An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy. . .
By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years.
The Elder family have discovered a fragile peace in the lands they fought to win back, yet scars from the past remain with them all. Given time, they might heal. But when did the Elders ever have enough time? And close to home, in Ludlow, trouble is stirring.
Born out of the bloody devastation of the Wars of the Roses, young John Elder is now the heir to his father’s legacy, but he finds it a poisonous one. Driven from the woman he loves by a duty he fears, John abandons his legacy and flees the country to become a mercenary in Flanders.
In his absence, stalked by a ruthless outlaw, the Elder family must survive a deadly storm of blood and chaos. When the young heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, is caught up in their bitter struggle, the future appears bleak.
Only if the Elders can put the scars from the past behind them, is there any hope of survival.
"Derek Birks has a way of invoking all your senses and emotions when reading his books. The action keeps you on the edge of your seat; but there is an emotional aspect too. These people are all-too- human, subject to insecurity, rash actions and incredible heroism and you feel every emotion as you join their journey." The Review.
Part One: Old Scars
May 25th 1481 in the evening, at the old bath house in Ludlow
Descending the steps to the steam-filled cellar led John to his place of nightly refuge, an underworld of vice and licence. How easily he slipped into this familiar sanctuary. Here, in return for a limitless supply of cheap ale, he would turn a blind eye to the whoring and thieving and, if needed, break a few heads. And while he was doing that, here in this crumbling cellar, he could banish other thoughts. This evening he could forget what he had done to Lizzie; indeed when he was in the stews, he could forget his place in the world altogether.
He dipped his hands into one of the warm wooden tubs as he passed and once again rubbed at the guilty knuckles where traces of blood lurked. His hands were still damp when he relieved a startled client of a half-empty pot of ale and headed for his favourite dark corner. There he slumped onto a stool and attempted to fix all his attention upon the pewter pot of ale before him. For once, it did not work and all he could see was Lizzie. Her shocked stare probed into his very soul and whatever she saw there brought tears to those honey-brown eyes. He should have known that the bond between them would end that way. Friendship was for children and they were children no longer. They would not meet again.
He supped his ale for a time, was brought another and drank it slowly whilst he waited for his cousin, Will, to arrive. One of the whores sat down opposite. He knew it was Jessica but he didn’t even glance in her direction. The lasses had been a distraction once but now, nearly seventeen, he had already grown weary of them. She sniffed, seeking his attention. When he dutifully looked across, he was shocked to see that she had a black eye, and a cut lip… and a bruised cheek.
When had that happened? He studied her battered face – still a young face. There had been a time when he thought of little else other than kissing and caressing that face. Although she was at least a year younger than he was, how many other men had touched that face, that body? Yet tonight someone had done a good deal more than touch it.
“There was no call for it,” she murmured, licking away a smear of blood from her bottom lip. She gave another sniffle and pouted hopefully.
He reached across and touched her cheek, turning it so that he could examine the half-closed eye in the dim glow of the rush lights.
She sighed and laid her tiny hand upon his. “You’ve gentle hands, John Elder.”
“Aye, and a soft head,” he grumbled, drawing his hand away. “Who did this?”
“Said he was a draper’s apprentice, but he didn’t look like one. He took me outside.”
“What did he look like?” John asked. “What was he wearing?”
“He wore a blue cap, but he’s wearing a few scratches across his face now,” muttered Jessica.
“Did he get those before or after he blacked your eye?” enquired John.
“After! I told you: I gave him no cause.”
He pushed back his stool – a slow, deliberate movement. It grated across the stone flags.
“Oh, don’t bother yourself now,” said Jessica. “It’s too late. Slack’s already gone after him – and old Walter too.”
John nodded. There was no obligation; he was not paid to protect the girls in the stews – except for the few jugs of ale – but he got up anyway. He eyed the row of steaming tubs, many of which were still occupied though the town bells had tolled hours before. Those in here now would find the gates of Ludlow closed by the time they decided to leave. Picking his way through the puddles of water, he left the warmth of the bath house and headed down the narrow lane that ran parallel to the town wall.
He almost missed Walter in the dark but a low moan stopped him half way along the alley. Walter was slumped at the foot of a wall where the turds piled up and the stench of piss never quite went away.
“You alright?” asked John.
“Would I be sitting here on my arse if I was?” complained Walter. “Took a cut in the ribs. Won’t kill me but, by Christ, he was quick with his blade. Slack went after him – you’d best go find him.”
Walter, though willing, was long past his best and Slack was a mere boy of fourteen. He was as eager to please the girls as a young dog. He was not, though, much of a hand with a weapon.
“You should have stopped the lad!” said John.
“I tried,” protested Walter, “but he wouldn’t listen!”
John cursed under his breath at the thought of following the culprit through the warren of tiny streets that ran outside the wall. Once this part of town had been quite prosperous, hence the old bath house, but now it was a home for every thief and tosspot in Ludlow. It was too dark and too late to be doing this.
“Wait here, old man.”
“Can’t get up anyway,” said Walter.
John moved as quietly as he could, pausing every now and then to listen. There was little to be heard. At a junction of three lanes, John found Slack. At first he thought the lad’s throat had been cut, but when he drew closer he saw that he had been sliced apart high on his chest. He wasn’t dead – at least not quite – but even in the gloom, John saw that the terrible wound could not be mended. Slack stared up at John and his lips moved.
“Soon have you sorted, lad,” said John. The boy drank in the lie willingly. Slack did everything willingly. He tried to speak again.
“You can talk later,” John reassured him. “Be still now.”
But Slack suddenly sat forward. “He said he’ll be back,” he hissed through trembling lips...