The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (8 page)

Crake himself read out their crimes, in a voice that sounded like he was giving a sermon.

‘The two villains here apprehended are guilty of idle vagabondage and thievery, to the just anger of Almighty God. They are of that kind which currently infest our kingdom, called sturdy beggars, who lack nothing in the way of limbs or faculties, as customary beggars, upon whom Our Lord himself looked kindly; but rather lack only the will to work, favouring a life of thieving and dishonesty practised on decent townsfolk such as are here present.’

There was a general self-satisfied murmur.

‘Whereat it is decreed that these two shall be stripped and tied to a cart, and lashed through the streets of the parish until their backs be bloody, as the Law of England decrees. They shall then be branded on the chest with a V, to mark their chosen profession, in the hope that their souls be cleansed. And God have mercy upon them.’

Branded
. Hence the brazier. They would be marked and shamed for life.

One of the constables drew out the lash. It was no schoolmaster’s cane for switching backsides. It was a length of oxhide furled into a whip, purposely made to take the skin off a man’s back, and more. Such a whip could cut through to ribs or backbone in only two or three lashes. It could tear the flesh away in chunks, like the jaws of a wolf. It could leave a man standing, or falling, in a puddle of his own blood. It could kill a man.

The two constables pulled their arms forward roughly and hooked the ropes over the stanchions at the back of the haycart and cinched them as tight as a tourniquet by twisting a strut of wood behind, until the two boys hung there, backs stretched, toes barely touching the ground.

‘Want a stick?’ one growled.

Nicholas shook his head.

‘Yes,’ said Hodge. ‘We both.’ He looked at Nicholas. ‘Believe me.’

One of the men produced two short sticks and held them in front of the boys’ faces. ‘Open your jaws. Now bite down.’

Nicholas worked his jaws again, and spat the stick out at the man’s feet. ‘Have it to kindle your fire.’

The man grinned.

Hodge grunted through his stick. His high-mettled arse of a master. He’d be screaming soon enough.

The other constable flicked the whip straight behind them, not cruelly, but the slight crack made Nicholas clench in anticipation of pain.

Let it come, he thought. From heaven my father looks down on me now. Let him see how I bear it.

Crake himself was right behind them, and it was the Justice of
the Peace himself, unaccountably, who slid a knife beneath their shirts and split the seam, and then tore the shirts from their backs.

Nicholas caught his gaze.

Crake raised a mocking eyebrow. ‘Surely, villainous spawn of a traitorous father, you have some rude curse for me? As I go about the Queen’s appointed justice?’

Nicholas’s gaze remained fixed. ‘Deeds, not words. You will know them in time.’

‘How splendid.’ He tore the last remnant of shirt off the boy’s back. His skin gleamed white and pure. He tossed the scrap of linen into the cart beside him.

‘To staunch the blood flow after. You’ll need it.’

He turned away.

The last thing Nicholas saw before the lash descended was the boy still hanging from the gallows bar, shamefully still not cut down. Tongue garishly bulging from darkening lips. Eyes staring out of hell.

What he and Hodge did not see was two strangers riding into the square on big horses. Huge horses, like those thunderous destriers ridden by knights of old. Plough horses, presumably. Why did they ride such leviathans?

People instinctively drew back from them. They had an air about them, travel-stained and powerfully built, a distant look in the eye, and scabbards showing beneath the hem of their muddy cloaks. They pulled up their animals behind the expectant crowds. People glanced back at them uneasily.

One kept his hood up against the thin rain, shadowing his grim, darkly bearded face. The other dropped his back to reveal dirty blond hair and handsome, sunburnt, somewhat battered looks. Perhaps thirty years of age. The crowd had even more reason to step away and give them space when the fairhead drew his sword, faster than the eye could follow, and seemed about to run someone through. People swayed back like wheat before the wind. The swordsman reached forward and with the most delicate, fine-judged flick of his swordpoint, removed a horse-leech that was fattening on his horse’s neck.

He sheathed his sword.

At the spectacle about to unfold at the cart’s end in the middle of the square, he seemed merely amused. He leaned his elbows easily on the high pommel of his saddle, eyes narrowed, a flicker of a smile on his lips as he lazily chewed a stem of dried grass.

‘Well a-day,’ he murmured. ‘Looks like these beggars hadn’t the trick of begging for mercy.’

The lash flew high in the grey air, straightened, and bit down. It cut into the servant boy first. He arched his back and bit down on the stick with all his might, head thrown back, throat strained, eyes squeezed shut.

The second constable flicked his lash out and let fly against the bold one without a jawstick. To give the boy fair due, he reeled under the savagery of the lash but made no sound.

Then a voice roared out from the back of the crowd.

‘Hold there!’

It was a voice of such deep strength that the constables stopped still and stared. Crake stepped forward and tutted, glaring over the people’s heads and seeing the two dangerous-looking strangers for the first time.

The crowd parted before them and the two mighty riders came through, the hooves of their plough horses clopping on the wet cobbles like wooden dinner plates. They pulled up beside the cart where the half-naked boys were tied, blood already oozing from their cuts, and sat easily.

The fairheaded one said, ‘Tell me, you are the presiding Justice here?’

‘That I am,’ snapped Crake, ‘and these constables are appointed by the parish. You are?’

There was something horrible in the way the two strangers glanced at each other at this question, the fair one grinning, then turned back and gave no answer. Something indefinably threatening. Could they be the Queen’s men? Yet they wore no crest, no insignia, nothing but their dirty riding cloaks. And beneath them, Crake now discerned – he swallowed – jerkins of chainmail.

‘How many lashes are the lads to have?’ asked the fairhead.

‘Thirty,’ said Crake. ‘And that’s merciful. Now I ask again, who—?’

‘Thirty, on these skinny young backs?’ interrupted the stranger. ‘They won’t have skin enough left to make a lady’s purse.’

‘That is their misfortune. They should have considered their fate before they took to thievery.’

‘What have they stolen?’

Crake snorted. ‘All that they eat, they steal! What can they honestly earn on the road?’

‘What indeed? How came they on the road?’

Crake looked furious, white-faced and puritanical. ‘I know not.’

The rider smiled equably. ‘You lie.’

His hooded companion now tossed back the corner of his cloak, and there hanging from his belt was a very fine sword and scabbard indeed. Not the fine rapier of a court fop to impress his lady, but a weighty broadsword very much made for use. He rested his hand lightly on the gilded pommel, and with his other hand drew back his hood a little. His eyes were darkly bloodshot.

‘I say,’ said the first, ‘the boys should be let loose, for the sake of Christian mercy. And the hanged one should be cut down and buried, for shame.’

The crowd stared agog, pressing closer – but not too close. An air of danger hung over the two horsemen like mist over a river.

One of the sturdy constables standing nearby must have tried some trick at this moment, but the response was so fast that none ever knew what it was. With a bull-roar that seemed to shake the windowpanes, the blackbeard neatly side-stepped his horse, slipped his booted foot from the stirrup and thumped it like a battering ram into the constable’s chest. The fellow staggered back over the cobbles and then collapsed, desperately trying to suck air into his shocked lungs.

Blackbeard whipped out his sword and stationed his huge mount over the man’s prostrate body. Like all horses it hated to tread on a living creature, delicately setting its vast fringed hooves on either side of the fellow. Blackbeard leaned over to his right and dangled his swordpoint above the constable’s belly as he lay there winded and terrified, looking up at the huge beast that shadowed him.

‘Now don’t stir,’ murmured Blackbeard. ‘And the rain won’t wet you down there. Though the horse may piss on you.’

In perfect unison, the fair one had also drawn his sword from his scabbard once again, and was holding the gleaming steel point an
unwavering hair’s breadth from Crake’s thin white throat.

‘I say again,’ he said pleasantly, ‘that the boys should be let go.’

Without further discussion, Blackbeard kicked his horse forward over the fallen constable, touching not a hair of his head. He slipped the point of his sword flat between the ropes and the boys’ wrists. One false move and such a blade would have opened a red flood from their veins. But not this swordsman. A sharp twist and the rope was cut, then the next. The boys dropped and staggered back from the cart, shaking their numb hands gingerly. It was their backs that burned with pain.

Blackbeard speared their shirts in the carts with his swordpoint and tossed them over.

‘You,’ said the fairhead to Crake. ‘Strip.’

‘You will not live to see another—’

The swordpoint pricked his throat as delicately as a needle. ‘I said strip. And let’s have no idle threats to accompany your disrobing.’

Eyes black with hatred, Crake removed his cloak and his doublet.

‘More. Much more.’

He removed his shirt and then his linen undershirt and showed his white body. Some women tittered, some looked away.

‘Still more. As bare as a beggar on the heath.’

Eventually the shivering Justice was reduced to nothing but his underwhittles. Only the swordpoint at his throat prevented him from speaking his mind, coursing with direst promises.

The boys got up behind the riders, Nicholas behind Edward Stanley, Hodge behind Smith.

‘This is going to hurt you,’ murmured Stanley over his shoulder. ‘But we need to shift. Hold on.’ Nicholas gritted his teeth.

Stanley’s voice rang out once more. ‘Good people! You have a worm for a Justice. A white and trembling worm. Her Majesty’s representative? Her Majesty deserves better. You should petition her in such terms. Meanwhile, you will see us no more. Our business is elsewhere.’

He and Smith pulled their giant horses around, and the crowd parted before them like the Red Sea before Moses.

8
 

They cantered out of town, the heavy horses needing whipping over the hard streets, the boys trembling with pain at the jolting. They crossed a wild range of rocky hills and put many miles between them and the town, finding cover in woodland before Stanley pulled up.

‘Tell me,’ he said as they sat on the sweating horse. ‘How the devil did you become vagabonds? Nicholas Ingoldsby is a proud-sounding name for a beggar. I thought such kind had simple peasant names as Jack by the Hedge, or Bedlam Bill.’

Nicholas slipped off the horse’s rump.

‘Hey!’

Nicholas looked up. ‘My father is dead.’

Stanley stared at him, and then dismounted more slowly. He had feared this, the moment he saw it was the young Ingoldsby tied at the cart’s end.

‘When?’

‘The day after you left our house. Crake came – that Justice there. With armed men. There was a struggle and my father was killed by the kick of a rearing horse. I was responsible.’

‘You?’

Nicholas could not speak.

Blackbeard rode into the glade nearby. He seemed to have heard every word from far off.

‘You gave command for the horse to kick out, did you?’ he growled.

Nicholas glared up at him.

‘Well then. You were not responsible.’ He dismounted, jerking his head at Hodge to do likewise. ‘It was in the hands of God.’

‘He speaks the truth,’ said Stanley more gently. ‘Do not punish yourself. As for your father, though I am damnably sorry for it – he is in a better place. Bitter loss though it is to the Order.’

Suddenly, to his shame, tears were coursing down Nicholas’s grimy cheeks.

‘He was the bravest of knights,’ said Stanley, and laid his hand on the boy’s shaking shoulder.

Nicholas felt a wretched weakling, weeping before them. But the fairhaired knight murmured, ‘It takes a man of heart to weep, and a man of wit to know a matter worthy of weeping. I’ve seen a man weep over losing at dice – which was not so worthy. You are your father’s son.’

He glanced around the glade. ‘We wait here till nightfall. Get some sleep. We ride all night.’

‘Cuts first,’ said Blackbeard. ‘Get in the stream over there.’

Hodge and Nicholas found the stream at the edge of the wood, shallow with leafmould, but knelt beside it and washed as best they could. After only one night they already had the sour staleness of prison on their skins – besides weeks of vagabondage. Their single cuts were deep and tender even to a splash of cold water. Thirty such cuts and they would surely have bled to death.

They came back freezing cold, pulling their ragged shirts on.

‘Not yet,’ said Blackbeard.

He pulled a battered flask from his leather pannier and turned them around.

‘I don’t need to warn you this will hurt.’

Whatever he poured from the flask went down their cuts like flame. Nicholas’s ears sang with the pain of it. But they made no noise. A chaffinch sang happily overhead. The sky was blue and clean. The only evil in the world was the evil of men.

The knights gave them their bread and cheese and their blankets and they lay down gingerly on their sides. Blackbeard made them sleep on their backs.

‘It’ll seal the wound quicker.’

Voice already thickening with sleep, Nicholas asked, ‘What was in that flask?’

Blackbeard spoke through a mouthful of bread. ‘Finest French brandy and a good pinch of gunpowder.’

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