Fifteenth-century Europe. Tom Swan is not a professional soldier. He's really a merchant and a scholar looking for remnants of Ancient Greece and Rome - temples, graves, pottery, fabulous animals, unicorn horns. But he also has a real talent for ending up in the midst of violence when he didn't mean to. Having used his wits to escape execution, he begins a series of adventures that take him to street duels in Italy, meetings with remarkable men - from Leonardo Da Vinci to Vlad Dracula - and from the intrigues of the War of the Roses to the fall of Constantinople.
Release date: July 30, 2015
Print pages: 115
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Tom Swan and the Siege of Belgrade: Part Seven
Tom Swan, knight of St Mark and donat of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Rhodes, Englishman, servant of the great Bessarion and sometime papal courier, spy, researcher, and currently commander of a company of lances on crusade, woke to pain.
He was used to pain. But it took him a long time to come to terms with the kind of pain he felt today. Back pain, of course, and a stiffness in his joints that told of yesterday’s physical excess. He had fought too much, and then he’d helped to row, to pole, to turn the ship’s great windlass. He could feel the exertion, the desperation, and the crises in his hips and thighs.
And of course, he’d done all this in armour.
But those pains weren’t what concerned him. His right shoulder had a cold, dull ache that he didn’t like – the result of falling forward and rolling, in plate armour, over his own rotella. And some heavy blows.
He had two deep bruises, one on his right forearm and one on his right lower leg, where big men with heavy weapons had failed to penetrate his superb armour.
Both of them were dead. He swallowed bile and the whole thing washed over him like a pool of shit. He shivered in revulsion.
In the right mood, he might have told a pretty girl with an attentive ear that he enjoyed combat, but in his heart he knew that it was like overindulgence in wine – whatever fleeting enjoyment he received from the high at the point of the spear, the black depression of having killed and maimed was worse than any hangover.
But neither the bruises, nor the ache in his shoulder, nor even the black cloud that always came the day after battle, led the chorus of pain.
Swan was an old veteran of pain and battle and its aftermath and he knew that fear was the worst enemy a man had. Small wounds were worse for new men, because they had never seen their own blood.
Swan had a cut to his eye, and it was swollen, intensely painful, and glued shut with blood. He suspected he had a fever, and that fever might mean that the cut was infected. An infected eye …
‘Fuck,’ Swan said. ‘I’m in Belgrade.’
It had all come back to him in a single rush, and he realised that he was lying in his filthy, sweat-soaked, blood-caked arming clothes, still laced to the throat, and that his doublet was still damp – sleep had not dried it, and it made him feel somehow worse than dirty.
And outside, there was a steady rumble, like distant summer thunder. Swan had endured a short siege on Rhodes and he knew that sound – the pounding of Turkish guns.
Will Kendal was asleep in a chair. The day before, in the hardest fighting Swan had ever known, Kendal had saved his life at least twice. Now he slept with his mouth open, emitting snore after snore, interspersed with the sounds of a drowning man and other sounds like belching. Ser Juan di Silva lay on a palette of straw on the floor. He still wore his breastplate. Columbino lay beside him, the only one of them to strip to his linens before sleeping, and his linens were brown with dried blood. On another palette lay both of Ser Orietto’s pages, and farther down the long room, Swan could see Ladislav and his Bohemians.
And a woman, wide awake and staring at him. She was tall, and strong looking, and she was in a corner with a wool blanket pulled around her like a fortress of warmth and protection. It was hot. Swan remembered her. She’d been taken with the ship …
Her eyes were wide, and full of terror.
‘It will be fine,’ Swan croaked, and then realised he’d spoken in English. He repeated himself in Turkish.
Her expression did not alter.
‘Did someone attack you?’ he asked.
She shook her head.
‘Would you be kind enough to bring me some water?’ Swan asked.
‘I am naked,’ she said in Turkish.
Swan’s head felt as if it was made of mud, but this was not hard to work out. She had made the swim that had saved them all – and now she had only a blanket. And she did not want to wander the citadel of Belgrade naked.
‘You have clothes in the ship?’ Swan asked.
She all but spat. ‘Nothing I would ever wear by choice,’ she said.
Swan made an effort and got his feet on to the floor. ‘Sweet Christ,’ he said in English. ‘I’ll find you something to wear,’ he went on in Turkish. And stumbled for the door. They were in a fine room – it had a magnificent Italian-style coffered ceiling, and no furniture except a pair of trestle tables, one with a small embroidery frame perched on it. There was a book on the other table; Swan couldn’t help himself, and opened it.
A romance. In French. He almost cried – the emotion was so powerful. It was Guillen de Courtois, a romance he’d read in his father’s little court. He’d even read it aloud to his father once, when the great man was sick. This copy was very like his father’s, with beautiful illustrations and magnificent pen-worked capitals.
Probably from the same workshop, somewhere in Italy.
All this in one glance and a powerful counter-thrust of nostalgia.
Swan steadied himself and made it to the door. He got it open and found the corridor he had expected was jammed with men lying on straw, most of them wounded. The scene was lit by the end of the corridor, where a whole section of the castle wall was … gone. Brilliant sunlight fell on the men in the corridor.
Not an eye opened, but the woman’s reluctance to leave the room was reinforced. Swan made his way along the corridor until he found a cross-hall. There were two priests, a nun and a woman by a carved credenza covered in bowls that all seemed crusted in blood. It smelled.
The priests glanced at him, and the nearer nodded. ‘You are the Englisher hero,’ he said, as if heroism of all kinds annoyed him.
Swan wanted to bow but was afraid he’d fall over. ‘I would like some clean water,’ he said, pointing vaguely at his eye.
The woman – she was forty, strong boned and tall – grunted. ‘We’d all like some water,’ she said. ‘There’re only two wells working just now.’ Very belatedly, she said, ‘My lord.’
Swan sighed. But he was waking up – something in her accent …
‘You are English?’ he asked.
‘God forbid,’ she said. ‘I’m Scots.’ But she gave him a smile.
‘One of my archers is from Carlisle,’ Swan said.
She laughed. ‘That’s not going to make us friends,’ she said. ‘I’m Margaret. These are Father Herman and Father Stefan. And Sister Clare.’
Swan managed something that a forgiving person might have accepted as a bow. His eye hurt a great deal, and his depth perception was terrible.
‘What is a Scotswoman doing in Belgrade?’ he asked.
She shrugged. ‘My man has a cloth trade here from the Hanse ports,’ she said. ‘I was quite a good midwife when I was young … that makes me a doctor, here.’ She had a brazier going, on the floor, and she filled a ceramic cup with hot water. ‘By the Saviour’s wounds, messire, that’s not pretty,’ she added, looking at his eye.
The priests weren’t rude, they were exhausted, Swan discovered swiftly. Father Stefan pushed him down on a three-legged stool and Father Herman leaned against his back. Margaret began to clean his eye with hot water.
‘There is a woman in our room,’ he said, between whimpers.
None of them seemed interested. Swan tried again. ‘She was a captive on the Turkish hoy we captured,’ he went on. ‘A Christian captive.’
‘God will thank you for saving her, then,’ Father Stefan said, a little more acerbically than might have been thought necessary.
Swan was ready to be angry. Pain always made him angry, and the three of them were, just at that moment, the direct source of a great deal of pain.
‘I must get this open,’ Margaret said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘She saved all of us,’ Swan said. ‘She swam with a rope … look, I’m not telling this well—’
‘Please shut up,’ Margaret said.
Her thumb ran over his eyelid, and the pain spiked, and then …
As if the shutters in a closed room had been opened, light flooded over him.
He gave a short scream.
They held him.
Then Margaret began to wash the eye with a rag dipped in the hot water. Despite the pain, if felt like heaven.
‘Now tell me about your heroic girl,’ she said.
‘She’s naked,’ he said. ‘She needs clothes. She’s had enough … attention to last her a lifetime. I’d guess.’
‘Oh, sweet Christ, why’d you no say?’ Margaret snapped. But the nun – Sister Clare – was already moving. She went down the hallway and opened the door to the room where Swan had awakened.
Swan relaxed against Father Stefan, and let Margaret hurt him. She certainly seemed to know what she was doing.
Sadly, having the eye washed only made it feel better while it was happening. As soon as Margaret was done, she left him to see to the other men in his room, and Swan felt as if his wounded eye was full of sand. It was a terrible feeling, but he suspected it was better than losing the eye. He got to his feet and Father Stefan steadied him.
‘Can I wash?’ he asked. ‘And wash some clothes?’
Father Herman nodded and led him down to the second courtyard. His balance was bad and he had some difficulty walking, but he made it down the stairs. There, a dozen women were doing laundry in tubs. Even as they washed, the dust raised by the enemy’s stone balls hitting the walls hung like smoke over the newly cleaned clothes on the lines in the sun.
The head laundress was a strapping woman named Elspet, with dark hair and enough muscle to fight in armour. Swan struck a bargain with her, paid in hard silver coins, and climbed back to his room.
All of the survivors of his company were awake. Swan had them all strip, and he and Will Kendal carried everything – linen, wool and silk – into the second courtyard. Elspet eyed the piles and laughed. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. ‘Double,’ she said. ‘Look at this – shit stains and blood, too.’
Swan didn’t argue. He paid.
In the end, Elspet and her people did three baskets of laundry, and dried it while the Turkish guns roared and muttered and pounded away. Swan and his people sat on the floor of their once-pretty room and used flax tow and ash and oil to polish the blood and ordure and rust and riverwater and dirt out of their armour, and then, when they were all done, the archers fiddled with their arrows and strings and the men-at-arms worked on their weapons. Swan devoted most of the afternoon to his sword, which was deeply notched in several places. He had his own stone, and so did Kendal, and they passed them around, played cards and drank water. The former slave-woman was gone.
Swan had two brief encounters with officers of the fortress; fetching the last of the laundry, he saw a man in full Italian plate, and discovered that he was waiting with the commandant of the fortress, Michael Szilagyi, Janos Hunyadi’s brother-in-law, who congratulated him on his escape from the Turks. And later, he found a German knight who was appointed to command the southern towers. He leaned into their room, greeted ‘Ser Tomas’ and ‘Ser Johann. . .
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