Tyburn a slow once-over. “Shit. Another piss-poor clod without a penny to his name. Although that’s aright pretty little toy blade you have hanging there. Mind if I have a look?”
“I’ll let you see the pointy end.” Tyburn replied, his face expressionless.
Tyburn saw the man’s eyes tighten a fraction. “Stole the blade from some foppish bravo did you? Theft’s a hanging offence.”
“Took it off a dead man. He didn’t seem likely to have need of it anymore.”
Roose gave a cold, toothless smile. “And how did this man end up dead?”
“I shoved a nine-inch pike blade through the roof of his mouth.”
Oldcastle hastily waved his arm and called over the ostler. “Another round and a full glass for our friend.” Oldcastle gave Roose’s arm the briefest of clasps. The man reluctantly turned away and the collective exhale of breath from the remaining troupe members sounded like a wave breaking.
Alec leaned in to Tyburn’s ear. “Don’t get on the wrong side of that one.” he murmured. “It would end badly, no matter how it plays.”
“Why?” asked Tyburn.
“Think of him as a rabid dog. You don’t run, you just back away dead slow, never take your eyes off him and never react when he snarls. Let’s just hope Oldcastle doesn’t decide to toss him one of us as meat when he makes his retreat.”
“They have a history?”
Alec grimaced. “He dunned Oldcastle for a considerable sum about three years ago, near £30. That’s the reason Oldcastle let Mundy’s father buy in as a sharer, until then it was just him and Willens as partners.”
“You think he’s back to hit up Oldcastle again?”
“No. Oldcastle’s paid. The Black Dog’s consistent, he stays bought. But he’d still twitch up Oldcastle if it gave him another cony to chase.”
Tyburn felt a cold wet nose bump his hand. The ostler’s dog, a piebald mongrel hound with rheumy eyes and a thumping tail gave him a friendly nudge. The player absently rubbed the animal behind the ears and watched Oldcastle’s forced laughter and conversation with Roose.
The man’s dark eyes flickered down the line of the table, examining the actors one-by-one. His eyes paused briefly at Tyburn and the player gave the man a ghost of a smile in return. Four years of muck, cold, blood and steel had forged Tyburn. People with ties, people with property, people with opportunity – all of them had things to lose in the face of the Black Dog’s threats. Tyburn had brought nothing from the battlefields except an abiding anger and a long tail of ghosts. The Black Dog had nothing to threaten Tyburn.
After a few strained minutes, Oldcastle drained his glass and stood. “Right, we’ve a road to be on lads. Down ‘em.”
The players gulped their mugs. Tyburn shrugged into his greatcoat. Roose’s voice was silky as he leaned over the table to speak to Willens.
“That’s a right pretty daughter you have. I heard she’s to be wed.”
“I’m curious how you’ll manage the dowry for the bitch, with the debts you need to clear?” The Black Dog continued.
Jacob’s voice was a pained stammer. “I have no debts, you’re mistaken.”
“You do. I’ve the signed writs in my pocket. Sworn and sealed by the Justice.”
“That’s impossible. I don’t owe anyone! You’re lying!” The words flew out of Jacob’s mouth. His face was pale.
“Did you just call me a liar?” Roose laid the long maul on the table with a heavy thump. “Not fond of insults, little man. I do my job, I rook in them that ain’t paid what they owe, and you need pay twenty-five crowns or you take a long walk to gaol. I ain’t some bench-whistler or bluecoat that you can fob me off. I’m the fucking Black Dog and you pay.”
The long hammer shot out and hooked around the back of Willens’ neck, yanking him forward across the table. “You pay twenty-five crowns or you rot in the Hole until you die of the flux.”
Tyburn dropped his hand to his sword. “Let him loose.” The Black Dog looked down the table at Kit.
“Touch that sword you mincing ponce and I’ll mulch him and you.”
“Hard to do with steel through your gullet.”
“This ain’t your business cully. I’ve sworn writs in my pocket. You rag and tag try to waylay me, and you’ll be in fetters before sunset.”
Oldcastle’s voice was soothing. “No one wants to cause you any difficulty! Jacob merely was noting that he will need time to assemble the monies.”
Roose tightened the grip on the hammer, pulling Willens down another inch. “That so, cully?”
“Yes …” Willens said in a whisper.
Roose gave a quick glance down. “Good.” He loosened the hammer from Jacob’s neck, pulling it back to his side. “Good that you’re listening.” He raised the hammer and brought it down with savage force. The yelp of the ostler’s dog was cut short by a sickening, pulpy smack that could be heard across the room.
Roose lifted the now reddened hammer. Thick scarlet blood drops painted the bare wood of the table. The Black Dog reached out across the table and touched the hammer gently against Willens cheek, leaving a bloody imprint. “You have one week. Twenty-five crowns. Newgate.” He gave Tyburn a malevolent glare. “Give me pause, and I serve you like I did that ‘un.” Roose turned and stalked out of the alehouse.
The trek back to London was subdued. Tyburn walked with Alec, who spent most of the journey reminiscing about the improbable charms of a woman from Suffolk he had met the previous year. Willens trudged ahead of the pair, making no effort to converse. Kit had watched him hold an earnest conversation with Oldcastle outside the inn in Tyburne that Oldcastle had cut short with a slashing hand gesture and a resigned shrug.
Alec noticed Tyburn’s gaze. “I’ll lay odds of one in three that Jacob is forced to sell out his ownership.”
“Not taken.” replied Tyburn and he hurried his pace to match Willens’ steps.
“What are you planning to do?” Kit asked Willens as he drew alongside.
Willens gave a sour shrug. “Little I can do. The Dog wants his coin. I pay, I run, or I rot in gaol. Not a lot of choices.”
“He was oddly specific.”
“What do you mean?”
“Twenty-five crowns. Not ten, not twenty. Not even how much do you have?, but twenty-five crowns. Exactly. How much did you set aside for your daughter’s dowry?”
Willens stared at Tyburn, his eyes widening. “Twenty-five crowns. We have no properties or land and wanted to set her up nice. She’s our only child.”
Kit nodded. “Who is she to marry?”
“Thomas Pulton. He’s an apprentice tinsmith, works out of smithy near Bishopsgate. We hoped she settle on someone a bit steadier, but she adores him. The banns were read in church two weeks ago.”
“Dowry’s not public or included in the banns?”
“But it’s been agreed to?”
Jacob nodded, his eyes grim. “Aye.”
“Someone told the Black Dog. Would Oldcastle have thrown you to him?”
“I thought about it. Oldcastle’s a right bastard but he wouldn’t sour his own troupe to feed the likes of Roose. Not enough profit in it for ‘em.”
“Even if it forced you to sell him back your interest in Worcester’s Men?”
Willens snorted. “He’d not take the chance I’d sell it to Mundy. Mundy inherited his share when his father passed, Oldcastle’s always been abate over that piece of work. He pressures me, I roll over to Mundy and that beardless wonder gets controlling interest over Worcester’s Men. You want Oldcastle dead of apoplexy, that’s the way to do it.”
“So we are back to someone else rooking in the Black Dog.”
The anxiety on Willens face was plain. “I have to pay, there’s no other choice.”
“You have a week”, Tyburn noted diffidently, “Why not let me poke about and turn over some stones. Mayhaps I find something we can use to divert Roose. If not, you pay.”
The older man wiped his face with his hand. “I don’t know. Crossing the Black Dog isn’t done.”
“He can only take what you allow him to take. He feeds on your fear, he feeds on imaginary consequences.”
“Easy for you, you’ve no family. That man’s death. I daren’t take that chance.”
They strode along the roadway in silence for several minutes. “I met death once, did I tell you?”
Willens looked at Kit with a skeptical eye.
“It was in Harlaam,” Tyburn continued. “Late one pitch black winter’s night. It was just before the siege started. I was coming back from watch, stumbling along the sideroad to the house we had commandeered. Fat bloody snowflakes drifting down, slow and stately. The whole city was hushed, you know, that deafening silence you get at the height of a winter’s snowfall –everything muffled and throttled.
There’s this sunken garden area, by some merchant house, that you could see down into from the road. I look over and I spy, through all the swirling snow, two figures walking in the white, lit up by a lantern. At first I thought nothing of it but then I noticed. One was a woman. She was wrapped all in fur. Slim thing, moved like a dancer, and her face,” The player paused for a beat, and continued. “She was beautiful, I could tell that much, even at a distance.”
Willens found his breath caught. The intensity in the man’s voice was palpable. Tyburn resumed his tale.
“She was laughing. And it was then I noticed her companion. He was monstrous tall, cadaver thin under a long dark hooded cloak. The height was peculiar but what I noticed was stranger. No snow settled on that cloth, and no wind swirled those robes. And I just froze where I stood. The girl danced about but that figure in black turned to face me. All I could see was that awful empty hood, dark as pitch’s shadow. The voice I heard was flat and plain, though I was fifty yards back if it t’were an inch.
That’s all it said. It felt…like it was smiling.” Tyburn gave Willens an impassive look. “Death and I are old acquaintences. Leave the Black Dog to me.”
Willens felt an atavistic shiver ripple down his spine and he gave the player a slow nod.
 Set of dice
 Reference to the cloak fabric
 Slang for the humiliation & hazing of new prisoners
 Sweet Spanish wine
 Rabbit, also slang for the mark in a confidence game