As England slides into Civil War, master-goldsmith and money-lender, Luciano Falcieri del Santi embarks on his own hidden agenda. A chance meeting one dark night results in an unlikely friendship with Member of Parliament, Richard Maxwell. Richard’s daughter, Kate – a spirited girl who vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead – soon finds herself fighting an involuntary attraction to the clever, magnetic and diabolically beautiful Italian.
Hampered by the warring English, his quest growing daily more dangerous, Luciano begins to realise that his own life and that of everyone close to him rests on the knife-edge of success … for only success will permit him to reclaim the Black Madonna and offer his heart to the girl he loves.
From the machinations within Parliament to the last days of the King’s cause, The Black Madonna is an epic saga of passion and intrigue at a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.
On his way to find the first of the men who had condemned his father, Luciano is taken prisoner and gets caught up in the first military action of the war.
After almost twenty-four hours of polite captivity that had included a very uncomfortable night, Luciano was beginning to lose his temper. It was Friday and he’d expected to be at Callow End by now, confronting Thomas Ferrars – not sitting in a field at Powick under constant guard while the citizens of Worcester came in their droves to gape at the military side-show.
‘This,’ he announced savagely, ‘is bloody ridiculous.’
Selim looked at him.
‘I still have my knife,’ he said hopefully.
‘Don’t be a fool. How many of them do you think you can kill? And our horses are back there with the rest. We can’t do a thing until they decide to move – and, on present showing, that could take till Doomsday.’
There being no real answer to this, they sat in silence for a further hour until the air of rising excitement around them culminated in a mêlée of activity and a youthful lieutenant arrived, leading their horses.
‘Mount up,’ he said cheerfully. ‘We’re going.’
Luciano rose slowly. ‘Going where?’
The fellow hesitated and then shrugged.
‘Worcester. Byron’s on the move and we’re off to stop him. But don’t worry. Captain Fiennes says you’re to be fully protected at all times.’
The men fell in on a large meadow just below the village and then indulged themselves with a heartening psalm.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed …
Luciano looked on beneath faintly amused brows.
‘A goodly clutch of Puritans, no doubt. But I wonder if they fight as well as they sing?’
Selim sniffed. ‘Singing is for women.’
‘You’re missing the point. Why would Byron choose to leave today of all days, knowing as he does what’s out here waiting for him?’
Selim cast his mind back and then, finding the answer, opened his mouth to deliver it.
‘Exactly,’ said Luciano softly. ‘But if dear Nathaniel hasn’t worked it out for himself, I don’t think we’ll help him. Just keep your eyes and ears open and be ready for any confusion. I imagine we can rely on these gentlemen not shooting the golden goose.’ He paused and met his henchman’s eye with a sudden smile. ‘But, in case those are famous last words, you’d better get ready to duck as well.’
The cavalcade made its ponderous way along the lane towards the bridge that would take it across the River Teme. Luciano knew that bridge moderately well. It was old, brick-built and no more than twelve feet wide – which meant that the troops would have to break formation to cross it. And on the far side of the river lay an equally narrow lane bounded by straggling hedges which wound up into a large field from where one could see Worcester. So if a surprise lay in store this, presumably, was the place to look for it.
Rather less alert than his Italian captive, Nathaniel Fiennes led the column over the bridge and down the lane into Wickfield – aware but undismayed that, behind him, his force was being squeezed into a long thin ribbon. And then he stopped dead, staring at a sight too incredible to be believed.
On the other side of the field, four or five hundred Royalist cavalrymen were taking their ease on the grass. Some had disarmed and lay dozing in the sun, some were still eating their noon-day meal and others were grouped about their officers in the shade of a thorn tree. All appeared totally oblivious to the presence of the enemy.
Nathaniel stared and stared again, still unable to take it in while, at his back, the entire troop came to a shuddering stop as each man’s horse cannoned unwarily into that of the man in front. And then everything changed as a tall Royalist officer surged to his feet and alerted all the others by throwing himself astride the nearest horse.
‘Boot and saddle!’ he roared. ‘Charge!’
The spell shattered..
‘God rot it!’ swore Nathaniel. ‘Rupert!’
And then all hell broke loose.
Somewhere towards the back of the column, Luciano and Selim were barely over the bridge.
‘Christ,’ muttered Luciano, as they ground to a halt. ‘Already?’
He dropped one hand on Selim’s bridle and strained his ears. Then, as the first shock waves rippled through the ranks, ‘Now!’ he said. And, dragging the Turk from the saddle as he dropped from his own, took a sort of flying dive at the hedge.
It parted unwillingly to let them through but took its toll on skin and clothing. Without pausing either to assess the damage or heed the pandemonium breaking out on the other side of the hedge, the Italian said, ‘Across the river – before Nathaniel’s lads start dropping on our heads.’
Shouts and screams of escalating panic and confusion rose from the lane as those in front turned and rode down those behind in an attempt to retreat; while further away pistol shots and the clash of swords bore witness to the fact that at least some of Captain Fiennes’ men were staying to fight.
‘What now?’ asked Selim as, soaked and muddy to the armpits, they gained the far bank. ‘We run?’
‘No. We hide. That clump of willows ought to do,’ replied Luciano, already squelching towards it in boots full of water. ‘We need horses. Preferably our own – but any will do. Either way, we stay out of sight until the gentlemen over there complete their business with each other. And then we try to keep our rendezvous at Callow End.’
Selim resisted the impulse to say, Like this? but could not forgo a gloomy ‘Inşallah.’
‘Quite. But just now I prefer “God helps those who help themselves”.’
The skirmish taking place on the opposite bank turned out to be brief but remarkably unpleasant. Long before the Royalists appeared, the lane was a seething mass of confusion as Fiennes’ men rode over each other in their efforts to escape the damnably restricted space. They swarmed back on to the bridge where John Fiennes tried to turn and rally them – only to find himself driven aside by the terrified stampede. And then the Royalists were upon them from behind; cutting men down, forcing them into the river and trampling others beneath their horses as they swept on in relentless pursuit.
The whole thing probably lasted less than twenty minutes, thought Luciano grimly – but it was as comprehensive a rout as anything he could have imagined.
‘Tenant-farmers versus gentlemen,’ he murmured. ‘What chance have they got?’
‘Nothing.’ Luciano pulled off his boots to empty them. There was no use in letting the scene he’d just witnessed touch him. It was nothing to do with him, after all. ‘Let’s get out of here. It would probably be safer to wait till the Cavaliers give up the chase and head back to Worcester … but, if we do that, they’ll round up all the loose horses and we’ll be left to walk. So we’ll risk it.’
Selim, who disliked being wet, said persuasively, ‘And then we find an inn?’
‘Perhaps. But let’s take one thing at a time, shall we?’
He had not bargained for the nightmare on the bridge. Dead, dying or wounded, men and beasts lay tangled in grisly carnage; the very air was filled with sounds of pain and terror. Never having been near a battlefield before, Luciano smelled blood and instantly felt bile rising in his throat. He did not think his life had been particularly cushioned; poverty, fear, gruelling work and the disease and desperation of the back-streets – he knew all these things. But nothing had prepared him for what lay on Powick Bridge; and for the first time he found himself wondering how many people in sleepy, self-satisfied England were prepared for it either.
Sickened, he said, ‘What a bloody mess.’
‘Yes. But we can do nothing, efendim. There are too many. And soon the King’s men will return – so we must cross the bridge.’
At the back of his mind, Luciano could see the sense in this; and so, although it was the very last thing he wanted to do, he pulled himself together and began picking his way through the human wreckage at his feet. The necessity of looking where he was going brought nausea several steps closer … and the sight of a man whose skull had been virtually split open all but undid him. Then a hand grabbed his ankle.
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Meet Stella Riley
Winner of three gold medals for historical romance (Readers’ Favourite in 2019, Book Excellence Awards in 2020, Global Book Awards in 2022) and fourteen B.R.A.G. Medallions, Stella Riley lives in the beautiful medieval town of Sandwich in Kent.
She is fascinated by the English Civil Wars and has written six books set in that period. These, like the seven-book Rockliffe series (recommended in The Times newspaper!) and the Brandon Brothers trilogy, are all available in audio, narrated by Alex Wyndham.
Stella enjoys travel, reading, theatre, Baroque music and playing the harpsichord. She also has a fondness for men with long hair – hence her 17th and 18th century heroes.
Connect with Stella
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