The Blood of Princes

A savage tale of love, treason and betrayal. 

A bloody struggle for power at the heart of the royal court.

In April 1483, the sudden death of King Edward IV brings his 12 year old son to the throne.
Restless young lord and ex-mercenary John Elder is newly-appointed to the service of Edward, Prince of Wales, and charged with the boy’s safety. His first task, escorting the new king to London for his coronation, seems a simple one but the accession of a boy king raises concerns among the leading noblemen of the land. 
As old jealousies and feuds are rekindled, the new king’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seizes control and plunges the kingdom into crisis. But is Gloucester young Edward’s enemy, or saviour? 
While John, outlawed and trapped, must wait to see how events unfold, other members of the battle-scarred Elder family are drawn, one by one, into his conspiracy. Soon they are mired so deep in the murky underbelly of London society, that there seems no hope of escape from the tangle of intrigue and murder.
In the end, all lives will hang upon the outcome of a daring incursion into the Tower of London itself.

Read Chapter One

Part One: Savage Days

1

30th April 1483 in the early morning, at the Angel Inn, Northampton

 It was the tapping of the wooden shutter that woke John Elder. As he slid from the narrow bed, Lizzie stirred, but he got up and stumbled towards the window. For a small shutter, it made a surprisingly irritating noise. Then, as he drew near, an early morning breeze slammed it shut and he nodded in silent approval. He was about to turn away when the shutter crept out again to begin its petulant rattle once more.

Reaching out a hand to pull it shut, his eye was drawn to the first glimmer of dawn over the stables. With a weary sigh he acknowledged that it would soon be time to move. Down in the yard below something gleamed for an instant and then was gone. He peered further out of the window, observing that the stable doors were still barred. No-one was heading out just yet then.

He shook his head, still half asleep. “It’s too early,” he groaned, recalling the long, yet surprisingly pleasant, evening.

A tiny, but familiar, sound caught his attention: the idle scrape of iron upon stone. Which of his fellow guests, he wondered, could possibly want their men in harness before first light? Once the question crept into his head, he couldn’t put it aside. It was his curse: miserable tosspots always expected the worst and usually got it.

“Why?” he murmured aloud.

“Why what?” moaned Lizzie. “Come back to bed, won’t you?”

He glanced towards his wife then someone coughed in the cool morning air and he turned back to the window, fully awake now.

“Get dressed, Lizzie,” he said softly.

“John?”

“Swiftly, if you please - and silent.”

“What’s amiss?”

“If you will, Lizzie,” he said, leaving the window to begin pulling on his boots. But, having struggled into them, he saw that he still wore only his linen braies.

“Shit-headed drunk!” he berated himself, prising off the boots once more.

“I don’t know why we must we stir so early,” said Lizzie.

She was irked, of course, but how could he explain the uneasiness he felt. Instead he concentrated on dressing himself, all too aware that she still lay abed.

“Make haste, woman!” he urged, but only when he picked up his sword belt was Lizzie at last driven to stir, albeit with an extravagant show of reluctance. Nevertheless, she began to retrieve her clothes, discarded so recklessly only a few hours before. He watched her for a few moments in the half-light, as she struggled into her kirtle – his bride of only a few months. It had all happened so fast – just like this morning.

“Where’s Jeanne?” she asked.

“With Conal, I suppose…”

She nodded. “Aye, of course she is. Well, I hope they’re close by - I can’t lace up this bodice on my own! It was a lot easier when I was just a servant!”

“Wait here,” he warned and opened the chamber door.

Peering out onto the landing, he was relieved to see Conal there, asleep under a blanket on the threshold. John touched him gently on the shoulder and the Irishman rolled into a crouch, his long blade drawn, ready to strike.

“By Christ!” hissed John. “Do you always wake like that?”

Conal nodded slowly. “What is it, lord?” he whispered, sheathing his scian.

John still found it strange when former mercenary comrades, like Conal, addressed him as their lord. “Perhaps nothing,” he said, “perhaps trouble.”

“Trouble’s my oldest friend, lord,” grinned Conal, giving Jeanne beside him a rough shake. She cursed him roundly but stopped when she looked up and saw John.

“Find Hal, Conal,” said John. “I’m going to wake Earl Rivers. Jeanne, look to your lady - she needs you.”

He set off down the narrow staircase to the floor below with Conal, leaving Jeanne muttering darkly by the open chamber door.

“We left Hal snoring downstairs,” Conal told him. “Not many hours ago, I’d say. It’s a bit early, isn’t it?”

“I know it’s early!” hissed John, “but something’s amiss – I can feel it! Now, go and fetch him - and don’t draw attention. Pretend you’re still drunk.”

“Hah! I am still drunk!” scoffed Conal, staggering on down the stairs.

Outside Rivers’ chamber, John found the earl’s man fast asleep. Cursing, he lifted the fellow bodily to his feet.

“What? Lord John?” spluttered the sleepy guard. “What ails you?”

“Stay awake,” growled John, as he released him and tapped sharply on the door.

Rivers must have heard him for he was already out of his bed when John entered. His nephew, Sir Richard Grey, was also awake.

“John?” asked Rivers.

“My lord, I’m not certain what’s happening, but just in case…”

“In case? In case of what?” stammered Rivers.

“Treachery…”

“What treachery? And why?” cried Rivers. “The evening went well. I was in accord with both the dukes! But you were always a suspicious bastard, John.”

“Aye, I know – and I’m probably wrong, but-”

The door crashed open and Rivers’ man burst in. “My lord!” he cried, but he was bludgeoned down from behind before he could utter another word.

John drew his sword and leapt forward to meet the intruder, forcing him back into the narrow passage where he cracked the hilt of his weapon against his brow, felling him instantly.

Rivers hurriedly pulled on his clothes whilst attempting to rip his sword from its scabbard. “By God, he’s wearing Buckingham’s livery!” he said.

“Men coming up the stairs!” announced John from the passage.

But it was only Conal, leading Hal up behind him.

“Go rouse our men!” Rivers ordered his kinsman, Sir Richard Grey.

“We’ll stay with you till they come, my lord,” said John.

“No, you won’t!” ordered Rivers. “You’ll get yourself to the king at Stony Stratford - in case I don’t, or can’t, get there.”

John thought about arguing but the tramp of boots upon the wooden stair made up his mind.

He clasped Rivers’ hand. “I’ll see you very soon, my lord.”

Rivers gave him a grim nod that suggested the earl did not share his confidence.

“Come, lord, there’s a back stair near your chamber,” said Hal, leading the way back up to where Jeanne and Lizzie were waiting.

“What’s happening?” cried Lizzie.

“We’re leaving!” said John.

“But my new clothes!”

“Stay close to Jeanne,” ordered John, ignoring her protests.

“The stair at the rear is narrow,” said Hal, “and…”

“And what, Hal?”

“It’s by your cousin’s chamber,” said Hal.

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” said John.

Hal grimaced. “Is it, lord?”

“Aye, it is; cousin Richard will see us safely away! Now, take the lead down to the stables and don’t stop for any man save Earl Rivers himself. Use the king’s name if you must, but keep moving. Now go! Go!”

Checking that Lizzie was close by, John followed Hal, but shouts of alarm rang out from below long before they reached the backstairs.

A figure emerged from the chamber at the far end of the passage. Though the light was dim, he recognised Richard well enough for he had spent the previous evening in his company - the first time they had met since they were mere boys.

“Richard!” he called, pushing past Hal and hurrying towards his cousin.

“You should go back to your chamber,” said Richard.

“We’re leaving by that stair, coz,” said John, but he hesitated, seeing his cousin’s expression. “You were expecting us, weren’t you?”

“I hoped not,” said Richard, slowly drawing out his sword.

“Lord!” cried Conal. “Men coming up behind us!”

“Aye,” said John, “Aye, I’m sure there are.”

The two cousins faced each other at the head of the stairs. “You’d betray your own blood, Richard?” asked John.

“Hardly been close, have we,” said Richard. “After all, last year we all thought you were dead…”

“Aye,” conceded John, “but I’m not and I need to pass, coz.”

“By Christ, John, I don’t want to kill you!” protested Richard. “But… I can’t let you leave.”

“You can’t stop us, Richard,” replied John, raising his weapon. “So either come with us, or go back to your chamber.”

“Lord!” cried Hal, but John could hear the thunder of pursuing feet for himself.

“I promised the duke I’d hold you here,” murmured Richard.

“You serve Gloucester?” asked John.

Richard nodded. “Aye, since I was a boy.”

“If you want to live, Richard, then stand aside.”

Richard met his eyes for barely an instant and then took a pace back, lowering his weapon. At once Hal led the small group past him down the steep, narrow steps.

“It’ll be easier this way, coz,” said John.

“Which way?” asked Richard.

“This way,” said John, crashing his fist hard into Richard’s temple.

“What did you do that for?” cried Lizzie, as John hauled her down the steps after the others. “He was letting us go!”

“Aye, he was, but the duke won’t thank him for it! Better for him if it looks like he put up a little resistance.”

In the half light of the stable yard they found a noisy crowd milling about in utter confusion. John knew that Gloucester and Buckingham between them must have brought several hundred to Northampton and it felt as if most of them were crammed into the tiny yard. Ahead of him, Hal was forcing a path through to the stables with Conal shepherding Jeanne behind him, but blocking the way to the stable door was an obstinate knot of armed men.

“Make way for the king’s men!” bellowed John, “make way!”

The cluster of harnessed men broke apart, though more from surprise, John suspected, than compliance. Once they were all inside the stables, Conal waited by the doors whilst Hal cajoled the grooms to saddle their mounts.

“Make haste, lads, make haste!” he urged them.

“John?” breathed Lizzie, clutching at his hand. “What’s happening?”

“Betrayal, Lizzie, that’s what’s happening. Stay close to Jeanne and you’ll be safe!”

“Safe?” she groaned, eyeing the throng of well-armed men outside the stable. “I don’t think so!”

“Lord!” cried Conal. “I fear Sir Richard Grey’s taken!”

“Can you see Earl Rivers?” asked John, coming to the door.

“No, lord!”

“You’ve a flint with you, Hal?” cried John.

Hal nodded, understanding his drift at once.

“Good,” said John. “Let’s hope God’s with us this morning. See everyone mounted and then do it.”

Moments later, when Conal brought him his horse, he saw that all save Hal were mounted.

“Get the rest of the horses out!” Hal bawled at the stable lads, who just stared at him as if he were mad. But by the time Hal was mounted, the glare from crackling straw was already starting to show. The stable boys moved swiftly enough then, hurrying to set free the nervous horses.

God save you, brave lads, thought John. As soon as the first of the fleeing horses raced past out of the door, John snatched Lizzie’s bridle and dragged her horse out with his to escape the billowing smoke and flames.

“Fire!” he roared. “Fire! Clear a path! Let the horses through!”

He prayed his diversion would avoid the need for a fight because such a fight could not be won. Some men ran before them. Others jumped aside, but one or two saw through John’s ruse and lunged out to seize his reins.

“Ride!” he urged his companions. “Ride for your lives!”

At the Angel, the stair they had just descended was now thronged with men, shouting and cursing at them as they sped out of the yard.

Though they had managed to break free, there could of course be no escape. Gloucester had no need to track them, for he would know exactly where they were heading: Stony Stratford, where the new young king would be waiting. It was less than fifteen miles away, and all they could do was to get to the king first, nothing more.

At the end of the street, a small group of men at arms spread themselves in a vain attempt to block their escape.

“Don’t stop for anyone!” shouted John, driving through their ranks and on towards the town’s eastern gate. He prayed that the gates would already be open to allow in the earliest merchants and gave God his grateful thanks when his prayers were answered. Sweeping past the startled gatekeepers without pause, he scattered the small crowd waiting outside.

Leaving the town behind them, their sturdy mounts made good speed across country on firm ground. All the same, a glance at Lizzie, riding alongside him, confirmed his own thoughts. Her encouraging smile could not disguise the pale, drawn features that betrayed her deepest fears.