Book 3 of the Hacker Chronicles | Currently in development
CORNELIUS BRIGHTMORE HAD DUTIFULLY SERVED Parliament for more than four years. A faithful soul, he plied his dangerous and furtive trade late at night, when owls and foxes were his guardian angels, and the light of the moon guided him to meetings with men of mystery whose names he would never know. And on a late Spring evening, in the early morning of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April in the year of our Lord, 1648, he was busily engaged in yet another important mission for his all-conquering master.
One of Oliver Cromwell’s most trusted men, he was on his fifth assignment in as many days. That alone, told Cornelius something was awry. He knew it; indeed, he could sense it. But the courier dared not ask questions in case he incurred the wrath of the man whose cause he was devoted to. For the victor of Marston Moor and Naseby, the two full-scale battles that won the war and crushed a tyrant King, had been in a foul mood for weeks – ever since the people of Kent declared for Charles, Royalists in Wales ignited the fires of rebellion and sedition by overpowering at least one major stronghold, and the Scots – those barbarians from north of the border – openly debated whether to start a new conflict with their English neighbours. When plagued with ‘the black dog’, as he was right now, only a fool allowed himself to come under the critical scrutiny of the Lieutenant-General. And Brightmore was no such man.
With the long grasses rustling to the light evening breeze, a tricorn hat nestled securely atop his head and the strong piebald, a beast he had owned since it was a foal, striding purposefully across the wide, open fields, Brightmore busily prepared himself for his latest clandestine meeting with another of Cromwell’s secretive intelligencers – an agent who revelled in peddling information about those with traitorous intent.
He had left Ipswich at nine o’clock, four long hours and almost thirty miles ago. Discontent with England’s new ruling and stuttering regime was growing, and talk of protests, and worse, throughout the county was rife. Elizabeth, his wife of a score of happy years, bade him a tender farewell, as she always did on such occasions; such was her devotion to her man. On this occasion, a furrow of worry was evident on her brow as she caressed her husband’s cheekbone. Alas, it is now a fading memory, as is the embrace he shared with his daughter, who, at eight years of age, was the youngest of his four children. Even though it was only a short time since he had left the smells of city life behind, Cornelius longed to be reunited with his family. He was their protector and provider, and they were as important to him as is his relationship with the Almighty, particularly at this troublesome time. But, for the moment, his memories and emotions must remain his crutch, giving him the succour he needed to ensure he completed his quest.
Although the ride had been trouble-free, there were still another ten miles to be negotiated until he reached his destination, where information, vital to the Parliamentarian cause, awaited. So, any thoughts that weakened his resolve must be banished, particularly those that related to his beloved. Instead, his legs and back must be his priority, for they were being sorely tested as over-tired muscles spasmed with every hoof beat as horse and rider made their way through the hushed countryside as inconspicuously and quietly as they could.
In good time, they reached the ancient settlement of Occold, a forgotten place with the church of Saint Michael and some dilapidated barns the only buildings of note. A candle flickered in a distant window, and as Brightmore studied the dancing tongues of yellow and blue that cast a spell as they weaved energetically in the air, his attention was drawn to a sudden and almost invisible movement so slight an untrained eye would never be able to detect it. Alarmed, he pressed his spurs into the flanks of his steed. It stopped almost instantly; such was the understanding forged between the man and his beast. Into the silence, Cornelius’s alert eyes probed the terrain and gloom, and his ears attempted to detect any noise that betrayed imminent danger. One minute passed. Then another. Finally, when the sense of alarm had abated and only the occasional, distant hoot of an owl pierced the peace of the night, Cromwell’s servant clicked his tongue and pulled lightly on the reins. Effortlessly, the horse began to walk down the solitary thoroughfare before breaking into a gentle canter as it followed the hardened track that leads to Eye, some two miles yonder. Yet the messenger was plagued with doubt, unable to dispel the gnawing worries he held about being discovered and captured; fears that consumed every courier and intelligencer from time to time. And that very night, with the hour now close to two o’clock in the morning, Cornelius Brightmore had good reason to fear.
As the roof tops of the undistinguished buildings of Occold finally faded from view, after the moonlight had finally abandoned them, the courier heard the faint rhythmic beating of hooves. He turned in his saddle, recoiling in pain as his back tightened once more, looking back in the direction from whence he had come. As he sat atop his mount, gripping the sword at his side, he felt bewildered, wondering if he was indeed being followed, or if his imagination was merely running wild? Then he heard the distinctive drumming noise once again, only this time it was much closer. It was undoubtedly a party of men, not just one sole tracker. And with this realisation, the coldest of dreads started to take hold.
Close to the men charged with bringing order to the new republic, Cornelius knew more than most about the complexities and brittleness of government, one forged out of the ruins of a calamitous civil war during the two years that followed.
As fear gripped him, Brightmore found himself thinking of the recent past. England had been at peace ever since the Scottish mercenaries gave false hope to Charles, a despised and tyrannical monarch. When he had surrendered himself into their protection, believing them to be allies, the Scots duly ransomed him to a grateful Parliament. A princely sum of four hundred thousand pounds, a fortune by any standards, bought the King from the Covenanters. Had they held out, it is likely they would have gained much more recompense. Indeed, there was talk of two million pounds being the original asking price. But, whatever the truth, a bargain that suited both sides was struck and since he had returned to England’s bosom, the despised sovereign had been held prisoner while a debate raged about what to be done with a man who forced his realm to bleed so dearly.
For months, while the likes of Cromwell, Sir Thomas Fairfax and a host of leading Parliamentarian figures debated the King’s future, and that of the wider three kingdoms, a stirring had been taking place. Quietly and assuredly, factions loyal to the Royalist cause started organising themselves once again. It began in December, when rioters took control of Canterbury, a city they held for several weeks. Encouraged by their success, these malignants became bolder and braver every day, and they were certainly no longer the disorganised and disheartened rabble that fled from the killing fields of Naseby. And as the new administration procrastinated, those opposed to its very existence began to draw strength. Now a festering boil, that sought to infect our recovering land with renewed conflict and bloodshed was ready to burst open, and from it, fresh poison most surely would flow.
This certainty is what filled decent men like Brightmore with horror; so much so that before he knew it, an hour had almost past, during which he had not heard the telltale sounds of his pursuers. By changing his route, and carefully picking his way through dense woodland, he prayed he had been able to outwit those stalking him. A cautious optimism took hold. Spurred on by a strong desire to be reunited with his darling wife and children, and with wide, open fields ahead of him once again, he made good time to Stonham Aspal. Here, in this small hamlet, he was scheduled to meet the man who regularly sold his soul to Cromwell. Although he didn’t know what intelligence he was to receive, Cornelius had no doubts of its importance.
“Make sure you guard whatever he gives you with your life, my good and loyal man,” Cromwell instructed him just before he departed. “The fate of our nation may just depend on what we glean from our friend this night. So, make haste, Master Brightmore, and remember to make sure you keep yourself safe and away from danger. Under no account must you get yourself caught up in any mischief. I forbid it.”
An ethereal glow illuminated the church of Saint Mary and Saint Lambert, as white rays of moonlight shrouded the building’s grey granite stone tower and main carcass. Peace and tranquility seemingly reigned in this spiritual sanctuary.
After he had dismounted and tethered his exhausted steed, the courier’s tall, wiry frame approached the thickset doors that led to the vestry. Cornelius felt his heart beating heavily against his chest. His breathing had become ragged, and he was struggling to retain control of his emotions. Such was his sense of foreboding, he was more nervous than at any time he could remember. How he wished the Lieutenant-General had not made him aware of the importance of his mission.
As the shadow of the roof claimed him momentarily, a sixth sense made Cornelius aware his every move was being scrutinised. His eyes darted from side to side, desperately seeking out the men he instinctively knew were there; he smelled them, and with the realisation came a suffocating panic that threatened to overwhelm him. But he pressed on. While pulling back the heavy iron latch that barred entry to the chapel, he doggedly resisted the gnawing temptation to flee, pushing weak and cowardly thoughts to the back of his mind. He was trusted by Cromwell, and he must see this assignment through to its conclusion. Nothing else was important. Initially, the hinges resisted his efforts; it was as if they were wilfully rebutting him. But just as Cornelius started to despair, the ancient oaks finally gave way.
When the doors had been fully extended, he stood back, allowing his vision to acclimatise to the blackness that rapidly enveloped him. Instinctively, he pulled out the dagger that was strapped to his sword belt. It was razor sharp, lethal at close quarters, and it had saved him on several occasions. As he edged forward, rustling noises startled him momentarily. He stopped abruptly; his body tense, his mind alert. Quickly he realised the sound was that of rats and mice desperately seeking to evade this most unwelcome and inconvenient visit. Cornelius laughed nervously, letting the relief pour out of his taut body. Without further ado he made his way to the altar where the wicks of two large candles guided him to towards the appointed rendezvous.
“In the name of the Lord, reveal yourself, friend,” called the messenger, using the specific words he was required to utter every time he attended such clandestine meetings.
There was no response. He called out again, the urgency in his tone betraying his acute unease and growing apprehension. Cornelius desperately wished to hear the distinctive baritone voice that had greeted this very plea six times these past few months. He listened intently, but no response was forthcoming. The only discernible sound was the light pitter-patter of vermin, who continued to scurry towards the safety of the church’s thick, all-embracing walls.
And then chaos descended.
“Seize him,” yelled an authoritative and youthful voice from within the shadows. It seemingly came from towards the rear of the main building where the darkness was at its most dense, but in the confusion it was difficult to be sure. “Make sure he lives; he has much to tell.”
Out of the void, five men emerged; all of them wore the kind of confidence only found in those who enjoy killing. The three largest brutes approached their prey directly, blocking off any escape from the main aisle. The two others positioned themselves on either side of Cornelius, cutting off any possible routes to safety that may exist in the bowels of the remote godly outpost. For a moment, the newcomers just stood and watched their man. The scene was akin to a pack of wolves sizing up a stray lamb. Without saying a word, they taunted their victim, seeing how he reacted. The standoff lasted barely thirty seconds. Then, in unison, the predators drew their sharpened steel and resumed their deliberate and provocative walk towards the pulpit, where the solitary figure of Cornelius awaited. Surprisingly, Cromwell’s man was unafraid; only one thing was on his mind – to be the faithful servant his master had taught him to be. There was no point worrying about living or dying, for when fighting such superior numbers he knew his very existence was now in his Maker’s hands. So, as his enemies crept ever closer, Brightmore closed his eyes, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and with his own sword feeling light in his right hand, he began the fight of his life.
Sparks flew as the cornered Parliamentarian went on the offensive in a sudden move that caught his attackers off-guard. His master had told him many times only defeat, disgrace and death awaited a man who surrendered meekly. By taking the fight to the enemy, a soldier may indeed bring about his own demise, but he also had a small chance of winning his freedom. On this particular morn, the odds of the Parliamentarian courier achieving such an eventuality looked remote. But right now, that didn’t matter. With the Lieutenant-General’s words ringing in his ears he cut, thrusted and parried like the possessed man he was.
The fight was furious, with Cornelius paying scant regard to his own safety. On the battlefield, men are wary of such warriors, often calling them ‘berserkers’. Such was the speed and savagery of his attack, he ran through one of his opponents with his first meaningful lunge. The wretch fell onto the floor, his guts and blood spilling out onto the unwelcoming stone, the shock and surprise etched clearly on his white, pockmarked face. Through dulling eyes, the dying killer watched as his two surviving comrades attempted to resist the heavy blows raining down on them from the devil they underestimated and were struggling to contain.
Cornelius glanced down at body of the fallen man. Satisfied he was no more, his eyes betrayed no emotion as he drew an almighty breath and launched yet another furious onslaught. Its precision caught another of the attackers by surprise as the sharp blade tore through muscle, sinew and flesh, drawing an anguished and pained scream from the victim. Instantly the injured man dropped his sword; the wound was so severe he was unable to hold his weapon. But the success was fleeting and unsustainable, and Cornelius knew it was only a matter of time before he would be overwhelmed. He was tiring, the exertions of the melee quickly sapping his energy. In truth, he had been lucky to survive this long. He was aware he couldn’t fend off his enemies for much longer and now only a miracle would save him.
“For God’s sake, take him,” screamed the voice of the group’s unseen commander, his impatience evident for all to hear. “He is one man, and you are supposed to be proven fighters capable of defending a king’s honour. End this farce now.”
Shamed by the chastisement, the remaining three men came together and surrounded Cornelius, whose back was pinned against one of the large stone pillars supporting the roof of the church. His sword hung by his side and he was panting, eager for his lungs to be filled with the stale, cold, early morning air. His assailants each had their swords and daggers drawn, and this time there was no doubting they would do all they could to best their foe. Yet they remained nervous. They glanced at one another, looking for encouragement as they sought to bring the miscreant to heel. When they were satisfied the time was right, a thug standing just out of Cornelius’s reach nodded his head. It was the signal. Instantly, in unison, the dull blows of three heavy swords struck the Parliamentarian courier and no matter how hard he attempted to defend his vulnerable torso, the brutal strikes started to find their target. He dropped onto one knee, continuing to block and parry as many of the blows as he could while desperately seeking to regain his senses. But it was to no avail.
Suddenly, Cornelius felt a searing pain in his belly and the stabbing agony of a blade slicing into his groin. He looked down to where the dagger had left its mortal marks. Blood spurted from both wounds, quickly forming dark pools by his side. He could feel the strength ebbing out of him, and he quickly realised his time had come. The knife had cut into his vitals, severing an artery; men didn’t survive wounds such as these.
“What do you want from me?” he gasped; his eyes unable to focus, his voice weakening and barely audible. “Pray tell me, what is the meaning of this? What is it all for?”
In response, the boot of one of his attackers viciously kicked his sword out of his right hand. It cartwheeled in the air before clattering to the ground and skidded to a resting place some twenty feet away.
“I beg you,” he called out. “Tell me why this is all so necessary? Have we not enjoyed a peace, of sorts? These days are meant to be no more…”
From the back of the church, purposeful footsteps reverberated off the grey slate. As they got closer, the men surrounding Brightmore took a backward step, allowing a figure who looked like he had barely reached puberty, to assume control. His voice was deep but his eyes had the glow of a fanatic; and from those malevolent slits, there was no trace of pity or compassion.
“What do you know of the uprising, and how much detail does Cromwell have about our plans,” demanded the callow young man in an accent that instantly betrayed his northern heritage. “There is no point concealing what you know. I can ensure you suffer greatly before you succumb to your wounds, or I can make your last moments as comfortable as this place allows. The choice is yours.”
As Cornelius contemplated this stark demand, the faintest of smiles flickered across the face of John Gerard, emphasising the immense cruelty that lurked within.
“Sir, I have no knowledge of the matters you bring to my attention,” spat out Cornelius as he struggled for breath. “I am Lieutenant-General Cromwell’s courier, nothing more. He does not entrust me with such details. I simply go to places such as this and meet his those in his employ. That is all.”
Gerard tapped his chin with his left forefinger, seemingly reflecting on the doomed prisoner’s impassioned plea. Then, with the speed of a serpent’s tongue, and no prior warning, he embedded his sword into Brightmore’s unprotected knee. He pushed hard, with the precision of an expert enjoying his craft, forcing the blade to bite deeply into muscle, cartilage and sinew. Then he twisted the weapon, thereby inflicting as much pain as possible. The assault took Cornelius completely by surprise. Understandably, he was unable to withstand the agonies inflicted on him, and a scream that was as loud as it was terrible fractured the fragile air. After a few seconds, Gerard relented, extracting the steel tip and wiping the bloody blade on the dead body of his fallen comrade. When he spoke again, the menace in his voice was plain for all to hear.
“I will ask you once again, what do you know?”
Cromwell’s helpless man simply shook his head. In truth, he was privy to information that carried no value. So, he closed his eyes and prayed, preparing the way to Paradise, knowing it would be the last thing he would ever do.
Convinced he had nothing valuable to offer, Gerard leaned forward, placed the tip of his sword on Brightmore’s right eye lid and said: “It didn’t have to end this way, but your silence has brought about your end.” Then, with all his might, he thrusted the blade into the defenceless Brightmore, killing him instantly.
Not content with his handiwork, Gerard turned and faced his men who were visibly shocked at the brutality played out before their very eyes.
“Get the other cur,” barked the commander to one of the men standing nearby. “And tell him he had better prove himself more useful than this useless turd, or he will face exactly the same fate.”
The man did as he is instructed. Soon, from the back of the church, the whimpering sounds of the unfortunate intelligencer Brightmore was sent to meet could be heard as he was dragged bodily to where Gerard stood. After he was thrown to the floor, the Royalist oppressor rounded on the wretch and waved a piece of white parchment close to the prisoner’s bloodied and broken features.
“The information in this letter tells us all we need to know about you, Marcus Gissington, and where your loyalties are placed,” he shouted wildly. “You are a man who will take the silver of Judas to betray your king. But what I want to know is who fed you these prized tidbits; it must have someone in a position of trust? So, tell me who they are, or you will not live a minute longer.”
Gissington was unable to speak. Fear took hold of the man, who had faithfully combined the duties of a farmer with that of local Constable for more than nine years. Such was the terror he felt, his voice was stilled completely while his bladder relieved itself, much to the merriment of his uncouth and unforgiving captors. Yet, despite the acute shame he felt for revealing the extent of his weakness, he was no betrayer of the cause he had supported steadfastly. Certain his fate was sealed, regardless of whether he cooperated with Gerard, or not, he simply shook his head, indicating his unwillingness to cooperate. Perplexed, Gerard’s response was immediate, unambiguous and ruthless.
“String him up to the nearest rafter,” he ordered the two nearest men. “In truth, we know enough already. The communiqué to Cromwell tells us more than we could ever have wished, so this pathetic fool is of little value. The least we can do is rid the world of scum such as this.”
As Gerard, who held an authority beyond his tender years, walked over nonchalantly to where the two candles continued to glower, Gissington was strung up like a common thief. As the rope bit into his windpipe, he flailed wildly, desperately seeking to draw in the oxygen that would feed his ravenous lungs. Alas, as hard as he fought, there would be no last-minute reprieve. As the local man’s neck was stretched and the life force drained from his eyes, John Gerard reached into his pocket, retrieved the letter written in Gissington’s own hand and read the few, terse words that had already resulted in the sacrifice of two men. They would not be the last for many more deaths would undoubtedly follow.
“A Scots army is being assembled,” it stated. “More than five thousand men are willing to bear arms immediately, and there are promises from as many as twenty-six senior nobles and knights, including Montrose in Scotland, that they will join the cause when hostilities commence. Make haste and prepare the north immediately. An attack is imminent.”
The note comprised just fifty-five words, yet their value to the king’s enemies was incalculable, and it was vital the information remained a closely guarded secret for the time being. For Cromwell to be aware of the scale of the imminent war would enable Parliament to act decisively, and that would jeopardise the king’s slim hopes of reclaiming his throne. But while the likes of Gerard were free to conspire, there remained hope. And that was enough to sustain the most ardent supporters of Charles and those who rallied to the banner of the House of Stuart.
For a moment, Gerard was lost in thoughts of glory and securing favour from the king. Then the noise of his men lowering Gissington’s lifeless body from the rafters of the church shattered his peace. As he watched the corpse drop to the floor, a cruel smile spread across his face; so far, he had enjoyed hunting down lesser men, and radiated in the inevitable bloodlust that accompanied every kill. But he now felt ready for a greater test. Signalling to his men it was time to return to their horses and depart, he carefully tucked the explosive note into the inner pocket of his leather jerkin, securing the button for good measure. When he was satisfied it was safe, he sighed; it was the sound of a contented man, for he was genuinely delighted with the night’s work; it had brought vital new information into his possession that would delight his Royalist masters, the very men who so often dismissed his abilities because of his youthful age.
As the cavalier party made its way out of the church, the first threads of the new dawn started to punch their way through the cold, early morning mist.
It was time for the reckoning to begin.