CHAPTER 1 SOUTHERN GERMANY SPRING 1526
Thomas Devilstone heard the roar of angry voices and looked over the battlements. In the fading light, he could see a rising tide of men running up the steep hill towards The Hornberg and the sight produced a murmur of unease from the other men on the castle’s ramparts. Though their imposing fortress boasted high walls, tall towers and strong gatesmade of solid oak, the attackers carried siege ladders as well as a battering ram fashioned from the trunk of a tree. They also outnumbered the defenders by at least ten to one.
Though he stood shoulder to shoulder with the landsknecht mercenaries preparing to defend The Hornberg, Thomas wasn’t dressed in the elaborate slashed doublet, colourful breeches and striped hose favoured by German soldiers of fortune.
In complete contrast to the other men on the wall, the Englishman wore the black woollen habit of a Benedictine friar and, though he was no priest, many of the defenders looked to him for guidance. In answer to their unspoken prayers, Thomas drew his sword and pointed its tip at their enemies.
“The mighty bull doesn’t fear the ants, however many they may be, so light your matchcords, draw your blades and put your trust in the Devil!” Thomas cried and he had every reason to be confident.
Though the mutinous serfs advancing on The Hornberg were indeed numerous, they were armed with nothing more lethal than sharpened farm tools and ancient crossbows. By contrast, the battle-hardened veterans defending the castle were equipped with swords, halberds and the latest handguns. Moreover, the rebels’ leader was nothing but a disgruntled ostler with little experience of war, whilst the defenders were led by the infamous robber baron Goetz von Berlichingen.
Though he was short, fat and nearly fifty, with a beard as white as a Templar’s tunic, the Lord of The Hornberg lived for the thrill of battle and when he spoke, his voice echoed around his castle like Gabriel’s trumpet.
“Listen to me, you miserable spawn of Satan! Your sins are so many and so heinous not even Almighty God can forgive you. I’m your only hope of salvation, so serve me well and live, but if any man amongst you allows just one of these ungrateful swineherds to set foot inside my walls I’ll cut off his balls and stuff them up his arse!” Goetz bellowed and he called for his squires to fetch his favourite sword and sallet.
Moments later, two youths came stumbling into the courtyard and climbed the steps to the battlements. One brought Goetz’s helmet, the other carried an enormous Swiss longsword, but instead of girding the heavy weapon around his master’s waist, the squire fastened its hilt to Goetz’s false hand. The Lord of The Hornberg’s original right arm had been carried off by a culverin ball twenty years earlier but its steel replacement boasted an ingenious array of gears and levers that allowed the mechanical fingers to grip anything from a hand of cards to a lance.
With his sword fixed firmly in his metal fist, ‘Goetz of the Iron Hand’ joined his men in hurling crude insults at the advancing rebels but, as soon as the peasant army came within range, the landsknechts’ torrent of foul oaths and curses was replaced by a flesh-shredding hail of lead. At Goetz’s order, half a hundred muzzles flashed and the horde of battle-crazed farmers disappeared behind a choking fog of gun smoke. A chorus of agonised shrieks declared that the defenders’ aim had been true but the rebels didn’t waver.
Although a score of ploughboys now lay motionless below The Hornberg’s walls, the deaths of their comrades had enraged the survivors and the peasant army continued its reckless charge with renewed vigour. Under his breath, Thomas cursed Goetz’s lack of cannon but, out loud, he mocked the rebels’ unimaginative siege-craft.
“Take a castle? These goat shaggers couldn’t take a crap if you fed them nothing but rancid figs!” he cried but, as he said these words, the mob divided itself into two unequal groups. The larger force, which carried the battering ram, continued with their advance towards the castle’s bailey but the smaller column wheeled right and ran towards The Hornberg’s keep.
The castle’s upper ward was surrounded by a sheer rock face twenty feet high but the lower ward had no such protection. Thinking his citadel was impregnable Goetz had placed his professional landsknechts in the more vulnerable bailey and left the defence of The Hornberg’s keep to his domestic servants but, for once, he’d underestimated his enemy. As soon as the rebel’s ‘forlorn hope’ had reached the base of the cliff they began raising their ladders.
“Thomas, take a score of men and knock over those ninepins,” Goetz bellowed angrily but, before his captain could obey, a shower of crossbow bolts forced all the defenders to duck behind the battlements. The bolts clattered harmlessly off the stonework but the poorly aimed volley allowed the rebels with the battering ram to reach a postern in the bailey’s wall. The rhythmic thumping of the tree trunk against the gate’s oak planks sounded like muffled drums at an execution but Goetz ignored the danger and repeated his order.
“What are you waiting for, you English jackanapes? I’ll deal with these dogs scratching to be let in, you go and crush the fleas trying to bite my arse!” Goetz barked and he waved his good arm at the siege ladders being erected against the walls of the upper ward.
“I’m yours to command, My Lord!” Thomas replied and he ordered twenty of the castle’s best arquebusiers and swordsmen to follow him.
The detachment reached the castle’s upper ward quickly, and though there was no sign of the cowardly servants who were supposed to be defending the walls, the braziers used to kindle the handgunners’ slow matches had been lit. Thomas barked an order and as his men primed the touch holes of their arquebuses, the tops of three siege ladders appeared between the battlements. Shouting their defiance, the landsknechts prepared to repel the expected assault but, instead of attacking, the rebels called for the defenders to throw their English captain off the walls.
“You men on the ramparts are low-born like us, so open the gates and be saved. For, as St Paul said unto the Galatians, we’re all united in Christ!” cried one of the peasants, who seemed to know his Bible better than most, but Thomas urged his men to ignore the preacher.
“You can’t believe anything these murderous bastards say. Remember, they’ve all sworn to avenge their defeats at Frankenhausen and Würzburg by killing every landsknecht in the Holy Roman Empire, so let’s blow these helots back to their pigsties!” Thomas cried but his men held their fire. Sensing that the notoriously fickle mercenaries were about to turn their coats, the peasants pressed their advantage by proclaiming that the defenders’ current misfortunes were entirely the fault of the foreign wizard in their midst.
“There’s no need to die in the service of the arrogant lords and dishonest bishops who hold you and your brethren in bondage, just give us the English sorcerer and you’ll be spared,” a rebel yelled.
“Once the vile witch is burned, the Odenwald will be cleansed of evil and you’ll be free of your oaths to Satan,” shouted another and some of the landsknechts began to look at Thomas with deep suspicion.
Their English captain was blessed with the tall, athletic frame and handsome features that could charm women or inspire confidence in men, yet his vigour, shock of unkempt black hair and steel grey eyes had suddenly lost their power to bewitch those on the wall. The expression in the mercenaries’ eyes told Thomas that they were on the point of throwing him to the rebels and, even though he looked as sinister as Savonarola when dressed in his monk’s habit, he knew that he’d need more than fear to retain their loyalty.
Cursing the inconstancy of the ungrateful, Thomas reminded his men that he’d been at the Battle of Pavia, with the legendary mercenary colonel Georg von Frundsberg, where he’d helped the Father of Landsknechts crush the gilded lilies of French chivalry under his steel-shod foot.
“Have you sons of whores forgotten that I led the Devil’s Band through that glorious slaughter to victory? And my men followed me because they knew that I can’t be killed by a bullet, a blade or even a hangman’s noose!” Thomas cried and he tore the monk’s cowl off his head to reveal the rope burn around his throat.
The sight of the cruel scar produced an instantaneous effect on Thomas’ men. The still livid weal reminded the superstitious landsknechts that their immortal souls would be damned for all eternity if they disobeyed a man who’d cheated death, so they blew on their matches and touched the glowing ends to their guns’ breaches. The priming powder in the touch holes fizzed and twenty arquebuses spoke with one voice.
The peasants crowded around the base of each ladder were packed together so tightly every shot found its mark. Yet, whilst a dozen rebels fell to the ground clutching their bloodied faces and punctured guts, there were plenty of other swineherds and ditch diggers eager to be the first over the wall. Before the defenders could push the ladders away, the rungs were filled with more angry peasants, so Thomas ordered half his men to reload and half to cut down any farmer who reached the battlements.
Ten of the landsknechts dutifully drew their short katzbalger swords and when the first faces appeared at the top of the ladders, Thomas found himself facing the rebel preacher who’d demanded his death. Besides God’s Word, this man had armed himself with a sickle tied to a long pole and, as he brandished the crude weapon, he screamed more verses from the bible.
“In Our Lord’s name, I command ye, be ye repentant, and be ye converted, that all your sins be done away!” the preacher shouted but the godless sorcerer had no desire to be saved.
“And in the name of Lucifer I command you to kiss your arse goodbye!” Thomas replied and he launched a brutal, two-handed stroke that whistled through the air like an Irish banshee. The preacher tried to parry the blow with his extended sickle, but its long handle became entangled in the ladder’s top and before the man could call on God to protect him, his skull was cleaved in two. The preacher’s corpse fell forty feet to the ground, accompanied by great gouts of blood and slices of butchered brain.
The other peasants howled with outrage but, before they could avenge the death of their pastor, the defenders’ arquebuses roared again. Like ripe apples blown off a tree, more rebels fell from the ladders and, as their screams split the air, a large woman, with a red face and arms like hams, appeared on the walkway behind Thomas. The woman crossed herself when the hooded figure turned to face her and, lowering her head, she announced that Goetz had sent a gift.
“Lord Goetz trusts you’ll use it wisely,” said the woman and she pointed to half a dozen servant girls who were struggling to carry three large barrels up the flight of stone steps. The kegs were filled with lamp oil and, though there was no time to heat the liquid, Thomas knew exactly what to do. Taking his sword, he broached each of the casks and told the sweating scullery maids to tip their contents over the wall.
The attackers climbing the ladders were quickly drenched in foul-smelling fish oil but this did nothing to slow their ascent so Thomas ordered his men to empty the braziers of glowing coals over the battlements.
The slightest touch of the red-hot embers was enough to ignite the peasants’ oil-soaked clothes and, in the space of a heartbeat, every man on the ladders had been transformed into a blazing pillar of fire. Shrieking with the pain of their unimaginable suffering, the burning men fell off the ladders and tumbled through the air like human fireflies.
The horrific sight finally weakened their comrades’ resolve and a steady stream of defeated peasants began to flee down the hill, yet it was a different story in the castle’s lower ward. Before Goetz could empty his kegs of oil over the rebels battering the postern, the little gate flew open and the triumphant peasant army flooded into The Hornberg.
The landsknechts defending the bailey ran for their lives but they were barely halfway along the ramp that led to the castle’s upper ward when the portly Goetz stumbled. Within seconds, a dozen men had formed a rearguard to protect their stricken lord, however their courage and loyalty was their doom.
Whilst their comrades hauled Goetz to his feet, the rearguard fired into the mob and, as soon as they’d discharged their guns, they began using the empty weapons as clubs. The arquebuses’ hardwood stocks shattered the jaws and limbs of a dozen peasants but the desperate defenders were soon overwhelmed and hacked to pieces.
Ignoring the butchery, Goetz led the rest of his men towards the castle’s upper ward and the peasants realised too late that their enemy was about to elude them. With a great cry of anguish the enraged serfs started to give chase but the castle’s inner gates were slammed shut before the vengeful mob could reach them.
Another volley of gunfire persuaded the rebels to retreat out of range and, once Goetz was safely inside the upper ward, the Lord of the Hornberg summoned Thomas to his side. The Englishman dutifully obeyed but, instead of congratulating him on quelling a mutiny and successfully defending the citadel, Goetz unleashed a fresh storm of fury.
“By all the hairs in the beard of Judas Iscariot, we were betrayed. I saw one of my own squires opening the postern, yet all your star charts and crystal balls failed to warn me that there was a traitor in our midst. Confess that you’re a vile charlatan or I’ll have the rack drag the truth from your filthy, bleeding body, you conniving English bastard!” Goetz cried and though Thomas was surprised by the vehemence of these insults, he refused to accept the blame for his employer’s defeat.
“You dare doubt my powers? I’m the magus who raised the water dragon of Metz to devour my enemies and at my command the demon king Sabnock opened the gates of London’s unconquerable Tower,” he hissed.
The impudence of his sorcerer turned Goetz purple with rage but, before he could reply, he was interrupted by a loud cheer. For the time being, the Lord of the Hornberg forgot his quarrel with Thomas and led the surviving defenders to the wall that overlooked the bailey.
In the courtyard below, a thousand ecstatic peasants were celebrating their victory. Some brandished pikes decorated with the severed heads of the landsknechts killed in the battle for the lower ward whilst others carried poles to which unlaced shoes had been tied as symbols of their rebellion. The triumphant serfs were howling like savages but as soon as they saw Goetz and Thomas on the ramparts they fell silent.
The eerie quiet continued until the leader of the peasants’ rebellion, holding a flag of truce, made his way to the front of the mob and called out that the Brethren of the Bundschuh wished to parley. Despite the oversized, captured helmet worn by this new Spartacus, Goetz recognised him as the groom he’d recently dismissed for drunkenness.
Seeing his disloyal former servant reignited Goetz’s sense of outrage but he promised to make the man’s end quick if he surrendered immediately. Ignoring the threat, the peasant chief replied with remarkable politeness.
“We of the Bundschuh have no quarrel with you, Lord Goetz. We remember the great victories you gave us before the disaster of Würzburg, and we know that you only abandoned our cause because you were bewitched by the fiend who stands at your side, so I’m here to offer you a way back to God. If you hand over the foreign sorcerer, you, your men and your castle will be spared but, if you refuse, we’ll take The Hornberg apart, stone by stone, until we find him,” said the peasant chief.
The rebel’s words wove their own spell and Thomas felt the dying embers of his good fortune grow cold as the light of revelation reached the darkest corners of Goetz’s soul.
“I accepted you into my service because you promised me weapons of war that would humble the Hapsburg Emperor and give me victory over my enemies but you’ve taken my gold and given me nothing in return. Whether you’re a fraud or a witch is a matter for God to decide but, in either case, you must burn here on earth as well as in Hell for your crimes!” Goetz hissed, and he ordered his men to seize the sorcerer, but Thomas was not a man to surrender without a fight.
“Be still!” Thomas snapped and the superstitious soldiers thought it wiser to obey the man who claimed he could cheat death and command dragons. With his persecutors seemingly frozen in time, Thomas turned his attention to Goetz and declared his employer to be the worst of duplicitous poltroons.
“By the great hairy balls of St Boniface, are you the same Goetz who once told an archbishop to kiss his arse? That man would’ve hanged every rebel between here and the Elbe rather than bow to the mob. You’re no longer Goetz of the Iron Hand, you’re Goetz of the loose bowels and you shall be cursed for all time!” Thomas cried. Goetz opened his mouth to protest at his astrologer’s impudence but wrath strangled the words in his throat and before the Lord of the Hornberg could speak, Thomas had begun to chant the words of a spell:
I call upon,
Great Marquis of Hell,
Sower of discord among men,
To loosen the bonds wrought by Satan.
And release the Firedrake,
And I call upon EARL RÄUM,
Loyal servant of Lucifer,
Ruler of thirty legions of demons,
To rise up and smite my enemies,
O, foul demons, hear my words of power and obey!