Bosworth was not the bloodiest battle in history, but it changed the future of England forever.
The king is dead. Long live the king. Recovering consciousness on the battlefield, Alex, seeing the devastation around him, knows the threat to his life is by no means over.
But when the great lords of the land make war, everyone is at risk. The local population, the besieged villagers, the respectable wives and their daughters threatened with rape, the ravaged farmlands and the looted properties are considered simply collateral damage. So Kate, frightened but defiant, dresses as a boy to escape the attentions of wandering soldiers, deserters and drunken victors.
Henry Tudor claims victory and the throne. Alex fought on the wrong side and does not expect favour, but what he never expected was to discover the murdered corpse of his cousin. And nor, once discovered, to become the principal suspect.
Kate and Alex meet in unusual circumstances but romance must wait as Alex narrowly avoids execution. First there is as murderer to uncover and a myriad of investigations to instigate into what has happened, a new regime to accept, disguises to adopt and discard, and finally a very different life to understand.
My inspiration for this books was the research I was doing on the medieval city of London. I dreamed of those narrow unlit streets. The old markets, the rain pelting down the tiled rooftops and their great jutting chimneys, the ice on the cobbles and the surge of the River Thames in flood.
Beneath the old medieval bridge, the Thames could rise several feet and there was considerable danger to the small ferry boats which carried passengers in both directions. London Bridge was built on twenty stone pillars, at the base of each was a floating wooden platform. In bad weather when the tide was high, the rush of water through those restricted arches could smash small boats against the banks, the pillars themselves, and each other, throwing the passengers overboard. It was this information that began my inspiration.
I was also haunted by the visions of medieval battle, and the terrible sadness that would have followed defeat. The battlefield would be a silent place of utter misery and failure, thick with blood and the bodies of the dead. Some dying would manage to cry out or groan, and so be found and taken for treatment. But the injured of the losing side might be killed by the prickers from the winning side who would scour the fields, stripping the dead of valuables, and finishing off those too wounded to make a probable recovery.
And so begins my book, with my own nightmare. It goes on to explore the nightmares of others. My inspirations are not always kind.
It was therefore the dark, and little understood side of medieval London and the aftermath of battle and slaughter which brought the plot of this novel flooding into my mind. My book became a crime mystery in answer to those dreams.
Convinced of his death, he was unsurprised at the depth of his grave. Black sweltering weight forced down upon him and the heat, being airless, was inescapable. Deep buried and suffocating, he recognized the prerequisites of hellfire, for death was the inevitable consequence of life, its ultimate curiosity, and in battle, its culmination. The darkness remained absolute, the furnace insufferable and the pain unrelenting. Seeping to him from beyond his tomb, the sounds of nightmare intruded and concentrated.
Alex smelled old blood crusted in the heat, a sour coppery smell that gagged at the throat. He assumed the blood was his own. A sudden spasm jabbed his shoulder and he gasped, gulping for breath. A reaction which inspired a question. Breathing, therefore, perhaps, after all, not dead. Buried not as corpse, but alive. And if not dead, then how to rediscover life.
Blinking, slowly accustomed to the dark, he found a face above him, a splintered snarling bone, divided where once there was nose and mouth. So Alex knew himself alive but lying crushed beneath the slain, stiffening in blood and thick in shit. But having survived, would not survive much longer. Some things were immediately imperative. Therefore escape the grave, discover the battle’s end and know which cause claimed victory.
One arm was clamped beneath the faceless dead, his armour dented and the buckles broken. He moved his other hand, punched up and explored air. The air felt fresh against his fingers, sunbalmed and pleasant. Squashed within the stink of other men’s deaths, the sweat of their futile desperation and the agony of their slaughter, Alex found more breath and the strength to struggle. He wrestled, elbow and knees, the clank of fist on metal and the soft moist squelch of open wounds and limbless joints. Some of the weight rolled away.
It was the blood of the ruined face which he wore and the same man’s torn chain mail ragged against his jugular. Then more bodies. One by wretched one, each unrecognisable lump of voided debris flung aside, Alex freed himself from corpses and crawled out into sunshine.
He spat bloody sputum. He looked, and saw the nightmare, and heaved. The dreadful wailing of the dying and the pain wracked injured spread across the strewn fields to either side. Meadows of blood, of limbs amongst the little wild flowers, a hacked mutilation of bodies filling ditches, now hillocks of humanity.
Thrusting away the broken steel, he searched himself for wounds. He could still not see clearly. Eyelids gummed with blood and pus, head spinning, he sat and breathed through the rolling acid nausea. Whimpering nearby, wails of entreaty, guttural pleas for water, for aid, and for a merciful death. Echoes, the sudden flutter of feathers; ravens and kites smelling slaughter, come to scavenge. England’s great battlefields fed the birds of the skies as well as the power hungry, lords of vendetta and misrule, and the great knights shouting of righteousness while satisfying ambition, avarice and insatiable need.
Alex remembered the last words he’d heard before falling. “The Stanleys. Stanley has turned against us. Rally to Richard or we are lost.” Lost then. Alexander, younger son of the eighth Baron Mornington, began to climb out of his armour.
The heat dazzled, and he found the first injury. An arrow had pierced his upper arm beneath the paldron, shaft from a mercenary’s crossbow and the quarrel imbedded. He searched the entry and began to ease it loose. The wounded muscle screamed below ripped flesh but finally, impatient, he dug his fingers in and wrenched the bolt away and flung it, biting his lip, keeping his silence. His arm bled freely and steamed a little under the sun.
Then he shrugged off the broken harness and chain mail, unbuckling greaves and baldric, finally pulling off hauberk and spurs. He had worn his king’s badge. If the Stanleys had brought victory to the Tudor bastard, then showing the white boar meant death. Life was suddenly precious. His armour was expensive stuff to leave, but what had once been designed to save his life might now condemn it. He left behind all proof of his name and rank and struggled, sweating, to his feet.
He saw his father first. The old man was smiling. Lying flat on his back, he was open-eyed, gazing into the cloudless blue above. His basinet had tumbled off and lay beside him in the wet grass. His scalp remained within it; his smiling head quite open, as an old jug might lose its lid. The brains had oozed a little, grey globules sticky in blood.
Alex, weak legged still, caught his breath and stumbled. He knelt in the trampled mud and closed his father’s eyes. A smear of brains stained the edge of his cuff. He leaned forwards again and removed the old man’s gauntlets, holding the cold fingers for a moment before taking the ring from his thumb. He had never really known his father, so often away at court or fighting his own family squabbles over property rights and inheritance. Honour thy father, but do not necessarily love him. Alex left him for the ravens. And the looters. It was much the same thing. They were all scavengers.
The household had fought together and Alex recognised other faces close by, family retainers, stall holders and local farmers who had answered the muster and taken up arms for their country and their king. The three Bowyer brothers, best archers in the county, slumped in a heap as if they embraced. At their feet the blacksmith’s boy, just ten years old, who had come to distribute arrows from the supply wagons. He still clutched the sheave he’d been delivering, but someone else’s arrow now protruded from his eye. Face up, staring at the birds, in his clasp the fine goose fletching quivered a little in the breeze, from his eye the quarrel’s metal caught the glitter of the sun. The child had vomited his own teeth.
The fighting had been fierce under Norfolk’s banner. Alex trudged the boundaries where the standard had been raised. But no time to search for friends he could no longer help. The dead lay thickest there and his own people were only a small part of the human debris. He turned and hurried on.
The tramp of boots behind him was sudden, heavy and immediately ominous. Neither of the heralds certainly, who would have already made their counts and listed the titles of slain nobility. The able bodied victorious then, come to claim their own dead, to dispatch any of the enemy still groaning, and manage some quick looting before digging the burial pits. Consecrated ground in some nearby church yard for their honoured companions, communal holes for the unnamed enemy; England’s own.
Alex crawled under cover. Holes in his hose. Knees bleeding. Everything bleeding. Shrubs, bushes, the scrub of a hot English August. A fine day with the harvest already gathered and stored safe in the barns, while the country waited for news of their king. A fine day for dying.
The ground was boggy, ditches churned by horses’ hooves, a farmer’s new ploughed soil ruined, daisies gaudy with blood. A young man, little more than a boy, doubled over, face in his own spew, whimpering, too tired for agony. The seepage of his intestines escaped between his grasping fingers. Alex stared a moment, then moved away. The boy would be dead soon enough from the brisk surgeon’s knife or the grave diggers shovels, if not before.
Like breezes through the forest, the passing of the looters quietened the last piteous wails, echoes fading like forgotten shadows. A flash of black feathers, the mew of a disturbed kite, and Alex pushed a path beneath the blackberry hedges. He stood on men, crossing over their bodies with the squelch of raw yielding meat. He had not expected to find his brother.
No time then, for John to enjoy his new won title, just a brief moment’s inheritance and a bloody death. The new Baron Mornington had been decapitated. Still clutching his sword, the body was sprawled in its proud polished armour. The head, having lost both basinet and casque, seemed confused. Caught on thorns, its loose pretty curls fluttered like little banners. Alex sat down heavily in the mud.
He had barely known his father but he had loved his brother. The hero of two years older, the shoulder for comfort after mother went, advice and example, sweet smiles and whispered promises. A child’s trust. No time now for tears, Alex kissed the soft pink cheek and crawled into deeper cover.
The battle had been fought across the fields and into marsh, through ditch and muddy stream, on where the rising land sang golden and the shadowed tree line cut through little valleys, and where the placid country was previously divided only by hedge and hamlet. After days perhaps, a villager would find a head, half rat eaten, squashed amongst his garden cabbages. A body, sliced through, might be found in the soft mud behind some crumbling church wall, or a decomposing corpse face down in a green slimed pool. A child would find a broken arrow to keep as a memory of when his father was slain, a hole made by cannon shot would spoil the line of next year’s plough. There would be pieces of armour, lying empty or nursing hacked bloody flesh, continuing to reflect the summer sunshine and the aimless clouds in their bright blue sky.
The noise of the men behind him gone now, French dialect from the bastard Tudor’s bastard foreign mercenaries, and the moment for a quick run across from the first manor down the lanes and on to the next town. Not Atherstone where the king’s camp was doubtless being torn apart by French soldiers, and Stanley’s traitors with their sweaty fingers in the royal linen, but the hamlet of Witherley with no walls to withstand raiders, deserters or the frantic escape of the routed vanquished. Like himself.
He came in as the sun hit the roof tops and sent the thatches steaming. Doors locked, shops closed, people huddled terrified and silent. Furtive noises in the tiny cobbled alleys, running boots, sudden squeals and two men dragging a woman into the shadows, skirts up, first rape and then the knife. In battle scarred countryside the villagers suffered from both sides; excitement of the victors, bitter resentment from those cowed, the profiteering of camp followers, deserters on the run, and every man a looter.
He’d find neither open inn nor generous farmer’s wife. Alex kept to the back streets and out again into the fields beyond. He clambered down into the leaf tangled brook and washed the blood from his face and hands. The sun was still hot and dried him quickly. He kept walking, slowly now, and increasingly weary.
For three hours on a hot August morning, he had battled for his life and the rights of his king. One footstep away from a total stranger, the continuous swing of sword, battle hammer and axe, each blow in desperation to kill him before his stroke killed you. And after him, once he fell, another stepped across his heaving back and took his place, and raised his metal against you. The ache of the fight returned now, muscles throbbing, legs shuddering, with no further fear of capture to keep him alert. The wound in his shoulder no longer bled but the pain still stabbed. Alex held that arm up with the other, cradling the elbow across his chest. He wore only what had been beneath his armour and its padding; a linen shirt, plain knitted hose, soft ankle boots. He’d kept his belt and the knife wedged into it, but he had left the sword; his family crest on the hilt too dangerous. His father’s ring was tucked tight in his codpiece, gold hot against the moist skin of his groin. The nausea was returning.
Far across the cut stocks of the shorn wheat harvest there was a barn. There he slept with the little whiffle nosed rats scurrying amongst the straw. Smells of cattle, the latest litter of kittens, puppy piss and a tub of stale mutton lard stored for tallow. Curled safe and warm, sore shoulder resting on the softest hay, it occurred to Alex that he was now the new Baron Mornington himself. He was not likely to mention it to anyone until he knew more of what had happened that day. If marked traitor and attainted, no doubt he’d lose not only his title but also his home within the week. It would make little difference now. He’d already lost everything else.
Alex found he was crying. He slept with the tears still wet on his cheeks and his brother’s smile hovering through his dreams.
He woke with a pitchfork in his face and a pair of very dark brown eyes peering at him over the handle.
A scruff nosed page boy in a grimy doublet, hose baggy round the knees, hair stuffed incongruously under a man’s faded liripipe hood, and a voice not yet pubescent. Brandishing the pitchfork like a spear, shoving so the points seemed menacing, the boy said, “You’re trespassing. Who are you?”
Alex managed to heave himself up without groaning. His shoulder hurt like hell. So did his head. He was dizzy, had a knife-sharp headache and felt sick. He mumbled with a careful lack of clarity, “Alex. Um. Gypsy.”
“Alicks?” demanded the page boy. “A poacher then?”
Alex nodded faintly. “Um.” Admitting to poaching might be almost as dangerous as admitting to the losing side of a war.
The boy sniffed, and seemed perturbed not to find a kerchief. He wiped his nose on the back of his hand and wedged the pitchfork handle under his arm. Most unexpectedly he said, “Well, that’s alright then,” and sighed.
It occurred to Alex that the boy looked as though he’d been crying. Since he knew he’d been crying himself, it seemed to help. He relaxed and shuffled back a little into the shadows, hiding the blood stains on his shoulder. “I’ll go then,” he muttered. “And no more poaching, I promise. Not on your master’s land anyway.”
A slow violet dawn crept through the open barn door and turned to dazzle behind the boy’s head, setting him in sudden silhouette. “My? Oh, yes.” The boy frowned. “But you’ll have to stay here while I call my – master. He’ll want to make sure you’re – not dangerous.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Your master’s here then, and unscathed? So not away, fighting for his king?”
The boy blushed slightly. “We thought - .” He paused and scowled. “Anyway, that’s his business, not yours.”
Alex had raised himself slightly, squatting back on his heels, knees bent and poised. He took a deep breath and launched himself immediately. The boy fell back and the pitchfork clattered to the ground. Alex grabbed him and swung him round, one hand trapping both the child’s wrists hard against his chest. Alex then made a very interesting discovery.
“Well, brat,” he said. “More to the point, who are you?”