Written by Steve Cox
Read The Fight at the Inn - Part II here
Tom hung his head. What more could he do? He eyed the two Pikemen as they approached him to take his halberd and sword and lock him up. It was now or never; without weapons he’d have no power to influence the situation and he was damned if he was going to just follow the treacherous Captain Hightower into captivity and disgrace. He quickly dodged the Pikemen and backed up to the eastern gate, bawling to the soldiers forming up in front of him.
‘Men, we're betrayed. Captain Hightower wants to surrender and is about to let our enemies in to take our prize.’
The scene seemed so surreal: jagged elements of a strange, new reality. Tom knew his men would struggle to comprehend the need for action and he was talking rather than acting, standing stock-still by the gate. The men looked confused as they listened to Tom but also heard the orders coming from Captain Hightower and Myers and Stannard.
Tom broke through a paralysing disbelief and sprinted for the inn door just as a group of Royalists marched through the western gate with Hightower's servant leading them.
‘Now, men! To me! Defend the inn! Get inside, quick.’ Tom bellowed.
The ranks of Pikemen rustled, like seaweed in an incoming tide but there was reluctance to act. The Musketeers reacted more quickly and half the sixteen men broke forward and ran towards the inn, prompting four Pikemen to follow them. The rest of the group wavered but held their ranks.
Hightower kept barking orders and a lifetime of conformity and deference held limbs and minds in check, sharp edged with harsh army regulations. Even Stannard, the reliable corporal, couldn’t immediately break free from his conditioning. Talking about disobeying orders is one thing but open insubordination is quite another.
The arrival of the Royalists shook the pike and musket ranks into order as first the detachment with Hightower’s servant arrived in the centre of the courtyard, then Sir Orlando returned with a larger group, including eight horsemen.
Tom barred the door to the inn and looked around at his group of rebels. ‘One Musketeer upstairs and watch those chuffs don’t surprise us in the rear. The rest of you, check your muskets and man the windows. Clarke! Check the small door down the passage. Make it safe then come back and tell me.’
‘Yes, Sergeant’ the private replied and headed off down the corridor without any of his usual resistance.
We need more of an edge, thought Tom. What do we have that can help to swing the balance?
Outside, Captain Hightower was ordering his men to attack the inn but they were more concerned with watching Sir Orlando’s desperadoes and the throng in the courtyard was more like a market day than a military parade.
Suddenly the inner doors of the stables opened and six horsemen appeared. They wheeled to the left and unceremoniously barged through the throng of Royalists. They were past the gates before anyone thought to fire at them and they broke into a gallop as soon as they were on the track, Corporal Gorringe leading the cavalrymen south.
‘Go on, Gorringe. Find the Colonel and get back here.’ Tom realised his thoughts had been spoken aloud by the reaction of the men around him.
Now Tom's attention was drawn to a group of Pikemen lunging towards a window halfway down the inner frontage of the inn. Four men only, racing, shouting. Were they attacking? No one else seemed to be following.
Tom shouted to the men at the window. ‘Let them in! They’re joining us. Let them in!’
The men by the window had already figured this out but they were quickly back on guard to watch the unfolding chaos in the courtyard. Hightower was remonstrating with Sir Orlando as tussles broke out between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Maybe the agreement was deemed to be broken by Tom’s pre-emptive resistance? In any case the Parliament Musketeers and Pikemen were now being disarmed and herded out of the courtyard. Tom’s men dared not fire into this melee but they kept a keen watch with vigilance.
The courtyard was clearing. Men moved into the stables and the wagon was manoeuvred away from the western gate. One man was left holding everyone's attention in the centre of the flat, cobbled space. Sir Orlando. He stood nonchalantly, looking intently at his turned down riding boots and kicking a few loose cobbles before turning towards the inn.
‘Sergeant! Can I approach to parley?’
‘I think we’ve heard more than enough of your parleying, Sir. I prefer to judge a man by his actions rather than his words; and you do not come out well in that judgement.’ Tom replied.
‘But Sergeant,’ implored the cavalier ‘you're playing your cards all wrong. What is it that you absolutely need, to get through this day? Do you seek reputation, notoriety among the Rebel army? Or is it just fear that your sweetheart may never see you again? What is it that drives you?’ He was still ambling up and down the courtyard. He seemed to be speaking in a conversational manner but his voice carried right around the courtyard and into the ears of every Parliament soldier defending the inn.
‘I hold the answers to all of your objectives for today. You want to see your sweethearts? I can assure you that will happen. My argument is not with stout hearted fellows like you! You, I respect. You I want to spare. You, I want to see have long, dull lives bringing up the next generation of Englishmen.’ His smile then slipped from his lips. ‘But if you want reputation, I can give you that too. You are brave, I see that. But not wise. Foolhardy I would say, to challenge a force ten times your number in a god-forsaken part of the country that does not know you, for a cause about to be lost and covered in shame. But I promise to take from this place your reputation and I will let everyone know how bravely you fought. How firm and unyielding were your hearts in your hopeless struggle against an overwhelming foe. How you died to a man, not turning your backs, not giving or receiving quarter. How many of you were burned in an awful blaze as the inn was razed to the ground. So, the choice you now face is one of a pleasant future with your loved-ones or oblivion (heaven, hell, whatever you want to call it). And, I assure you, that oblivion is not far off.’
Tom listened to all this with no idea how to stop the stream of polluting thoughts or how to respond to the challenge or to bolster his men’s hearts. Just then there was a dull crash and a tremor rippled through the inn.
‘Sergeant’ shouted Clarke from the far end of the passage. ‘Something’s thumping against the end wall.’
‘Upstairs!’ Hailed Tom. ‘What do you see?’
The musketeers on the first floor shouted back ‘Men are forming at the edge of the stream. They're not moving forward yet.’
In the courtyard Sir Orlando had edged back. He looked behind him and edged towards the wagon. Tom gave up fighting with the gentleman’s weapons and reached out to borrow the musket of the man beside him. He took careful aim at the heart of the cavalier and brought the serpent shaped catch holding the glowing match down on the firing pan. There was a pause as the powder fizzed and flared and then sent a flame down to the charge in the barrel to explode, propelling the one and a quarter ounce bullet on its journey. That pause was all Sir Orlando needed to step behind the wagon and the bullet pinged past him to bounce harmlessly off the stable wall.
‘Get that reloaded quick’ said Tom as he handed the musket back. He raced upstairs and, finding four Musketeers there, he ordered them to move to the western end and to break through the wall so that they could fire on whatever it was thumping the side of the building.
Twelve men downstairs and four upstairs. Barely enough to hold a tower or fort but a weak tavern could surely not hold out for long.
Tom looked out again on the courtyard. He could see movement behind the wagon and in the stables but, hopefully, the untrained local men were unwilling to run into the musket fire of soldiers. Still, he knew that as soon as a breach was made in the end wall he could expect an assault from all three directions.
Musket shots were picking flakes off the cobbled walls of the inn and he ordered his musketeers to return the fire. Time seemed to pass slowly, with every half minute a great thump from the battering ram sending a cloud of dust juddering into the air from the inside walls of the inn. The Musketeers upstairs quickly made holes enough to fire through and were now also throwing bricks down onto the attackers.
But the musket shots were too sporadic and Tom could see the enemy gaining in confidence.
‘Hold your fire.’ he sent a message quietly to the upstairs Musketeers and brought them all down to the ground floor and to the inner side of the inn. The Pikemen stood behind the musketeers, leaning on the shuttered windows and blockaded doors in the rooms facing the stream.
Tom could see Sir Orlando speaking those sweet, persuasive words to his men to get them to screw up their courage in order to attack into a hail of musket lead.
Sure enough a moment later the stable doors burst open and a crouching horde of irregulars spilled out, heading for the inn. A ragged volley from the Musketeers dropped half a dozen men but there were around sixty running over the cobbles now. Tom sent a Musketeer back upstairs to watch the stream side and told the Musketeer to expect them to attack now. He brought the Pikemen forward to face the attack from the courtyard.
The run across the courtyard took only a few moments but it seemed to Tom he had time to sit down to breakfast and still be ready. Thump! Went the battering ram, it still hadn’t broken through. Now there was a tearing and hammering at the windows and doors, and this time when a window gave way, the Pikemen thrust through the opening with their pikes, pinioning at least three attackers before they dropped those weapons and relied on sword, muscle and sweat.
Limited space favours the defender. The attacker has no space to use extra men and so, what seemed an unequal struggle was prolonged as the defenders fought like lions and the attackers were pushed off balance by the oncoming pressure from their own men.
But limited numbers mean continued, extreme activity and the Pikemen tired quickly and were pushed back, to the end of the corridor and towards the thumping tree trunk and up the stairs.
The men from the stream had raced up to the northern side of the inn now and were tearing down the makeshift shutters repaired from the first assault. The defenders no longer took any notice, the musketeers had reversed their weapons and were swopping blows with the knife-and-cudgel men swarming into the inn.
Three Pikemen were down. Two musketeers were pushed out of the upstairs window and Tom found he was upstairs too. He weaved a deadly circle of steel swinging his halberd, biting with the axe head then lunging, using the sharp tip. The attackers gave ground, respecting the fierce sergeant with the bloody chopper but the upstairs room was filling with adversaries.
The lightly armed locals were dropping regularly, pulling themselves out of the fight if they retained consciousness but they were always replaced. More pikemen were felled. The musketeers near Tom were struggling to stay on their feet.
Another thump and half of the upper storey seemed to sway and collapse. The end wall gave up its unequal struggle with the ram and a great cloud of dust blew through both floors as timber, debris, furniture and men collapsed onto the ground.
Clarke and two pikemen were fighting in a small knot, surrounded by enemies but giving no ground. The blood and dust formed a sticky gruel on the floor. At Tom’s end of the building, the lurching of the floor had knocked over the attackers. Tom had reached out to grab the mantel of a fireplace and recovered first. A clutch of men were kicked down the stairs together and Tom found he’d cleared the room of the enemy. But there were only three defenders left standing in a foggy shell of a room.
‘Where to now, Sergeant?’ one of them asked.
They could jump out the window and run. But how far would they get?
Tom smiled. ‘I’d rather die facing my enemy than have him shoot me in the back.’ The two Musketeers agreed.
‘We’re with you, Tom.’
The blood thumping in his temples and the strain meant Tom wasn’t hearing clearly but he turned and gave a great shout as he literally fell on the enemy at the bottom of the stairs.
Downstairs men were moving, pushing and rushing past Tom, not facing him and aiming blows at him. It took him a few moments to realise this and then he saw that the locals were launching themselves out of the northern windows yet again and running for the stream. Tom moved to the window and saw a party of horsemen crossing the ford. Was that Sir Orlando with them?
The shouting inside the inn had been replaced with groans, both human and timber, and a pattering, like large rats in the roof as men raced to and fro seeking an exit.
Tom looked into the courtyard and saw Corporal Gorringe with Colonel Ward and a dozen troopers. By God, they were a pleasant sight.
‘Sergeant Tyler. My compliments. You seem to have had a hot time of things.’ The Colonel was taking in the destruction caused by all the recent activity. ‘I hardly recognised you in that faded tunic.’
‘You arrived back in the nick of time, Sir.’ Tom drew himself up to report and patted his body and arms to dislodge the grey dust that had settled on his coat. But he was interrupted before he got far.
‘I hope you’ve got the payboxes safe.’
'What? Er. I don’t know Sir.’ Tom was non-plussed. He couldn’t remember what had happened to the boxes. He hadn’t seen them since they barricaded the inn. It was quite possible that the Royalist cavalry had ridden off with them.
‘The enemy may have found them, Sir.’ He reported to Colonel Ward.
‘Well, we’ve got a troop following them. We’ll all be after them if that really is the case.’
Tom was led out into the courtyard where the injured and dead were being laid out. Captain Hightower and the remainder of the Parliamentarian soldiers were filtering back in. They had been corralled by the enemy in the poplars and had been able only to listen impotently to the battle. The troopers had released them and they walked back sheepishly.
The Cavalrymen were searching the inn but could find no trace of the boxes. Colonel Ward came back to Tom.
‘D’you have no idea where you put those boxes, Sergeant?’ He asked.
‘I remember,’ Tom scratched around in his mind ‘I told Myers to get the boxes away from Captain Hightower. But I never saw where they were put.’
‘I can help, Sir.’ Corporal Stannard was standing beside the Colonel.
‘I helped Myers to put them at the far end of the inn.’
‘Well, don’t just stand there, man. Show me.’ He and the Colonel stalked back into the ruined tavern.
Tom followed too. It was unsettling to think that he may have survived the fight but lost the whole reason for fighting.
Inside Stannard led the way to the far end of the ground floor passage. The dark inside of the building was now open to wide shafts of light where the end wall had completely collapsed and parts of wall and ceiling hung down. The poplar tree trunk could be seen resting across the newly opened threshold beneath the upper floor that had come crashing down.
‘It’s should be in there, Sir.’ Said Stannard pointing to the mound of stones, mud, mortar and debris.
‘Right. Gorringe. Get as many men as it takes to move this rubbish. I want to know our mission is still intact.’ The Colonel turned around and marched back out the building.
‘Sergeant. I want a full report on all that’s happened, is that clear?’
‘Yes Sir.’ Was all that Tom could say.
‘But first Tom, I need to hear your side of the story about today.’
The Colonel had spoken briefly to Captain Hightower and was unsure of the exact events since his departure before dawn. The two men sat at a table brought out of the inn and into the courtyard and shared a glass of beer while Tom relayed the bare bones of his morning’s work.
‘Well’ said the Colonel smiling at Tom ‘I can only say that my decision to leave you in charge was clearly the right one.’ He patted Tom's shoulder. ‘Where would we be if Captain Hightower had had his way? Corporal Gorringe told me something of the story when he met me on the road.’
‘Sir! We’ve found the payboxes.’ Corporal Stannard had joined them.
‘I’m mighty glad to hear it, soldier.’ His officer replied.
While they went to check on their valuable charge, Tom regarded himself and noted with satisfaction that his buff coat was less yellow and a more military in colour.