Read The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege Online
Authors: William Napier
The girls were slowly awakening.
In the darkness behind, Nicholas heard the old woman cackling.
Then she shucked her rotten teeth and crowed, ‘Well, a lively night for all!’
‘What’s with the dagger out, lad?’ said one of the men.
Hodge held it out steadily before him.
‘There’s something in the woods,’ said Nicholas, trying not to let his voice shake. ‘Hanging from a tree.’
The man turned on him. ‘There’s lots in the woods, lad. Badgers and hedgepigs and—’
‘I mean a body, half butchered.’
The man’s face darkened visibly, even in the dark of night. ‘So if we steal a sheep, well, what is that to thee? Mortal men must keep flesh and spirit together. You woudn’t turn us in for sheep thieves and see us hanged at Shrewsbury assizes, would ye now?’
Nicholas couldn’t speak. All he knew was that was no sheep back there.
‘We’re going now,’ said Hodge, stepping back very carefully.
The girls were standing, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
‘To us, mistress,’ said Hodge quietly.
In a flash, one of the men had seized Agnes and there was a gleaming blade at her throat.
‘One step backwards more and the little one here will be drained of her blood like a hung rabbit, d’ye hear me? I’ll not have you high-born whelps going out on the road and squealing to all and sundry of us. You’re going nowhere, not now. You hear me?’
Clouds covered the moon once more and in the blackness, a figure moved in silence. It was Susan. She swooped down and seized a brand off the dying fire, whirling it through the air to make it burn again. Then there was a hiss, a man’s cry, a shower of sparks. A girl’s sob, and scuffling in the leaves.
The moon was still dark.
‘Run! Back to the road!’
In blind terror, the children stumbled away between the trees, scuffing up cold leaves rimed with frost, arms and faces scratched with holly and blackthorn. Girls weeping, men roaring close behind them, as in a nightmare. Nicholas shook his head furiously as he ran, trying to clear away the visions of Lettice or Agnes, seized in
the darkness and hung from the branches of trees, their throats open wounds …
Somehow, they never knew how, the five children stumbled clear onto the road and ran to each other. They crossed themselves, shaking and sobbing, Susan muttering over and over again, ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, thank you Blessed Mother Mary …’
‘Move,’ said Nicholas. ‘Keep moving, all night.’
They moved down the road as fast as they could in the dark, judging the closeness of the hedge from the sound of their footfalls.
There was sudden movement in the hedge to their left. Lettice clutched Nicholas in terror. A snuffle, an odour. Only a stoat or a fox, hurrying away from them.
After a time the moon reappeared. Unable to help themselves, they looked back as they walked.
On the road behind them, staring after them, stood a single figure. Something glinted, hanging from his right hand. A long-handled axe. He did not run after them, this watchman of the night, silent and motionless. They felt the power of a demonic hatred flow towards them. But it was as if they were not worth pursuing. They were damned anyway.
They walked all night. None would have slept.
‘We will sleep in the day,’ said Nicholas as they marched, exhausted.
But even then, they knew, the nightmares would follow them.
He could have spewed at the thought of what he might have eaten from that cauldron last night. But already he felt something inside him toughening in the face of hardship, and prayed an odd, halting prayer that his heart would not toughen beyond all pity too.
That day they found shelter in a tumbledown barn amongst some winter hay. The girls were so tired they slept deeply, hungry as they were.
‘We cannot go on,’ Nicholas muttered, almost to himself. ‘We are not going to make it. We are already dying.’
Hodge said nothing.
‘We must get food. Come nightfall, I’m turning thief as well as vagabond.’
Hodge nodded. After a while he said quietly, ‘Some have an airy-fairy fancy of life on the road. But in truth, it’s filled with the poor and desperate and savage. It’s no place for us.’
no place for us.’
Hodge looked hard at Nicholas.
‘You mean … Shrewsbury. You mean the church, or the poorhouse.’
Hodge took in a deep breath.
‘There is a parson there, and a schoolmaster, and town parishes are rich. In the parish of St Thomas’s, I heard of a girl that left her baby there on the doorstep. She was dying herself. I heard the parson and his wife were well known for taking the bairn in and caring for it as if it were their own. If not that, he’d be Christian and find them shelter at the very least. Serving maids in grand houses, perhaps …’
Nicholas tried to think clearly, in the pit of misery. Care for your sisters. His father’s dying wish. Be just, be faithful. To the very end.
When he spoke his voice was thick with grief, tears welling in his eyes.
‘We go back to Shrewsbury. The girls will find shelter there. But not I.’
He shook his head savagely.
I go on
Grief weighed on him all that day as he tried to sleep. Too tired to sleep, almost, and sorrow searing his heart. He saw his father’s body left lying in the village street. No decent church burial for him, but a traitor’s hurried interment. The world was in ruins.
But as well as sorrow, anger burned in his belly like a knot of bright hard flame, and hatred as pure as fire. Anger, hatred – and an undying thirst for vengeance.
That night he stole bread and a ham from a poor farmhouse with a lazy guard dog in its yard. He felt wretched. How many children
here would now go hungrier through the winter for it? Yet the poor stole mostly from the poor. The rich were too well protected.
They walked back north for two days until they came in sight of the town.
People hissed and clacked as soon as they saw them. Beggars, thieves, Egyptians. Let the constable thrash them out of town again, they’d only cheer him on.
The children huddled in St Alkmund’s Place in thin rain. Stout citizens scowled at them as they passed by, muttering curses on them. Such as they belonged only in the open countryside, on the rain-lashed hills or in ghoul-haunted woodlands. Ditches for beds, dead leaves for coverlets.
‘Look, master,’ said Hodge, nudging him hard. ‘There.’
Round the corner and into the marketplace came filing a column of the poorhouse children, going up to St Mary’s church for morning prayer. They wore off-white linen gowns, much-washed and patched and frayed at the hem, yet clean enough. All wore bonnets, and all had boots, however crudely made. All were thin, but none were starved. He saw no sores, though several heads shaven for lice could be glimpsed beneath the bonnets. As they walked in pairs, hand in hand, with glowing red cheeks, they laughed and chattered like children anywhere, for all their poverty. And against the rain, they wore cloaks, though all of different colours, black, grey, brown and dun. On closer view they were hardly cloaks, mere large cuts of woollen worsted, yet worn round the shoulders and hooped over the head, quite enough to keep off all but the worst rain. Doubtless used again as blankets on cold nights. On the left shoulder of each cloak was sewn a small white lion, emblem of St Mark’s Poorhouse.
‘Wish I had a woollen cloak, at least,’ said Hodge. ‘They’re better garbed than we are.’
Nicholas understood his point.
Susan hadn’t spoken for two days, not a word, and now she pressed herself against the wall, head bowed, gazing into the running gutter as intently as a treasure seeker.
‘Is she gone mad?’ whispered Lettice, staring down the street at her.
Nicholas smiled weakly. ‘No, not mad. She is very tired. We are all tired, aren’t we?’
Lettice nodded. Her plump cheeks were already thinning away, and very grubby. Her left eye looked red and swollen.
‘Now listen to me,’ said Nicholas. ‘I want you and Agnes and Susan to be very brave girls. Will you?’
She and Agnes looked up at him anxiously. They knew what being brave meant. Nasty medicine, bad news.
‘Hodge and I must go away for a time.’
‘No!’ both girls cried as one, with such howls that even Susan stirred and looked up. ‘You can’t leave us! Never!’
‘Never,’ he repeated, hugging them both. ‘I never will completely abandon you. I will know where to find you. It was the last thing our father made me promise. Would I dishonour him?’
‘Then why are you going?’ Lettice wailed.
‘Just for a short time. Because …’ He sighed. He hardly knew himself. ‘Because I must. Because you will be safe and well cared for, and I am too old, and cannot rest, nor …’
It wasn’t working. Too complicated. The little girls’ eyes were filled with tears and resentment. He put it differently.
‘You saw all those children, walking through the market square in their warm woollen cloaks? You are going to stay with them, just for a while. And I – I am going away, to seek my fortune!’
Their sobs slowly subsided.
‘As a pirate?’
‘Well, no, not exactly. But I shall travel over the sea, and bring back chests and chests full of gold, and—’
‘We’ll come with you!’
‘You can’t,’ he said bluntly. Then, more subtly, ‘Our father wouldn’t want you to.’
They still looked miserable, but intrigued by the chests of gold.
‘Will you come back?’
‘Of course I will!’ he laughed. What a player he was. ‘Very soon, laden with treasure.’
‘And a whole train of donkeys.’
Little girls’ minds were so hard to fathom.
‘And monkeys,’ he added, ‘jewels, ostriches, and little blackamoor
slaves, all sorts of things. But only if I go away first and seek my fortune. Then I will return, and find you, and we will all be happy as before.’
‘In the farmhouse?’
‘Yes. In the farmhouse.’
The girls wept and clung to him.
He was suddenly aware of Susan at his elbow. She still said not a word. She reached out and hugged her brother, one swift hug, and then took her little sisters by the hand, and led them away down the alley.
The boys followed at a distance.
They threaded through the old medieval streets of the city until at last they came to a low wooden door in a long wall. They knocked.
Nothing happened. They knocked again.
Eventually a bolt was shot, and a stern-faced woman appeared.
Susan tried to speak, they could tell from the heave of her shoulders, but not a word came out. The stern-faced woman looked her up and down without encouragement. Finally Agnes spoke, though they couldn’t hear her words. The woman questioned them for several minutes, not smiling once. At last she jerked her head and stood back in the doorway, and the three girls went in. The door was shut and bolted behind them.
There was long silence until Hodge said, ‘They will prosper there, master. Have no fear. They will be well enough.’
‘Till I return.’
‘Till we return,’ said Hodge. ‘You’d be lost without me.’
Nicholas looked at the stout servant lad and smiled faintly.
‘Come on, then. Let’s go and find that treasure.’
They walked south for days and weeks, begging and stealing. Still they grew thinner, the days shorter, the nights colder. Nicholas wondered if they would survive, even without the girls. Yet they must. They must make it to a port.
There was much to do before he died.
They survived through the winter, Christmas passing them by almost unnoticed. Thin and tough and cunning, they survived. It was early spring. And then they were caught stealing.
After a night in the pound, they were dragged aching and blinded by the weak daylight into a small cobbled market square.
Nicholas blinked and stared around, still feeling he might faint at any moment. If his wrists were not tied so painfully behind his back, he might reach up and touch the side of his head. His hair felt knotted, crusty with dried blood where the constable had clubbed him.
It was a grey morning, there was a light drizzle and it was bitter cold. Yet the market square was milling with people, as if for a fair. Some ate apples, keeping the cores in their pockets for throwing later. Children laughed and played with tops and hoops. A local butcher did a good trade selling hot roast pork. More people were leaning out from the upper windows of the handsome half-timbered houses that surrounded the square. Some of the finer womenfolk up there were already weeping and delicately touching handkerchiefs to the corners of their eyes. Others were sucking oranges.
A charcoal brazier smoked, an iron laid across it. A wooden wagon stood in the middle of the square, and nearby, a crude gallows.
Nicholas’s blood ran cold.
Here was the end of the noble name of Ingoldsby. Hanged in a town square in the rain for common thievery.
Someone banged a drum and the crowd fell silent. Nicholas and Hodge were dragged forward. Beside the gallows there stood the hangman in a crude cloth mask, two constables, and a local parson, looking both sorrowful and grave, a small New Testament in his hand. The local magistrate, his back to the boys, addressed the parson. The parson listened and nodded.
The magistrate turned.
It was Gervase Crake.
‘Bring forward the murderer!’
Another boy was dragged forward, filthy and in rags. They said he had murdered a little girl, drowned her in a ditch. They gave no reason. The boy said not a word. He might have been a deaf mute, or a dummerer, faking such. As he was dragged past them their eyes met, and Nicholas saw in those dead hollows a total indifference more terrifying than any savagery.
The parson stepped forward and asked the boy for his last confession of sins. The boy stood in sullen silence before him, saying nothing. Then he hawked and spat full in the parson’s face. The parson stepped back and wiped his face with a cloth and bowed his head and prayed.
The hangman checked the knot in the rope one last time, glancing at the boy. Then the noose went over his filthy neck and he was hauled up. He didn’t kick once. The beam creaked, the thin body twisted back and forth. The eyes still stared. He must have been about eleven.