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Chapter One of The Last Crusader: A Novel about Don Juan of Austria | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight

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There was no road to Leganes, just a narrow, muddy path marked by occasional imprints of naked feet and strewn with stones—irregular, ragged, and discolored like the teeth in an old man's mouth. The village itself, perched on a cluster of hillocks, was brooding wearily in the early afternoon sun.

When Charles Prevost saw it through the window of his carriage, he shook his large, gray head. They might have chosen a better place, he thought. But then that man Massy had been a viol player, a musician, and there was no way of understanding such people. He could have settled down in Valladolid or even in Madrid itself, though of course life there would have cost more; moreover, in the cities there was a far greater danger of meeting people who might ask questions, or worse still, get a glimpse of the—the secret. And that ...

A sharp knock interrupted his chain of thought—something had hit the carriage.

Charles Prevost heaved his large, fleshy body nearer the window and peered out. And then he gasped. There was an arrow sticking in the leather curtain. An arrow!

Glancing about he saw at some distance a turbaned head and another and a third. Moors ...

For one wild moment Charles Prevost felt himself whirled back in time to the siege of Tunis, trumpets blaring, banners streaming in the wind and the Emperor himself roaring commands as only he could.

But then he saw that the faces under the turbans were boys' faces and very frightened ones at that. Boys playing Moors and shooting at his carriage! His face flushed and he pulled at the silk cord the other end of which was tied to the coachman's little finger.

The carriage came to a stop.

"Just you wait", said Charles Prevost grimly. He began to fumble at the door.

"Don't do that", a young, clear voice said sharply. "Please!"

The heavy man turned around. A boy was looking into the carriage from the other side, a boy perhaps seven or eight years old, fair-haired, with a pale, eager face. He was dressed in rags.

"What do you mean?" Prevost stared at him, goggle-eyed.

"You were going to interfere, weren't you?" The boy sounded impatient. "They didn't shoot at you—your carriage just ran into their line of fire."

"Vaya...", Prevost began to splutter. "Go away! I never..."

"It was bad shooting", admitted the boy hastily. "But if you'll stay in your carriage, I'll avenge you."

Prevost's eyes narrowed. Blue eyes. Blue eyes and blond hair.

"Who are you?" he asked hoarsely.

"I am the 'Christian' leader", the boy said gravely. "And this is my chance to win the battle. Stay in your carriage, please! You'll see, I'll win it." He turned away and let the flap drop behind him.

Prevost blew up his cheeks. Mechanically he drew out a large silk handkerchief and dabbed his forehead. Then he lifted the flap. The "Moors" were still there—in fact there were more of them now, six, seven, a whole dozen, boys between seven and twelve, beturbaned and armed with wooden swords, slingshots, and bows and arrows.

Still more were coming up and all of them were gaping at the carriage. Maybe it was the first they had ever seen.

The countryside was poor here. A man was considered well off if he had a donkey, and rich if he owned a mule. A carriage with two outriders, a liveried coachman, and groom was doubtless a sensation and of far greater interest to them than their game.

Prevost began to tell them what he thought of a flock of snotty-nosed urchins trying to impede his progress by shooting at his carriage, and they listened, wide-eyed and respectfully.

From somewhere a clear, sharp voice yelled: "Santiago!" and they looked up, startled, and tried to get into some kind of formation.

It was too late. A compact little troop of boys attacked them from the rear and almost as soon as they had come to grips with them a second batch came straight at them from behind the coach, led by the fair-haired boy. The "Moors" broke and ran, hotly pursued by the "Christians".

Charles Prevost began to chuckle. Then he pulled twice at the silk cord and the carriage rumbled on toward Leganes. After a few minutes the first houses stared at it with the eyes of all their inmates. Doors began to fill. Dogs barked madly at the horses.

When Prevost saw an old priest passing, he leaned out of the window and took off his hat. "Good morning, Reverend Father", he said courteously. "Will you tell me where I can find the house of Señor and Señora Massy?"

The priest was at least eighty years old, and his cassock not very much younger. He looked like a scarecrow, but he bowed like a grandee.

"I am Padre Bautista Vela, at your service. Señor Francisco Massy died some years ago. I closed his eyes. May God rest his soul."

"Amen", said Prevost, crossing himself. "And the Señora?"

"I shall lead you to her house. If you will kindly order your coachman to follow me... "

"Why don't you ride with me?"

The old priest gave the horses a worried look. "If you will forgive me, Excellency, I would rather walk. It is only a stone's throwaway."

He walked on, a long, lean, wobbly figure, a shadow with a life of its own.

The house of Señora Massy was a ramshackle, sun-baked building. A few hens fled, cackling, as the carriage approached. The street began to fill with people, quiet, solemn-faced villagers who gaped at the unusual sight just as the "Moors" had done.

A woman appeared in the door. She was in her late forties, but her face showed vestiges of former beauty and her simple dress was clean. She paled and began to tremble. The priest went up to her and mumbled something. She did not seem to hear. She stared at the carriage and at the large man now dismounting with the help of the groom.

No one here had ever seen such a man before. The villagers gazed enraptured at the flowing white moustachios, the carefully kept, pointed beard and the glorious bottlegreen of his dress.

"Señora Ana Massy?" asked Prevost, and once more he took off his hat. "I am Charles Prevost, a servant of His Majesty the Emperor."

The woman bowed her head. Perhaps it was a gesture of respect, but it looked more like the acceptance of a sentence. She beckoned the visitor to enter the house. After a moment of hesitation the old priest followed them and closed the door behind him.

The house was no better and no worse than any other in Leganes. Prevost was offered the best chair and a tin goblet of wine. He accepted both, took a cautious sip, and cleared his throat.

"Señora Massy, I suppose you know why I have come." The woman said nothing.

Prevost pursed his lips. He drew a document from the inner pocket of his coat, unfolded it carefully, and began to read, very slowly, in a dry, businesslike voice.

"'I, Francisco Massy, viol player to His Majesty, and Ana de Medina, my wife, acknowledge that we have received a son of the Señor Adrian de Bues, groom of His Majesty's chamber, whom we have taken at his request that we should bring him up as if he were our own son, and that we should not tell any person whomsoever whose son he is, because the said Señor Adrian desires that neither his wife nor any other person should by any means know of the child, or hear him spoken of. Wherefore, we swear and promise that we will not tell or declare to any living person whose the said child is, until the said Señor Adrian shall send us a person with this letter or come in person; and we acknowledge to have received from the said Señor Adrian for the first year the sum of one hundred crowns. And henceforth the said Señor Adrian is to give us fifty ducats for every further year of the boy's maintenance. Done at Brussels on the thirteenth day of June, Anno Domini one thousand five hundred and fifty.' "

Read part two of this selection from The Last Crusader


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