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Chapter One

Besieged

‘Take cover!’

Nathan spun round to try and see who had shouted, but it was impossible to tell.

In the narrow city street people were running, darting into shops and houses, hurrying down alleyways. Doors and windows thudded shut. An ironmonger hastened to lift his wares from their hooks and retreated inside his building.

Nathan was buffeted aside as a large man ran past, tripping over a frightened, yowling cat. Nathan fell forwards, knees hitting the cobblestones.

‘Ow!’

Ignore the pain. Get to safety.

Soon the burning firebombs would rain down. His home was streets away. He’d never get there in time.

Shutters were closing.

He scrambled to his feet, looking for a place to shelter. There was a recessed doorway in a house at the side of the street. That would be better than nothing. He hurried over to it and pounded on the wooden door.

‘Let me in! Please! Is anyone there?’

The door remained closed.

Leaning back to look up and down the lane, Nathan saw it was empty, even the cat had disappeared. All it’s doors and windows were closed and shuttered tight. There was nowhere else for him to go.

Small for his fourteen years and slightly built, he pressed himself against the stone upright of the doorway underneath its wide, stone lintel, his shoulder against the door. He looked up at the sliver of blue sky between the tall buildings, watching out for the smoke-trailing bombs.

Then the earth shook.

The stone reverberated with the shock and Nathan staggered. Dust rose from the cobbles and fell from roof tiles and sills.

‘What….? What was that?’ A voice came from somewhere down the street.

‘The big gun.’ An answer came from the shuttered window above Nathan’s head.

The cannon.

The massive metal machine had arrived outside the city several days before, dragged into place by long teams of horses. The people of Jerez had watched its arrival from the walls, anxious and afraid of the havoc it could wreak.

This was the latest attempt by the King, Alfonso X of Castile and Leon, to end the siege. The King led the Christian army from the north, come to regain the rich southlands of Al Andalus from the Moors.

Only yesterday Nathan and his friends, Juan and Atta, had climbed onto the battlements to view the cannon. From their high vantage point they looked down between the stone crenellations at the army camp, set out less than half a mile away. There were lines of tents, stacks of pikes and lots of bustling leather-clad figures moving about the camp. The smell from the many cook-fires made Nathan’s mouth water.

‘There seems to be even more of them,’ Atta said.

Over the months of the siege the army had grown. This war seemed to have been going on for as long as Nathan could remember.

‘My father says the King’s summoning all his lords and barons,’ said Juan. ’Though maybe that’s to stop them plotting behind his back.’

Banners fluttered in the breeze and the rearing claret lion of Leon and the golden towers of Castile were prominent amid the pennants and flags of his vassal lords and cities. Large, caparisoned horses carried armoured knights practising their skills. They could hear the clash of their swords and shields ringing out across the plain.

The giant wooden skeletons of catapults, giant trebuchets and mangonels lay still. Hung about with ropes and pulleys, they waited for the next attack. The huge stone counter-weights poised atop their frames towered over the men around them. Yet even these machines were dwarfed by the cannon. Nathan had heard tales of such mighty guns, but had never seen one.

‘What’s it made of?’ Juan asked.

‘Metal,’ Atta replied.

‘Yeah,’ Juan gave him a sarcastic look. ‘Bronze or iron?

‘Bronze, I think,’ Nathan answered. He knew about metals. ‘Less friction than with iron.’

‘It’s aimed at the Alcazar,’ Atta said.

Three pairs of eyes followed the trajectory from the cannon’s mouth towards the city.

Yes, the Alcazar, the ancient fortress at the highest point of the city walls – that would be its first target. The old citadel was by far the strongest point of the defence.

The Alcazar.

As he sheltered in the doorway, the hairs on Nathan’s skin rose. Hadn’t Juan been headed for the Alcazar?  Taking a message for his father, Don Carlos, who commanded the town’s militia there.

Had the cannon shot hit the Alcazar? Had his friend been caught in the explosion?

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