William Parker led the way up the gangplank and onto the ship sitting at Antwerp dock. She wasn’t a big vessel, but she was what his small band of men could afford, and it wasn’t as if they needed much cargo space.
“This way, Master Story,” he said.
The man who followed was dressed in a better tunic than he was. His hair was better kept, as was his beard, which was going to grey. John Story was many things – scholar, Catholic, servant of the Spanish crown – but he was not scruffy.
“Why aren’t the crew here?” Story asked, peering suspiciously around.
“Taking on their last supplies,” Parker said, the lie tumbling casually off his tongue. “I offered to keep watch for them.”
“And you’re sure there are Protestant books on board?”
Story’s narrowed gaze roamed the boat.
Parker swallowed. If Story grew too suspicious, this could all go horribly wrong. The Spanish owned the Netherlands and they were unlikely to show mercy on an English agent here.
“Does it pay well?” he asked, looking to occupy Story as he led him towards a hatch. “Searching out illegal books, I mean?”
“I don’t do it for the money,” Story said stiffly. “I do it to save souls from heresy. It’s bad enough that our own country has fallen to Protestantism, but now it’s being exported?”
Parker nodded. He might not share Story’s faith, but he liked the man’s conviction. He was up front about his views. It would have been hard to put up with his company the past week, if he hadn’t liked something about him.
Parker opened the hatch and walked down a set of steps into the gloom of the hold. Story hesitated, looking down after him.
“Are you sure there’s no-one else here?” he asked.
“We’re perfectly safe.” Parker took a hooded lantern he’d hung from a hook, slipped back the shutter, and illuminated the path towards the back of the boat. “Just as we were safe under Queen Mary. Weren’t you a man of influence then?”
“That I was.” Story followed him into the darkness, stairs creaking beneath his weight. “A lecturer at Oxford. A servant of the crown. I helped try that heretic Cranmer. Then our glorious monarch died and her bastard sister took the throne.”
“Couldn’t you have stayed in England? Argued for the true faith?”
“How do you think I ended up in prison?”
That made Parker wince. He’d never been locked up himself, but he knew men who had been, whether waiting for trial or struggling to pay off debts. He pitied anyone who went through that.
They approached the door to a private chamber at the back of the ship. Parker produced a heavy key from within his tunic, unfastened a hefty padlock, and slid back the bolt. The door creaked open, revealing a dark room with a set of chests at the back.
“The books are in the chests,” Parker said.
Around them, the ship swayed and its timbers let out the ghost of a groan.
“This place has too much the reek of the cell.” Story peered in but didn’t step through the doorway.
“True,” Parker said. “But you escaped a cell once before, didn’t you?”
“True.” Story grinned. “They couldn’t keep me. I was out of their prison and out of the country before the axe could fall. They called me a heretic and traitor, you know, because I wouldn’t accept Elizabeth and her faith.”
“You’ll show them now,” Parker said, smiling at the man’s bravado. “Imagine the looks on their faces when they hear that you caught more of their books.”
“Ha!” Story walked into the windowless cabin and crouched by one of the chests. “I’ll teach them all a lesson.”
He lifted the lid on the chest.
“You’re sure it’s these boxes?” he asked, a note of suspicion in his voice.
Parker followed Story inside. He was just opening another of the boxes when he heard a creak behind him.
Story whirled around, a moment too late to stop the door being slammed shut and the bolt flung into place.
“Damnation!” Story flung himself against the door, but it was no use. The timbers held solid. “It was a trap.”
“No!” Parker sank to the ground, doing his best imitation of a broken man. “But that means…”
The ship creaked more loudly as it cast off from the docks.
Story turned a steely gaze on Parker.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I escaped them once. I’ll do it again, and take you with me. The executioner won’t have you.”
That he won’t, Parker thought. I’ll be held long enough to keep my cover, then I’ll be let out. You, on the other hand…
He blew out the lantern.
“Best to conserve our light,” he said.
In the darkness, he smiled. He’d enjoyed hearing Story’s life’s tale, and he would enjoy ensuring it had a dramatic ending.
The kidnapping of John Story was a real operation by British agents in 1570. Story ended up imprisoned, questioned, and executed. Parker spent some time in prison to maintain his cover, had a bit of a breakdown, and then went back to spying.
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These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.