PART ONE: REBELS

1

13th April 1464 before dawn, outside Bamburgh Castle
in Northumberland

Why was he awake? He had neither a warm bed nor wife beside him so at the very least he needed rest. What Ned did not need was to be woken from his precious, fragile sleep before he was good and ready. He half-opened one eye; it was still dark. He lay still and listened but all he could hear was the east wind rattling the roof timbers again. Now he would never get back to sleep.
     Something sharp came to rest against his neck and he lifted his hand to give it a rub.
     “Lie still or my blade might slip.” The gravel voice was thick with a Border accent.
     Now Ned was fully awake. “Who are you?” he demanded.
     The knife pressed against his throat and the voice growled again. “Never mind who I am. Are you Ned Elder?”
     Ned said nothing, his body tensed. If he was given even the smallest chance, he would take it.
     The knife pressed harder. “Ned Elder or no?”
     “What if I am? Are you going to kill me?” He winced as the blade nicked his skin.
     “Might do, if you carry on blathering…”
     “I’ve a hundred men outside in the dunes,” said Ned, wondering how his assailant had got past them.
     “You’ve got one youth outside – and he’s fast asleep.”
    “But one shout from me and a dozen men at arms will be in here.”
     “Aye… if you can shout with my blade in your gullet.”
    “So be it! I’m Lord Elder - Ned Elder - it’s hardly a secret! So if you’re going to do it, get on with it!”
     He held his breath but the pressure of the blade against his neck eased and then the weapon was abruptly pulled away. He raised himself up cautiously onto his elbows but it was too dark to see more than his visitor’s outline.
     “How did you get in here?” he asked.
     The stranger squatted on the floor opposite him. “I could’ve got a score of men in,” he said.
     Ned sat up, making a mental note to do something about that later.
     “Well, since you’re not here to kill me, what do you want?”
     “I’m Rob Hall and my family hold some sway here in the borders.”
     “I’ve never heard of the Halls.”
     “Well, my grandfather was a bastard of the Hall family - but a Hall nonetheless!”
     “Good, I’m overjoyed, but I’ve never heard of you, him or any other Halls - nor do I want to! Now, since you’ve bothered to wake me up, you must want something - what is it?”
     Ned was still irked at how easily the man had found his way past his supposedly alert sentries not to mention his own personal servant and bodyguard, Hal.
     “I’ve brought a message for you from Crag Tower.”
     “Never heard of Crag Tower either,” said Ned, “but you’ve a damned strange way of delivering a message.”
     “It had to be done … privily.”
     “This is about as privy as it gets around here.”
     Their voices had risen above a whisper and the sound must have eventually woken Hal for Ned could hear him scrabbling around in the darkness outside, no doubt searching for his tinder box.
     Ned shrugged. “Where is it then - this message?”
     “It’s not written down.”
     “Why not?”
     “I never write anything down!”
     “Why not?”
     “Why d’you think?”
     Ned gave a weary sigh. It was going to be a long, slow morning and it wasn’t even dawn yet. He shouldn’t be surprised - of course the fellow couldn’t write but he had rather assumed his master could.
     A torch flared outside and threw its wavering light on Hal as he poked his head through the decayed timbers of the doorway. The young lad started when he saw the stranger and threw a nervous look at Ned. “My lord?”
     “Yes Hal, thank you for your concern. As you can see, I’m still alive! Now you can piss off again - oh, but leave us a torch.”
     “They’re damp,” muttered Hal as he lit another torch from the first and then shuffled out awkwardly.
     Damp? Everything here’s damp, thought Ned, as he got his first look at his visitor who now leant casually against the wall. He was probably about his own age though with more hair which had a reddish brown hue in the amber glow of the torchlight. He looked as if he had slept in a ditch but probably no more so than most of his own men.
     “I’d be careful leaning against that wall if I were you,” he warned.
     The ‘house’ he had commandeered for his base during the siege was the ideal choice because it happened to be the only building left standing in the dunes; but it was only barely standing. The dripping roof timbers were rotten from constant exposure to the cold, wet winds of the north east. A few more months would finish the place off.
     Ned pulled up the only two stools in the room and ushered the other man to sit down.
     “Well then,” he said, “the message?”
     The stranger appraised Ned silently for a few moments. When he did gabble a response Ned turned away in despair.
     “For God’s sake, slow down! Your speech is hard to follow.” He could do without this at the start of his day.
     Rob glared at him and then spoke with exaggerated slowness. “Not… where… I… come… from.”
     “Tell me what news you have that’s important enough to wake me before the sun - and at knife point.”
     Rob took a deep breath and spoke slowly: “I’ve ridden from the east march -”
     “We’re in the east march,” interrupted Ned.
     Rob shook his head. “Will you listen? I’ve come from the borderlands to the southwest of here and my message comes from Lady Maighread Elder.”
     Ned began to pay the messenger a little more attention. “I’m guessing the Lady Maighread claims to be related to me in some way?”
     The border man nodded, “Aye, she’s your cousin… no, well, I think she’s your aunt…but by marriage.”
     Ned didn’t know he had an aunt and the suggestion that he did raised a host of questions but he let them lie. “You don’t seem too sure. Very well, what’s the message, then?”
     “I’ve had to learn it.” Rob grinned and launched into a rehearsed speech. “My dear Lord Edward, if you’re hearing this then the bearer will have taken many risks to get it to you – please reward his bravery.”
     Ned groaned aloud. “Spare me the begging and get to the meat of it!”
     With another sly grin, Rob continued: “You won’t know me: I am Maighread, widow to your father’s older brother, Will. I doubt you even know your grandfather, Sir Thomas, but when I learned you were in the north, it was too good a chance to spurn.”
     Hearing the words of the message recited by the gruff young man, Ned found it almost impossible to call up an image of the woman who had sent it.
     “Stop,” he said, “I’m already lost. It’s too early in the day for riddles.”
     Rob’s cheerful expression changed once more to a resentful glare and Ned relented.
     “Come - start again.”
     Rob sighed and began his speech all over again. Ned listened more carefully this time but soon interrupted once more.
     “Sir Thomas Elder, you say? Are you remembering this or just making it up?”
     Rob looked aggrieved. “I’ve no cause to make anything up! It’s what she told me to tell you! Well, it’s much as she said it ... Do you want me to carry on or not?”
     “Yes, yes, in God’s name, go on. Let’s get it over with!”
     “You’ve cut me off now; I’ll need to collect myself again.”
     Ned reached for his cloak and threw it round his shoulders whilst he waited for Rob to continue his version of Maighread’s message.
     “Two years ago Sir Thomas took Henry into our household at Crag Tower. Henry’s a young man full of malice but Sir Thomas can see no ill in him. I don’t trust Henry and I fear for Sir Thomas … for us all. Your grandfather’s a good man; he needs your help. I beg you to come.”
     Rob came to an abrupt halt.
     “Is that it, or have you forgotten the rest?” asked Ned.
     “Isn’t that enough, then? I had to remember all that!”
     Ned studied Rob’s face: the young man looked weary now. Ned guessed that taking messages of any kind was not his strength.
     “Hal!” he shouted, though he could have whispered and Hal would have heard for he must have been close by the door. He hurried in. “My lord?”
     “Find this man some bread and ale… and some cheese - if there’s some that still looks like cheese. He’s done good service to his mistress.”
     “She’s not my mistress,” said Rob gruffly, “she’s my sister!”
     “Indeed?” said Ned, unable to hide his surprise. Well, it explained why she would trust him with such a personal plea.
     “Well Rob Hall, I’m not sure what your sister wants of me,” he said. “You say she has fears – but surely, nothing has actually happened.”
     “Not yet, but you’re here now – close by. Henry’s a worthless shit. She wants you to stop something happening! You’ll be no help once men have died.”
     Ned was silent for a moment. “Your sister’s right about one thing: I know nothing of a grandfather.  My father never spoke a word about his family – we assumed they were all dead - and you’ve told me nothing yet to persuade me different.”
     “Did you never ask your father? Did you never want to know?” asked Rob.
     Ned tried to imagine asking his father such a question - he couldn’t. You didn’t ask Sir John Elder many questions and now he was no longer there to be asked.
     “Where is this Crag Tower?” asked Ned.
     “It’s in the north Tyne valley - some way south of here.”
     “Mmm, sounds too far,” murmured Ned, “and why all the damned secrecy?”
     Rob looked uncomfortable. “Like to keep things close, you know.”
     Ned nodded but he was unconvinced. It was too early in the day and he needed to clear his head.
     “Close, eh? Is there something else I should know?” he asked. “Wait, how did she know I was even here?”
     Rob shook his head. “I’ve just told you what Maighread told me to tell you.”
     “Well it’s not enough - not near enough to make me leave here. I’ve a siege to keep an eye on.”
     Rob pulled a face. “You’d better keep a damned close eye then.”
     Ned glanced up sharply. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     “Just what I said … but I’m sure you’re already keeping a close eye without me telling you.”
     Hal walked in with a small wooden platter of food and handed it to Rob.
     Ned stared at his visitor for a moment and then stood up. “I need some air - or what passes for air in these dunes,” he said. “Make sure you’re still here when I come back.”
     He wrapped his cloak more tightly around him and walked out of the house. His legs were still cold and stiff as he set off onto the dunes to see the first light of dawn creep across the northern shore. It usually gave him fresh hope but not this morning.
     He looked out to sea where the Farne islands were black specks against the dawn light. Then he turned his gaze north across the dunes towards Bamburgh Castle. It was a brute; there was not a chance they could storm those walls - not without cannon. His esteemed commander, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, must have reached the same conclusion for he taken the main army north to the border. That had been a week ago and he’d not seen Warwick since. There had been rumours of a Scottish invasion – but then there were always such rumours and Ned had learned to ignore them. He was still at Bamburgh because Warwick had left him there.
    “Go to Northumberland, Ned,” King Edward had told him in February, “hunt down these last few dogs of the House of Lancaster for me: Somerset, Ralph Percy. Root them all out.”
     So he had abandoned his young wife Amelie as she awaited the birth of their first child. He had ridden north with most of his retained men, leaving her, his castle and estates in Yorkshire in the care of a handful of young boys, women and old men.
     It was spring in Northumberland but it did not feel much like it for the cold winds and incessant rain had made their lives utterly miserable. His camp was wedged between the sea and the rough track south. To the west, beyond the track, there was a narrow band of trees and more beyond the village to the north. He had started with close to four score fighting men at arms and archers and now they were scattered around him in the pockets of long grass between the sand bars. Clinging doggedly to each of them were the whores and other wretched hangers on that his company had somehow acquired. The result was a sprawling, disease-ridden camp where in a few weeks his disciplined fighting force had been reduced to an unruly band of mud-caked, pus-dripping, shit-squirting cripples.
     Yet for all the unrelieved misery of his situation, he knew he could not leave Bamburgh. Even if he accepted that Maighread Elder’s call for aid was genuine and that he did have a grandfather still alive, he dared not abandon his post. To provoke the most powerful man in the land would be foolhardy in the extreme. The Earl already detested him, which is why he had left Ned squatting outside Bamburgh to rot to death among the dunes. For Ned’s part the loathing was mutual and he could not forgive all that Warwick had done. But besides all that, he already had a family: a wife, two sisters and their young sons and when he left Bamburgh it would be to them that he would go first, not some distant, prospective relative.
     He would give the bluff messenger, Rob, a swift response but something else the ruffian had said was starting to gnaw away at him: why had he said: ‘keep a damned close eye’ on the castle? What did he know? What could he know? He had been on the road - had he seen something?
     Ned peered at the castle again; the light had improved a little but he could see nothing new. It looked just as it had done every morning: the flag of the old king, Henry, fluttered above its grey walls and the Percies’ banner too and though he could not make out the colours he knew well enough what they were.
     Below in the dunes Sir Stephen trudged slowly towards him. He’d grown fond of Stephen since they had first met in the chaos and slaughter of St. Albans. He was steady and reliable, though not afraid to speak his mind – a good man to have beside you if you were in trouble - and trouble seemed to follow Ned around.
     “Good morning, my lord,” Stephen greeted him breathlessly as he reached the crest of the dune.
     “Aye, Stephen, by God’s Grace, I truly hope so,” replied Ned, “though it’s not begun very well.”
     They stood side by side and Ned told him about Maighread Elder’s message. He tried to gauge Stephen’s reaction but the knight’s expression rarely revealed his thoughts.
     “Will you go?” asked Stephen.
     “No, of course I won’t,” replied Ned, “and there’s something about that messenger I don’t trust.”
     “Do you think he was warning you?”
     “About what: Somerset? The Scots? If it was a warning, it wasn’t a very helpful one! We’ve heard a different story every week and we’ve yet to find any trace of Somerset, the Scots or anyone else.”
     “They may be nearer than we thought,” said Stephen quietly.
     Something in his tone made Ned look up.
     “Look!” said Stephen, pointing to the northwest.
     Ned stared to the left of the great fortress and the sheer rock upon which it stood. He focussed on the track winding up the gentle rise to the small village of Bamburgh and then scanned the hillside beyond it. His throat suddenly felt very dry and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stirring. A pale shaft of sunlight bathed the hillside and glinted on a forest of helmets.
     “Could it be Warwick returning?” asked Stephen.
     “It could be… but it isn’t,” said Ned. “They’re not riding in, they’re charging in. How many men do we have up in the village?”
     “About a dozen,” said Stephen.
     “Well, let’s hope St Michael’s watching over them!”
     “I’ll get the men up to the rampart.”
     “No!” said Ned. At once he was on the move, struggling across the dunes with Stephen close behind him. The sand sucked at every footstep as they tried in vain to run.
     “The rampart’s as rotten as shit,” said Ned. “and they’ll ride straight through it. We can’t defend this camp against so many; we’ll have to make a run for it! Rouse the men at arms and take them out through the sea gate. I’ll get the archers to the north side and cover your retreat.”
     Ned realised that his scouts must have fled the village for a call to arms was already sounding throughout the camp. All about them was the clamour of men being woken in alarm and the shrieks of women thrown roughly aside as the men strove to dress and arm themselves.
     “Stop their gabbling and get them mounted!” Ned shouted to Stephen, “Take them along the shore to the south! Don’t wait for me. I’ll pick a few to stay with me and protect the archers.”
     “But they’ll trap us on the beach!” protested Stephen.
     “I doubt it. They must have ridden for an hour or two to get to us so early. You’ll have fresh horses; they won’t. The tide’s out and the sand’s firm! Ride hard; then when you’ve lost them cut across to the old road south. Meet me at the Devil’s Burn.”
     “Where in God’s name’s that?”
     “We camped there on our way here – you must remember: the deep burn by the small wood!”
     “That was five weeks ago! We must have crossed a score of burns! Only God knows whether I can find that one!”
     “Just go!” urged Ned.
     “What about you?”
     “I’ll take the archers west and meet you later at the burn. Now, for Christ’s sake, go!”
     Ned left Stephen and dashed into the house. Of Rob Hall there was no sign. He should have foreseen that a man who delivers a message under the cloak of darkness would hardly linger much after dawn - especially if he had an idea what was coming.
     He quickly donned his leather jerkin and snatched up his sword. There was no time to arm himself properly.
     “Hal!” he bellowed.
     Hal appeared at once at the door, an ill-fitting helmet covered most of his fair hair.
     “Horsemen on the ridge, lord - and they’re not ours!”
    “I know. I’ve seen them and they’re well past the ridge. If we don’t go now, we won’t be going at all!”
     Hal tossed him a battered breastplate. “Your horse is saddled, lord!”
     “Good! Come on, then!”
     Outside, the men at arms were hastily mounting their horses, the beasts neighing and snorting at the abrupt start to their day. Ned swung up into his saddle and stole a glance northwards. The road from the village was choked with riders.
     “To horse!” he bellowed at them. “Leave everything - take only your weapons!”
     “But what about the women, lord?” asked Hal.
     “Leave them,” Ned said savagely, “we’ve no horses for them. They shouldn’t be here anyway. I dare say they’ll find new friends within the hour. Now, get me Bear, Wulf and the three Johns. Bring them to the north gate – and hurry!”
     “But -,” Hal was about to protest but the look on Ned’s face silenced him and he hurried off.
     “Archers to the north gate!” shouted Ned. “Take your mounts - you’ll need them soon enough!”
     He rode to the gate ahead of them and was horrified to see the enemy horsemen hurtling along the track towards the castle. He’d said that he could not leave Bamburgh; well, he’d be leaving it soon enough now.
     A reassuring figure drew calmly alongside him: Bear, an ex-mercenary and a giant of a man who always seemed to have full armour on and carried enough weapons for ten men. Ned had never known his real name but ‘Bear’ always seemed appropriate enough. With him was Wulf, one of Ned’s most promising young swordsmen.
     “Hal’s on his way, lord,” said Wulf, as Ned waited for the archers to form up in a disorderly line in front of them.
     “Make haste! Make haste!” he urged them, “every man - three arrows!”
     At once they let fly a ragged shower of arrows. Hal arrived at a canter and Ned was relieved to see the Johns with him, for the three cousins were the most dogged fighters he had in his company.
     A second flight of arrows flew into the bright morning sky towards the oncoming riders but Ned saw there would be no time for a third volley; the gap was closing too fast.
     “Mount! To horse!” he bellowed but his archers needed no telling for they could see for themselves and many had already unstrung their bows. 
    A wave of helmeted men at arms swept past the bridge to the castle and thundered on towards them down through the low trees that bordered the dunes. This was the archer’s worst nightmare: a hasty retreat before a mass of horsemen. Ned stared at the oncoming riders weaving their way through the scrubland that marked the northern edge of his camp. He could pick out clearly the pennants of Percy but also several for Beaufort. So, at last, the Duke of Somerset had come to Bamburgh.
     “Ride!” he cried. “Ride for your lives!”
     And they did. Ned led them west over the grassy banks of sand, across the track that ran parallel to the shore and on into the fields beyond. The track would be too dangerous; they must escape across country. There was no sign of Stephen or the rest of the men at arms and he prayed that they were already pounding their way south along the beach.
     They passed several fleeing whores who screeched at them to stop but Ned swept on past them, his face set hard as stone.
     “Don’t stop, Hal,” he growled, seeing the youth glance back. “All you’ll do is get them killed as well as you.” He had trodden that path himself at Hal’s age, believing that he could always protect the innocent, but now he knew better.
     They sped on across the fields. He risked a look back: the enemy horsemen were about a hundred yards behind but they were strung out in a long disordered column. If he could get his archers into some cover, they might be able to do a little damage. To his right a small herd of cattle, survivors of the winter, sheered away at the sudden intrusion to their bare pasture. In front of him lay a string of low hills and at the highest point there was a rocky outcrop. That would have to do.
     “Hal!” he shouted, “Take the archers into the rocks on that summit. I want them to slow our friends down a bit!”
    Hal flashed past him and took the lead. Ned slowed a little and drew his men at arms closer to him.
     “Another hundred yards, lads,” he urged, “let’s draw them on! Ride on!”
    The archers reached the high ground and dismounted to string their bows. Ned prayed they would move fast but Hal was a bright lad and he timed his intervention perfectly, scattering the chasing horsemen when Ned and the others were only thirty yards from the rocks. A volley of arrows swept low over Ned’s head and despite himself he ducked then grinned at his folly. The tactic had worked though for the Lancastrian riders were hit hard and soon they sheered away to withdraw out of range. It was a small victory and he knew that would not be the end of it but it bought them a breathing space.
     The archers knew their business and were already remounting when Ned’s men at arms reached them.
     “Good work, lads!” Ned shouted to them. “Now, ride on! Ride on!”
     They made good distance and managed to leave the pursuing Lancastrians far behind them but Ned knew they would not give up that easily. They would regroup and come after them. There was band of trees ahead of them and he hoped that the ford he was looking for lay just the other side of the strip of woodland.  It seemed to take forever to cover the distance to the tree line and he could feel his horse tiring under him – the poor beast must think it had already worked hard enough.
     When they reached the safety of the trees, Ned dismounted and set about deploying his small force. There was no sign of Sir Stephen’s main company but it was far too soon yet. He was relieved to find the burn close by as he had hoped. Now they must secure the ford and wait.
     “Hal,” he ordered, “send a couple of men into the woods and several across the ford to scout ahead - just in case… Then draw up the rest of the archers on the tree line.”
     Hal wore a pained expression.
     “What?” asked Ned. “What is it?”
     “We’re low on arrows, lord… we left our wagons, supplies, everything,” said Hal.
     “Aye, of course we did. Well, you’ll just have to make every one count, won’t you?”
     He clapped Hal on the shoulder but he could not ignore their perilous situation. His score of archers were strung out on one side of the long band of trees which ran parallel to the burn behind it. He could cross at the nearby ford whenever he liked and they might even defend it but then Stephen’s men at arms, if they had made good their escape along the coast, would not be able to reach him without fighting their way across.
     It occurred to him then that if they were outflanked by an attack through the trees he had no defence at all. At that moment, as if he had willed it, one of the scouts ran up. The man was breathless which was not encouraging.
     “You’ve not been gone long!” said Ned. “What is it?”
     “There’s mounted men at the north end of the woods, lord,” the man said.
     “Shit!” said Ned to no-one in particular. It was to be expected; the horsemen would not be keen to risk attacking his archers again from the front.    
      “Hal, I’m taking the men at arms into the forest. Hold the line here.”
     Hal looked at him bleakly. For a moment Ned hesitated, but then he remounted his tired horse.
     “Take care, Hal,” he murmured and rode off at a trot through the trees.
     These were the occasions when he missed Bagot’s advice and cursed himself for leaving him at Yoredale. Yet he knew the old soldier’s ravaged leg would not have coped with the cold and damp of Bamburgh, let alone the exertions of the day. At least he had the comfort of knowing that Bagot would be keeping Amelie and the others safe. He pictured her, heavily pregnant and glowing with life; but if he knew her at all, she would also be increasingly irritable as the days passed and her confinement edged closer. She had seen both of his sisters through childbirth and now it was her turn. He must do all he could to get back to her before the birth.
     Bear reached across and touched his arm and he realised with a jolt that he had let his mind wander, not noticing that the forest track was about to split into several pathways. He could ill afford to divide his few fighting men but he called up the cousins John.
     “Follow a trail each,” he whispered. “We’ll wait here – and be careful.”
     “We know, lord,” affirmed Black quickly. He was named for his shock of black hair, but Ned thought “blunt” would have been more apt since he could not remember him uttering a word that was less than surly.
     Ned dismounted and the others followed his lead. John Black set off on foot flanked by his elder cousin, Grey, and his younger cousin, Green. Ned knew that Black had three more cousins named John on the Elder estates but he was relieved that they were still too young to bear arms. The three men soon melted into the light green of the forest, its tight young leaves the tiny harbingers of spring.
     Ned had grown up in the forest of Yoredale and he drew meaning from every woodland sound he heard. His three scouts trod with precision yet he heard the rustle of old leaves at their feet and the alarm calls of birds as they passed. Beside him the vast bulk of Bear stood impassively, so still he might have been carved from the forest itself. Beyond Bear, young Wulf fidgeted; he was always fiddling with his sword, his breastplate straps or his short mail coat. When he began tapping his leather scabbard with his hand, Bear shot out a great paw and seized his wrist. He glared at him and then gently released the hand, which Wulf examined ruefully before sensibly keeping it away from his scabbard.
     Every now and then there was muffled crack from the forest, but whether it was his own men or others he could not tell. Waiting was shredding his nerves but then a more worrying thought stole into his head and when it did, his blood ran cold. What if the enemy weren’t coming through the forest at all? What if they had already passed through or round the forest? What if they were even now circling behind them alongside the burn to cut them off from the ford and trap them in the trees?
     He was still brooding on the possibilities when sounds of urgent pursuit came from the forest and the three Johns burst through the trees at speed.
     “They’re right behind us!” shouted Black. He snatched his reins from Bear and prepared to mount.
     Ned seized Black’s reins. “How many?”
     “We should fall back, lord!” urged Black.
     “How many?” repeated Ned.
     “At least a dozen - and mounted!” snapped Black.
     Ned could hear the thunder of hoof beats through the woods and he let fall the reins.
     “Mount up!” he ordered. “We can’t face that many here!”
     Several drew their swords as they set off. “Sheathe your swords!” he shouted. “Just ride!”
     In one swift movement he swung himself up on to his horse and a squeeze of his knees sent the mare plunging back along the forest path after the others.  He looked back to see a knot of riders crash through the trees behind them. Black had been wrong: there were more than a dozen, in fact there were more than two dozen - more than enough to rip his six men apart if they caught them and he had little doubt they would be caught.
     Horsemen hemmed them in to right and left as they fled back through the trees. The lead riders hastened to cut them off but Bear rode in front swatting aside opponents as if they were no more than annoying flies. Even the most powerful sheered away from him but not before he had casually impaled one of them in the neck with a gentle swing of his poleaxe.
     Yet, Ned knew, and they all knew, that only Bear was keeping them alive and even he could not do so for much longer. Nor could they ride much further through the forest or they would bring the Lancastrian horsemen down upon Hal and his lightly armed archers who would be cut to shreds before they could loose a single shaft in anger. No, they had to give the archers a chance, but which way to go?
     He could make for the ford but he could not defend the ford without his archers. He needed those damned archers but he was running out of forest and he judged he must only be a mile or so from Hal’s position. If Bagot were there he would already be in his ear – do this, lord or do that, lord. But what would the old veteran advise now? He would say what he always said: keep them guessing, do something different. The thought flew into his head and he shouted the command at once.
     “Bear! Turn east - out of the trees!”
     Bear looked around in surprise, for he knew that in the open faster horses would cut them off all too easily.
     “Just do it!” Ned shouted. Communication with the Flemish Bear was always at a simple level and he had no time to explain further. He was relieved when Bear nodded and without pause dragged his sturdy mount to the left. Ned and the others plunged after him packed as close together as they could, branches of hazel and birch whipping at their faces as they galloped through the swathes of bracken.
     “Ride on!” he yelled, “ride on! If you pull up, you’re dead!”
     They burst out of the trees like storm water from a gutter spout and leapt an earth bank to land in the open fields. Ned led them beside the forest edge and they fanned out into a broad line. He risked a quick glance behind and wished he hadn’t for there must have been thirty or forty following. He had only a few seconds to work out how to play his hand – and it was a very weak hand.
     “Green!” he bellowed.
     “Lord?” The youth’s voice was strained and fearful.
     Ned didn’t blame him, but he knew Green’s horse was the fleetest of them all. “Ride ahead!” he ordered.
     “On my own, lord?” the youth cried.
     “Yes! Get on ahead! As fast as you can!” repeated Ned. He hoped he would be giving Hal enough time. He turned to the others: “Be ready to turn and fight!”
     He was grateful of Bear’s firm nod and grin for the others avoided his eyes, their uncertain faces fixed on the ground ahead of them. Their mounts were eating up the yards but they were being steadily caught. Ned desperately sought to get his bearings: surely Hal and the archers must now be close.  Green was thirty yards ahead of them now but their opponents were barely ten yards behind. Then he knew where he was: he was certain this was where they had first entered the forest. He prayed that Hal was alert.
     Sure enough he heard a shout from amongst the trees ahead. He tried to keep his voice firm and steady. “On my call,” he shouted, “wheel to the left and stand against them!”
     Then they were there, passing the first of the long drawn out row of archers at the forest’s edge.
    “An Elder! An Elder!” cried Ned and turned his startled mount around to come to a dead stop facing the oncoming riders. The sudden manoeuvre caused their enemies to hesitate and, before they could resume their charge, arrows thudded into their flank. At such close range, Hal’s men could hardly miss for Ned had halted the enemy horsemen right in front of them.
     Panic gripped the riders who, having been in full pursuit, now twisted and turned to escape the carnage being wrought by the archers. Ned, desperate to press home his advantage, drew his sword and rode at the nearest group.
     “Time to earn your keep, you idle bastards!” he bellowed. “On me, Ned Elder! On me!”
     Bear shouted nothing but savaged his way through the front riders with a poleaxe in one hand and a sword in the other. His horse seemed to move wherever he willed and where the colossus rode his opponents backed away in panic. Behind him Wulf and the Johns forced their way through the faltering soldiers and hurled them backwards. Several horses were down, bucking and bleeding. Ned wheeled back to regroup his men and once again the formidable wedge of steel surged into the Lancastrians.
     Ned clubbed the nearest rider on the helm and knocked him from the saddle. Then he turned right, gathered pace and punched back through the bewildered pursuers again, weaving through the growing melee of horsemen. Ned was mightily relieved when the core of the enemy company surged away across the fields leaving behind a dozen or so of their dead.  The skirmish was over and he hastily took his few men at arms into the trees for he could see at a glance that one or two had taken wounds.
     There was a cheer from the archers when Ned rode in and Hal waited with a broad grin on his face.
     “Not caught out then?” said Ned cheerfully.
     Hal shook his head. “No lord, we heard the horses coming and seeing young John, we knew it was you.”
     “You did well, Hal,” said Ned as he dismounted.
     “Aye, but we’ve not a shaft left between us,” he replied.
     “Well you’d better go and pick up the ones out in the field,” said Ned, “then we’ll pull back across the ford. No fires – we’ve enemies all around us. Leave a few men here to keep watch. Sir Stephen and the others will surely be here soon.”
                                                                                            §§§§
    But Stephen did not come soon. He did not arrive as night fell nor during the damp hours of darkness and by dawn the following day there was still no sign of him. Ned did not sleep at all. His chilled and weary mind spent all night agonising over the bleak choice that he now faced: should he stay where he was or go in search of his men at arms? Perhaps they were already dead – hacked to pieces on the broad sandy beach south of Bamburgh. Yet…what if they were trapped and needed his help to break out? His force was weak: a score of archers with few arrows and half a    dozen men at arms - could they provide enough support to make any difference? He doubted it.
     Hal brought him a crust of iron-hard bread. He tried to bite into it but gave up and tossed it back to his squire. “Where did you find that?” he asked.
      “Threw it in my bag with a few other things before we left the dunes,” replied Hal.
     “You could hammer a sword straight with that! Pity you didn’t pack a few more men at arms in your bag…”
     “Yes, lord.” Hal paused uncertainly. “Do you think they’re taken?” he asked.
     “No, they won’t be taken; they’ll either be safe or dead. Somerset and Ralph Percy don’t have the men to guard prisoners. They’ll have to take out every man King Edward sends north to have any chance at all. You know how it was at Towton, Hal. It’s just the same now: not much quarter given – not by them, or us.”
     “What’ll we do now, lord?”
     “We’ll wait a bit longer, Hal. Sir Stephen will do all he can to get to us. We must give him at least another day. Tell the archers – they must defend the ford today. How about arrows?”
     “Not enough; barely two per man, lord.”
     They were camped in a stand of trees beside the ford and to the south of them lay an irregular pattern of open fields and woodland. To the east, the fields looked larger and the cover more sparse. He felt cut adrift in a foreign land: every local man would be for Ralph Percy. He reckoned they must be barely a few miles south of Wooler. The local road south, if he could find it, would offer them the best chance of escaping quickly but it also provided the best chance of discovery.
     He badly needed reinforcements but where was the Earl of Warwick, who had left him at Bamburgh in the first place? For all he knew, Warwick was back in Newcastle – but what about his brother, John Neville, Lord Montagu? He was probably even further south at York with his feet up. No, that was unfair: John Neville at least would not rest until he had killed every Percy in the north. He shuddered: what a bitter mess it all was.
     It was a stinking wet day and the dripping trees, barely in their spring growth, gave little shelter to his miserable archers. He watched them getting colder and more irritable as they waited in the sodden undergrowth. He could see it in their aggrieved looks and hear it in their low, grumbling voices. Many eyes were downcast, many faces grim. Some had brothers or cousins - and all had friends - amongst the missing men at arms.
     So Ned waited for Stephen throughout another day but by nightfall he still had not come. It was Sunday and several times during the evening Ned heard men muttering prayers for their safe deliverance. Whilst his men endured another damp, unhappy night by the ford, he spent it worrying about what he would do next.
     At first light many of his men were already awake.
     “Will we wait another day, lord?” asked Hal.
     “Aye,” replied Ned, “one more day and then, whatever happens, we’ll leave just before nightfall. We’ll aim to travel across some of the open fields through the night and hide out in the forest by day. We’ve been lucky so far but we daren’t wait
any longer: we’ll have to move on tonight.”
     “Can we not give them more time?” persisted Hal.
     “No, Hal! Understand this: every house we pass, every hamlet, village and town is thick with our enemies. No man here will lift a hand to help us.”
     Hal nodded; his usually cheerful face was bleak with worry.
     So they spent a final anxious day, watching the treeline beyond the ford and listening for sounds of movement. There was a splash in the stream and a dozen men scattered for cover only to re-emerge sheepishly a few moments later when Hal pointed out the dead branch floating by. By mid-afternoon every nerve was taut and ready to snap.
     “Lord Elder!” The shout of alarm rang through the trees. Ned looked up to see one of his scouts splashing across the ford towards him. He met him at the water’s edge.
     “What is it, man?” he demanded.
     “Riders coming through the trees where we fought yesterday, lord!” reported the breathless archer.
     “Could it be Sir Stephen?” Ned enquired in hope, though he knew the answer.
     The archer shook his head.
     Ned cursed his weakness: he should have left a few hours earlier. Now they would be forced to defend the ford when the day was almost done. His delay had probably condemned them all.
     “Lord?” prompted Hal.
     “To arms!” cried Ned. “Hal! Go to each archer. Make sure they know to join the fight when they’ve spent their arrows.”
     “They already know, lord,” said Hal quietly, but he went anyway.
     Ned gathered his few men at arms around him: John Black had been wounded in the thigh and would struggle to defend the ford on foot. Young Wulf seemed eager for the fight – perhaps too eager – how would he cope when blood was spilled all around him? Bear, thank God for Bear, who simply looked ready – as always.
     “When the arrows run out we must fill that ford with our bodies,” he told them “Black and Grey, you’ll be mounted: if any man gets past us you must cut him down.”
     The two Johns acknowledged their role with a solemn nod and for once John Black had nothing to add, for which Ned was grateful.
     “The rest of us will hold the ford on foot: Bear and I in the centre, Wulf, you take the left flank and you, Green, the right. The archers will join us but we must give them a brave lead.”
     He picked up his worn old breastplate and Bear removed his gauntlets to help him secure the straps. When he’d fought at Towton he’d worn a full set of plate armour but he had not done so since. Now it was just a short old fashioned mail coat, breastplate and helmet - no man would have thought him a lord.
     He watched Black and Grey mount their horses; they moved silently, their faces set in grim resignation.
     “Keep out of sight until we know we must fight,” he ordered.
     The archers crouched low in the bracken; no doubt they could all hear the horsemen now on the other side of the burn. Ned went down on one knee in the damp grass beside Hal and put an arm on his shoulder as the riders approached the crossing point. The archers waited, their grimy faces traced with sweat despite the cold.
     “Steady, lads,” he breathed. “Wait for them to start across.”
     The approaching riders seemed in no hurry to cross, stopping at the water’s edge to allow their horses to drink. It was then Ned realised that these were not the same men they had fought the day before. These men were clearly unaware of their presence and were probably just intent on camping for the night at the end of a day’s ride. All the same, their badges showed they were Percy men. He sighed; it was simply ill fortune that had brought them to the crossing point. He gave a silent prayer that they would water their horses and move on without crossing.
     He could feel the tension amongst the archers near him: they had half drawn back their bows ready to shoot and now they were straining to hold their weapons still. The longer the horsemen delayed, the more nervous the archers became.
     Ned’s prayer went unanswered and finally a few riders began to make their way slowly into the ford. The burn was not very broad and the leading riders were soon halfway across whilst others arrived behind them and waited on the bank. Ned almost groaned out loud for he needed more of them in the water or the ambush would have little effect. Nevertheless, he could not wait much longer: he patted Hal’s shoulder and the youth fired his arrow, which punched through the neck of the first horseman. The man was so close the shaft almost passed right through him, the force of the impact throwing him back over the rump of his horse.
     Shouts of alarm rang out as the men crossing tried to turn and warn their fellows. The rest of the bowmen let fly and several other riders were unhorsed or wounded. One of the horses was struck in the side and veered away into the deeper water where his rider wrestled to get him back to the bank. The shallow water of the ford was churned up as riderless horses panicked and hampered others trying to escape from the arrows. Three more men at arms fell but several of the wounded managed to reach the relative safety of the bank.
     Ned waited until Hal fired his last arrow and then rose to his feet and drew out his sword.
     “Meet them in the middle, lads!” he roared and jumped into the water, knowing that Bear would be by his side. He ran forward and stabbed up at one of the mounted knights; his lunge was fortunate and it caught the man in the groin. The knight screamed knowing the wound would be fatal and blood splashed down onto Ned’s helm. He blinked away several spots of blood that had evaded his visor and dragged the wounded man off his mount.
     More of the enemy were starting to cross, spurred on by the sight of Ned’s few men at arms on foot before them. Bear hacked at one of the riders with his great poleaxe, missed and cut deeply into the horse’s neck. Blood spurted from the wound and the animal collapsed to its knees with a shriek, tipping the rider over its head. The dying horse thrashed its hind legs helplessly and its screams unnerved the other horses. The fallen man lay stunned in the cloudy water at Bear’s feet and without pause he brought the point of his axe down onto his head, killing him stone dead.
     Some men at arms slid from their saddles to lead their mounts away from the bloody frenzy of men and horses; others rode back to the bank to dismount and re-enter the ford on foot. Ned looked to young Wulf on his left: the youth was skilled with a sword for his age. His quick hands reminded Ned of his friend Will, the way he moved with such lightning speed and apparently so little effort. Beyond Bear on the right, John Green was being forced back by one of the few men still mounted. Green looked anything but confident and was barely holding his own.
     Ned continued to hack his way forward using his strength to thrust men aside into the deeper water if he could not wound them. A number of the Percy men were down, but more and more men were charging into the ford towards them. His archers cast aside their bows and drew their swords to join the fight with raucous shouts.  This was the only moment, Ned knew, when they might break their opponents’ nerve for the struggle. Little by little the sky was darkening and if they could push them back and hold the ford until the light failed, they might yet win through.
     The narrow ford was filling with men and there were already two horses down, one still thrashing its legs in agony. In the close-quarter melee the combatants struggled to keep to their feet in the writhing chaos. Falling was half way to dying; Ned knew it well for he had fallen before. If he fell now, he and his men would be cut to pieces. So he stabbed and chopped his way forward, intent on keeping his balance. A sword thrust slid across his breastplate but he seized his assailant’s arm and sent him reeling back with repeated blows to the face with the hilt of his sword. Then he drew his heavy blade across the man’s shoulder knocking him down into the murky stream, but there was no time to stand still.
     Seeing his archers as easy meat, some of the men at arms had started to wade through the deeper water on the margins of the ford to outflank them. They must have been cold for his own legs were growing numb even in the shallow ford. All he could do was hope that the archers could hold their ground. He could not help them for the press of men against him was still growing as more men reached the ford.
     In that moment he realised with a dull pain in the pit of his stomach that it was hopeless. They could not defend the ford against so many even till darkness fell; their thin line was buckling against the sheer weight of numbers. Bear and Wulf were still either side of him but he could no longer see young John Green on his right flank. Bear was left to stem the tide almost single handed but even with his strength he could not do so for long. Ned struggled to deflect blow after blow; a sword glanced harmlessly off his helm but it rocked him back. With more room his archers might have darted in to stab at unprotected legs and arms, but in the congested ford it was impossible. He took a pace back and in his heart he knew it would not be the last.
     He scarcely had a moment to see what was unfolding around him but to his left John Grey’s mount slipped from the ford into the deeper burn where he was surrounded by several men at arms up to their armpits in the water desperately stabbing and thrusting at his legs and torso. He won’t last long, thought Ned, as he took another step back. He moved closer to Bear but Wulf beside him was struck on the shoulder and fell into the shallow water. Ned lurched unsteadily towards him and took his arm to raise him up.
     “Bear!” he cried and the giant warrior’s head turned sharply towards him. At once he abandoned his axe buried in the man before him and snatched from his back a halberd. It was not unlike the poleaxe but the longer handle and broader blade gave him greater reach. He planted his immense boots in the centre of the ford and held the enemy at bay simply by swinging the weapon from side to side with ferocious speed and power. Ned lifted up the wounded Wulf, whose shoulder was bleeding profusely.
     “Get back and get that wound bound up!” he ordered, pushing the youth towards the bank. Then he turned breathlessly to help Bear, who had cut such a bloody swathe through their opponents that they now stood off him, no-one wanting to be the next to take him on.
     There were just the two of them with Hal and a dozen or so of the archers behind them. If they surrendered the ford now the opposing men at arms would cross, fan out along the bank and encircle them. Ned looked in desperation at the gloomy sky but still night refused to come.
     Several of their opponents had found longer weapons with which they now prodded at Bear in the hope of forcing him back. Don’t bait the Bear, warned a voice in Ned’s head and sure enough Bear took an angry step forward and the press of men ranged against him were forced to give ground or be cut by the halberd. Ned did not blame them as he too had to step aside to evade the lethal sweep of Bear’s blade. Even so, it seemed hopeless.
     His sword felt heavy in his hand but every nerve in his body urged him to attack. It was who he was, how he was made. At twenty three years of age he was a veteran of King Edward’s campaign to win the throne. He acknowledged few peers in battle but who was left now who could join him in the charge? He glanced back at the archers behind him; there was no-one, save for Bear.
     He turned to Hal. “Get your archers back across the ford! Head south!”
     “No!” shouted Hal.
     “If you love your lord, Hal, take the archers away,” said Ned.
     Bear suddenly thrust his halberd forward into the midriff of the nearest man at arms and in a swift movement let go of the weapon and drew out his heavy battle sword from its worn leather scabbard. Ned stepped forward to stand alongside him and then he launched himself forward, crashing into the first man and chopping his sword down through neck and shoulder.
     Now he was in a different place, where there was only blood to spill and bone to shatter. He shut out every thought save one: to wreak havoc before he fell. The ferocious Bear matched him stride for bloody stride and they pressed on relentlessly across the ford, ankle deep in the reddish brown water. They struck at any man they could reach, stepping over the fallen and carelessly crushing flesh and bone beneath their boots. Before Ned knew it he had reached the far side of the ford and the retreating men at arms scrambled back up on to the bank to escape the brutal onslaught. At the bank Ned stopped and watched them run.
     Bear slapped his back. “We fought them, lord!” he roared. “We fought them!”
     Ned surveyed the bloody carnage they had wrought: he had killed three men and another crawled slowly onto the bank a few yards away. With bitter fascination he watched as the wounded man heaved himself to his knees, leaving a small pool of blood on the muddy grass, and then took a few steps towards the safety of the trees. For no reason he could make sense of, Ned was willing him to get there, but he stumbled and fell. He lay coughing up blood until his pitiful retching ceased and he was still.
     A giant hand suddenly gripped his arm. “Lord!” warned Bear, staring ahead.
     Coming out of the trees in front of them were a score or so more men at arms and in their midst was a mounted knight. He could not make out the rider’s colours but it mattered little who he was now. Their opponents had not been retreating in disorder, they had been reforming and soon they would advance once more and finish off what remained of his small company. He was spent and even the mighty Bear was breathing hard. Hal and the other archers were still in the middle of the ford. Hal ran forward.
     “We weren’t going to leave you alone, lord,” said Hal
     Ned shook his head. “Well, we’re all dead men now.” There was more movement on the edge of the forest ahead. “What do you see Hal?” he asked wearily, for the youth’s keen eyes were always sharper than his.
     Hal stepped up alongside him and searched the treeline for a moment and then his chin dropped onto his chest. “Oh shit,” he said.
     “What?” demanded Ned, but he did not need an answer for at that moment the sun, which had been absent all day, made a late appearance low in the western sky. A handful of weak rays fell upon the trees, illuminating a line of at least a dozen archers. Shit, indeed. He looked along the line and his eyes rested again upon the mounted knight.
     “Flee, lord!” entreated Hal, seizing his arm.
     The knight rapped out a command Ned could not quite make out and then raised his right arm. Bear and Hal were trying to drag him away but he could not tear his gaze from the tall rider. As he stood and watched, the man let fall his arm.
     Too late, Ned turned to run. His legs were stiff and numb from the cold water and he had not covered two yards when the arrows struck. One grazed his helmet, another plucked at the bottom of his mail coat. Bear took a shaft in his arm and snapped it off while Hal was hit in the thigh. Ned saw several of his archers go down; their padded jacks unable to stop an arrow at such short range. Silhouetted against the yellow glow of the setting sun they were easy targets for the enemy archers.
     They tried to help each other back across the ford as another volley of arrows thudded into them and more of his men were hurled into the water. He felt a blow in the shoulder which knocked him off balance and he rolled down onto one knee. They were helpless he realised: almost every man was hit. He staggered angrily to his feet and turned to face the enemy.
     “If Ned Elder must fall,” he cried out, “then he’s going to fall with arrows in his chest not his back!”
     Hal looked on in shock as Ned began walking unsteadily back towards the enemy. Bear glanced down briefly at the three broken shafts that protruded from his arm and legs then he nodded and set off to walk with Ned. Together they raised their swords and embraced death.