WoTR story

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Jim Smith
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Location: Stoke on Trent

WoTR story

Post by Jim Smith »

People's thoughts on this (posted under my own name this time) would be welcome. This is eventually intended to be a novel.

In the cold greyness just before dawn Gervaise struggled upwards out of a fitful sleep wracked with the pain of his stiff and aching muscles. The blankets in which he had been so carefully wrapped were stiff with frost and the previous night’s fire a bed of cold, dead ash the colour of the leaden sky. His head pounded from the hot spiced wine he’d so incautiously swigged and he let out a low whimper of pain as his back muscles protested at the hardness of the frozen ground. Gritting his teeth, Gervaise slowly sat up and began to take in his surroundings in the gathering light. Gradually, his bleary eyes focussed on the tower of Saxton church and the roofs of the little village clustered around it – not one hundred yards distant from where he lay. Little groups of tents and pavilions sprouted between the houses and huts, their banners hanging limp in the gelid morning air. For a second, the massive frame of Roger Strugge blotted out the view before squatting down alongside him. A strip of dried beef was clutched in one massive paw and in the other a leather beaker filled with a steaming liquid. Before Gervaise could demur, both were held out to him. ‘Better take it lad, you sang well for us all last night. And if God wills that it was our last then you made it that much better for us! Besides (here he glanced up at the sky), I’d say there’s snow on the way and we all need a bit of warmth and something in the belly if we’re to outlast this day’s work. Go on, it’s alright, I’ve had mine.’ Won over, but a little embarrassed by Roger’s unassuming generosity Gervaise took the proffered food and drink. The warm scent of mulled wine met his nostrils and he looked up at Roger in frank astonishment. ‘How on earth…?’ Roger grinned, ‘Seems like a miracle doesn’t it! That young lance-captain from the Staffordshire mob ‘found’ another barrel of it last night after most of us were asleep – plus enough dry wood from Castle Hill Wood to get a cooking fire going this morning.’ He gestured up the slope to where a thin line of smoke rose gently into the chill air.

Gervaise recalled the tall grey-eyed young man from the previous evening. His slender frame had radiated a strange blend of composure, confidence and a sense of swift, decisive energy only just held in check. Taking a guilty sip from the beaker he whispered, ‘So he s-stole it?’ Roger’s face broke into a broad grin and he laughed aloud. ‘Jesu lad but you’ve a lot to learn! The word young Longstaffe used was ‘acquired’, though (and here he winked broadly), something tells me it comes to the same thing in the end. Still, don’t complain! Sir Walter Devereux’s lot seem to know thing or two about campaign life and it’s thanks to them we’re eating at all this morning.’ The stricken, remorseful expression that crossed the boy’s face only made him appear even younger. The Devil take it, thought Strugge, Burgh had no business bringing someone aged sixteen who had the appearance and manner of a ten year old – no matter how short of men he claimed to be. Studying Gervaise with a father’s eye, he fought to control the wave of concern that washed over him. Damn it all, the boy was a soldier and he must take his chances this freezing morning, just as they all had to. Yet what chance did this crippled child have today? Watching Gervaise as he struggled into his damp and clammy jack, Strugge reflected bitterly that once they came to hand strokes the boy’s life could probably be measured in minutes. Seconds even, for it seemed unlikely that the northern billman or man at arms who struck Gervaise down would even break into a sweat.

The thin, bird-boned wrists that barely protruded from the sleeves of the jack seemed pale sticks. Gervaise’s frost – chilled fingers fumbled helplessly with the points at the neck – finally with a despairing gesture he let his hands fall to his sides and stared helplessly at Strugge. Cursing under his breath Strugge tied the last couple of points and retrieved Gervaise’s battered sallet from underneath the blanket where it had rolled. This helmet was of the tilting kind, having no visor that could be raised. However, given the size of Gervaise’s head this was not an issue - though the lad’s head was large for his size it was still small compared to most other boys his age and the steel bowl of the salet effectively drowned it. Large amounts of extra padding and some hasty work with leather needle and linen thread the previous evening had ensured that Gervaise could now tilt the salet backwards without it ignominiously sliding forward and bashing his nose.

When Gervaise’s chin strap was securely tied, Strugge produced his own food and both sat to eat and drink together, squatting on their haunches to avoid the worst of the freezing early morning wind. Presently, they were joined by the rest of the Gainsborough levies – all pale, drawn and distinctly ill at ease. Soon the little hollow in which Gervaise and Strugge had slept was crowded with fifteen nervous and restive human beings. Strugge studied their faces with a veteran’s practiced eye. Jesus wept he thought, was this all Burgh could scrape up to bolster his household retinue? Matt Fletcher the blacksmith and his two younger sons Will and Gareth looked to be the most useful – big brawny lads with the muscles of their forearms standing out in tight hard knots. Good in a scrap and without too

much imagination. Not that that was a bad thing, he reflected grimly. Too much imagination in a soldier led to too much thinking about the work that the job involved. Leave the imagination for the toffs who ran the battle, he thought – the rest of us have our work cut out simply trying to stay alive. As for the rest, farmers, tradesmen and the occasional labourer. Good enough in a tavern punch up over some local girl, but here simply fodder for the bill line. And then of course there was the boy – no
child Gervaise with his milk white skin chaffed raw by the merciless wind and his long blond locks and wide sapphire blue eyes giving him the look of some lost angel for Christ’s sake.

A renewed blast of freezing air brought him back to himself. Rather than getting lighter, it actually seemed to be getting darker. A huge slab of dirty grey cloud obscured the northern horizon and as it approached, borne on by the steady wind, the first flakes of snow began to whip across his face. Looking at the downcast and (in Gervaise’s case) despairing expressions of his comrades in arms, Strugge forced a laugh. ‘Never mind lads, maybe it’ll snow so hard the northern bastards can’t see us eh?’ There were a couple of smiles from the perkier ones, but from Gervaise nothing but the tight, fixed, white-faced stare of barely controlled terror. Strugge frowned – he prayed to God that the boy wouldn’t run, for if he did he’d end the day either skewered by one of the cavalry rearguard or dangling from a rope. The thing was, did the lad know that – did he realise his best option was to take his chances with the rest of them? However, at that moment his train of thought was interrupted by a gentle, almost feather light touch at his elbow. Since Strugge stood six foot two in his bare feet he was rather surprised at first until looking down he saw the upturned face of Gervaise Daubeney.
‘I-I n-need to tell you something Roger’, he whispered, so gently that Strugge had to lean down to hear him over the increasing whistle of the wind. ‘I k-know you think I-I’ll r-r-run at the f-first chance but I w-won’t I p-promise’.

Deeply moved in spite of himself, Strugge laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder, struggled to find an appropriate reply. Before he could speak though, Gervaise gave him a gaze of almost heart-rending intensity. ‘I – I w-on’t l-let my master down you s-see’, he stammered quietly. ‘H-he g-gave me a fresh chance in life and I owe h-him my loyalty.’ As always, Strugge was left totally disarmed by the boy’s frank openness. His mind flashed back eight years to the plain outside Castillon, remembered how Lord Talbot’s army had broken like a blood-stained wave on the French entrenchments – how the French gunstones had shattered and maimed not singly, but by the dozen. Neither courage nor loyalty had done them any good, yet without these things what did a man have to fight with or for? Looking down at Gervaise, he bit back the cynical retort that had been forming on his lips and smiled. ‘Stick with me today lad and we’ll see off these northerners together!’ The boy smiled weakly and fell to tying the laces of his boots. While he was thus employed, Strugge got up and strolled over to the Fletcher brothers and their father. All three had finished eating and now stood fully armed, clutching their bills and stamping their feet in an effort to keep warm. Strugge nodded in a friendly fashion to Will and Gareth and lent over to speak to their father in a low whisper. ‘I’ll keep the boy next to me today Matt – you and your lads have got enough to contend with’. Matt Fletcher raised a rather ironic eyebrow. ‘You’re not going soft are you Roger? Wouldn’t have thought you’d have a soft spot for a waif like Daubeney. Still, you’ll not have your work cut out for long – some Lancastrian billman will gut him as a warm up – before he starts on you!’ ‘The lad’s no coward Matt’, said Strugge quietly. ‘Didn’t say he was’, retorted the blacksmith, ‘don’t forget I’m from the same street as his family back home and I remember him growing up.’

At this point Fletcher frowned, his bushy black eyebrows almost meeting in the middle. ‘The boy’s not said much about himself, has he?’ Strugge nodded, the point was a valid one. Camp fire talk tended to gravitate towards home life, family and of course women – but on all of these matters Gervaise had proved remarkably reticent and inclined to change the subject as swiftly as possible. He suddenly became aware that Fletcher was talking. ‘…mother died when he was ten and of course he turned out no good at the goldsmithing business, his back being so bad and all. Anyway, rumour was that his father packed him off to Thornton Abbey as a novice last June. Reckon he was fed up of the physician’s bills and wanted shot of him…’ Strugge liked to think of himself as unshockable, but now he felt not only pity for Gervaise but also anger on his behalf. Couldn’t the man have found his eldest son some light duties around the house, he asked Fletcher – in the shop perhaps? Fletcher shrugged, ‘Dunno Roger, although rumour has it that’s where the boss first found him…’ ‘Yes’, interrupted Strugge, ‘but why’d he leave the Abbey? Can’t figure why a lad so obviously good with books should

throw it all away for a job at the Manor..’ ‘Hmm’, said the blacksmith, ‘neither could his father when he went off with the boss! Y’see, when his younger brother died after fooling around on the roof, Gervaise came home for the funeral – quite obviously the abbey wasn’t all he’d hoped for, ‘cos when the boss offered him the post at the manor he nearly bit his hand off!’ Strugge frowned – Gervaise’s knowledge of Greek and Latin and gentle demeanour would seem to suit him perfectly for the contemplative life. That being so what was he doing here, shivering in the snow with a cut down bill he could barely hold and a jack several sizes too big for him? The boy was a paradox, that much was certain and Strugge was a simple, direct man who liked things to be clear-cut. The march north had been a hell on earth for Gervaise, it soon became obvious that he was physically unable to keep up the punishing march pace and Strugge had frequently had to resort to carrying him. Being dragged along like excess baggage had depressed Gervaise still further – yet despite this, the lad’s grim determination to prove himself had won first Strugge’s respect and finally his genuine affection. He resolved to talk to Gervaise after the battle – if they were both still alive.

While Strugge and Fletcher had been speaking, the snow had begun to fall in earnest, soft flakes settling gently on helmet and pauldron, melting on jack and upturned face. A slow, rhythmic drumbeat interrupted the conversation, muffled slightly by the keening of the wind. Immediately, there was a burst of frenetic activity. Weapons were grabbed by numb and freezing hands and frozen finger tips checked the tightness of helmet straps. A bulky figure suddenly appeared on the lip of their protective hollow, steel breastplate covered by Thomas Burgh’s livery of blue trimmed with white – his personal badge of the armoured arm picked out in silver and white thread on the left breast – John Hampden, captain of Burgh’s household men. He was bareheaded, Corinthian style barbute held under one arm. Grimly surveying the shivering men he picked out Strugge’s massive form and his expression relaxed a little. ‘It’s the muster Strugge’; he said simply, ‘get ‘em moving.’

There had been no need for a command to form array, the men were already in a rough line. So, with a brisk command to shoulder staves, Strugge led them up the side of the hollow to join the remainder of the Retinue formed up on the crest. A terrified Gervaise followed in his footsteps. For all his earlier resolve, he was on the point of being physically sick with fear. Stabbing pains from his twisted back muscles made walking a torment, his salet was a crushing weight on his head and he was barely able to keep his bill balanced correctly on his right shoulder. It was only fifty yards or so to walk, but to Gervaise it felt like fifty miles. When Strugge finally called a halt, Gervaise’s body was drenched with sweat and his head swam madly. Looking about him, he saw that the Gainsborough levies now formed the rear rank of a block of around fifty soldiers. The majority seemed, like himself, to be armed with some sort of bill, a helmet and a padded jack over which they wore the Burgh livery. A few (Strugge included), sported steel gauntlets and there were a couple with pieces of leg harness. There were also some archers in open faced salets, their war bows still in their protective linen bags. Each had a scabarded falchion hanging at his side next to a round buckler. At the front stood a tight knot of men in varying degrees of plate armour, all seemingly deep in conversation. Gervaise recognised John Hampden and his two sergeants, Will Travers and Miles Johnson. Hampden wore three quarter harness – everything except a backplate, while Travers and Johnson wore salet, breastplate and steel gauntlets. Andrew Hutton, his master’s banner bearer, was similarly equipped. Above his head floated the Burgh banner – eight feet of blue and white silk rippling in the snow-laden wind.

To their immediate left, Gervaise could make out another body of men forming up – with a start he recognised the red and white livery jackets of their hosts from the previous night, the Staffordshire men of Walter Devereux. As Gervaise watched, more marched out of the swirling snow until there were at least a hundred of them. Despite the fear that gnawed at his entrails like a rat in a grain sack, Gervaise’s innate curiosity took over and he studied these new arrivals with interest. Not only were there more of them but they also seemed better equipped (for example all their billmen seemed to possess steel gauntlets) and carried themselves with an air of calm professionalism conspicuously lacking among his own comrades. More curiously, they did not form array as the men from Lincolnshire had done. Instead, they formed three compact array triangles or wedges – each of around thirty men. Each wedge seemed made up of a mixture of bowmen, billmen and men at arms and Gervaise was intrigued to see that the members of each wedge had a coloured triangular patch sewn on the front of their livery jackets or tabards above the golden horseshoe of the Ferrers cognisance. Each wedge had its own colour; blue furthest away from them, then green and finally, closest to them, black. A bewildered Gervaise wondered if there was some dissent among this retinue and asked Strugge as much. ‘Eh?’ replied a nonplussed Strugge before finally peering through the snow and laughing. ‘No

lad, seems our Sir Walter’s been abroad at some point, he’s using the lance system that’s all!’ In response to Gervaise’s puzzled query, Strugge replied that the French and Burgundians routinely used such combined groupings of soldiers for both administrative and tactical purposes, many claiming that doing so gave the commander greater flexibility in battle since if necessary, each lance could fight independently. ‘Although’, continued Strugge loyally, ‘it depends on each lance mutually supporting the others. Screw up and your *rse really will be in the air..’ Gervaise nodded and smiled weakly – Strugge’s blunt soldierly candour was always refreshing, if sometimes not exactly cheerful.

Looking to his left, Gervaise saw that the members of what he mentally termed ‘black lance’ were kneeling down in a horseshoe formation, looking in at a tall, lithe figure in their midst. ‘Young Longstaffe’s mob I see’, said Strugge’s voice at his shoulder, ‘The right people to be next to today I reckon – if their lance-captain’s anything to go by!’ With a start, Gervaise recognised the keen and alert face of Philip Longstaffe behind the raised visor of the sal1et. The lance-captain had clearly drawn something on the ground for his men to look at. Fascinated, Gervaise could see Longstaffe jabbing expressively at certain points of his drawing with a long, thin ash switch. Although too far away to pick up individual words, Gervaise had a distinct impression that the lance-captain was shooting questions at certain of his subordinates. All this contrasted markedly with the passive resignation on the faces of Burgh’s retinue as they waited for something to happen. The minutes dragged by, slowly, tortuously, freezingly as the bitter wind-borne snow cut through them to the core. At Gervaise’s right hand, Strugge was becoming increasingly restive. ‘Damn it all’, he muttered at last, ‘the boss could at least brief us on what the f***’s going on!’ No sooner had the words left his mouth, than two figures in full plate armour materialised out of the swirling snow – Thomas Burgh and with him, one gauntleted hand resting on his shoulder, the Staffordshire knight Sir Walter Devereux.

With a wry smile, Gervaise noted that his master’s Milanese armour seemed faded and shabby next to Sir Walter’s polished gothic plate. He was even more surprised to see the drawn and intent expression on his master’s face and glanced upwards at Roger Strugge. Strugge read the unspoken question in Gervaise’s eyes and shook his head sadly. ‘Scared shitless he is mate, and even more scared that we’ll realise it. Wondering too I daresay whether or not we’ll stand and annoyed at how pathetic we look next to that Staffordshire lot.’ Gervaise was about to reply, when Thomas Burgh and Sir Walter halted in front of the Retinue. ‘Here we go’, muttered Strugge, ‘now’s when the boss reminds us why we’re all here!’ His master’s face was tight and intent and his brown eyes glittered behind the upraised visor of his salet and Gervaise wondered what words of comfort and resolution he would find to inspire them and stiffen their resolve on this bitterly cold morning.

Thomas Burgh fought to maintain his composure as he surveyed the pinched, frozen faces of his retinue and wondered bleakly how many of them would be alive at the end of the day. He deliberately avoided the eyes of the little clerk in the rear rank – at this point in time one gaze from those open, trusting sapphire blue eyes would have been too much. For the hundredth time he mentally cursed himself for bringing Daubenay – it would have been hard to find one less suited to today’s work and quite simply, the lad was a liability to himself and his comrades. If anything happens to him, he thought and immediately quashed the thought before it could develop further. Such morbid introspection was futile and ultimately self defeating – as Walter had told him, action would burn through such doubt and fear – it always did. Painfully conscious of Walter standing to his right hand side, he began to speak. ‘Gentlemen, I’ll not bore you with speeches – those of you that know me will recall I like to get to the point quickly. Today we decide: who is the rightful King of England – Edward of York or that pathetic fool Harry of Lancaster and the Frenchwoman who pulls his strings?’ ‘That’s all she’s got to pull!’ rang out a voice from the middle rank and there was a gust of rough laughter. Burgh smiled and held up his hand – there was nothing like a bit of bawdy humour to take men’s minds off the reality of a situation. Now for the hard bit. ‘So you see lads, it’s really very simple’, he smiled. ‘Mad Harry’s grandfather stole the throne and Edward of York has simply taken back what’s rightfully his!’ Drawing his sword, he gestured out into the swirling snow. ‘It’s about stopping that murderous northern scum who’ve pillaged and burned their way almost to London!’ A murmur of angry agreement answered him – all knew of Marguerite d’Anjou’s notorious promise to her Scots and Borderers of plunder in lieu of pay and how rapaciously it had been fulfilled. The shattered homes and raped women in towns and villages from Hull to Northampton would testify to that. Burgh lowered his sword. ‘The thing is lads, not all of us are going to come home.’ He forced

himself to look into their eyes now. ‘I’d be lying if I said anything different. You see, we have to make an end, today – it’s gone on long enough. Therefore His Grace the King has ordered no quarter.’ He saw the horror in one or two faces now. ‘Yes, I know, but you can be sure that those northern bastards have too – so let that knowledge strengthen your arms and rally wherever you see this banner! Wherever that is, there I will be.’ Looking to his left, he saw that Father Mark was standing next to him, turned to face him and dropped to his knees. He did not need to turn round – he knew that his Retinue had followed suit. The priest looked down at the rows of bowed heads and lifted his crucifix to intone a blessing. The words tumbled forth, yet even as he spoke a fervent prayer of his own resounded inside his head. ‘If it please you O Lord let the killing end here, let this be the last battle.’ His eye caught the painfully slight form of Gervaise Daubeney, his face white and pinched with cold, contriving somehow to look even more childlike and helpless than before. What was this waif doing here his mind screamed and then, as he looked at Gervaise’s face again, he was unable to suppress a shudder. The boy’s face bore a terrible resignation, the expression of one who goes blindly and without hope, expecting nothing but death.

Thomas Burgh rose to his feet and gestured for his retinue to rise. When all were on their feet, he spoke again. ‘Gentlemen, the whole army is up – we array ourselves with the main ward on the left under his Grace the King. Hampden, I’ll lead them out – you bring up the rear and make sure there are no stragglers.’ ‘As you command sir’ replied Hampden calmly, ‘but on whom do we form?’ Burgh smiled grimly, ‘On the Sunne in Splendour’, he replied and laughed as he saw the shocked recognition in his captain’s face. Raising his voice for the benefit of his men, he shouted, ‘And the King himself will be watching lads, so don’t let yourselves down eh?’ Or me, he added under his breath. ‘March on!’ With the drummer beating a brisk time, he turned to his left and began to lead the Retinue up the gentle slope into the swirling snow. ‘About bloody time’, snorted Strugge, ‘It never changes you know – they gave us all that pigswill at Castillon!’ He eyed the slope critically and without another word scooped Gervaise effortlessly up to sit in the crook of one brawny arm. Gervaise saw his bill tossed to Matt Fletcher, who caught it as if it had been a twig. ‘Ride there for a while lad’, smiled Strugge, ‘no use in wasting your strength for nothing’. As they marched, Strugge reflected that, almost without realising it, he’d become deeply fond of the boy and it saddened him to think that in all probability, he’d be dead before sundown. ‘You stick next to me today Gervaise, do you hear? Matt Fletcher will be on your left. All we want you to do is yell out if our backs are in danger. Don’t try any stupid moves and if in doubt just drop to one knee and thrust upwards – understand?’ Snowflakes clung thickly to Gervaise’s hair and eyebrows; he brushed them away before nodding feebly. Strugge opened his mouth to cheer the boy up a little, but one look at the taut despair on Gervaise’s face and the words died in his throat. With a sigh he tightened his grip on his bill and ploughed doggedly onwards.

For his part, Gervaise fully expected that this day would be his last. A feeling of despairing acceptance had been growing on him ever since that first muster at Nottingham ten days ago, yet despite this he was mortally afraid and even more scared that his master would notice it. Fighting back a sudden wave of nausea, he lifted his head and looked about him. Behind them and to their left, Saxton village was rapidly receding into the gloom – ahead and to the right the snow covered pasture rose gradually to a high swell of land. Gervaise recalled that the road from Ferrybridge formed that right hand boundary of this plateau – through the wind whipped snow to his left he could see little, save that the land fell more gently away towards what appeared to be a valley, with a dark smudge of woodland some half a mile distant. Yet as Gervaise stared more intently into the flying snow he recoiled, causing Strugge to curse, tighten his grip and look down at him in sudden alarm. ‘Be easy boy’, he whispered, ‘you’re seeing our army forming, that’s all.’ Indeed, the snow-covered pasture up which they trudged teemed with columns of men, their livery jackets bright splashes of colour despite the whirling snow, the tips of bill and glaive gleaming fitfully as they marched. To the fore, tiny clusters of men in full armour were dismounting, their horses being tethered in groups of three just below the crest. Strugge gave a grunt of satisfaction as he saw this, explaining sardonically that the toffs normally kept their horses a lot closer than that. ‘Thing is Gervaise, they normally feel safer if their gentrified arses are higher above the ground than the rest of us – means they can cut and run when the battle’s lost and leave us poor sods to die for them!’ Still, he continued quietly, ‘looks as if some of them have grown a bit of backbone for today – perhaps they really do mean to make an end of this after all.’

Reaching the crest was not the end of their journey, however. To right and left a solid phalanx of men stretched off into the swirling snow and invisibility. Gervaise noticed that the Devereux retinue had caught up with them and the Staffordshire knight was gesturing with his sword to the left along the rear of the battle line. His master waved in seeming acknowledgement and they swung left along a muddy, slushy track gouged out of the snow by the passing of thousands of feet. Gervaise carefully studied the liveries of the soldiers they tramped past and thanks to Abelard’s patient tutoring at Thornton Abbey, was able to recognise more than one. At length they passed along the rear of a contingent of billmen some two hundred strong – all similarly equipped with thick jack, bevor, plaquart and broad-brimmed kettle hat of a design Gervaise had not seen before. Each kettle hat had a broad red band wrapped around it, made from several lengths of woollen cloth wound together to form a band. Their red livery jackets with the badge of the harts head marked them as Sir William Stanley’s men, despite their perplexing helmets. Strugge caught Gervaise’s puzzled frown and laughed. ‘Look odd don’t they? Seems as if my Lord Stanley’s been abroad at some point, ‘cos as God is my witness that’s not an English design of helmet – although I remember some Burgundian mercenaries who seemed to favour it.’

Both the Burgh and Devereaux retinues were approaching the western side of the plateau when Gervaise noticed that the troops ahead of them no longer showed as much variation in the colour of their livery coats. Indeed, the main colour visible through the swirling snow was a bright, almost (Gervaise thought queasily), blood red. ‘Ah, muttered Strugge, almost to himself, ‘the Kingmaker…’ Despite fear and fatigue, Gervaise’s head shot up like an alaunt scenting its quarry at the mention of this illustrious name. Sure enough, as they marched closer, the white Ragged Staff of his Grace Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick could be seen on the rear of each man’s tabard or livery jacket. ‘Typical’, whispered Strugge into Gervaise’s left ear, ‘he’s got to have the biggest turnout of them all, just in case he loses face, the arrogant sod.’ Yet his tone was not particularly resentful and to Gervaise carried more envy and admiration than Strugge would have been willing to admit. The Kingmaker, as men were beginning to call him, possessed the largest retinue of any of England’s great lords. He owned, Abelard had told him, manors aplenty from Lincolnshire across to Somerset and many of his followers were personally devoted to him – and not simply because he paid more than any other save the King. His extravagant hospitality also marked him out – as did his utter ruthlessness to those he considered his enemies.

Quite suddenly there was a ripple in the red-jacketed ranks; they were parting to allow the exit of two riders, one of whom carried a massive war banner that rippled red and white in the freezing wind. Gervaise heard Strugge give an almost sibilant hiss of indrawn breath and then all his attention became focussed on the second of the two riders as he thundered along the rear of the battle line towards them. ‘Kneel you oafs, kneel!’ came a suddenly flustered command from John Hampden, ‘It’s the Kingmaker himself!’ Looking round, Gervaise saw that the Devereux retinue were already kneeling and he and his comrades hastened to follow suit. Both riders halted scant feet from Gervaise in a spray of muddy slush. The leader dismounted, over six feet of Milanese plate armour topped by a red and white plume and removed his armet to reveal one of the most singular faces Gervaise had ever seen. It might almost have been chiselled from rock he thought, taking in the square chin, broad brow and hooked nose. Yet what made the breath catch in Gervaise’s throat were the eyes; they were quite simply terrifying, a penetrating icy blue beneath a close-cropped thatch of black hair. So, thought Gervaise to himself, this is how the field mouse feels when the hawk is overhead. Thus he beheld Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, aged thirty-three and at the height of his powers. The Kingmaker marched straight up to Sir Walter and clapped him on the shoulder – evidently the two were known to each other. Gervaise strained to hear, but could make out little above the keening of the wind. The Kingmaker appeared to be shaking his head and a few seconds later, both retinues were told there was no need to kneel. The Staffordshire knight now appeared to be introducing Thomas Burgh – Gervaise saw his master bow low and at that moment a most startling transformation came over the Kingmaker’s face. It was impossible to define but the effect was extraordinary. Quite simply, the Kingmaker was looking at and talking to his master as if at that moment he were the most important person in the world. Astonished, he saw Burgh and Devereux nodding their heads, looking for the entire world like a couple of school boys promising a master that they would indeed do their best. An instant later the spell was broken; both riders were back in the saddle and thundering westwards along the track, banner billowing behind them.

‘A man like that you’d follow to Hell’, muttered a voice behind them and Strugge turned a sour eye upon the speaker. ‘Yes, he retorted quietly, ‘that’s just what worries me…’ The command to shoulder staves cut through any further discussion, Gervaise found himself hoisted into Strugge’s arms again as the little column continued its westerly tramp along the rear of the battle line.

A minute or two later, Gervaise noticed that the ranks were beginning to thin out; they were approaching the extreme left wing of the Yorkist line. Two huge standards suddenly appeared out of the snow-filled air, rising from the middle of a huge phalanx of men wearing liveries of murrey and blue. For the second time in ten minutes, Gervaise felt his breathing tighten in anticipation as the wind caught the nearest of the standards, making it billow out to its furthest extent. Three giant sunbursts on a background of murrey and blue were briefly visible, flashing out through the dull air – King Edward’s personal badge of the Sunne in Splendour. Gervaise’s stomach lurched as he recognised the Earl of Warwick standing by the edge of the track, deep in conversation with another knight – a huge figure that stood slightly taller than Kingmaker himself and like the earl was clad from head to toe not in Milanese plate, but in an elaborate armour that seemed all gilding and fluted lines. The figure had its back to them but suddenly swung round, removing its sallet as it did so. A flowing mane of bright blond hair was revealed and below it, eyes of a strikingly deep blue. The command to halt rang out and staves were grounded. Before the command to kneel was given Gervaise had already expected it – for this shining youth could be no other but Edward Plantagenet – formerly Duke of York and now King of England.

The King was now standing in front of Sir Walter Devereux, pulled him to his feet and patted him enthusiastically on the back – evidently the Staffordshire knight was well known to him. For once, the bitter wind blew more than snowflakes into Gervaise’s ears. ‘…knew I could depend on you, Walter. Mortimer’s Cross proved the worth of you and your Staffordshire men and now you’re here to prove it once again eh?’ ‘Deo gratias, your grace’ came the reply, at which King Edward laughed grimly. ‘He may, Sir Walter, He very well may. But the Frenchwoman and her cohorts, the likes of Somerset, Devon and Beaumont – indeed all those who press the claim of my dear, mad, deluded cousin might view that less sympathetically. This is why we must see the end of it, here and now – today.’ He broke off as another knight dismounted close at hand from a badly lathered chestnut destrier. In his early thirties, he wore no tabard or livery jacket over his armour, only a livery badge in the shape of a black bull that hung from a gold chain around his bevor. With what seemed to Gervaise an astounding lack of ceremony, he marched straight up to the king and whispered to him in a low, urgent fashion evidently meant for his ears alone. However, Gervaise’s keen hearing, aided by the direction of the wind, was able to pick out the gist of the conversation. ‘…the mainward is in position Ned and the varward under Fauconberg forming as we speak.’ The King gave a broad grin, ‘Thanks Will, as soon as Fauconberg is fully in position, let me know.’ Turning to the still-kneeling men before him, he raised his voice so that all might hear. ‘Up lads, up and take your posts with me. Sir Walter, you and your men shall be to my left and..’ Here he broke off and with the same unforced intimacy, placed his hand on Thomas Burgh’s shoulder. ‘You Master Burgh I have a special task for. You and your men are the extreme left flank of the army. I, we are all, depending on you to hold should we be outflanked. Come, and I’ll position you and you men myself.

A short while later, Gervaise found himself sandwiched between Strugge and Matt Fletcher, staring out on a vista of white, whirling snow. To his right, the short line of Burgh blue became the red and white of the Devereux retinue. The back of each man’s livery jacket or tabard was emblazoned with a white, running greyhound with a gold crown around its neck – the badge of the Devereux family. They had formed into their ‘lance’ formations again, and the three triangular blocks were once more visible, bristling with bill and polearm. One lance had positioned itself slightly forward of the other two, which were behind it on either side. Strugge saw Gervaise eyeing them in puzzlement and smiled kindly. ‘It’s not so daft when you think about it lad. Three array triangles – the front one will channel the enemy off to either side, while the two behind mutually support it. A Flemish mercenary once told me that the people of the mountains east of France fight in this way. Mind you, he also talked of them using spears of ash at least fifteen feet long, so I didn’t take the rogue too seriously!’ A gust of laughter followed, in which Gervaise somehow managed to join, despite his fear. Although the snow had thinned to the occasional flake during the past few minutes, the lowering grey of the sky gave no indication that this would remain so. Indeed, great slabs of dirty greyish brown cloud were drifting in from the southwest, and under their overarching shade, the day grew steadily darker and darker.

Time passed slowly and tortuously for Gervaise. Not only was he wracked with cramp in his back and knees, but he was also numb with cold and no longer able to feel his feet. A drowsy lassitude began slowly to overcome him and gradually his knees began to buckle. He was so very tired, surely he could sleep, if only for a while… A sudden brisk shake brought him back to a cold and terrible reality. He opened his mouth to stammer an apology but Strugge’s face was anything but angry – indeed both he and Fletcher were looking at him (and each other) with a taut, tense concern. ‘You’ve got to stay awake lad’, said Strugge quietly. ‘Matt, take his arm and support him so he can start stamping his feet.’ Thus propped up Gervaise, too exhausted to argue, made feeble attempts to do as he was bid. Instantly, pins and needles exploded in his legs and he let out a whimper of pain as his circulation slowly began to return. ‘If that happens again Gervaise for Christ’s sake tell me’, admonished Strugge. ‘Now for the moment lean against my side. Matt, grab his bill so I can get my cloak around him. There, that’s it.’ Gervaise found that in this position, Strugge’s cloak and massive body shielded him from the worst of the wind and that while still extremely cold he was definitely warmer than before and thus able to better conserve his dwindling strength. As his fuddled brain cleared, he found himself taking more of his usual intense interest in their surroundings.

Although the sky presaged more snow, visibility was now considerably better than it had been an hour or two ago. To their immediate left, less than half a mile away rose a small block of woodland, its bare branches standing out starkly against the white of the snow-covered fields. Directly to their front, the strip fields of Saxton Parish gave out into bare heath land which sloped gently down into a shallow valley. To one side of this valley an even more pronounced slope was visible, a steep snow-covered hillside at the bottom of which the glint of water could be dimly seen. On the opposite side of the valley, almost a mile away, more strip fields could be discerned and beyond them, vague and indistinct, a tiny huddle of cottages and a church spire. For an instant, the clouds wracked slightly and a shaft of sick yellow light threw the trees into stark relief. Glumly Gervaise thought that he had never seen a landscape that looked so bleakly depressing – even the flat Lincolnshire wastelands around Thornton had lacked this stark and slightly sinister quality. Behind them the bells of Saxton church tolled eight o’clock on this travesty of what should have been a brisk spring day. Suddenly Gervaise tensed and his stomach lurched with a violent surge of fear. Distant smudges of colour were appearing on the other side of the valley, a muted rumbled of drums was brought to them on the icy wind and out of the white immensity before him an army came.

As they were seen, a massive ripple of reaction seemed to flow the entire length of the Yorkist battle line and a great confused babble of shouts, cheers and curses erupted into the air. The Lancastrians had obviously taken time to array their forces before marching up, since each wing of their army took the field already fully formed. Terror constricted Gervaise’s throat, he could not believe that the opposite side of the valley could hold so many soldiers. Strugge gave the boy a sideways glance and felt pity struggle with concern in his heart. ‘It’s their varward lad – they always take the field first. You see, the varward protects the advance of the other two wings of the army, the mainward and the rearward. More often than not the varward is reinforced – just in case battle is joined quickly and it has to fight without support for a bit.’ At first the boy seemed barely to hear him, staring in wide-eyed horror at the deploying Lancastrians and with the fixed, terrified expression of a baby rabbit facing a stoat. Damn, thought Strugge, bleakly remembering an identical look on the faces of so many greensick youngsters dealing with the threat of death or mutilation for the first time. It had been there at Formigny and most of all at Castillon as Talbot’s army broke itself and was in its turn broken by the merciless pounding of the French cannon. Now though he had to somehow break through to the lad, bring him back to himself. ‘Gervaise!’ Strugge’s fingers closed sharply on the boy’s shoulder, who turned and regarded him with a shocked stare as if he’d forgotten Strugge’s very existence. ‘Don’t give way lad’, Strugge said in a low, insistent voice, ‘because if you believe you’re done for then rest assured you will be. I’ve been here before, remember and seen what can happen if you once lose your will to survive and the belief that you’ll still be there tomorrow.’ ‘Now’, he continued without giving Gervaise a chance to reply,’ stand with me and we’ll see these northern bastards off together!’

As he was speaking, Strugge caught sight of the Devereux retinue. Most, he recalled, were veterans of the King’s victory at Mortimer’s Cross the previous month and their comforting presence was clearly stiffening the morale of the few raw levies within their ranks. Immune to Lancastrian drums and cheers they seemed content to lean on their bills and wait for whatever the day would bring from the far

side of the valley. Once again, Strugge noticed the lithe, purposeful form of young Longstaffe, captain of the nearest Devereaux lance as he walked the boundary of his array triangle – evidently checking the sharpness of the weapons and speaking quietly with each man in turn. Strugge gave a mental nod of approval – any battle captain who appeared hesitant and uncertain in front of his men was courting disaster. The Devil take it! He’d let his wits go wool-gathering again and forgotten the morale of his own charge. Letting one hand rest kindly on Gervaise’s shoulder, he gestured towards the Lancastrian battle line and spoke calmly and quietly to the boy as if both were at Sunday afternoon practice at the butts, rather than on the verge of a great battle that might yet cost both of them their lives. ‘Last night you spoke of your knowledge of badges and liveries, Gervaise. Does any’ (here he glanced at Matt Fletcher for support) ‘great noble of Lancaster face us, do you think?’
‘Aye, Gervaise’, chimed in Matt with forced cheerfulness, ‘I’d fain know what manner of northerner I’m soon to sheath my sword in.’
‘From behind and on all fours I’ll bet!’ came a rough voice from the rank behind them, the cry being taken up by man after man until most of the front two ranks were taking refuge from their fear in this outburst of lewd mirth.

For reasons he could never divulge to Strugge (or indeed any other in the Yorkist army) Gervaise felt painfully embarrassed and sought without success to hide his blushing confusion. Strugge teased him good naturedly and again asked him if he could identify any of the banners and liveries now visible on the other side of the valley. Gervaise’s keen eyes scrutinised the Lancastrian lines, taking in the livery colours, banners and badges there displayed and both Strugge and Fletcher leaned closer, the better to hear his whispered revelations. ‘W-well’, began Gervaise hesitantly, ‘the red and yellow over there to our right can only be Courtney. The black and white banner over there must be Scrope of Bolton, y-yes I thought so, t-there’s his Cornish Chough cognisance.’ Deeply impressed already, both men hastened to ask which retinue directly faced them – each had seen the livery of blue and white but as yet had been unable to identify the cognisance that was boldly displayed on the fluttering banners. ‘Yes’, whispered, Gervaise, amazed at how dispassionate he was able to be in his identification of men sworn to kill him, ‘the portcullis is on their banner. That means they can only be…’
‘Beaufort’, broke in John Hampden in a hard flat voice just behind them. All three spun round in shock, they hadn’t heard him approach and now feared some reprimand. But Hampden merely shook his head in quiet dismay as if he was unable to fully credit the evidence of his eyes. ‘Of all the people we could have drawn, we get the chief Lancastrian bastard himself, the Duke of Somerset.’ A freezing silence, even more chill than the wind descended and suddenly, once more it began to snow.

Hampden remained for a while staring across the valley, face taut and set. Then abruptly he smacked one gauntleted fist into the palm of the other, turned on his heal and strode off towards the Burgh standard. This was planted on a slight rise of ground some twenty feet to their rear – looking over his shoulder; Gervaise could see his master and two other Retinue members, deep in conversation. Hampden strode up to them, right arm pointing back towards the Lancastrian positions. All four men were soon talking animatedly. As for Gervaise, Strugge and Fletcher, all three no longer felt any desire to talk, each preferring the solitude of his own thoughts. As the snow whipped and whirled about him, Gervaise was surprised to find the high-pitched, keening fright of early that morning subsiding into what he might (in a more relaxed moment) have termed ordinary terror. And then finally, breaking through that, came a feeling he could scarcely credit. It was, yes, calmness. Now that it was all decided and there was no going back, something akin to quiet acceptance was beginning to make itself felt. The terror and fright were still there right enough, but more as a veneer over his consciousness and no part of the reality of what was unfolding before him. Some of Strugge’s words of the previous evening came back to him, clearly and poignantly, ‘Remember that it’s alright to be afraid Gervaise. It’s when you let that terror interfere with your duty that it becomes something to be ashamed of…’ Yes, thought Gervaise to himself – though I may well die today I can think of no better place, fighting by my master’s side in a just cause….

A sudden pressure from Fletcher’s hand on his shoulder dragged him brutally back to reality. Jesu, had the attack already begun? But no, the army of Lancaster still looked across at them, a colour-flecked grey wall on the other side of the valley. ‘Wind’s changing Gervaise’, shouted Strugge, and there was a grim smile on his broad, hard face. ‘Looks like the northerners are getting the snow in their faces for once…’ Looking across the valley, Gervaise could see that this was certainly so. The wind had shifted to the north and great swirls of snow were gusting across the intervening space between the two armies and whipping in a freezing spray into the faces of the Lancastrians. Their battle line faded from a threatening steel-tipped grey wall to a vague snow-shrouded streak. Although the initial fury of the

wind abated somewhat after a few minutes it was clear that for the northern army, visibility had been severely reduced. Suddenly, without warning trumpets sounded, high and clear despite the keening of the wind. There was a muted ripple through the Yorkist army as men began to stand grudgingly to one side. ‘Ere kid’, came a voice in Gervaise’s right ear, ‘shift yer bleedin’*rse will yer? Some of us as got a battle to fight!’ Gervaise spun round with a speed that nearly caused his weakened, cold benumbed legs to give way. A hard-eyed, gap toothed and scared face framed by an open salet was poised inches from his own and Gervaise found his nostrils assailed by the stench of stale wine. He fought the urge to gag and then promptly goggled, for although the speaker was not much taller than him he appeared to be at least three times as broad. Forearms nearly as thick as Gervaise’s thighs ended in massive, gnarled hands, one of which clutched a monstrous yew bow as if it were a twig. Gervaise did not reply – the coarse, rough twang in the stranger’s accent made comprehension next to impossible and his mind helplessly searched for a reply which he hoped would not offend. Part of his cold-numbed mind registered the white and blue of the archer’s livery. Long hours under Abelard’s quietly patient tuition finally paid off – the cognisance was indeed a fish hook and that could only mean the retinue of Lord Fauconberg. With a snort of derision the man shouldered his way past Gervaise into the open field – the red lion across the rear of his livery jacket proving Gervaise’s supposition. Now tens – no scores more like him were moving through the Burgh retinue and out into the space between the two armies. ‘Fuckin’ hell’, exploded one, ‘these midlands twats never seen an archer or what? Gervaise suddenly remembered that many of Lord Fauconberg’s estates lay in and around London, in Essex and Kent. Perhaps, he thought wryly, that explained things…

Rank after rank of archers in Fauconberg livery passed through to swell their numbers, bows in hand and canvas-covered arrow bags ready at their sides. Each bow bag held a sheaf of arrows and Gervaise felt a fresh wave of apprehension at the sight of the evilly sharp long bodkin heads. A jubilant Strugge informed him that the entire varward would be the first to take the fight to the enemy and looking out into the field Gervaise could see that this was so. All along the Yorkist battle line a similar process had taken place and the field was full of contingents of archers being marshalled into position by the barking shouts of their battle captains and retinue commanders. Indeed, it seemed as if archers from every retinue in the army were being arrayed in one vast block, some ten men deep and over half a mile across. Looking to his right, Gervaise could discern the water bougets of the Bourchiers and the red chevron of Sir Humphrey Stafford before the still swirling snow made further recognition impossible. An obviously delighted Strugge met Gervaise’s perplexed stare with a broad grin. Both he and a no less delighted Fletcher patted Gervaise gently on the back – blows which nonetheless rocked the boy on his feet. ‘You’re saved Gervaise, ‘crowed Strugge, ‘the wind will carry our arrows much further than the northern scum expect.’ ‘Exactly’, laughed Fletcher, ‘and they’ll be shooting into the wind and falling sort!’ Both seemed well satisfied with matters but before they could speak further another blare of trumpets claimed their, and Gervaise’s full attention.

Slowly and purposefully the varward began to move forward – at least, Gervaise assumed it was the whole of the varward, since poor visibility and his restricted field of view meant that only a small proportion of the troops to his front were actually within sight. As the archers advanced, they began to descend the slight slope to their front, until once more; the Lancastrians became visible on the further side of the shallow valley. Suddenly, abruptly, they came to a halt and the wind brought a faint suggestion of yelled orders. A sudden rippling movement convulsed the varward as scores of men took steps straight back, diagonally, or to either side. For a couple of seconds, a bemused Gervaise wondered why such a chequer board formation had been adopted, until with a thrill of horror, realisation dawned – they were preparing to shoot… All along that great mass, nearly ten thousand bodkin-tipped clothyard shafts were nocked to the string, backs were bent and suddenly, terribly, the bows began to come up. Yet no single command ordered the release of so much death. Rather than an instant, needle sharp deluge, the volume of arrow fire grew, swelled and receded, the noise of its passage rising and falling like the sound of waves on a distant seashore. As a terrified Gervaise watched, struck dumb with horror, the Yorkist shafts rose in irregular, hissing clouds to be borne by the wind straight into the heart of the Lancastrian ranks. Exactly how many volleys were loosed, Gervaise was never afterwards sure, but as that hail of death lashed the ranks of the northern army, he began to feel the first stirrings of an irrational, animal terror so potent that he feared it would unman him. Cold sweat soaked his armpits and he looked desperately up at Strugge and Fletcher for some form of reassurance. Both were (like many around them), shouting incoherently, yelling obscenities and seemed barely able to recognise him.

At length Strugge glanced down at the boy’s white, stricken face and mentally cursed himself for a damned fool. ‘It’s all right lad’, he whispered, one arm around Gervaise’s thin and bony shoulders, ‘they’ll not come yet.’ He looked across at the slaughter on the other side of the valley and then back to Gervaise. ‘Our arches will thin ‘em out’, he added encouragingly – although in truth he sounded a good deal more positive than he felt. Despite the urge to fight, his practised eye had scanned the northern army and found much to disquiet him. Over five minutes of sustained archery had barely scratched the Lancastrian masses – indeed even as he watched the survivors of the front ranks calmly stepped over their dead and wounded, redressed their lines and began to advance. Behind them, the whole of the Lancastrian army teetered like a boulder on a cliff edge and began to roll down after them.

To Strugge’s practised eye there was a ripple of confusion all along the Lancastrian battle line as their badly mauled archers began to retreat into view, the natural dip of the valley having hidden them from sight until now. The ground around them had taken on a strangely speckled appearance, covered here and there by the heaped bodies of the stricken and dotted with the shafts of spent arrows. As Strugge, Gervaise and Fletcher watched in fascination, the ranks of the advancing Lancastrian mainward opened to let them through and then closed again, a vast and unwieldy mass of full and partially steel-clad men at arms and billmen. To Gervaise’s horrified eyes, it appeared as if a great grey wall moved slowly and remorselessly up the slope towards them. Muted by the wind blowing in the opposite direction, the dull, rhythmic thudding of the enemy’s drums was a grim counterpoint to the apparent silence of their advance. This was made all the more terrible by the continued plunging arrow fire from the Yorkist varward, the effects of which were becoming all too clear as the two armies closed. Strugge, who had been cheering hoarsely at each volley now scooped Gervaise onto his shoulders, that he might better see the action unfold. So it was that an increasingly panic-stricken youth found himself an unwilling spectator of the slaughter.

The Lancastrians immediately to their front were coming on, not in one coherent line, but in several great drifts, their heads down and shoulders hunched as if that alone could protect them from the hissing arrow fire that smote amongst them. Men in full plate armour flung up their hands and dropped helplessly to their knees as the clothyard shafts sought out every crevice and joint in their armour. Those less well protected were sent staggering back or spinning to either side by the impact of the steel-tipped ash shafts. Despite terrible punishment, they pressed on, stepping over the scores of arrow-skewered bodies that flopped and writhed like landed fish in the bloody slush at their feet. Gervaise felt the vomit rising in his throat and his bladder spasmed vilely. Sensing his discomfort, Strugge gently lowered him to the floor and propped him carefully against his right side.
‘Greensick, lad?’ he asked and laughed gently as an ashen-faced Gervaise resolutely shook his head.
‘N-no, b-but I’ve…’
‘p*ssed my hose’, concluded Strugge and smiled frankly as he fought down his own growing fear. ‘It’s allowed y’know lad and we’ve all done it, even me!’
‘Especially you’, broke in Fletcher, ‘though from the smell of sh** behind me I’d say we’ll be slipping in the dung of the greensick all day!’ He spoke jovially, and only the whitened knuckles around the shaft of his bill revealed anything of his true feelings.

Suddenly, a hubbub of cursing, swearing and shouting erupted around them. The retreating varward had reached their lines and was unceremoniously shoving their way through, men wearing the fish hook cognisance of Lord Fauconberg prominent among them. Whilst in good order, many cast apprehensive looks over their shoulders and seemed intent on putting as much distance between themselves and the advancing Lancastrian varward as possible. ‘Look at ‘em!’ yelled a voice from within Burgh’s retinue. ‘Shot their bolt, so now they’re leaving us to do the real men’s work while they skulk at the back and crawl out for the loot when the show’s over!’ A chorus of obscene invective met this remark. ‘At least we’ll still be able to crawl, you f***ing midlands ape – if I were you I’d be saving my breath for that little lot.’ At this the archer in question gestured back over his shoulder with a gnarled forefinger, sniggered and shouldered his way out of sight. Gervaise looked in the direction the man had pointed and belatedly suppressed a whimper of fear, for the advancing wave of Lancastrians was less than sixty yards away. A formless grey wall no longer, they were an avalanche that threatened to crush the life from him – for a moment they hesitated, appeared to dress their lines slightly and then came on again. Four serried ranks of billmen loomed up, the shining spikes of their polearms poised to hack and strike. A cluster of swordsmen clung to the fringes of the billblock. Bulky padded jacks and salet were their only protection, yet they were armed with long falchion and steel buckler. Closer in,

towards the centre of the line, were tight knots of men in partial or even full plate armour. Some of these gripped poleaxes in their steel-gauntleted hands, others long sword or war hammer. On their blue and white livery jackets gleamed the Beaufort cognisance, the edges of the portcullis outlined in silver thread. As Gervaise watched, the entire Lancastrian line seemed to gather itself before rolling forward across the last snow-covered thirty yards at a shambling run.

A choking wail escaped Gervaise’s lips, as with a mixture of shame and terror he felt his bladder empty again and a sudden burst of wetness inundate his hose. Looking down, Strugge saw the expression on the boy’s face and gestured at his own soaking hose. ‘If only it was the first time I’d p*ssed my pants!’ he yelled, before unceremoniously shoving the quaking boy behind him. Gervaise slipped on the muddy slush before sprawling in an undignified heap at the feet of John Hampden, whose massive form now bellowed one command to the panic-stricken levies in Burgh blue, ‘Avant Ray!’ With a raggedness born of terrified uncertainty, the front rank levelled their bills at waist height; that behind to chest height and the rear rank brought its bills into the slope. Swearing foully, Hampden and the other senior retainers took their places in the front rank, that their better trained example might stiffen the resolve of the already wavering levies. Without averting his gaze from the on-rushing Lancastrians, Strugge roughly yanked Gervaise to his feet. ‘Bill outwards lad!’ he yelled, striving to break through the frozen terror in the last few seconds and bring the boy back to himself. Staring at Strugge with fear-glazed eyes the boy nodded helplessly. Years of illness had not prepared Gervaise for the stark horror and utter physical wretchedness that now assailed him. With his livery stained with vomit and his hose soaked with urine and splattered with mud he gripped the shaft of his bill and numbly waited to die. Jesu please, he thought, don’t let it hurt for too long. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, at the hour of our death at the hour….

With a splintering crash, the first wave of the assault crashed into them. The handful of longbowmen remaining in the Lancastrian line, thwarted by the snow still blowing into their faces, halted and poured their final shafts blindly into the Yorkist ranks. The man to the rear-right of Gervaise let out a choked scream and pitched forward onto his face, the clothyard shaft protruding from his throat splintering beneath him as he hit the ground, shuddered briefly and lay still. As he did so, the world around Gervaise erupted with the ringing clangour of colliding bills and his awareness became painfully restricted to the few feet immediately around him. The advancing enemy had become a horde of yelling blue and white liveried individuals shouting with harsh tongues as they swung their bills up to hack and strike deep into the Yorkist lines. ‘Hold you f***ing bastards, hold!’ bellowed Hampden, ‘I’ll gut the first man to take a backward step, I’ll…’ The ringing clash of steel on steel drowned out his final words as the Lancastrians ploughed into their ranks. Bills whirled up and scythed downwards… Wielding his own bill as if it were a hazel switch, Strugge pivoted to one side to avoid the downswing of his first opponent, grabbed the shaft of his bill and pulled hard. Caught hopelessly off balance, the man impaled himself on the forward spike of Strugge’s bill, which punched straight through the front of his padded jack like a knife through butter.

Gagging on bile, Gervaise found himself catapulted back three years to a warm summer afternoon in late June. Two carts had collided in the street outside his father’s house and one of the splintered spars of wood had skewered a stray cat unfortunate enough to be caught beneath. The wretched creature had thrashed in agony, flopping like a newly-landed trout as blood bubbled from its mouth to soak the dust of the road until a passing apprentice had put the beast out of its misery with a swift dagger thrust. Retching, Gervaise watched as the man dropped his own weapon and slid backwards off Strugge’s bill point, blood bubbling from his screaming mouth. Time, which had seemed to slow like honey in winter, suddenly speeded up with ruthless suddenness. For as far as the eye could see to either side stretched a tangled mass of heaving, struggling, stabbing men. Bill thrusts were parried, smashed aside before a ruthless counter attack drove the wickedly sharp spike through livery and padded jack and deep into the flesh beneath. Those with space swung their weapons high, to bring the rearward spike down with terrible force onto helmet and shoulder. The air was broken by the shrieks of the stricken, the clang of metal against metal and the occasional wet thud of steel hammering home into human flesh.

Cowering behind Strugge, Gervaise gripped his specially made bill, feeling clammy sweat soaking into the rough leather of his protective gloves. The fear that now assailed him was worse than anything he’d hitherto experienced; worse than being jostled by sneering apprentices in the street, worse even

than the fear of rejection by his family. This was a high-pitched, unrelenting, keening fear that possessed his body and, for all he knew, might have no end. All of a sudden there was a swirl in the press of foes before him and they began to push on with renewed intensity. The Beaufort men were fighting with the confidence of numerical superiority and now there came a fresh impetus to enhance their courage. Through the still swirling snow a blue and w
"I hold it to be of great prudence for men to abstain from threats and
insulting words towards any one, for neither the one nor the other in any
way diminishes the strength of the enemy." Niccolo Machiavelli

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Jim Smith
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Post by Jim Smith »

For those of you who can be bothered to read more - here's the next installment:

Through the still swirling snow a blue and white banner became visible and beneath it a tight knot of men in full plate armour. ‘sh**!’ yelled Strugge, ‘that’ll be Somerset himself.’ Turning over his right shoulder he bellowed across to John Hampden. ‘Wedge coming boss, better get the lads ready!’ If Hampden was annoyed at being addressed so familiarly, he didn’t show it. Looking out at the gathering press of armoured men he nodded tersely and moved back through the ranks, bellowing orders. Slowly at first, but then with increasing urgency, the centre of the Burgh line began to give ground, whilst the wings attempted to stand firm. Out on the extreme left wing, Gervaise experienced new intensities of panic. Surely, he quavered to Strugge, they were beginning to retreat and hadn’t they better pull back too to keep in line with the rest? ‘Nah’, muttered Strugge with a grim smile, ‘just preparing the ground for dealing with those bastards over there’, and nodded in the general direction of the enemy. Gervaise followed his gesture and his stomach lurched queasily. The remainder of the battle line suddenly no longer existed, submerged in a distant metallic roar. The slope to their front was already strewn with bodies, littered with smashed and discarded weapons and trampled into a slushy grey morass upon which fresh flakes of snow were already settling. Yet this took no more than a second’s worth of notice, all his attention was seized and held by the triangular mass of armoured men coming up the hill at a steady jog. All wore full plate armour and were armed not with bills but with swords, maces and pole axes. A swarm of more lightly armoured swordsmen surrounded them and behind them the billmen massed threateningly, ready to exploit any breakthrough.

‘T-they’re going to break our l-line aren’t they?’ stammered Gervaise. ‘W-what c-can we d-do against that?’ ‘B***cks are they!’ laughed Strugge, ‘That’s what we want them to think. Now lad (here he rested his hand on Gervaise’s arm), when old Hampden there gives the order, we’ll wheel down into them and bottle them up good and proper. Stay just behind my right side and hold tight to your weapon see?’ He glanced down and frowned. The lad was trembling like a sapling in a winter gale, the point of his bill quivering and wavering from side to side. Again, Strugge felt a determination to keep the boy alive. God alone knew why he was here – he was as much out of place as a virgin in a Lincoln dockside brothel and likely to last about as long. Still, no matter what Gervaise thought of himself, he was clearly no coward and that was at least a start. Gently steadying the bill with one hand, he continued, ‘Just keep the point straight and as firm as you can lad. Don’t try any fancy moves – just go for the legs if you miss his guts and Fletcher here will cover your right side. Fletcher nodded encouragingly, and as he did so there was thin, high trumpet call and John Hampden’s harsh scream rang out along the line , ‘AT THEM!’ To Gervaise’s right there was a sudden crash as two lines of fighting men collided and at that moment the men around him broke into a trot. Gasping and stumbling, Gervaise staggered after Strugge but the uselessness of his efforts soon became clear – his thin and pain-wracked legs were simply not equal to the task and try as he might he was falling further and further behind. So it was that Gervaise was at least thirty yards to the rear when the Burgh retinue ploughed into the already embattled Beaufort troops. Through the swirl and flash of steel, Gervaise became aware of red and white figures moving against the Beaufort men from their opposite side – Walter Devereux’s affinity moving to block the retreat of the Lancastrian troops. The tall slim figure of Lance-Captain Longstaffe was prominent in their front rank as they wielded their bills to deadly effect. The young Lance-Captain moved with a terrible grace and a ruthless economy of movement, his long, thin sword finding the weak spots in groin or armpit in an armoured adversary, or skewering mercilessly the fabric armour of less well protected opponents.

At this moment, Gervaise received a savage object lesson in the need to stay alert – however much he might have wished to be a distant spectator, fate now reminded him that he was very much a combatant. The Lancastrian breakthrough had been sealed off, the dozen or so men that had penetrated the Yorkist lines being hacked mercilessly into the churned and bloodstained snow. Gervaise watched their twitching bodies writhe beneath the down swung polearms and gagged helplessly on a stream of vomit As he doubled over retching, a wildly swung poleaxe clipped the top of his sallet. Although the blow did not connect fully, it was made with enough speed and force to slam the helmet violently forward. With a shocked cry, Gervaise pitched helplessly onto the snow. By great good fortune he rolled to the left, had it been in the opposite direction, the down thrust weapon would have transfixed his neck. With a strength born of desperation, he managed to swing his bill up and sideways. The intention had been to parry the Lancastrian soldier’s next blow and somehow roll away out of danger. However, Gervaise’s terror and exhaustion ensured that the bill moved horizontally rather than vertically, with the result that the shaft slammed painfully into the Lancastrian soldier’s left knee. Mouthing an incomprehensible oath the man hopped sideways, cursing in pain and dropping his weapon into the snow as he did so. Helplessly scrabbling to regain his feet, Gervaise was suddenly struck by the incongruity of the situation – a kill or be killed situation reduced to the poor comedy of a bad court jesters’ double act. At that moment however, the man let out a burbling scream and clutched with quivering fingers at the crossbow bolt that sprouted from his throat. Falling with a crash upon his face, his fingers clawed briefly at the snow and he lay still.

Gervaise retched on an already dry and straining stomach and looked up miserably. Strugge, Fletcher and his two sons were pelting towards him, their feet throwing up a spray of slush as they slid to a halt and unceremoniously lugged him to his feet. The elder of the two Fletcher boys shot Strugge a crooked grin as he proudly shouldered his crossbow. ‘Three pence you owe me then!’ he smiled, before shaking his head at the shivering and bewildered Gervaise. ‘Don’t thank me then you ungrateful bastard…’ Gervaise meanwhile stared from the crossbow to the twisted corpse and back again whilst his no less twisted tongue fought to frame a reply. Brusquely Strugge chivvied them into action. ‘Christ on a cross! If we stand around exchanging courtesies like some of those court ponces we’re worm fodder!’ At a shambling run he half carried, half dragged Gervaise back up the slope to where their battle line was hastily reforming. Looking over his shoulder, Gervaise could see that, in their area of the field at least, the northerners had fallen back some fifty yards and were likewise engaged in dressing their lines. Wounded were being carried to the rear, whilst on either side, the dead already lay several bodies deep in places. As they gained the crest of the slope, bill points were lowered as they were recognised and the ranks opened to let them through. ‘Strugge?’ a gaunt-faced John Hampden was waiting for them behind the rearmost rank. His breastplate was splashed with gore and he appeared haggard with fatigue as he leaned on his sword. ‘Thought you and your crowd were finished – especially him’ (here he gestured with one gauntleted hand at the shivering Gervaise). ‘Form on the rear ray’, he continued, ‘you deserve a rest and God’s blood you look as if you need it!’

Strugge carried Gervaise back through the ranks, looking at him with considerable concern as he did so. Behind him, the ringing clash of steel on steel intensified as the Lancastrians immediately before them advanced again to rejoin the battle. Soon their confused cries blended into the overall roar from the rest of the battle line to their right. Close by lay a handful of badly wounded men, their blood staining the slush a garish crimson. Grimly Strugge looked around for somewhere, anywhere even remotely out of the wind but there was nothing save the piles of corpses. So be it then, the lad was totally done in, swaying on feet that were unsteady at the best of times. He had to get some rest, however briefly; otherwise he’d not survive the next attack. Quickly he outlined his plan to Fletcher and his sons and between them they carried Gervaise over to the nearest pile of bodies. As they drew near however, they saw that the Burgh standard flew close by. The three figures standing beneath it became aware of their presence and strode towards them, the tallest cautiously lifting the visor of his salet. ‘sh**!’ hissed Strugge, ‘it’s the boss…’

Thomas Burgh had been about to order the soldiers back into the battle line, until that is his eyes fastened on the small, slight figure they were supporting. With a rush of surprise and a pang that felt suspiciously like guilt he recognised the thin, pain-wracked face of young Daubeney. Try as he might, Thomas could think of none who would look more out of place here. Shivering helplessly in his soaked hose and jack, the boy seemed increasingly unable to stand without aid. Jesu, what had he been thinking of to allow one such as Gervaise on a campaign like this? The commissioners, fools that they were, need not have known. Turning, Burgh gestured abruptly to his page, which came running across with a large scrip bag. Opening it, the retinue commander brought out a large costrel, unfastened the stopper and brusquely ordered Strugge to bring Gervaise closer. The boy coughed and retched slightly as he swallowed the French brandy, but his eyes began to focus and his face lost a little of its terrible pallor. ‘There lad, that should put you back in the land of the living’, smiled Burgh, before offering the costrel to Strugge and Fletcher, who both took deeply appreciative swigs. Smiling wryly the retinue commander replaced the now much lighter costrel in its scrip and returned it to the page. Suddenly, impulsively, he gestured to Strugge to move closer.

The veteran soldier felt intensely uncomfortable. Not only was there the obvious difference in rank between himself and the commander, but to his astonishment Burgh seemed to be struggling to control a degree of embarrassment and, yes, concern. ‘The boy, Strugge, try and ensure he stays alive. You and Fletcher are more likely than many to survive this bloody mayhem…’ He broke off and stared at Gervaise with a peculiarly intent expression. By nature a plain and direct man, Strugge was less able than many in reading nuances of expression, yet even he was shocked at the air of concern and not a little guilt which Burgh was displaying. Deeply mystified, he was about to ask for clarification but stopped himself before the words could leave his mouth. He had no wish to provoke his commander and besides, he sensed that behind Burgh’s behaviour lay a story he was probably reluctant to tell. A host of suspicions gathered in Strugge’s mind and he gazed at Gervaise with new speculation before mentally cursing himself and shaking his mind free of such thoughts. Time enough to deal with such matters if and when the day was won by York – and if they all lived. Contenting himself with an ‘Aye, sir, all that a man can do we will’, he took a respectful step backward. With a brisk nod, Burgh appeared to recover his poise, lowered the visor of his salet and strode back towards his standard appearing as he did so to dismiss them all from his mind. ‘Bloody officers’, snorted Fletcher, with a protective hand on Gervaise’s shoulder, ‘they normally don’t deign to pass the time of day with the unwashed likes of us.’ ‘Possibly’, ventured a soft voice at his shoulder, ‘because their backsides are normally so much further off the ground than the rest of us?’ Both Strugge and Fletcher looked down at Gervaise, totally nonplussed, but no-one else was within earshot. ‘Christ on a cross lad’, laughed Strugge, ‘if French brandy fires your wit so much perhaps we should have let you had the whole costrel!’ ‘Yes’, smiled Fletcher, ‘and have you rout that whole northern rabble by yourself while we watch….’ Even Gervaise laughed in an attempt to hide his resurfacing terror as they steadfastly shouldered their weapons and prepared to return to the battle.

With a swift lunge Strugge locked his opponent’s bill to the ground and pulled hard. Dragged viciously off balance, the Lancastrian soldier fell forwards onto several waiting bill points. The curved hook of one bill seemed to rip half the man’s face away in a sheet of bright blood. He shrieked once, before Fletcher’s bill cut through the nape of the man’s neck to end his agony and still his cries. Fighting back nausea himself, Strugge stared grimly at the wall of bodies before him, already five feet high and growing by the minute. In the two hours since their return to the battle line, the fighting had been mercilessly relentless, with no quarter asked or given. The blood spattered heaps that lay in the pools of congealing gore bore ghastly witness to the savagery of the struggle. Most lay still, their blood-filled mouths open in a last terrible rictus – others still moved, with the horrifying slowness of crushed beetles. Gervaise leaned against Strugge, alternately sobbing and retching with fear. Thrice in the past hour the Lancastrians had sent armoured wedges against their portion of the line and the last assault had only been repulsed with the concerted aid of the Devereux retinue. Forming three diamond shaped schiltrons, they had allowed the Lancastrians to shatter themselves on the out-thrust bill points.

Most of the men around Strugge were glassy eyed with fatigue and though young and strong their breath came in great ragged gasps. As for Gervaise, he sprawled at Strugge’s feet, gasping like a newly landed fish and from the corner of his mouth a thin stream of bile still trickled. With one hand, Strugge unceremoniously yanked the boy to his feet. The stress of battle and an increasing sense of dread of what the future held made him rougher than he intended. The visor of Gervaise’s sallet banged hard against his nose as Strugge jerked him upright and he gave a shrill cry of pain. Pulling the boy to him, Strugge spoke low and urgently into one ear. ‘C’mon lad, you can’t give up now. Fall over in this and you’re done for..’ Nodding weakly, Gervaise held on to Strugge’s shoulder to steady himself. Smiling broadly in encouragement Strugge offered Gervaise a swig from his costrel and fought back his own fear. For he and Fletcher had seen what Gervaise, incoherent with weariness, could not. Each Lancastrian attack was forcing the Yorkist line little by little back down the slope towards Saxton. Even now, fresh contingents of blue jacketed troops could be seen massing to resume the assault and Strugge doubted if their own battle-weary wing could withstand the onset. For a moment the intensity of the fighting lessened. The piles of dead and dying had by this time grown so high that forward movement had become impossible for both armies. On both sides billhooks were utilised to hurriedly drag the corpses to one side so that the fighting could resume. Grimly Strugge watched the grisly process before turning to Fletcher and Gervaise. ‘Going to have to play the man, I’m afraid, lads, if we want to live. As soon as they can move those northern bastards will come in mob handed and then....’ All of a sudden he felt a gentle tug on the sleeve of his jack. Gervaise looked up at him and for a moment his blue eyes seemed so heart-breakingly childlike that Strugge was unable to speak.

‘T-they’re p-pushing us back a-aren’t they?’ he whispered. Both Strugge and Fletcher had their mouths open to give emphatic denials, but as they looked at Gervaise the words caught in their throats. sh**, thought Strugge, we could all be worms meat within the hour, the lad needs to know. Pitching his voice deliberately low, so that only Gervaise and Fletcher could hear, he told Gervaise to come closer. Putting his arm around his shoulder he drew the boy to his side. ‘Yes son’, he replied, they are. And because of that I want you to promise me to fall back to the rear rank when I tell you. No, no arguments, Gervaise. If it all goes to rat sh**, remember that there are some horses on the other side of the slope. Doesn’t matter a damn if you can’t ride, just get yourself across the saddle any old how and try to hold on. Slap or kick its rump to get it going, although by that time you may not need to…’ He tailed off frowning in concern, for Gervaise was quite openly weeping, thin shoulders heaving with body-racking sobs. ‘I-I’ve had s-so f-few friends’; he choked, ‘n-not going to leave you in the lurch n-now’. Strugge and Fletcher exchanged glances – Fletcher dropped to his knees so the boy’s face was more or less level with his and spoke in low, urgent tones. ‘I don’t think you f***ing get it, mate. If you stick around here much longer you’ve had it. The boss wants us to try to keep you alive and we will. So get a grip and save the heroics for the prats in full plate, after all it’s their f***ing quarrel more that it’s ours I reckon. Old Strugge there has been in situations like this before and he’ll tell you that you’ve got to survive for next time. You’ll have done your duty and there’ll be no shame in getting the hell out of it.’ Here he tailed off, for the tear and vomit stained face that stared into his own contained a terrible mixture of despair and hopeless resolution. ‘I-in s-some ways I-I’ve been waiting to d-die s-since I was a b-baby. I-c-could think of w-worse p-places and causes t-than now,’ Both Strugge and Fletcher were about to reply when the thin, high note of a distant trumpet filled the air. The line recoiled – men were pointing off to their left and shouting incoherently. Sergeants and under-captains shrieked orders to wheel the line to the left; John Hampden raged among them, kicking and dragging men into place. Strugge craned his neck to peer into the emptiness on their left flank and suddenly understood. ‘Jesus’, he whispered, ‘sweet merciful Jesus have pity on us all’. And turning to Gervaise a face blanched of all colour, ‘God have mercy on you lad – it looks like we’re all going home…’

The two hundred Lancastrian troops had been concealed in Castle Hill Wood since early that morning and it was a swift and cunning mind that drove their advance. Margaret of Anjou had anticipated this eventuality and ordered the Duke of Somerset to station men in ambush at a point where the Yorkist flank could be most effectively and shatteringly surprised. She’d picked the ambush commander personally; a veteran of the battle fought that February at St Albans he’d taken part in the audacious flank attack that had broken the red-liveried forces of the Earl of Warwick. In her council of war at the Abbey of St Michael in York two days previously, she’d urged that just such a stratagem be employed against the army of Edward of York. Scornfully brushing aside subordinate commanders’ concerns on the unethical and unchivalrous nature of this tactic, she and Somerset had dazzled them with visions of a sudden lightning swift stroke at an opportune moment that would break the morale of the Yorkists and turn grudging retreat into fully-fledged rout. Now it seemed as if these hopes were to be realised even beyond Queen Margaret’s wildest hopes.

Some fifty of the Lancastrian ambush party were prickers or ‘scourers’; mounted on small fast ‘hobby’ horses, they were normally used as scouts or as battle police to chase deserters with their eight foot lances. Swiftly outdistancing the remainder of the ambush party, they deliberately closed their ranks to give them a granite-like solidity before breaking into a full gallop less than one hundred metres from the Yorkist lines. Few men in the embattled Yorkist left wing had time to see their onset until it was too late. The thin screen of terrified billmen deployed to stop them was simply swept away and the Lancastrian horsemen ploughed into the undefended left hand sides of men who had had no chance to see them coming. Spurring forward, they soon carved two bloody streaks of dead and dying deep into the Yorkist forces. Billmen and men at arms followed hard on their heels, striking hard whenever and wherever they could see a gap to maintain the shock and surprise of the attack. The Yorkist left wing convulsed. Weary from four hours of fighting in the freezing wind and snow their morale, already brittle, began to give way. Seeing them give ground, the Lancastrians to their front gained new heart and returned to the assault with fresh vigour. With a grim smile the Duke of Somerset slammed one steel gauntleted fist into an open palm and ordered a general advance along his whole wing. Soon the luckless Yorkists found themselves assailed on three sides and fighting for their

lives. Well versed in the arts of war, Somerset knew that if this pressure could only be maintained, then a shattering victory was within his grasp. Lancastrian soldiers were already working around the Yorkist flank and into their rear. If enough followed suit then the entire Yorkist line could be rolled up and victory for Lancaster was certain. Time then to provide an example for others to emulate. Beckoning to his banner-barer and the knights of his household, he closed the visor of his sallet, hefted his poleaxe and led them towards the thickest of the fray.

No stranger to war himself, Strugge was better prepared than most for the frenzied fighting that now ensued. At Formigny eleven years ago the French cavalry had attacked in just the same sort of hell for leather fashion, raking their spurs into the flanks of their mounts so that they reared and struck out with bone crushing impact at the necks and faces of the English archers. The man who led the Lancastrian ‘prickers’ today was good – damn good. Many of them struck not to kill but to wound and then trampled the fleeing wretches who vainly tried to staunch the blood that gushed from hideously gashed necks, arms and faces. As they rode among their victims, the wickedly spiked lance points jabbed at their unprotected backs to keep the panic bubbling. Yelling at Fletcher to get moving, Strugge simply picked up the terrified Gervaise and hurled him bodily into the brawny arms of the waiting miller. Leaving Gervaise’s bill where it had fallen, all three began a desperate shambling retreat down the slushy, churned up slope together with the remainder of the Burgh retinue. Looking ahead, Strugge permitted himself a small measure of relief. Their own line was speedily reforming, a triple row of billmen and men at arms under the frantic guidance of John Hampden and Thomas Burgh. Swords splashed with gore to the hilt, they bodily shoved the waverers into position and looked to be holding them there through sheer force of personality. To their immediate right, three hedgehogs of billpoints splashed with red and white marked the Devereaux retinue standing in support. Jesu be praised thought Strugge, we may just do this and God willing without bill-scratched arses. At that point however, he risked a look over his shoulder and realised that the jaws of the trap were closing and that unless he and the few with him could gain their own lines, scant minutes of life remained for them all.

As the ambush party pushed forward from the left, so the blue and white liveried retainers of the Duke of Somerset drove in from the front and right. Summoning up all his strength, Strugge broke into a tottering run, the breath burning in his chest. Ahead of him, John Hampden was waving frantically and yelling encouragement, before finally reaching out and hauling a shattered Strugge bodily through a gap in the bill line. Slumping to his knees Strugge retched heavily. He felt as weak as a kitten and, for the first time in many years seriously afraid. Lost in morbid introspection, he was extremely surprised when John Hampden pulled him to his feet. Hampden’s face was a mask of blood – a sword slash had caught him just above his left eye and the blood was only just beginning to congeal. ‘Thank Jesu you made it Strugge – we’ll need men like you to hold the younger lads before today’s out…’ He paused, seemingly embarrassed by the raw emotion in his words and Strugge took advantage of the moment to blurt out. ‘What about the first line, how many of them got through?’ Hampden shook his head and gestured towards a small knot of men slumped on the ground in attitudes of total exhaustion. ‘I reckon no more than five or six unwounded, including Fletcher and the kid…’ It was now Hampden’s turn to break off, surprised by the sheer relief in Strugge’s face as he shambled over to the smallest and frailest of the group, scooped him up into his arms and hugged him as a father does a long lost son. Shaking his head in bewilderment, Hampden turned back towards the battle line and froze in horror as the terrible implications of their situation hit home for the first time.

Grinning savagely, the Duke of Somerset cautiously raised the visor of his sallet and leaned for a moment on his poleaxe. Instantly his household men and senior retainers formed a steel fence around him, so that he could consult with his battle captains. ‘One last push gentlemen and we have them. Once over the crest of that ridge they’ll be on the downward slope and no men in such a situation can withstand our numbers!’ Their eager nods showed their understanding and enthusiasm to make an end of the matter. By nightfall, York’s head would join those of his father and brother on Micklegate Bar. Placing himself in the foremost rank, Somerset signalled for all banners to be advanced.

Gervaise’s back shrieked with pain – the usual nagging discomfort from his perpetually cramped muscles had become a continuous flaring agony that left him whimpering quietly. Furthermore, for all his earlier words of bravado he was beset with a terror that was beginning to unman him – and he was even more terrified that Strugge would realise it. Strugge, Gervaise and Fletcher had taken their places

in the rear rank and thus all three failed to understand their onrushing peril until it was too late. Three wedges of heavily armoured men in Beaufort white and blue crashed into the front of the Burgh and Devereaux retinues, whilst the remainder of the ambush party assailed the Yorkist flank. Suddenly the entire world seemed full of men in blue and white livery, hacking, stabbing and beating their opponents to blood stained shrieking ruin. Slipping and sliding on the churned up slushy ground, it soon impossible to maintain a coherent line and the Lancastrians closed in for the kill. Withdrawal became open retreat and finally a rout as the first men began to break and run back down the slope towards Saxton, casting away their weapons as they fled. In the trampling crush of bodies a helpless Gervaise was swept away from his friends like a leaf on floodwater. Eventually, the press of fleeing men buffeted him to his knees and he lay grovelling on the snow at the feet of the advancing Lancastrians, expecting nothing but death.

Thus it was that his trembling fingers closed on the hilt of a discarded falchion as a squat, shaven headed Lancastrian appeared above him. With a contemptuous sneer the main raised his poleaxe to spike the snivelling boy to the earth. Time ran like honey in winter for Gervaise. He could hear a hideous animal keening and noted almost dispassionately that it was coming from himself. Still lying on his back he desperately swung the falchion point upwards – just as the Lancastrian’s right foot slipped outwards on the slush and he overbalanced and fell - directly on top of Gervaise. The tip of the falchion transfixed his throat as he plunged downwards, crushing the hapless Gervaise beneath him and drenching the boy’s face in the blood that gouted crimson from the wound. Pinned under his spasming body, Gervaise could do nothing but shriek as a mixture of blood and vomit gushed from the mouth inches from his own. The rictus of death spread slowly across the man’s face and his bowels loosened suddenly and horribly. Writhing helplessly Gervaise wondered if Andrew had looked like this as his broken body sprawled like a discarded doll on the cobbles. Jesu, why didn’t the eyes close? Fixed, intent and laden with the horror of death they held him as immovable as the crushing weight of rank flesh that pressed him into the slushy ground. Overwrought by the horror of his position he lapsed into merciful unconsciousness.

Somerset grinned wolfishly as he watched the Yorkist left wing give ground. Although their initial retreat was grudging and each step paid for in Lancastrian blood, it soon began to speed up. Bill points wavered as those in the front ranks realised that men behind them were beginning to slip away. Courage wilted further and small groups of terrified and wounded men began to break and run. What had begun as a gradual withdrawal was already a retreat and looking dangerously like deteriorating into utter rout. Already small groups of Yorkists were breaking in full flight for the Castleford road, casting away weapon and helmet as they ran. Looking over his shoulder, Somerset was about to rally his household men for one last effort that would tip the Yorkist left wing over the edge of the reverse slope and send them tumbling in bloody ruin down the slope towards Saxton. Yet even as he did so the smile faded from his face. The young man at arms forcing himself towards him through the press bore the silver crescent of the Percys on his black and red tabard. The stricken intentness of his face became obvious to Somerset’s battle captains and they opened their ranks to let him through. Henry Beaufort looked down at the youth as he half skidded to a halt before him. The left side of his face was discoloured by a livid bruise, great splotches of purplish black around one eye that had almost swollen shut. As if suddenly conscious of whom he stood before, the youth attempted to bow, but his knees buckled and he collapsed with a barely-muffled curse. Instinctively grabbing his shoulder to steady him, Somerset was rewarded by a moan of pain and the sight of blood seeping from beneath his gauntlet. Evidently in the last stages of exhaustion, the messenger could do nothing but point vaguely westwards along the Lancastrian line of battle. Following his weakly gesturing finger, Somerset cursed voluably. Where the Lancastrian right had pushed the Yorkist left back down the slope towards Saxton, something very near the reverse had happened on the opposite side of the field. If anything, it seemed to be the Yorkists who had gained ground. Intuitively, Somerset realised that Northumberland’s wing had been fought to a standstill and seemed distinctly unwilling to press home their numerical advantage. Angrily scanning the distant ranks, Somerset slowly became aware that the one banner he sought was noticeable by its absence. Looking down, he realised that the stark misery on the boy’s face told one simple truth – Henry Percy was dead.

Somerset considered for a moment. He’d had little regard for the proud and touchy man who’d borne the silver crescent cognisance and in that respect, Northumberland’s demise brought little grief. However, much of the Lancastrian left wing was now without direction and Somerset knew well that

leaderless and panicked troops simply couldn’t be trusted to stand. While many of the corpses that sprawled in contorted agony behind him wore Yorkist livery, many more wore Lancastrian colours and not a few of them the Beaufort blue and white. Grimly he realised that this would be the crisis of the battle. Both sides were nearly fought out, stumbling and hollow eyed with cold and fatigue. Whoever broke first here would lose the battle and Somerset fully intended that that fate should fall to York. Hence he led his men into the thickest of the crumbling Yorkist line, hacking down with savage sweeps of his poll axe all who dared stand against him. Dimly Somerset realised that several of his battle captains were yelling to him and gesturing frantically forward. Yorkist resistance seemed to be stiffening and their previously depleted ranks assuming a granite-like solidity. Someone or something had brought their retreat to an abrupt halt. As Somerset followed their gaze he saw that two new standards now fluttered above the Yorkist line directly facing him. As the wind caused them to stream out Somerset cursed and for the first time that day felt a wave of fear. York had come to deal with the situation himself.

Sir William Hastings sank to one knee and vomited copiously into the slush at his feet. At length, when his stomach produced no more than dry retches, he looked up at the six foot giant towering over him and smiled ruefully. ‘Just a little greensick Ned’, he muttered, with a wan attempt at a smile. Levering himself to his feet , Hastings wondered yet again how much longer he would remain alive. Ned’s dogged insistence on throwing himself into the thickest of the fighting had staunched the haemorrhage of men on their left flank but at terrible personal cost. At the last count, ten squires and at least forty men at arms had died fighting alongside the King – the partially disembowelled body of the last still twitched spasmodically close by. A gauntleted hand closed around Hasting’s arm and dragged him to his feet. Looking up, he saw that Ned had raised the visor of his armet and was regarding him carefully. Although the bevor plate hid most of the King’s face, Hastings was able to see the deep lines of fatigue around the bloodshot eyes. So, he thought wryly, you’re mortal like the rest of us Ned – despite your determination to prove the opposite…. Hastings suddenly became aware that Ned was talking to him in a low and urgent voice. ‘The men must hold Will, you understand me? If we’re pushed back any further they’ll break and no-one on God’s earth will be able to hold them.’ Gesturing abruptly to one of his squires for water he raised the proffered costrel to the lip of his bevor and poured the water down into his opened mouth. After a few deep gulps he rinsed his mouth and spat before passing the water to an equally thirsty Hastings.

‘You know what this reminds me of Will?’, he asked with a sudden intensity. ‘I remember one summer’s evening at Ludlow I persuaded Edmund to slink off into the village with me to watch a dog fight – I was about twelve so he would have been around eleven. Turned out to be quite a spectacle, Will, for that fight lasted nigh on an hour until both beasts streamed with blood. Neither would give an inch though. It was as if each knew that the first to give ground, the first to run would have its throat ripped out…’ He tailed off and regarded Hastings intently, eyes coldly determined and all trace of introspection banished. ‘As God is my witness today I mean to tear the throat from the Lancastrian beast once and for all – or perish in the attempting of it!’ Raising his voice for the benefit of those close at hand he continued, ‘My Lord of Norfolk marches to our aid. When his power joins with ours we will be unstoppable!’ Laughter and cheers greeted this, but to Hastings’ ears it sounded painfully forced. Ned’s battle captains had the gaunt, haggard look of men caught in a nightmare from which they had long since expected to have awoken. As for the men – well, to Hasting’s mind the entire army seemed increasingly like an ale soused trencher of stale bread – outwardly solid but ready to collapse in ruin if pressed too hard. Looking up at the sky he could see the clouds beginning to part, revealing shreds of a sky dimming towards late afternoon. Good Lord, he prayed silently, send us night or send us Norfolk…

John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk flopped back in his litter wracked by yet another spasm of agonising coughing. He caught the sidelong glances of his senior captains and swore volubly. ‘God rot the lot of you, if I’m to die gentlemen, it’ll not be here – not yet at least.’ Gesturing weakly with his right hand he beckoned them closer and abruptly signalled for the litter to stop. ‘The King’s Grace is somewhere up there’, he continued, jabbing one finger up the Ferrybridge road. ‘In fact’, he remarked, ‘he may already have met the French bitch’s army, so while we have breath in our bodies we damn well push on…’ Stopping abruptly he ordered his horse to be brought up and swung both legs out of the litter. As the men closest to him exchanged glances, the irascible old man forestalled any comments with a glance colder than the March wind. A squire quickly fastened the strap of his sallet and helped the
Duke to mount. Tightening his grip on the reins, the Duke urged the horse forward and gestured to the circle of watching men before rapping out a series of orders. ‘Those with horses had better damn well push on. If we’re as near as I think we are then it’ll not be long before you hear the fighting. Cadwell, you take them. Once you get up there you won’t need me around to tell you what to do, eh?’ The short, squat man in the velvet covered brigandine nodded grimly before bowing low in front of the Duke. Norfolk cut any comments short with a brusque wave of a gauntleted hand. ‘Get forward, damn you, man, we’re not at court now. I’ll bring up the rest as quickly as we may.’ With a wry grin the battle captain thus addressed swung himself onto his horse and cantered off, already yelling orders to subordinates. Norfolk smiled inwardly. Miles Cadwell was a veteran of Talbot’s Normandy campaign and therefore no stranger to swift, decisive action with a doubtful outcome. If anyone could be relied upon to bring the news of Norfolk’s approach as speedily as possible, it was he. For a moment he felt a prickling of regret. By rights it should be him leading the way to the heart of the Lancastrian army, not one of his senior retainers – however well qualified. Still, he mused, the years had been less kind than they might have been and now there was this wretched, continual hacking cough that left him perpetually weak and breathless. Norfolk could guess well enough what that boded, even without the increasingly anxious ministrations of his physician. Time then to begin work on that chantry chapel… Abruptly he shook his head to clear it of such morbid introspection. Action would burn through such thoughts, it always did. As the last of Cadwell’s ‘afore-riders’ cantered away up the road their place was taken by long columns of red-jacketed billmen and archers, each man with the Norfolk white lion badge on his tabard or livery coat. Mounted men at arms, many of them the Duke’s personal feofees rode alongside the contingents of levies and household men from their own and the Duke’s many estates. Though soaked with melting snow they still cheered the old lord hoarse as they marched past him while he sat his horse, grimly thoughtful under the white lion banner.

Thomas Burgh blocked the downward sweep of the pollaxe with the shaft of his own and pulled sharply. Caught completely off balance, his adversary cannoned into him and both men went down in a tangle of flailing limbs. Burgh was suddenly terrified to find himself pinned beneath a heavier and evidently fresher opponent who promptly drew a wickedly spiked rondel dagger and stabbed down wards at the gap between salet and bevor. Terror gave the Lincolnshire squire the strength to grab the hilt but insufficient to fully halt its downward momentum. With the tip a hairs breadth from his face and death seemingly inevitable, Burgh played one last desperate trick. Wrenching his head sharply to the left, he simultaneously loosed his grip on the dagger hilt. With a curse his antagonist toppled forwards and the tip of his weapon glanced off Burgh’s helmet to plunge into earth. Desperately Burgh rolled to one side, gauntleted hands clutching desperately for his own dagger. A gurgling shriek
"I hold it to be of great prudence for men to abstain from threats and
insulting words towards any one, for neither the one nor the other in any
way diminishes the strength of the enemy." Niccolo Machiavelli

Marcus Woodhouse
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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

When are you going to write some more?


Post by Guest »

ahh, write some more!! its brilliant!! you manage to keep the tension going so brilliantly, i was literally shrieking with excitement and my heart was going double time in some bits!!

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Post by lidimy »

sorry, that was me who wrote that 'guest' comment, my computer randomly logged me out....

oh well, its a chance for me to re-iterate how wonderful it was :D
'As long as you have a coif on, you're decent.' Image

Marcus Woodhouse
Absolute Wizard
Posts: 3337
Joined: Sat Feb 18, 2006 8:35 pm

Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

Of course I am willing to let it slip that William Hastings was not Knighted until after Towton and that he was quite a soldier by then. (Just don't let Mike Bass read it okay?)

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