The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (5 page)

His father trembled with emotion.

‘My Brother Knights, you are my brothers no longer. I chose my country, for I am as proud and loyal an Englishman as any. You will understand the agony of that choice. I returned to my ancestral shire, and my family, I married and became a father. Infants on my knee, daughters kissing my old grizzled cheek, tearaway sons.’ He glanced at Nicholas. ‘A very different destiny from that of a warrior
monk, you will agree. Yet in my youth I fought my way through the bitter Siege of Rhodes, shoulder to shoulder with Jean de la Valette himself, against that same devil’s son Suleiman who now threatens Malta.

‘After some happy years, my beloved young wife … went to a better place. I farmed. I raised my children. And I worshipped my Lord and Saviour in the Catholic faith. Though this is now a Protestant country, it has been so for only six years, since Mary Tudor died. Her Majesty, Elizabeth, does not wish to pry too deeply into the private faith of her subjects, so long as they are obedient. In her own words, she does wish to
make windows into men’s souls
. Here among our quiet Shropshire hills, we worship as we see fit, in secrecy but not in shame. Loyal to both the Queen of England and His Holiness in Rome.’

‘And the knights are sworn never to draw their sword against a fellow Christian,’ said the fairhead.

‘Quite so. I have nothing but contempt for these damned plots to assassinate our Queen and have a Catholic monarch on the English throne once more. The People of England have ever gone their own way.’

Blackbeard drained his wine in a single gulp. The fire crackled. The wind was subsiding a little.

‘Any aid you can send, brother,’ said the fairhead. ‘Gold. Guns. Prayers.’

They drew their cloaks from the back of the chairs, still heavy with rain.

‘Stay one night under my roof, at least.’

The fairhead shook his head with a sad smile. ‘Walls have ears, wells talk. We have put you in danger even coming to your door. And as I said – there is no time. I dream the same dream every night now. The vast shadow of an approaching army.’

‘Well,’ said Sir Francis. ‘Tomorrow I will make contact with what few English brothers remain, and set about raising what aid I can for my old order.’ He inhaled deeply, thrusting his chest out in pride. ‘Nicholas, you are looking at two of the finest knights of the venerable Order of St John. Knights Hospitaller. Crusaders.’

The very words, so strange and antique, thrilled Nicholas to the bone.

‘This,’ he said, indicating the fairhead, ‘is Sir Edward Stanley, Knight Grand Cross. And this is Sir John Smith, likewise Knight Grand Cross. Knights of St John of Malta, warriors of Christ, and among the most courageous and chivalrous soldiers in all Europe.’

Blackbeard – John Smith – remained expressionless. Stanley smiled faintly and looked at his boots.

‘I speak the truth,’ cried Sir Francis, clapping his hands on their shoulders like a proud father. ‘The Last Crusaders in Christendom!’

They clasped hands, and without another word, the two rode away into the night.

Nicholas was nearly bursting with questions. He had never known half the truth about his father’s long life before he was born.

Ingoldsby saw his youthful eagerness and gave a great loud bark of a laugh.

‘Ha! So you never thought your rheumy, crabbed old sire was once a young gallant who fought like the Lionheart himself against the Saracens, eh? Eh? Ha!’ And he took up his sheathed sword and began to thwack Nicholas on the back and legs with it.

‘Ay!’ yelped Nicholas. ‘Ow!’ The thwacks were hefty.

‘Ha! Have at thee, thou swart infidel!’

His father was moonstruck, an aged knight suddenly thinking he was on the battlefield once more.

Nicholas ran upstairs.

‘Tomorrow, boy!’ his father roared after him, still swinging his sheathed sword dangerously around the narrow hallway. ‘I’ll tell thee more about the youthful battles and travails of your aged sire! There’s tales will make your lilywhite ears burn!’

A door opened above and a female voice hissed angrily, ‘Ssshhh! You’ll wake the whole household with your noise and rumpus!’

It was Mistress Copstick, the housekeeper.

After that there was no more noise. Even old Ingoldsby himself, slayer of Saracens, was afraid of Mistress Copstick.


It was Hodge who came running, red-faced, saying there were soldiers riding down the hill towards the village. Nicholas’s younger sister Susan, already something of a scold at thirteen, flicked him with her cleaning cloth and told him not to be such a clodpoll. What would soldiers want with a village like this?

She stared at her brother.

‘Unless … it’s to do with those strangers last night.’

Nicholas froze.

His father was in his library.

‘It’s true I tell you!’ cried Hodge. ‘And that Gervase Crake riding at the head of ’em.’

‘Crake?’ said Nicholas sharply.

Hodge nodded. ‘Lookin’ as proud as a peacock too, the lubbock.’

Gervase Crake. Local landowner, sycophant and cheat. Tax gatherer, informer and liar. Of puritan tendencies, but careful not to let his private convictions get in the way of his ascent to wealth and power. With friends in high places, and correspondent even with Lord Cecil himself, down in London, it was whispered. Above all, he was Justice of the Peace and Lord of the Hundred, and thus responsible for upholding the law throughout the neighbourhood. And he held some ancient grudge against his father – as he did against so many.

Nicholas suddenly felt very, very afraid.

He ran up to the top field and peered over the hedge. In the grey October morning, there gleamed the breastplates of a dozen
scruffy-looking mounted men. Not soldiers, surely, but armed hire-lings. At their head, lean and small, hunched and gimlet-eyed on his grey nag, Gervase Crake.

Nicholas dashed back down the hill.

‘Hodge! You haven’t – talked, have you?’

‘I kept as mute as a mouse!’ said the startled Hodge, flushing with anger.

He ordered Hodge inside with the other servants and was just knocking on his father’s library door, when the farmyard was filled with the sound of clattering hooves on the cobblestones.

They died down, and a thin, nasal voice called out, ‘Francis Ingoldsby, master of this house. You are a wanted man!’

His father burst out of his room and strode out into the farmyard. He looked angry, and yet also … guilty. His father always was too honest a soul to be a player. He stood bow-legged and broad-shouldered before his front door.

‘Crake,’ he muttered.

Crake did not dismount, but looked down his thin nose at him, and coughed his usual little dry cough.

‘To horse, sir. You are coming to the county jail, and perhaps thence to London.’

‘On what charge?’

Crake’s smile was as warm as the midwinter sun on ice.

‘The very gravest. High treason.’

The villagers lined the lane that led out to Shrewsbury, silent and white-faced. Many of them had taken bread and wine from Father Matthew’s hand. But among them was evidently one who preferred to take a silver shilling from the hand of Gervase Crake.

As Ingoldsby stepped onto the old, moss-grown mounting block, suddenly looking an old and weary man, Crake called out, ‘Halt! This one knows how to handle a sword. Shackle him!’

It was then that Nicholas saw red, a furious tide of anger flooding through him. That his father should be treated like a common felon.

‘No!’ he cried out, and flew at the soldier who had dismounted to hammer the shackles onto his father’s bony old wrists.

What happened next was a terrible, blood-dimmed blur.

Hodge was near, trying to restrain Nicholas. A soldier lashed out with the butt of his sword hilt, and struck Hodge, perhaps by accident. The sturdy servant fell back with a muffled grunt and lay dazed. Nicholas seized the bridle of the soldier’s horse and wrenched it with all his might. His father was stepping off the mounting block again, shouting, trying to calm him. Two more mounted soldiers crowded round, and above the noise Crake’s thin voice shouted orders. At last he drew a matchlock from his cloak and took a smoking fuse from one of the soldiers. He raised it in the air just as the powder exploded in the pan.

A horse whinnied and reared. A soldier rolled to the ground with a cry. Another swung his sword. Sir Francis tried to seize his son and drag him clear, as the rearing horse came down again. Even amid all the noise and chaos, Nicholas heard the hollow, sickening sound of an ironshod horse’s hoof meeting human bone. His father reeled aside and crumpled to the muddy ground at the foot of the mounting block.

Everything went still then. The horses were pulled back, soldiers remounted, dropped their drawn swords down by their sides. Yet the still air screamed.

Nicholas knelt by his father’s side. His skull was shattered, there was blood, mess, shards of white bone. Blood poured down over half his face. Nicholas gripped his hand.


His father could not see. The world was fading. It mattered not.

‘Had I more hair,’ he murmured, ‘perhaps the blow had been less grave.’ He smiled faintly. ‘Grave indeed.’

A cold terror clutched the boy’s heart. ‘Father! Speak to me!’

The old man had some last sorrow for his children. Something dreadful had happened, he could not remember what … Yet God would provide.

He spoke the words of the Scriptures that he loved, the words of David to Solomon as he lay dying. Nicholas leaned close to hear him, his words a whisper on the wind. ‘
I go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man

One last effort in this world. ‘My son. Such tales I could have told thee, such things. But … Care for your sisters. Be just, be faithful. To the very end.’

Then the old man’s hand no longer returned his grasp.

The boy’s howls filled the village. His sister Susan stood near, so stricken with grief and bewilderment she could not cry. She pressed the faces of the two trembling little ones into her pinafore so they could not see.

The soldiers waited for orders to clear them away and collect the body, but Gervase Crake seemed strangely oblivious. He barely regarded the scene, which made even the soldiers’ hard hearts ache.

Indeed it was as if some far more interesting thought had occurred to him. An expression of quiet satisfaction on his face suggested that he thought this day of clumsy tragedy had turned out really rather well. His eyes roved over the fine old farmhouse of the Ingoldsbys: the venerable oak timbers, the handsome stone mullion windows, the tall chimneys gently smoking in the autumn sunshine. The barns were pretty dilapidated, true. But for the rest … And then there were several hundred acres of hill and grassland, excellent sheep country. With the prices wool was fetching nowadays …

At last he looked back and coughed dryly.

‘Pull the boy away.’

It took three soldiers to drag him free. One received a kick in the shins, and responded with a mighty backhand swipe of a heavy leather gauntlet that set Nicholas reeling. Susan screamed out. The little ones wailed. At last Crake lost patience.

‘Drag them all here!’ he cried, pointing before his horse.

All four children were pulled over and dumped unceremoniously before him in the mud. He looked sourly down at them.

‘Now listen to me, you traitorous whelps. You are not of the age of majority, or it would be worse for you. Though God knows under the reign of Bloody Mary, Protestant blood as young as yours was wickedly shed. Bodies as soft and young as yours burnt at the stake in Smithfield market. But your father was a foul traitor.’

Nicholas rose up on his knees to cry out at this, and was once more violently cuffed into silence.

‘He was a Catholic – though not yet a crime in this Protestant kingdom, alas! But I doubt not we shall find his library stuffed full of the latest Popish propaganda from Flanders. Above all, we know
he entertained two knights of the most élite and dangerous order of Catholic warriors in all Christendom. Known assassins. Here, in this house,’ he gestured angrily, ‘only last night! You should think it lucky he died as he did – thanks to you!’ His eyes bored into Nicholas.

‘Nevertheless he will be declared a traitor post mortem, his entire property forfeit to the Crown, and the name of the Shropshire Ingoldsbys utterly erased. How many servants have you in the household?’

‘Only one old retainer,’ said Nicholas.

Crake moved with the snakelike swiftness of a small, lean man, and cut Nicholas across the face with his whip.

‘Liar! Do not think you can lie to me, boy! You have seven household servants,
. I know their names, I know their ages and their occupations, their religious practices. Damn it, boy, I know when they last changed their underlinen!’

Nicholas pressed his hand to the hot welt across his cheek. Tears pricked his eyes but he blinked them angrily away. His face burned, his heart ached, his whole world tilted.

‘I will deal with your servants. As for you and your sisters, you are now penniless orphans.’ Crake compressed his lips at the children’s cries. ‘Well, your dotard of a father should have thought of your fate before he entertained Knights of St John at his fireside, should he not? Your best course now is to quit this county, and throw yourselves upon your nearest relations, or else some charity or poorhouse. Either that or become mere hedgerow beggars, and join the great army of filthy vagabonds that infest this kingdom. It is no concern of mine.’

‘You cannot do this! You are a heartless villain, you will never sleep easy in your bed if I—’

‘Do not bring down the law upon your own head, boy!’ rasped Crake, his small eyes gleaming.

‘What care I?’

‘Nor the dainty heads of your pretty little sisters.’

Nicholas scowled ferociously.

‘Ay,’ murmured Crake, ‘there’s the rub. You are head of the household now. But without a house, alas! So enough of your youthful fits of rage. You need to learn to govern yourself, boy. For
it will not be easy to keep body and soul together, the four of you, in your new life on the road. As vagabond children of a traitor. A short life but not, I fear, a very merry one.’

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