The end must surely be near, for the army was marching on London. Death was grown so companionable that it might take its place at any man’s table, sitting down like a familiar guest in peasant hut or noble mansion. Death might ride boldly up to any man’s door, or slip like a thief through any man’s unlatched window. A little after dusk on the last day of November, 1648, a company of troopers rode through snowfall into a meagre hamlet some two days’ journey from Westminster, their horses slithering in the half-frozen bog which, even in the best of times, was no more than a strip of dirt track through the forest. Men and horses had their gaze fixed on the gleam of a cooking fire which cast an amber rag of light from the open doorway of the first hovel across this accursed path. The men imagined they could smell meat, though in truth the battered iron cookpot contained nothing more than a thin gruel seasoned with wild garlic. The horses staggered towards a dimly recalled memory of warm stables and hay, though the hamlet possessed nothing more substantial than a ramshackle shed to shelter its one donkey and a spavined, split-hoofed mare sure to die before winter was out.
A dozen cottages huddled in the clearing hacked free over many generations from this finger of the wealden forest. The soil was poor, stony and threaded through with ancient tree roots. In spring, the ploughshare skipped along the surface, leaving the land merely scratched, and the crops were as wizened as the villagers. A few scraggy sheep grazed on the small common, whose thin grass could not sustain even a solitary cow. Troops had passed this way before, as the war heaved back and forth across England, but none had troubled to halt in such a destitute place.
A woman paused at the door of the first cottage, holding the child she had just gathered up from the ground. Her hair, thinned by poverty and hunger, framed her head like a halo of dusty cobwebs. Still as a hare scenting the hounds, she froze in terror—a young woman, the bones thrusting against her gaunt cheeks, the child keening in her arms. A man came up behind her, laying his hands on her shoulders as the soldiers reined in and surveyed them. The troopers had parted company with their officers some time ago, in unpleasant circumstances, and wasted no time now.
‘Bring forth all your victuals and goods,’ demanded a great red-bearded fellow who rode at their head. He drew his sword and swiped off the villager’s cap with the point of it. ‘And don’t think that you can hide from us.’
Two of the soldiers slid from their saddles and grabbed the woman, while the rest rode amongst the cottages and rounded up the small huddle of men, women and children. Not all of them came submissively. One young man slammed his fist into the face of his captor. A knife flickered, swift as an adder. The youth’s scream was cut off short as blood spurted over the soldier’s boots, and women began to weep hopelessly. An old crone threw herself down beside the boy with a shrill wailing cry, but the soldier kicked her aside.
The booty the troopers hauled out on to the muddy snow was a pathetic heap of household goods. They picked out a few blankets and threadbare clothes, filled their pockets with stored nuts. As they raked the useless objects aside, their anger grew. It was the red-bearded giant who set fire to the first cottage with a brand pulled from its own hearth. The flames snapped like a hungry animal devouring the frost-dry timber, and leapt quickly from cottage to cottage. In their macabre light, the soldiers went about their usual business, leaving the corpses of the men and children where they cut them down, raping the women before slitting their throats and flinging them aside into the collapsing embers of their homes.
When the troopers resumed their ride towards London, nothing remained alive in the hamlet except the old horse, which had kicked down the shed door in terror and fled into the dark, followed by the donkey. And one small boy, overlooked in the confusion, who crouched in the crimson snow beside his mother, staring into her blank unseeing eyes.
Before the soldiers took shelter for the night in a great high-rafted barn that had once belonged to an abbey grange, they had put two more villages to fire and sword. Their saddlebags held a few heavy loaves of dark barley bread and the end of a flitch of bacon, no wider than a man’s palm. The third village had yielded one treasure—a four-handled flagon of ale large enough to drown the soldiers’ disappointment at the worthless haul from their evening’s work. As they squatted, shivering, over the fire they had built out of broken timbers from mangers and stalls, they consoled themselves with the knowledge that London lay but a short ride ahead: London, where any man with a horse and a sword and a pistol in his belt might grow rich, and damnation to all officers and men of power.
John Swynfen descended the icy steps from the Palace of Westminster after the late night sitting, during which servants had been called to bring in candles before the vote could be held. The north-east wind cut like steel through his doublet and breeches, which were of fine broadcloth, but sober in hue. He paused to fill his lungs, starved in the close, smoky atmosphere of the chamber, but the London air, as thick with foul smells as a sick man’s breath, coated his throat and lay rancid on his tongue. He shook his head to clear it after the hours in stale company and caught himself longing for a fresh wind clean off the moor far to the north in Staffordshire. From under his wide-brimmed hat, he scanned the Yard and adjacent streets with a guarded expression. The day’s business in the Commons had reached a fairly satisfactory outcome, but he could not shake off the sense of dread that shadowed him. Today there had been no threats of physical violence, but its presence continued to hang in the air.
‘Well, Swynfen,’ said Nat Fiennes, leaping down the steps behind him and punching him cheerfully on the shoulder, ‘our friends are not lacking in resolve. A hundred and twenty-five votes to fifty-eight, rejecting that damnable document.’
Damnable indeed. The Grand Remonstrance. Henry Ireton’s latest tirade of ultimatums and conditions, purporting to be on behalf of the army, but scarcely concealing its true design. Demanding the trial of the king and the abolition of both monarchy and House of Lords. Dangerous and provocative demands which divided even further the divided House of Commons.
‘Postponing the debate, Nat,’ John said cautiously, rubbing his hands together against the cold. ‘It’s not been rejected yet.’ Nat, merry and debonair, was apt to leap to an optimistic conclusion without due cause.
‘Aye, but with those odds it will be rejected, never fear.’
‘The odds would have been better still, if we’d voted earlier, before the old men went off to their beds,’ said John Crewe, coming soberly down the steps behind Fiennes. He was not a young man himself, and was mired in mud to the knees, his cloak ripped by brambles and his hat a sodden wreck, for he had come straight to the House of Commons after hours of rough riding from negotiations with the king in the Isle of Wight, without pausing to change his clothes or to take bite or sup.
John pulled his cloak about his ears, which were stinging with cold as the sleet swirled around them. His chest tightened with a sickening mixture of excitement and dread at the prospect of the days which lay ahead. For these next few days would determine the fate of England. Nat was right, of course, and so was Crewe, but that could not dispel his aching sense of foreboding. He shivered, but managed to keep his voice calm and level.
‘Have you heard? The latest word is that the army has encamped tonight at Hounslow,’ he said. His eyes, deep-set and dark, looked bleakly through Fiennes and Crewe. ‘I fear this is but the beginning of our troubles with Ireton and all his poodles. Now that they have the army at their backs, stirred up to anger like a wasps’ nest poked with a stick, they’ll grow more bold.’
Crewe grunted his agreement and shrugged. ‘I fear you are right.’
‘It will be a long session tomorrow,’ said John, ‘debating the terms you bring back from your discussions, Crewe. We can expect a lively time of it, so I’ll bid you goodnight.’
‘God be with you,’ said Crewe, touching John lightly on the arm.
‘And with you.’
As his friends hurried away and John started across Palace Yard, he glimpsed a woman in a blue gown, illuminated for a moment in the light from a horn lantern hung beside a house doorway. The gown was a very particular shade of blue—the blue of a cold winter’s ocean, not the blue of a warm summer’s sky. That particular shade of blue always awoke a foul memory in him. A memory which he had been trying to bury since he was a boy of ten. A memory he would drive from his mind now, as he had so often done before. He turned away determinedly, heading for home.
Yet it distracted him for a moment, so that when he caught a flicker of movement under the jettied storey of a nearby building, he ignored it, continuing to walk briskly, without looking behind him. His boots crunched on the frost glazing the cobbles. In places the ice had formed treacherous sheets. Here—away from Parliament and amongst the houses—the farm-smell of horse dung in the streets and the sharp metallic tang of the frost was joined by faint wisps of meals cooking: roasted beef and hot ale spiced against the insidious cold. Unlike the desolate stretches of England’s war-torn countryside, London was not yet seriously short of food, but all that would change if the murderous, unruly army fell upon the capital.
It was only as he neared his rented Westminster house along the narrow St Ann’s Lane, where the leaning upper storeys almost met in embrace overhead, window eyeing window, that his attention was arrested at last by the echo of other footsteps besides his own. He swore under his breath and loosened his sword in its scabbard, but took care to give no sign of drawing it or of breaking the rhythm of his stride. The footsteps drew closer, just as they had every evening for the last three days. A shadow fell across his hand as he reached out to knock on the door to rouse the servants, and he caught the flash of a blade in the pool of light cast by the pitch torch burning beside the steps.
On each of the previous nights, although he held his own dagger ready in his left hand, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, a determined assassin could probably have slipped a knife between his ribs before he had time to turn, but it had been meant merely as a warning. A warning of murder that could be executed with ease whenever his enemies—the enemies of the peace-makers in Parliament—saw fit.
Again he felt that lurch of fear.
But he sensed that tonight it was different. Even before he whirled around, drawing his sword in one swift movement, he realised that more than one man was advancing towards him out of the sleet and the dark: there were three of them. Three sturdy fellows, strangers, with swords in their hands and a discipline to their movements which did not belong to common street thieves or footpads. These men were army trained.
John drew his short dagger with his left hand, backing towards a corner which would give him some protection on his flanks and flinging a loop of his cloak around his left arm as a makeshift shield. Prevented thus from surrounding him, the men seemed content to size him up and attack at leisure. The first of them prowled forward light-footed, a squint-eyed young fellow, feinting with his blade, with a clumsiness that showed John this man’s natural weapon was not the sword. A pikeman, perhaps, or a musketeer. John lunged forward, swift to envelope the unskilful stroke in the bundle of his cloak, and chopped downwards with his own sword on the other’s wrist. The man yelled, dropping the sword and stumbling backwards, leaving a bloody trail in the snow. The wrist was not severed, but he would not hold a weapon again in a hurry.
John drew back again to the wall, his breath a frosty cloud before him. Under the flicker of the street torch the red stain crept outwards across the frosty cobbles. The man was moaning with pain as he wrapped his cloak around his wounded wrist, but his fellows ignored him, their eyes fixed on John. One more act of bloodshed in these mortal times, and this one could be laid to John’s account. Nausea gripped his stomach. As a boy he had been well taught in sword craft and in his younger days would have made nothing of these clumsy swordsmen, even with the odds of one against three, but he had long since forsworn the use of arms except in self defence. Had he not spent this very day arguing for the laying down of arms and the embracing of peace? A man forgets such theories when his life is at stake. Drawing breath in freezing gasps, he watched a drop of blood gather at the tip of his blade and slide down, slow as a dream, to spread out on the winter ground like a fallen poppy.
The two remaining assailants hung back for a moment—another young man, with eager, predatory eyes, and an older one, calculating and deadly. They had counted on a quick fight and superior numbers, and were in no hurry to suffer injury in someone else’s cause. As he kicked the fallen sword behind him into the drifted snow, John wondered how much they had been paid. And who had paid them. The wounded man had melted away into the darkness, but the other two now advanced together.
Then they were upon him in a confusion of swords, flailing in the uncertain light which hampered thrust and counter-thrust. John yelled.
‘Help! To me!’
He gulped for air, his breath tight in his throat. He was in no fit state for mortal combat.
‘The Watch! To me!’
Along the curve of the lane, the houses huddled silent behind closed shutters and nothing moved.
Blade rang on blade, and a shower of sparks sprang blue into the bitter air. John staggered and slid on the icy cobbles and yelped with a sudden sharp pain in the angle between his neck and his collarbone just as he drove his own blade awkwardly into the older assailant’s side below the armpit. The man gave a grunt of surprise, but did not drop his weapon. From the corner of his eye, John caught the glint of the younger man’s blade just in time to duck sideways as it whizzed past his ear. His attacker was caught off balance and John punched his own dagger up into his assailant’s stomach with his left hand. The fellow doubled up with a screech, folding his arms instinctively around himself. A sharp downwards blow of John’s sword sent the other’s sword spinning off somewhere into the darkness on the far side of the street. Clutching his stomach, the man hobbled away, cursing piteously.
There remained only the older man. Two men down and a wounded adversary should have given him some chance, but John was growing weak himself, the pain from his collarbone sending tremors down his sword arm, his grip on the hilt slackened. He was gasping for breath, and his legs were uncertain beneath him. He did not like his chances against this hardened brute. Why did no one come to his aid? In this peaceful street someone within the houses must have heard the clash of swords, the screams of pain, his cry for help.
The other man drew back slightly. Then he rushed forward, as if his greater bulk behind the sword-thrust would spit John against the wall like a chicken for roasting. He had forgotten the ice underfoot. He was almost upon John when his feet slid away from under him and he crashed down on to the cobbles with a sickening crunch of breaking bone, the tip of his sword slicing through the sleeve of John’s doublet.
Had his leg been broken, he could not have escaped, but, stumbling to his feet and nursing his left arm with his right hand, the last of the assailants took to his heels away down the lane in the opposite direction from where John could now see a cluster of torches approaching.
‘You took your time,’ John called.