It is the winter of 1670.
Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.
His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.
As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.
One missed step could prove fatal . . .
One of the raggedy boys, the smallest one, ran ahead of Holcroft, and crossed the road barring his path. The two behind him were closing in. Holcroft heard the litany of familiar taunts about his stupidity: ‘Tom-noddy . . . buffle-head . . . ninnyhammer . . . nump-son . . .’
He could see a pair of squat, red-faced women, standing outside their front doors, strong arms folded, looking on with amusement as the predatory boys closed in around Holcroft. He did not like this. These boys were going to spoil his errand. His mother had given him strict instructions: go to the Wheatsheaf, buy the rum and come straight home. And he had tried his best to do just that. But these three were going to ruin everything. He felt sick and dizzy. By the side of the street he saw a mounting block, a waist-high cube of stone, with three steps cut into one side. He walked over to it and carefully placed the pewter pot of rum on the top step.
Then he turned to face his tormentors.
The leader was clearly the biggest one – as tall as Holcroft, but thicker in the chest, and he moved with the rangy grace of a street cat. He had a shock of ginger hair, a wide grin and a black gap where his two front teeth should have been. The little blond one to Holcroft’s left, the one who’d run ahead to cut him off, was of no account. He was a follower, and younger than the others by some years. The redhead’s other companion, dark, bull-necked and vicious-looking, might be even more dangerous than the red.
Holcroft was no stranger to bullies. All his life people had objected to him in one way or another. And he had taken beatings with regularity until his older brother Tom, at his mother’s tearful pleading, had reluctantly taken him aside and taught him the rudiments of pugilism and Cornish wrestling. Tom had then taken pleasure in knocking him down again and again, day after day, while he lectured his brother in the finer points of the fighting arts.
Holcroft did not think there was any point in saying anything to these three, so he merely jumped forward and pumped a straight left into the redhead’s nose, smashing his head back. Then he dipped a shoulder and buried his right fist into his enemy’s now-open belly. He hit him a third time, again with his left, and with all his weight behind it, smack on the right cheekbone. The boy went down. Holcroft whirled, saw the dark boy nearly on him, fist raised. He blocked the punch and seized the boy by the lapels of his coat, pulled him in and crashed his forehead hard into the bridge of his opponent’s nose. He felt the crunch of cartilage, and the boy’s weight as he staggered, but Holcroft kept hold of him, shifting his position slightly as he brought his knee up smartly into the fellow’s groin. Holcroft released him and the boy slid bonelessly to the ground.
The tall redhead was gasping and spitting blood, back up on his feet but tottering. Holcroft took his time and clubbed him on the join of the jaw with his right fist, hard as he could, then followed in with a left uppercut to the chin that cracked his teeth together and hurled him on his back into the mud.
He looked at the third one: the blond child. Both Holcroft’s hands were hurting now, and he felt as if he were about to burst into tears, as he always did after a bout. He screamed, ‘Haaaaa!’ pushing his face right forward and scowling like a gargoyle, and the urchin gave a squeak and took to his heels. Holcroft looked at his two foes, now both curled in the mud, coughing, spewing, writhing feebly. He had nothing to say to them. He turned his back and went over to the stone mounting block to collect the pewter pot of rum. He looked, looked again and saw that the pot had disappeared.
The burly women spectators had vanished, too.
Holcroft’s heart sank into his shoes. No rum for Mother now. He felt cold and tearful. He would never hear the end of this.