He kneels in the damp straw, checks the fuse for a third time. Stop fussing, he scolds himself, you’re just nervous. He sets the powder keg down; its thirty-six brothers silently watch him from the shadows, half-shrouded in firewood. But his hands are steady. His heart remains firm. The dirk hangs heavy from his hip, and his basket-hilted rapier scrapes the flagstones as he crab-scuttles to and fro, making final preparations. He’s lit a dozen stores of gunpowder beneath a dozen castle strongholds in France, left smoking ruins in his wake across Flanders – this should be second nature to him.
But he’s not in Flanders.
And this isn’t a castle.
The wide-brimmed hat is drooping over his eyes again; he sets it down. Straightens up.
And breathes out.
Months of planning and preparation, the murmurs buzzing in gloomy coffeehouses, gossip in smoky tavern backrooms spreading as easy as butter over hot bread. He’s heard the whispers out of the North, the rumours that clotted and thickened. Poor Margaret Clitherow who remained silent even as they heaped on more stones, higher and higher. All for the crime of sheltering the Lord’s messengers under her roof. They were dragged out and soon swung from the noose themselves, poor wretches. Then their bellies carved open and their guts tugged out like lute-strings. Disembowelled like hogs in the slaughterhouse. Other men and women were fed to the bonfires at Smithfield, refusing to recant their faith even as the flames licked higher. A thousand ghosts sighing over Smithfield and drifting among the gallows of Tyburn Tree, wailing in the eternal fires of Purgatory ever since the king forbade proper funeral rites.
What did James and his cronies expect after such harsh injustices – that they’d all roll over and submit?
And if they fail tonight…
He knows what horrific punishments await them. Everyone does. Their families stripped to penury by crippling fines. Their names cursed forever. The Tower’s wicked instruments – the rack, the searing irons that tickle your feet. The thumbscrews. Their legacies trodden into the mud. Traitors to the crown. High treason’s the gravest crime in the land – it’s not like you’re just stealing a neighbour’s pig, is it?
Heavy boots on the stairs. He whirls around with a curse, scanning for an exit. None. Too soon, it’s too soon!
Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.
He fumbles the candle free, jabs it onto the powder trail. It sparks instantly, fizzing across the flagstones.
A pang of regret gnaws his heart; his sister Anne sitting down to a family supper of ham and beans, his nieces Alice and Liz flicking spoonfuls of mashed potato about and giggling.
Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.
Alice, so fierce and wild, all scowls and scraped knees and tangled hair, swinging her doll like a morningstar when menaced with green vegetables. Liz, flame-haired blue-eyed Liz, who’d fling herself at him from around corners, clamber up him like the gnarled oak in their orchard and shriek with glee as they raced down the hall together. ‘Faster, Uncle Guy, faster!’ Jenette nuzzling into his hand and purring for her nightly saucer of milk, or dozing on his lap by the fire as she dined on dream mice.
He’ll never see them again…
Oh well. They’ll remember him soon enough, after tonight.
They flood down into the cellar, spreading out before him. Two. Five. Ten. A dozen torch-bearing guards sheathed in scarlet livery and grim steel, their halberd spikes and long swords glittering like icicles. He clenches his jaw and draws both blades, snorting like an old bull ringed by snarling dogs.
No fear. No retreat. No surrender. No quarter. He’ll make them bleed, here deep in the bowels of Westminster.
C’mon, you pox-faced bucketheads…who’s first?
He drops into a fighting crouch, naked steel gleaming in the torchlight. Behind him the powder hisses and flickers. Defend the fuse, come what may. Easy enough. He’s always been an engineer, even when rising through the Spanish army. But every soldier knows the killing stroke.
The guards edge closer. He clashes his blades together, adrenaline coursing through him. They want to stem the march of history? They want to stop tonight from echoing down the ages?
Alone and outnumbered twelve to one, Guido bares his teeth.
They can bloody well try.
The guardsmen huddle around the guttering fireplace, nursing their beers. A hard, bloody night’s work. Somewhere far above them the rack creaks as the intruder stretches, nary a whimper passing his lips. A horrific plot foiled, peace restored, but the whispers still slither through the Tower’s gloomy passageways: how he’d skewered Captain John Grant like a pig, leaving him squealing on the flagstones before whirling onto the others. Even after being disarmed by Will Baker, the man still managed to wrestle the corporal’s sword off him and ring his helm like a bell before slashing his throat open. It had taken all ten remaining guards to bind him in chains, and still he’d fought like a snarling wolf, leaving two more wounded, Edward Lovatt with a broken arm, Rob Pryce with a smashed nose and poor young Tim Halleck missing an ear. Even after he’d lost both blades, the demon had fought with his fists, knees and elbows. When those were rendered useless, he’d used his teeth.
Owls wail outside. As London sleeps, the Yeomen of the Guard raise their tankards in a solemn toast: “to the plucky gent who fought”.
© 2020 | Tom Burton