Many moons ago, when I first began this website, Tony was the first one to contact me with a submission. I was overjoyed because I had always wanted to read his books! Well. Fast forward to this week, where I get to share not one submission, BUT TWO! If you haven’t read the first in the trilogy, CLICK HERE. I can assure you that both Owen, and Jasper live up to any hype you’ve heard. I’ve read both.
He held his breath and shivered as he strained to listen. Sound travelled well in the frosty woodland. The rustle of a blackbird foraging for worms in fallen leaves and the sudden, wooden creak of an old branch, bending in the cold air. He heard the noise again, the heavy scrape of hooves on the stony track, coming his way, hunting him. Too tired to run, he would not be taken prisoner by the men of Edward of York.
Jasper remembered his father’s warning. Their proud Welsh army marched over a hundred miles from Pembroke, stopping only at night and starting again each day at dawn, when his outrider returned with grave news. They had sighted York’s army camped near Mortimer’s Cross, on the old Roman road near the crossing of the River Lugg, directly in their path.
‘We should avoid them, head north under cover of darkness,’ his father suggested, his voice kept low so the men wouldn’t overhear. He had looked his age from their long, cold march across Wales. Too old to fight, his father insisted on riding with them. ‘I owe my life to King Henry,’ he argued, ‘and I owe it to your mother to support him now.’
Jasper recalled his terse reply. ‘It’s too late.’ He saw the pleading in his father’s eyes and softened his tone. ‘They know we are here, Father. I will try to negotiate terms if we are given the chance, but we must be ready to fight.’ In truth he doubted York would be in any mood for talking, since his own father, Richard, Duke of York, was beheaded by over-zealous Lancastrians the previous December.
Then came the news that Sir Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and York’s right-hand man, had captured King Henry, Jasper’s half-brother. He had thought York’s soldiers were no match for the men of Wales and the battle-hardened mercenaries who rode with them, but he could not have been more wrong. Their enemy outnumbered them more than two to one and proved to be experienced and well-prepared fighting men.
The salvo of arrows descended without warning in a black cloud of death. One struck deep into the neck of Jasper’s horse, which reared with a demented whinny of pain, throwing him from his saddle. He barely managed to scramble to his feet and draw his sword before York’s men-at-arms charged, hacking with axes, maces and swords, slashing and killing without mercy.
‘Hold firm, men! Stand your ground!’ Jasper yelled out as he fought. For a moment he sensed their attackers wavering as men at the front fell dead and wounded. Then the mounted mercenaries behind him turned and galloped away. One after the other, Welshmen threw down their weapons and ran for the safety of the trees, pursued by merciless York soldiers. Their enemy took no prisoners and cut the fleeing men down, flinging their bodies into the slow-flowing, red-running River Lugg.
A knight in gleaming armour, a head taller than those around him, fought with such ferocity he cut a swathe through the Welsh line. Jasper recognised Edward, Earl of March. The new Duke of York could have stayed on his horse and watched the battle from a safe distance. Instead, he had been determined to avenge the death of his father and chose his ground well, driving the Welshmen back towards the river.
Jasper experienced the brutal, savage terror of hand-to-hand fighting when he stormed the castle at Denbigh the year before. Then he had been the attacker, with surprise on his side. Now his own men died around him in the ferocious onslaught by York’s trained killers. He drew on every ounce of strength and years of practice as he battled for his life.
Tiring, he parried a scything swipe from a sword and sank to his knees, struck over the head with a murderous blow from a poleaxe. His helmet saved him, but blood flowed into his eyes. Dazed, he staggered to his feet and thrust his sword into the body of one of his attackers. The treasured weapon wrenched from his grip as the man fell writhing in agony.
Jasper cursed with shame at the memory of what he did next. Heads turned at the sound of thundering hooves as York’s cavalry, hidden until now, charged around the left flank to surround the Welsh army. He had seen his chance to escape and taken it. He ran like a scared rabbit, sprinting until his lungs strained as if they would burst, abandoning his men and his father to their fate.
Now he must pay the price. His hand fell by habit to his empty scabbard, then to the handle of his dagger, a gift from his father, the cold comfort of the sharp blade now all he carried to protect himself. His helmet and armour lay abandoned in thick undergrowth, together with the bright red, blue and gold quartered royal surcoat he had worn so proudly on their ride through Wales.
Peering from his hiding place Jasper saw the first of the riders and wished for better cover. The man hunched in his saddle, tracking him as he would a wild boar. The horse lowered its head to graze the sparse grasses lining the path, yet the rider made no effort to urge his mount onwards. As Jasper watched, the man slid heavily to the ground, his curse as he hit the hard earth echoing in the silence of the forest.
Like him, the rider had probably fled the battle. He looked badly wounded, but at least he owned a horse. After waiting a moment to be certain they were alone, Jasper cautiously stepped from behind the trees and grabbed the horse’s bridle. He saw the man’s dark eyes flick from the drying blood on his face to the empty scabbard at his belt, making a judgement but with no sign of recognition.
‘Are you for Lancaster or York?’ Jasper’s grip on his dagger tightened. If he must kill or be killed, he would end the man’s life, as he needed the horse.
‘I rode with the Earl of Wiltshire.’ The man coughed blood.
Jasper knelt closer and studied the wounded man’s face. His Irish accent meant he could be one of Wiltshire’s mercenaries, paid to strengthen the Welsh army. He guessed the man to be about thirty, his own age. Well built, with the rugged, tanned look of someone who spent his life on the road, a leather cord tied his long dark hair.
Jasper saw the broken stub of the shaft protruding from the blood-soaked cloth of the man’s shirt. The arrow had struck deep into his unprotected shoulder, close to the collar bone. There was nothing he could do for him, so he took the dying man’s sword. The handle shone from regular use, and the weight of the blade felt well-balanced in his hand.
‘I’ll be needing my sword.’ The man’s voice rasped and he took breaths in gasps.
‘I’m sorry, but my need is greater.’ Jasper wondered if they could both ride the horse then dismissed the idea. ‘Can you still ride?’
The man gave a weak smile. ‘If you’ll help me get a foot in a stirrup?’
He grimaced with pain and swore as Jasper hefted him astride the horse. ‘I’ll take you to Llanthony Priory, where the monks will tend to your wound.’ Jasper peered down the forest track. ‘York’s men will probably expect us to head for Brecon.’
The man tried to sit upright in the saddle and nodded in agreement. ‘I need to lay low for a while.’ He gritted his teeth in pain but clung to life with grim determination. Jasper felt a duty to do what he could for him and handed him the reins.
‘What name do you go by?’
‘Gabriel, after the archangel.’ He managed a wry grin. ‘I’ve been a disappointment to my poor late mother, God rest her.’
Jasper decided not to introduce himself. The Irishman hadn’t recognised him, and the fewer people who knew his true identity the better. He needed to return to the safety of Pembroke Castle and rebuild his army, yet felt responsible for the dying man.
They set off with Jasper leading at a brisk pace. His throat felt as dry as parchment and his lungs ached from the freezing air, but they must reach the sanctuary of the priory before night fell. His head ached with dull pain from the poleaxe blow and he sensed again the deep, cold shock of shame as he thought how he had failed his men.
If he had listened to his father’s counsel they would be riding to join Queen Margaret’s army. Instead, he led his loyal followers into York’s trap and hundreds, perhaps thousands, died as a consequence of his actions. Worse still, he left his father in command of the left flank, charged by the cavalry. Jasper said a silent prayer for his father, although even the vengeful Edward of York would spare the life of the king’s stepfather.
‘How much further?’
Jolted from his reverie by the question, Jasper slowed his pace to answer. ‘The priory is in the Vale of Ewyas, this side of the Black Mountains,’ he glanced up at Gabriel, ‘some ten, perhaps fifteen miles from here.’ He saw the Irishman nod in understanding. His spirit seemed to be ebbing like the tide and his life now depended on the healing skills of the monks, if he lived long enough to make the journey.
Come back next week when you can read an extract from Tonys book, Henry!