PART ONE: A WORLD OF BLOOD
26th July 1469, near Banbury
“How has it come to this?” asked Will Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.
Ned Elder stared down from the ridge on Edgecote Hill to the valley below where thousands of men were arrayed. “Warwick… and the Duke of Clarence,” he replied.
“Even I can’t quite believe that, Ned. Much as I’d like to blame Warwick for all the ills in Christendom, I can’t see him provoking a revolt in the north - surely it threatens him too? And their leader is a certain Robin of Redesdale - why Warwick and Clarence aren’t even in England.”
Ned sighed. “I promise you, Will: if they’re not, they very soon will be.”
Pembroke surveyed the rebel army. “They look well ordered, Ned.”
“Oh, trust me, they will be,” said Ned, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. It was not even a year since the events at Yoredale Castle. All that blood and sacrifice had done no more than delay the inevitable.
The rebel archers released their first arrows.
“It begins,” said Pembroke.
There was a terrible fascination to it, watching the cloak of death smother the summer sky. The arrows fell thick upon them, rattling helms and striking armour like hailstones, piercing visors, punching through leather and burrowing deep into flesh.
Pembroke’s army, exposed upon the eastern ridge of Edgecote Hill, had little response to offer against the storm of arrows. A handful of archers let fly, a few cannon roared forth smoke and flame, but they could not halt the slaughter.
Ned stood motionless beside Pembroke as men fell all around them. He made no attempt to dodge the arrows. Let death strike him in the forehead, or the mouth, or take him straight in the eye. If this was to be one battle too many, then God would decide, not he - and if God had no more time for him, then so be it.
The smoke that swirled about him could not mask the cries of the wounded, but at least it hid from the rebels the carnage their archers were inflicting. All too soon, though, the pall - and the illusion - would disperse. Not for the first time, Ned turned to look behind them back down the hill towards the south west. There was still no dust in the distant fields, no glint of sun on sallets and no hint of foot soldiers hastening up from Banbury to their aid.
“Blood of Christ!” shouted Pembroke.
For a moment Ned thought the Welshman was hit, but one look at his face reassured him. Pembroke was just choking with impotent rage. Ned turned his attention to his own men. Hal fidgeted close by and Ned found a grim smile as Bear planted a large hand upon the youth’s shoulder to still his nerves. The waiting could kill you on its own - for if you weren’t careful death came as a relief. He said a last silent prayer for his wife, Maighread, and the child she was carrying. He prayed too for his young son, John, who he barely knew but hoped to know better.
The arrows still fell, but not so thickly. Pembroke’s cannon stuttered into silence and the smoke began to drift away down the slope.
“That’s that, then,” said Pembroke. “Out of powder already - and where in the name of God is the Earl of Devon?”
“Your man’s been gone long enough to ride to the sea and back, let alone the few miles to Banbury,” said Ned. “I’ll send one of mine.”
Pembroke swayed involuntarily as a bodkin arrow scraped past his armoured shoulder.
“No, Ned, don’t send a man; you go,” he said. “Without Devon’s archers we’ll bleed our lives away up here. You take your fifty horsemen and drive his five thousand archers here to me!”
“I came to fight, my lord,” Ned argued, “and, God knows, you need every man!”
Pembroke thumped a metal fist hard into Ned’s breastplate. “Your few horsemen will make little difference on this hill. I need Devon’s archers far more than I need you!”
He bellowed a string of commands which were relayed along the ridge where his Welsh spearmen stood. He seized his pollaxe from a page and took a pace forward. There was a ripple of movement all along the ridge as every man followed his lead. Pembroke bowed his head for a moment then turned to Ned.
“Get me those archers, Ned.”
Ned gave him a curt nod but Pembroke was already on the move, cajoling his spearmen as he led them down the hill into the valley towards the advancing rebel host. Ned wanted to go with them but Pembroke was right: without more men, they would be overwhelmed.
“Bear, mount up the men!” he ordered, the words catching in his dry throat.
Ned’s horsemen needed little encouragement to take to their mounts. They descended the gentle slope to the south west at breakneck pace, the fierce cries of the Welshmen echoing behind them from the far side of the hill. Ned had fought Welsh men at arms himself… a lifetime ago at Mortimer’s Cross. The poor bastards might be heavily outnumbered but they would fight like men possessed. They would not be beaten easily and, if he moved swiftly enough, he might yet come to their aid.
Before they reached Banbury, they met Pembroke’s lone messenger returning.
“Is the Earl of Devon on his way?” cried Ned, as the rider slowed.
“The earl’s still in Banbury, my lord,” gasped the man, lost for breath. “He says he’ll come… with all speed.”
Ned looked ahead towards Banbury. “Well? How far off lie his men? Are they close?”
“No, my lord, not very-” Ned’s angry stare paled him. “The earl’s men are all afoot and still south of the town. I fear….”
“Where’s the earl?” barked Ned. “Is he at the castle? Speak man! Your comrades are being butchered whilst your words idle in your mouth!”
“The earl is at an inn… by the high cross… in the market place, my lord. He’s waiting for his men. I think he moves… without much haste, my lord.”
Ned cursed loudly. There was no love lost between Pembroke and Devon - the two lords had quarrelled violently the previous night and now the royal army was split into two warring halves. He must bring Devon’s archers to the fight or the day would be lost and that was just… unthinkable.
“Go!” he ordered the messenger. “And tell the Earl of Pembroke that I shall persuade Devon to move faster - or I’ll whip the damned archers there myself!”
He urged his horse forward, knowing such a ride could finish some of his mounts. They had been ridden hard from Corve Manor the day before and were still exhausted. They were poor enough beasts for battle too - but all an impoverished lord could afford.
When they reached Banbury town Ned saw from a small cloud of dust to the south exactly where Devon’s army was.
“They’ll never make it in time, lord,” breathed Hal.
“Don’t doubt Welsh valour, Hal. Will Herbert and his brother Richard are mighty men at arms and their spearmen can hold out longer than you might think.”
“Yes, lord,” said Hal, looking far from convinced.
“I know,” said Ned. “They’ll be hard pressed - and even if I can persuade Devon to move his archers we still may not arrive in time.”
“What can I do, lord?” asked Hal.
“Well, now we know how far off the archers are, why don’t you and Master Croft go back to Edgecote? When I return you can quickly tell me how the battles goes for I’ll have no time to stand and think.”
“Yes, lord,” said Hal, clearly relieved to be doing something useful.
“And watch for our return,” said Ned. “We’ll come by the track south of Edgecote Hill!”
“We’ll be ready, my lord. But I pray you’ll not be too long.”
It was not difficult to find Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon, in Banbury. Ned passed the great covered cross in the market place and recognised at once the gold Stafford livery of several men at arms lounging near the Red Lion inn. Humphrey himself was lodged inside with several more of his retinue.
Ned threw open the door and found Stafford holding court, seated at the far end of a long table with his captains arrayed before him. Ned had met Stafford before and did not care for him much. He would rather be dealing with Will Herbert. Herbert was a byword for bluntness and could start an argument with a passing horse, yet Ned preferred him to the wily Stafford. Neither man was especially popular with his noble peers since both had been raised up by the new king with what some regarded as indecent haste.
Humphrey Stafford glanced up at him but continued chewing on a piece of bread.
“My lord?” said Ned.
Stafford swallowed his mouthful and regarded him briefly. Untroubled but watchful, Ned thought. This man was no-one’s fool.
“Do I know you?” asked Stafford, as he cast his eyes about the table for the next morsel to consume.
“We’ve met,” said Ned. “The first time was in the battle south of Wigmore Castle. I’m Ned Elder.”
Stafford looked up again at that. “Lord Ned Elder? Well, we are honoured, are we not, gentlemen, to be in such a heroic presence?”
He glanced around his comrades with a smile that degenerated all too swiftly into a smirk.
“Did you not hear Pembroke’s cannon?” asked Ned.
“Pembroke?” said Stafford, looking puzzled. “Oh, Lord Herbert, you mean. Of course. Forgive me, but I can’t keep pace with all his new honours.”
That was rich, Ned considered, coming from Stafford who had only held the Earldom of Devon for a few months. He almost said so but contrived to keep his opinions to himself.
“Herbert needs your archers.”
“Does he?” asked Devon. “Surely he can deal with the northern rabble alone. He didn’t seem to value my men very highly last night.”
“He needs you to join him,” said Ned, struggling to keep his voice even.
“The rebel army would have to be several thousand strong even to come close to Herbert’s force. Where in God’s name would such a rebel army come from?”
Ned’s mind raced back to six months earlier. He knew exactly where such a northern army might have come from.
“Herbert’s scouts talked wildly of thousands yesterday,” continued Devon, “but I very much doubt that. In any case, Herbert has thousands of his own Welsh pike men. He should be able to despatch a few rebels and send the rest home with bloodied heads.”
Ned thought he might strike this man if he spoke to him for too much longer.
“I’ve seen the rebel host myself,” he said, “and it does number several thousand!”
Stafford frowned at him. “I don’t like your tone, Lord Elder, and I don’t believe I need answer to you for my actions. If you’re so keen to join him, I suggest you go and do just that. I’ll make my way north, as his grace the king requested, at my earliest convenience. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to eat without interruption. This is an excellent local cheese - you should try it, my lord.”
“Pembroke sent a man to ask for your help,” persisted Ned.
Devon’s face darkened. “He sent a common Welshman to command me to come… and he’ll need to ask in a more civil manner if he wants my five thousand archers!”
“And what if Pembroke’s force alone is not enough to stop the rebels?”
“Enough of your barking demands! Go to Lord Herbert yourself and leave me to break my fast in peace. My archers won’t be here yet a while.”
Ned snatched out his dagger and plunged it hard into the table close by Devon’s right hand.
“I tell you this, Humphrey Stafford, it is no rag tag army of untrained rebels that Pembroke faces. It’s an army raised for the Earl of Warwick and I don’t recall that Warwick counts either you or Pembroke amongst his friends. So you’d better make sure you win - or your glistening new title won’t last the month! Think on that - and think upon it swiftly!”
Ned could have said more, much more, but he did not. Instead he stalked to the inn door and then turned to Bear.
“Help the good earl to finish breaking his fast,” he ordered.
Bear nodded and effortlessly upended the long table where Stafford sat, sending every item on it plummeting towards the earl’s chest. Then he released it to the floor with a crash and followed his master out, leaving a speechless Humphrey Stafford to contemplate the contents of his lap.
When the Earl of Devon emerged from the inn not long after, he seemed a quite different man. He bellowed orders to his captains and they hurried off to meet the irregular columns of archers which were now skirting the northern edge of the town.
“Lead on, Lord Elder,” called Stafford cheerfully across the market place. “Let us go then to Lord Herbert’s aid!”
As Ned well knew, Stafford’s words were meant not for him but for those in the market place witnessing his departure. What they would see was the noble Humphrey Stafford going to the aid of a comrade in the service of his king.
“Pray God we are in time,” muttered Ned. But his worst fears were soon confirmed as the Earl of Devon’s archers advanced at snail’s pace. Ned’s mounted column was soon half a mile ahead.
“Keep a sharp eye behind us,” he told Bear, glancing back to check that Devon was still following.
Ned’s grasp of the terrain around Edgecote Hill was poor. He had only glimpsed it when he arrived at Pembroke’s camp in the gloom of the previous evening. All Ned knew was that there were hills all around them and the rebel approach that morning had taken Pembroke by surprise since it came from the nearby village of Thorpe to the south east - hardly the direction from which they were expecting the northern rebels to come.
Ned halted his men where Hal and Croft waited on a patch of ground overlooking the field. In the valley below them to the east a fierce struggle raged across a stream.
“Lord Herbert’s pike men pushed back the first rebel attack to the river,” reported Hal, “but now they’re struggling to hold the riverbank.”
“Their line grows thin, my lord,” said Croft.
Ned could see for himself that the Welshmen were starting to buckle under the sheer weight of numbers against them.
“Have you seen any rebel horsemen, Hal?” asked Ned.
“No, lord - but they could easily be beyond the hill - Thorpe Hill, I’m told. We’d not see them from here.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” agreed Ned, studying the land that undulated away to the east. “And once we’re down in that valley, we’ll not see much beyond it either.”
“Should we wait for Devon’s archers then?” asked Hal.
“Aye, Hal, we should, but if we do, another hundred Welshmen will die.” He shook his head. “If we wait any longer Pembroke will be routed. We’ll have to risk it.”
He quickly gathered around him the half dozen men he called his captains.
“Let’s keep it simple,” he said. “We ride down into the meadow, cross the stream and cut along the rear of the rebels, raking them with spear, sword and axe. We seek to weaken them, spread alarm and force them to fall back. But we don’t stop! If we’re brought to a halt, we’ll be hemmed in and… well, just don’t stop.”
He gave his captains a few moments to pass on his orders and then set off down the incline towards the valley floor. They carved a furrow through the ripening grasses and then splashed across the stream onto the rebel held bank. There the dread sounds of battle greeted them: the cries of fighting men and the steely exchange of blows. Ned drew out his sword and glanced at Bear on his right hand. He could not resist a smile at the giant Flemish warrior, with his massive war axe in hand. Once a mercenary, he had served Ned loyally for the best part of ten years. If there was an irresistible force amongst mortal men, then Bear was it.
“An Elder, an Elder!” roared Ned and others in the column took up the cry. Thus, well before they reached the enemy, shouts of warning went up. Some of the rebels turned to face them; others backed away and fled as Ned gouged a bloody path into their left flank. Many of the rebels in the rear had yet to be involved in the desperate fighting across the stream and the sudden attack caught them out.
Beside him Bear wrought carnage as the mounted column drove like a keen blade through the rebel host, slicing it in two. Ned knew they must crush the enemy’s fragile resolve speedily for in battle the smallest mistake or accident could herald disaster. Thus it proved, for when a horse went down the deadly charge soon began to slow, as riders became enmeshed in the falling, churning mass of men in their path. Despite Ned’s intention to ride through, he was forced to a halt by those who could not flee fast enough. Once he stopped, others less timid tried to hack at his legs or those of his horse to bring him down. The more he tried to turn aside, the more trapped he became.
As he hacked down at the close press of men around him he saw some all too well, their blood-smeared faces screwed up with anguish or rage. Amongst them all, one face caught his eye for a brief moment. The face was only a few yards away but half-obscured by the man’s helm. A pair of dark eyes bored into him with a look of shock and Ned shrank back. He knew those eyes - he would never forget them - the eyes of a man who should be dead.
Suddenly a pike slid off Ned’s arm and struck the side of his helm, knocking his head back. Bear joined him and drove aside the men around him as a wolf might scatter sheep. Ned looked in vain to catch sight of the face again but it was lost in the crush of retreating men.
“Lord!” bellowed Bear, shaking him from his distraction.
“I’m alright!” cried Ned, moving his head gingerly. Together they rode forward once more. In the stream the Welshmen cheered their arrival and took heart, stepping forward to press their opponents back. Many were trapped between Ned’s horsemen and Pembroke’s spears. For a time the slaughter continued until the remnants of the rebel army scattered up the slopes of Thorpe Hill or fled over the ridge to the east, which brought another roar of triumph from the Welshmen.
Ned dismounted and Pembroke clapped him on the shoulder with a bloodied gauntlet.
“Good timing, Ned!” he shouted. “It seems we shan’t have need of Devon’s archers after all.”
“Perhaps not,” replied Ned, “yet they are on their way all the same - it’ll take them a little longer on foot.”
He stared at Pembroke in admiration. “I thought to find you dead,” he mumbled.
“Never mind me, Ned. You look shaken yourself.”
“I’m well enough,” he replied.
Though he casually dismissed Pembroke’s concerns, he could not dislodge the image of Thomas Gate from his head. Thomas Gate, who had brought such ruin upon him and those he loved. Thomas Gate, whom the Earl of Warwick assured him would be killed. If Ned had any lingering doubts about who was behind the rebel army, they disappeared with that glimpse of Gate, for he was always Warwick’s man.
“When we’ve rested our men,” said Pembroke, “we should head north and drive what’s left of these rebels towards the king at Nottingham. We can break them between us - hammer and anvil, Ned, eh?”
Ned gave a weary nod. “I shall be glad to aid in the rout,” he said, but his thoughts dwelt only on the pursuit of one particular rebel.
He led his horse down to the stream beside which lay the bodies of the fallen. It was never a welcome sight to see so many men laid low, their torn flesh still weeping blood into the water. He had thought such chaos to be behind him years ago - after all, what was the point of crowning a new king if that king was no more able to keep the peace than the last one. He stared at the trodden down grass and broken rushes in the bloody water at his feet - so many years gone by and still the blood flowed. He walked his mount further upstream to join Hal and some others of his men.
“Losses?” he asked Hal.
“God has smiled upon us, my lord: only two dead and four wounded - though one of them like to die, I fear. Bear tends the wounded now.”
“Hal, you didn’t notice anyone you knew in the rebel host, did you?”
Hal shrugged. “I didn’t have much time for looking, my lord. Did you see someone?”
“Aye, I thought so - perhaps. Someone from the small army raised at Yoredale.”
“That army was broken in the winter, my lord - all but destroyed.”
“Aye, all but…” said Ned.
“Take time to rest, my lord,” advised Hal.
“I’ve barely done anything requiring rest,” scoffed Ned. “It’s the horses that need the rest!”
“Yes, lord,” said Hal, “I suppose…”
He stood awkwardly, avoiding Ned’s inquiring glance.
Ned gave a heavy sigh. “Did my lady wife have cause to speak with you, Hal, before we left Corve Manor?”
Hal gave a nervous laugh. “Lady Maighread is a generous soul, my lord. She told me she would pray for our safe return.”
“And?” prompted Ned.
“Nothing else, lord...”
Ned put his hands on Hal’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. The younger man looked away again. “And?” enquired Ned once more.
“She entreated me to… bring you back safe, my lord.”
“My head is fine, Hal,” he said sternly. “It does not ache at all. I have ridden at the charge, I’ve taken a blow from a pike and still I am fine!”
“That’s good, my lord. I didn’t doubt it.”
“Did my lady… entreat anyone else?”
“Well, lord… Bear, I think…” mumbled Hal, “and perhaps Croft… and several others, I dare say...”
Ned shook his head. “So my men believe me to be but a frail husk of what I once was. That should help me a great deal!”
“The lady weakens my lordship,” said Ned softly.
“Not with me, my lord - nor the others.”
“Yet if I hesitate in battle will you think my old head wound has returned? Will you lose attention to your own part of the fight? It’s a dangerous thing, Hal, when men look twice at their leader.”
He left Hal and wandered back towards Pembroke, but before he reached him there were ironic cheers from some of Pembroke’s men as the vanguard of Devon’s archers at last were sighted on the high plateau to the south west where Ned had begun his charge.
Ned gave a rueful smile. Devon would swell their numbers for the coming chase at least, though at the speed they moved it might be Lammastide before they arrived. The column of archers came to a halt on the crest but showed no sign of advancing further. What was the Earl of Devon playing at now? Still reluctant to join his rival, Pembroke, he supposed.
Other cries drew his attention then, cries of warning. He swung his gaze to the south east where he saw that the rebels had reformed on Thorpe Hill and were now advancing down its slopes once more towards them. How had they managed that?
“To arms!” bellowed Pembroke. “To arms!”
Ned hurried back to Hal where he had left his horse and swiftly remounted. Bear was already growling orders and the rest of the men mounted swiftly. The Welsh spearmen wearily picked up their weapons and formed a line on the banks of the stream. Ned cantered across to Pembroke.
“Where would you have us, my lord?” Ned asked.
“Take position on our left flank, Ned. I think you might try the same move again: crossing the stream and attacking their rear.”
Privately Ned doubted that the rebels would be as vulnerable to such an assault a second time. Yet it seemed the best use of his mounted men.
“If Stafford gets a move on then we can rout this host for good,” urged Pembroke. “I suppose he’s waiting for every last one of his men to climb the slope!”
“I doubt he’ll hurry,” said Ned.
Pembroke laughed grimly. “Well, if he’s late, he’ll lose all the valour of the victory - and you may be sure the king will hear of it!”
Ned did not doubt it for Pembroke would not be slow to use Devon’s reluctance to his own advantage later - but first there was a battle to be won. Ned led his troop of men at arms away from the stream and they dismounted in the meadow below Edgecote Hill, well behind Pembroke’s men. By doing so he hoped to keep the rebels guessing about when and where he would strike. The opposing army was more numerous than he had expected. These rebels were no unruly mob; they were organised, resolute and they seemed to have leaders who knew what they were doing. Thomas Gate, for one, was no novice on the field of battle. Ned scanned the approaching ranks but the distance was too great to make out their banners.
“Hal, Bear, Croft!” He called his most trusted men to him. “These men we face are from the north… I fear we may make war against an old enemy. I think I caught a glimpse of Thomas Gate earlier. I could be mistaken - but watch out for him nonetheless.”
Hal glared back at him. “If he’s there, lord, I shall mark him out - you may be sure of that! I will take the memory of his bloody banner to my grave.”
“So shall we all, Hal, but keep your wits clear. The struggle won’t be so easy this time.”
“And still the Earl of Devon stays on the hill, my lord,” observed Hal. “He’s just beyond bowshot...”
“Aye,” said Ned, staring to the south. Then the roaring voices reached a crescendo and there was a mighty crash as the rebel line clashed with Pembroke’s on the west bank of the stream. Ned’s eyes turned once more to the field before him. The Welshmen withstood the first wave of attack and threw the rebels back into the stream, but as more men at arms pressed forward through the water, the spear men began to give ground. Ned noticed that the rebel leaders had kept some men armed with pikes in reserve. They hung back from the fray, as if daring him to intervene. Even so, they were on foot and few in number. His own men, being mounted, would still have the edge - if he judged it well.
“Croft,” he said in a low voice. “A word, if you please.”
Croft was barely twenty-five years old but he was one of Ned’s most experienced men. Ned quickly outlined what he intended and then sent Croft off to choose his men.
In vain he looked to Pembroke for a sign, but the Herbert brothers were embroiled in a close struggle. He gave a nod to Hal and Bear. “Mount the men,” he ordered. “We’ll aim for their left flank again to draw the reserves that way but this time Croft will take half our number across to their right.”
“Crush them between us!” said Bear, looking well pleased at the prospect.
Ned led them down into the stream and once again their presence brought a great clamour from the Welsh spearmen who pressed forward with renewed vigour. He rode across the water and noted with satisfaction that the rebel pike men who had hung back were now rushing to block his charge. With perfect timing, Croft sheered away behind the Welsh line to cross the stream on the rebels’ right flank.
Ned grimaced behind his lowered visor as the rebel pike men hesitated and, at the last minute, several broke away to meet the new threat. Ned’s sword battered aside a pair of pikes and then traced a bloody arc through the first rank. Beside him others rattled their long spears against the pikes to turn their sharp tips aside and thrust at the defenders. With his visor down, Ned could not see how Croft was faring on the far side, so all he could do was press forward in blind hope. Bear was suddenly alongside him once more and they forced a way through. The rebel reserve began to fall back in disarray.
Ned raised his visor and saw Croft ahead, unscathed, and his horsemen savaging the rear of the rebel centre. The manoeuvre had worked better than he could have hoped. The Welshmen now fought their way into the middle of the stream where the fallen began to pile up. They were going to win the day: it was time to seek out Thomas Gate.
“Lord!” Hal was screaming at him.
Ned turned sharply in the saddle but under him his mount shuddered, a pike buried deep in its chest. Ned braced himself for the poor beast to rear up but it did not. It merely gave a snort of blood and collapsed beneath him. Ned was pitched forward onto the pike man struggling to disentangle his weapon. Ned landed on him with some force and both men were slow to rise onto their knees. Ned still had his sword and leant his weight upon it. The other man abandoned his pike shaft and got to his feet first. He drew out a short sword and stabbed at Ned who was too slow to bring up his own weapon. The sword stopped mid-thrust, however, for Bear had calmly buried his pollaxe in the back of the assailant’s neck.
“Lord! Take my horse,” said Hal, swiftly dismounting.
“No, I’ll fight on foot!” declared Ned.
Pembroke’s brother, young Richard Herbert, was almost alongside him having fought his way through the rebel line, his armour slick with blood.
“Nicely done, Lord Elder!” he shouted with a grin. “We shall make short work of these northern outlaws now.”
Ned frowned. “Have a care, Richard. I was a northern outlaw once!”
Richard Herbert grinned again, lowered his visor and proceeded to hack his way back through the rebel lines towards his brother. Ned scoured the line in search of Thomas Gate. Bear and Hal had both dismounted and flanked him as he entered the fray.
“Watch for Gate’s banner,” he snarled.
The field was now no longer two battle lines but a tangle of melees across the stream. In such a broken field Ned acknowledged few peers and the rebels scattered before his sword. Somewhere there, he knew, he would find Thomas Gate.
“Lord!” Hal laid a warning hand upon his arm, something Ned could not remember ever happening before.
“What now, Hal?” he said. Maighread’s interference had a lot to answer for.
Hal pulled him round by the arm to look behind them to the east. He stared at the low ridge beside Thorpe Hill and caught the glint of armour in the midday sun.
“Who in God’s name are they?” he murmured. “Hal, get a horse and ride closer. Try to make out their colours.”
Ned stood off the relentless clamour of battle and watched Hal ride off. He dared not commit his men any further until he knew who was coming up behind them. So he did what he had never done before with a battle raging around him, he hesitated. Bear remained beside him ready to send to Hell any man who came close but Ned’s eyes remained fixed upon Hal. He watched the young rider come to an abrupt halt and then wheel his horse around to gallop back towards them.
Sweat dripped down the inside of Ned’s helm; it ran down his cheeks and into the corners of his dry mouth. He tried to discern from Hal’s manner whether the news was good or ill, but could not. Hal would bring his tidings as fast as his tired mount allowed. Ned glanced up towards the Earl of Devon on the high ground to the south and saw that Stafford had yet to commit his men. What in God’s name was he waiting for?
Hal was shouting but he could not make out the words over the din of battle in his ears. Hal was almost upon him when he learned who was approaching the field from the east.
“Warwick!” cried Hal, “the bear and ragged staff of Warwick comes!”
It struck Ned like a blow from a mailed fist yet he had known from the first that the rebel army was Warwick’s. It should come as no surprise to learn that the earl himself had finally come over from Calais to take charge of it.
“To horse!” he bellowed. “Hal, we must tell Pembroke how it stands.”
Then he realised he did not have a horse. Bear waited with him while Hal gathered several horses and the men regrouped around them. Ned mounted swiftly for Warwick’s vanguard was barely a hundred paces away now and coming on with all speed. He had no need to tell Pembroke for the earl could already see for himself.
“Lord!” yelled Hal, pointing up to the Earl of Devon’s men. Humphrey Stafford had at last made a decision and his archers were on the move. But they were not coming to Pembroke’s aid; instead they were hurrying away to the west.
In that moment Ned knew the battle was lost. Fired by anger, he bludgeoned through the knot of men contesting the centre of the stream, with his horsemen following close behind. He made straight for the Herbert brothers who were rallying their men around them. The rebels at the stream fell back ten yards to reform their line and prepare for the fresh men to join them. It seemed as if all the combatants held their breath as they waited for the first wave of Warwick’s men at arms to arrive.
Ned reached the blue and red standard of William Herbert and cried out: “Warwick has come!”
Pembroke raised his visor. “We can still prevail, my lord!” he declared, bullish as ever.
“They are too many! And that coward, Devon, has run!” cried Ned.
“If we flee now my men will be cut down as they run and none will reach their hearths in Wales,” argued Pembroke.
“Aye, very well then,” said Ned, “we’ll fight on…”
“No, Ned, I’ll fight on a while, but you will not.”
“I’m not leaving this field a second time today!” retorted Ned.
“You must get to the king. His grace may have force enough to come to our aid.”
“I’ll send a trusty man to the king and stay here with you!”
“It must be someone known to his grace,” insisted Pembroke. “Someone whose word he’ll trust at once. You must go!”
“I will not!” roared Ned. “In God’s name, I cannot!”
“Warwick’s numbers can’t yet be that great,” said Pembroke.
“Warwick will have half the Calais garrison with him!” argued Ned. “And Clarence’s retainers too!”
Pembroke shook his head. “We don’t know that - it may just be Warwick’s van. We’ll see if we can force them to pull back, or hold them off till nightfall, then slip away westwards.”
“Nightfall is many hours away, Will.”
“There’s no more time to argue, Ned.” Pembroke clasped his hand. “Take your men and find the king!”
Before Ned could make answer the rebels crashed into their line once more and all discussion ended. For a few moments Ned stood his ground. Then he swung back up into the saddle and wheeled his column of riders across the stream once more. There was no guarantee they could even escape the field for he had no idea what other bands of rebels might be lying in wait.
They tracked north, eyes watchful for any hint of ambush but all they saw were tenants working their land. A bloody battle might be raging nearby, but the war these farmers fought was against dearth in winter, and it was fought with plough and scythe not sword or pollaxe. Some fields were already ripe for harvest and the harvest must be gathered in, at all cost.
He glanced back towards the valley where the Herbert brothers and their Welsh levies would be hard-pressed.
“God’s blood!” he railed at the heavens. He hated abandoning the Welshmen but if Warwick himself had truly taken up arms then the king had to be told. If his grace already knew that the rebels were near Banbury there was a chance he might even be close by.
When they had ridden some miles, Ned thought it safe to slacken their pace, to spare the mounts. Only then did it occur to him that he had missed his chance once more to punish Thomas Gate. He brooded in silence as they continued slowly north-east but they found no sign of the king. It was not a pleasant journey: several men were wounded, some of the horses were lame and the bitter taste of defeat lingered with them all.
“Hal, Croft!” he said. “I want prickers all around us; I don’t want any more surprises.”
When Hal had carried out his orders he returned to ride alongside Ned.
“Aye?” said Ned, with a wary glance at the archer. “Lord what?”
“Do you know where the king is, my lord?” enquired Hal.
Ned sighed. “Oh aye, I do, Hal. He’s somewhere between here and Nottingham…”
He met Hal’s horrified expression with a blank stare.
“What if we… miss him?” asked Hal.
“Then we’re all going to be very… disappointed, Hal.”
“What of my lord Pembroke?” asked Hal.
Ned shook his head. “I’m afraid Pembroke’s finished, lad,” replied Ned. “We had to find the king at once for there to be any hope.”
Hal nodded and blew out his cheeks. “Christ’s Blood…”
“Blood of Christ, indeed...” said Ned.
By the late afternoon they entered what proved to be a large wood and after a mile or so Ned called in his scouts. One by one they reported gloom upon more gloom.
“A column of horsemen heading north, not far behind us,” said the first.
“See their livery?” asked Ned.
“Could be men of Clarence,” offered the scout.
“Aye, and it could be a troop of dancing bears! Next time be certain!” snapped Ned. “What about to the east?”
Another scout spoke up smartly. “A few bands of men on foot, my lord. The nearest… a few miles east of us.”
“Some south, my lord, some east…it’s a bit of a … muddle.”
“Aye, it is. Very well, take your rest for now.”
He dared not risk blundering into a larger hostile force.
“Lord,” whispered Hal, “do you remember this wood?”
“I don’t believe I’ll ever forget it,” acknowledged Ned. “What brutal fate has brought us back to Whittlewood Forest, do you think, Hal?”
“At least it’s a big forest…”
“Aye. We’ll camp here,” he announced.
Bear gave him one of his solemn stares which on this occasion meant: are you sure that’s what you want to do, my lord?
“Some hours before dark, lord,” Hal observed.
“Listen. We’re in Warwick’s own country. We won’t find many friends around here and I don’t want them finding us first either. This is as good a place as any to rest. We’ve plenty of tree cover and there are streams nearby - and some game. We might last here a few days…”
Hal gave him a bleak look. “A few days?”
Ned lowered his voice. “Aye. Hal, we could spend the rest of our lives riding around in circles searching for the king. We know nothing, so if we’re to find him, we must go carefully. Choose three men - good men - and send them out on our best mounts. They’re to ride for no more than a day and then return here. They’re to rest their horses often or they’ll not get back at all. One goes north-west to join the old road towards Leicester, another north towards Northampton and the third further east to cut onto the road to London. They must seek news of the king: his progress - any news or rumour is better than what we have now.”
“Very well, lord,” said Hal, moving to go.
Ned caught his arm. “They must be careful, Hal, secret - and make sure none wear badges. Tell them if they’re not back after three days, we’ll have gone.”
Hal nodded. “Lord… can we stay hidden here for three days?”
“I hope so, Hal. You’d best pray we can.”
“It surely won’t take too long to find the king - I mean, he must be travelling with a large host, my lord?”
“I thought that, but now I’m not so sure, Hal,” murmured Ned. “If he has such a great host, then how did the rebel army get past him?”