The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (6 page)

He pulled his horse around.

‘Turn them loose! Fire the barns!’

‘And the house, Sire?’

‘The barns would be sign enough. Leave the house.’

Some of the villagers looked mutinous as the barns and outbuildings of the Ingoldsby farm were put to the torch, and the four children were driven off down the street. Men clutched hoes and billhooks, women’s faces were dark with anger. But what could mere peasants do against a dozen mounted men-at-arms?

Crake observed it all with cynical penetration. If only the children could have been finally disposed of … But there were limits. Catholic priests on missions from France might be caught and lynched promptly enough, and night-time visitations from a foreign order of Catholic knights were certainly sufficient cause to argue treason. But you could not simply dispose of heretical Catholic children, as the Israelites slew the children of the Amalekites.

The law of England was harsh but fair. He would have to let them go. Penniless, without friends or family, they would not last long.

5
 

The children passed away down the lane and into the open country under the gaze of a hundred villagers. Smoke drifted overhead from the burning barns. Flames crackled. Rooks rose indignantly from the tall elms.

‘Here!’ called out Crake at the last moment. ‘Something for your journey.’

To everyone’s astonishment, he pulled a small but weighty leather purse from his cloak and tossed it down to the boy. Then he wrenched his horse around and trotted back up the hill. At the head of the lane, he turned in his saddle and watched them go.

The children stumbled on for they knew not how long. Perhaps they would wake up and find it had been a nightmare. The short October day drew to a close and the sky darkened over their heads. A wind came up and whipped the leaves about in maddened flurries beneath the trees. They did not wake up.

After a time, little Lettice said, ‘What will we have for supper? Is it to be only bread?’

‘We will ask at a farmhouse. Perhaps we can buy something more.’

He drew Crake’s purse out and unknotted the strings as he walked and peered inside. Then he looked up.

Susan was observing him closely.

‘Is it well?’

He re-tied the strings, he wasn’t quite sure why, and stowed the purse away again.

‘Very well,’ he said quietly. ‘If I had a sling.’

Crake had thrown him a purseful of pebbles.

‘I know what is in it,’ said Susan. ‘It is a favourite jest of Crake’s. He often throws purses of stones and pebbles to paupers, to see them run and grub in the dust. He finds their desperation amusing. But he says it is a parable, to teach them not to put their trust in gold.’

‘The man is a monster.’

‘God will make him pay.’


I
will make him pay. One day.’

‘You cannot usurp God.’ She hesitated and then added, ‘It was not your fault. What happened to father.’ She swiftly wiped an eye.

Nicholas said nothing. His heart was as locked up as a casket.

They came past a barn near a lonely farmstead, but a huge dog barked and tore at its chain as they approached, and Lettice and Agnes refused to go any nearer. Finally they made shelter in a small copse, Nicholas laying a row of sticks against a fallen treetrunk and then covering them crosswise with brushwood. They slept fitfully in this makeshift wooden tent, damp and desperately hungry, like shivering puppies.

Nicholas was lying awake in the bleak grey dawn when he heard footfalls in the leaves nearby. Someone knew they were there. He put his hand over Lettice’s mouth. Her eyes flared wide. He put a finger to his lips, and motioned her to tell Agnes.

He peeped out of the shelter, just in time to see a burly figure step behind a broad oak tree, the glint of steel in his hand. A dagger.

So Crake had changed his mind, after all, and sent one or more of his hired henchman after them to finish the job. Perhaps ex-soldiers, ex-mercenaries, hearts like flint. Come from the late religious wars in France, where they would have witnessed, or enacted, the foulest massacres. What would it be to them, to cut four children’s throats in this isolated copse, and bury them deep under the leaf litter? It would be nothing to them. And who would ever know?

Nicholas’s heart raced fit to burst. His fingers curled around one of the half-rotten sticks above him. His only available weapon, to defend himself and his three sisters against hardened killers.

The henchman remained behind the tree.

Nicholas drew the stick free and crawled out of the shelter as silently as he could. Leaves rustled, a twig cracked, but it was soft and damp and made little noise. He was across the clearing in a trice, rounded the tree, and delivered the hardest blow he could to the broad leather-jerkined back in front of him.

The stick snapped in two.

The figure turned, hurriedly returning his privy parts into his breeches.

‘Master Nicholas!’

‘Hodge!’

Hodge thought Nicholas had struck him in indignation at his relieving himself so near to his sisters. Nicholas, babbling with joy and relief, said he thought Hodge might be a mercenary come from the late religious wars in France, which only baffled Hodge the more.

‘And I saw you carrying a dagger!’

Hodge frowned and then pulled something from his jerkin, tucked in above the belt. It was a fire steel.

‘We can have a fire!’

‘Ay, sir,’ said Hodge. ‘Though I do have a small knife too. And a pannikin, and some eggs and mushrooms. I stole the pannikin and the eggs from the farm, under the very nose of that crookback dungheap Crake back there, God rot his stones. But since it was Sir Francis’s pannikin anyhow, I thought he’d not mind.’

‘No,’ said Nicholas. His throat felt tight. ‘No, he’d not mind.’

‘Well,’ said Hodge, trying to sound cheerful. ‘Let’s have our breakfast then.’

Soon he had a fire going, with hunks of bread warming on the end of twigs. He split open some beechnuts and squeezed out just enough to oil the pannikin, then got to frying the eggs and mushrooms. Field mushrooms and platter mushrooms and jew’s ear and lawyer’s wig. It was the time of year for them. They ate them straight from the pan with grimy fingers, and spirits rose a little.

Lettice wiped her mouth. ‘Well done, Hodge. You are now promoted groom of the household.’

‘Well,’ said Hodge proudly. ‘While you were learning Latin and Greek and double Dutch and whatnot, Hodge was about the fields trappin’ partridge and hares and such, makin’ fires and cookin’ mushrooms. He don’t speak much Latin now nor will he ever, it’s safe to wager, beyond your hocus pocus in the Mass. But he knows how to fry a mushroom, even with no butter about him.’

He advised them to take down the shelter and hide all traces of where they’d slept. They bashed down the old sticks with noisy glee. He shook his head. That wasn’t what he meant.

He went and stood at the edge of the copse, looking out down the road. He heard girlish shrieks of laughter behind him. Yet there was no sadder fate than an orphan’s. He should know, he was one.

They had no chance. One small breakfast of eggs and mushrooms might lift their spirits for an hour. But their lives were ruined, and they were too grand folk in their laces and bodices and linen caps and nice neat shoes to know it yet. What to do? In the end, that verminous Crake was right. They would be best off in the poorhouse, even with the narrow wooden beds and the fevers and the gruel for supper.

It was their only hope.

Susan retired behind a bush, and when she returned, the others gasped. She had sliced off her fine long hair, that glowed almost red in the sun. Mere patches and tufts remained, with shining glimpses of white skull between. Like one committed to the asylum of Bethlem, head shaved to let out the heat of her madness.

She smiled at them. ‘To stay neat. Easier that way.’ And for some reason she sat down beside Nicholas.

Susan, always so organised and orderly. Her mother dying so young, she had been female head of the household since she was seven, and early bowed down with seriousness and responsibility. A cold fear gripped Nicholas’s stomach. It was Susan who wasn’t going to survive. The little ones would chatter on through – at least until they fell ill in winter. But Susan … there was something in her eyes already, roving about the empty fields and the bare sky. A look of something lost.

‘Come along now,’ she said. ‘Off to Shrewsbury we go, all sprightly and spry.’

Yet she stayed sitting where she was.

He took her hand and pulled her up. She had no weight in her at all. She drew her hand away from his and walked on ahead, alone, looking neither left nor right.

Later that morning he heard her softly singing a psalm under her breath.


I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him
…’

6
 

The blood-red sun went down below the horizon of the western hills and the afternoon darkened into twilight.

‘I’m scared,’ whispered Agnes.

They were walking down a long lane in a bleak country with hills to east and west. The evening star began to rise. They would have to find shelter soon.

Then they crested a rise and there was a small wood ahead. As they came near, Lettice’s sharp eyes glimpsed an orange glow through the trees.

‘Firelight!’ she cried, and started to trot towards it.

‘No,’ Hodge whispered urgently, and actually dared to seize her grubby dress. ‘Hold back, maid. You know not what kind of folk they may be.’

‘And singing!’ added Agnes.

They waited, hushed. And an old woman’s voice, strange and low, sang in the darkening wood.

Nicholas and Hodge looked at each other uncertainly. The air was growing colder by the minute, they must find shelter, and where else was there? Yet there was something here that made their skins prickle with dread.

‘Let go of me!’ Lettice said, suddenly imperious. And she twisted and broke free of Hodge’s grasp, and she and Agnes ran on into the wood before the boys could stop them.

The girls pulled up sharp in a clearing. Hodge and Nicholas came rushing up behind them.

There was a warm glow of fire, and something sizzling over it on
a spit. There was a cauldron beside. And in the darkness beyond sat three, no, four people, backs against the trees, faces deep shadowed in the firelight. An old woman who smiled at them, black-toothed and nodding. Three men. And further off, a beaten-down donkey standing asleep, and a low donkey-barrow with frayed rope traces.

‘Why,’ said one of the men, looking up from the wooden bowl he was slurping from. ‘Here’s a pretty one. Come nearer, maid.’

He smiled, and the men looked at each other. Then they noticed Hodge and Nicholas standing behind them.

‘What a tribe, is that all of ye?’

Hodge was just about to say that the rest were back on the road, a dozen or more, but Lettice blurted out, ‘Five’s all we are, and fearful hungry, mister!’

‘Then come closer,’ he said softly. ‘And tell us your story.’

Agnes shook her head. ‘We have none. Our father died!’

The second man clucked. ‘You fell on hard times but lately though, I see from your boots and garb. Do any know you be here?’

Hodge again tried to speak first but Agnes’s high pitched voice wailed above him, ‘Nobody! Not a soul in the world knows of us now!’

Hodge shoved Nicholas in the ribs and they both stepped nearer the fire, close by the girls.


Stand tall
,’ he whispered.

The men slurped more broth. ‘Ye’ll sleep here?’ said the first man, wiping his lips.

Nicholas said they would. What choice did they have now? Even the air on the back of his neck and legs was cold.

‘But we two may lie awake a good deal,’ he said pointedly.

There were only shreds left on the spit, but the vagabonds hung the cauldron over the fire again and threw on more sticks to reheat the last of the stew.

There was little enough meat, but big white bones floated in the thin broth. Hodge stared at the stew and wouldn’t eat. He asked for bread but they had none.

‘You must eat, lad,’ said the old woman, but Hodge only stared at her woodenly and said nothing.

‘Then ye’ll sleep well enough, right down by the fire! Eh?’

Again the men looked at each other.

Nicholas felt uncomfortable. Something was wrong here. Yet if they went out onto the road now, it would be bitter cold, the hoarfrost settling, the poor creatures of the field limping through the stiff grass. Owls hunting. There were still wolves in the Welsh forests, they said. This was a good shelter.

He would stay awake, that was all.

The vagabonds gave them blankets that smelt foul. Or maybe it was just the air. The odour of poorly butchered meat. But perhaps he was wrong to be so mistrustful and suspicious. All they had done so far had been kindly and hospitable.

He drowsed then stirred. ‘Hodge,’ he whispered. ‘Stay awake.’

Hodge nodded. ‘My belly’s too empty to do otherwise. Besides, I’d no more sleep here than at the gates of hell.’

In the small hours, Nicholas pushed his blanket off to go and empty his bladder. He had been fast asleep.

Hodge was snoring gently. The girls all lay in a row, huddled up to each other. The vagabonds lay the other side of the embers. He had been wrong to be so suspicious.

He went some way away behind a tree, and there was something there, half under the leaves. The moon passed behind a cloud. There was a foul smell here, even in this cold air. He stared down, his throat tight, and then up. Thin cold cloud raced past and the moon sailed out. Something hung from a branch above him, twisting with the wind.

With stomach knotted, ears ringing with terror, he turned and ran back.

In the clearing, two of the men were already on their feet, one looking over to where the girls lay.

‘Hodge!’ he yelled.

The sleeping servant was awake and on his sturdy legs in a second, squat dagger in his hand.

The men stood stock still.

One smiled his blacktoothed smile, lit by the eerie moonlight.

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