I currently have two series published and I am working on more. They say that authors can benefit from having two series on the go at any one time. Also that sticking to a single genre confuses your readers less. Probably good advice but I am not sticking to it!
By the end of this year I will have three ongoing series and a single finished one. The three ongoing will be my historical vampire series, a scifi series and a historical fiction. My finished series will be the middle grade flintlock fantasy series Gunpowder & Alchemy.
Why am I not taking the good advice? Well, I love all these genres, I read them and I love writing them. And I am writing pretty quickly, moving from one book to the next without much space between them and the only way I can maintain that is by switching back and forth between series and genres. It is how I maintain my passion and my pace. Also, all these books are ultimately dealing with epic quests and fantastic adventures with lots of action, driven by great characters and plenty of dry humour. So they’re all me. And I hope that my readers will join me across the genres that they do enjoy.
I have included some excerpts of my published books below. WARNING: the Immortal Knight Chronicles are graphically violent (but not gratuitous, I hope). If you don’t like blood, don’t read them – but do read my Gunpowder & Alchemy series which is suitable for ten-year-olds and up.
Vampire Crusader: the Immortal Knight Chronicles Book 1
Chapter One – The Oath
Riders galloped away from Ashbury manor house at dawn. I had slept in the wood again. The shadows were long but the first rays of the morning sun warmed my face as I walked to the house.
Though I was tired, I hurried. My brother’s crossbow had to be returned before he woke, as I had promised never to touch it again.
It is impossible to sleep late when you sleep outside. You wake to the din of birdsong and light. Yet waking early has its rewards. The thought of fresh bread, hot from the ovens, made my mouth water.
But then hooves drummed against the earth and men jeered from beyond the hedgerows. The clamour shattered the morning and startled a pair of crows into flight overhead, cawing in protest.
I knew the sound of men with their blood up when I heard it. I ran forward, crashing through the mature barley.
The manor house was not a popular place. Visitors were rare, especially since my brother had turned even more sullen than he used to be. He had a handful of friends but none of those dour knights and lords would holler and whoop in such a way. Not at sunrise. Not for any reason.
My sword and mail I had stashed in a chest back at my woodland camp. The crossbow in my hands was useless because Martha had lost the last of the bolts in the undergrowth.
I tossed it and ran on. The only weapon I had was my dagger.
From the noise of the hooves and whinnying and the cries of the men, I guessed there were five or ten of them galloping off. By the time I pushed through the hedge onto the road they were almost away.
The last rider glanced back as he disappeared beyond the hill on the wooded road to Lichfield. He was a knight dressed in mail with a shield slung across his back. His surcoat was red. I could make out no further detail and yet something about him was familiar.
But he was in shadow and then he was gone.
I ran to the boundary of the manor house and leapt the drystone wall and ditch.
My brother’s horses whinnied from the stables on the other side of the house. None of the dogs barked.
The hall door was open. A splintered hole had been hacked through the centre. The doorway was a black void.
I threw myself into the great hall.
The stench of warm blood and torn bowels was overwhelming. I retched.
The mutilated bodies of the servants lay all over. The old, the young, the men and the women had all been dragged into the hall and slaughtered.
I knelt by a few, hoping that some would yet live. Most were still warm to the touch but their wounds were terrible. Throats gouged out. Bellies slit open. Daggers punched through the eyes. There were no survivors.
The fire was unlit and the windows shuttered so I could not see clearly but none of the dead appeared to be my brother, his wife or their children.
A noise. From the floor above. No more than a faint scraping upon the boards.
I gripped my dagger and ran through the great hall through to the rooms beyond, crying out for Henry and for Isabella.
There were more bodies lying in the passage to the pantry and buttery but I went the other way, into the parlour. Streaks of blood led through the door out to the stable and more stained the stairway up to the solar. I leapt up the stairs, ran through the solar and barged through the open the door to their bedchamber.
“Isabella,” I cried.
She lay on her back by the bed in a pool of blood. It soaked her dress and her eyes had rolled up, the lids half closed. A jagged gash had ripped through one shoulder and half her neck was in tatters. The splintered edge of her collarbone jutted from the wet, sucking wound.
I knelt in her blood and lifted the back of her head with one hand. Only the fact that blood flowed and bubbled from the lacerations suggested she had not yet died. But there was no chance that she would live.
“Henry?” Isabella mumbled, her eyes flickering open.
“It is Richard.” I clutched her hand in mine. Her skin as cold and white as marble.
“Richard.” Her voice a whisper. Her eyes unfocused.
“What happened? Who were those men?”
Her eyes stared through me, unseeing. Or perhaps she saw Death. Blood had been flung about the room; sprays of it reaching the painted ceiling above us. I could taste it in the air. Yet there was no other body.
“Where is Henry, my lady? Where is your husband?”
“Gone,” she whispered. “Slain.”
“The children?” I said, though I did not want to ask.
She squeezed her eyes shut. “He killed them.” She sobbed and blood streamed from her mouth. “Oh God, he killed my babies.”
I struggled for breath. “Who?”
“Satan himself.” There was blood in her voice and she coughed, struggling for breath.
Perhaps I should have told her that she would soon see her sweet children in Heaven.
I could have told her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her. But in that moment the weeks and months of my romantic infatuation were insignificant. Absurd, even.
I should certainly have told her to lay still and held her as she drew her last breath.
Instead of compassion, I was full of outrage and wrath. All I wanted was to destroy.
“Who do you name as Satan?” I demanded, lifting her head up further. “Isabella. Who were those men?”
Her head rolled back and I grasped it and held it up to mine.
My voice rose. “Isabella.”
Her eyes flickered open and she breathed, shuddering then coughed a spray of blood.
“Richard?” Her voice was weak, confused. She had always been so slight, so delicate but she clung on to the last moments of her life.
“I am here.” I squeezed her cold hand, blinking away tears.
“Richard.” Her voice was so quiet I stilled my breath to hear it.
“Richard, it was William.” She coughed more blood, fighting for breath.
I struggled to understand. I had assumed that war had come to Derbyshire. That the Welsh had attacked across the border or the Scots had somehow raided this far south.
“William? Earl William de Ferrers did this?” I should not have been quite so surprised.
“Richard,” she said, grasping my arm with desperate strength and opened her beautiful eyes wide to look deep into mine. “Richard, you must avenge your brother’s death. Avenge the death of his children.”
“I will, my lady.”
“I shall not rest, I shall not live, I shall not die until William lies dead by my sword. This I swear to you and to Almighty God with all my heart.”
Her mouth twitched. “Amen.”
She died. Her last breath was a sigh that stoppered with blood. I held her as she choked and drowned on what little blood remained in her body.
It was 1190. In the eight hundred years since that day, I have travelled the world in pursuit of my enemy, William de Ferrers. Many times, over many centuries and in many lands I fought him.
William left a trail of horror in his wake. I did my duty to avenge all those that he and his followers slaughtered. I spent centuries hunting and destroying the monsters that he made. Always he made more.
Wherever there was great death and evil in the world, William was never far. I fought him in the New World, the Far East and in Napoleon’s Europe. I tracked him through the horrors of the Black Death and the overwhelming destruction on the Eastern Front.
He was crusader, outlaw, khan. He was a count, a cavalier and a cardinal.
William was a murderer, a devil.
Vampire Outlaw: the Immortal Knight Chronicles Book 2
Richard of Ashbury and the invasion of England: May 1216 to September 1217
Chapter One – Archer Hunt
When you want to attack a hall and kill those inside, it is best to do it in the hours before dawn. Your victims will be sleeping at their deepest and will be easy prey. I have carried out such attacks myself on many a dark night over the centuries.
One late spring night in 1216 it was my own hall that was attacked. It was I that slept inside when William’s blood drinking monsters came to burn my home to the ground. My home was the manor house of Ashbury in Derbyshire, England. I was still the lord there but I would not be for very much longer.
“Richard,” Jocelyn said. He shook me awake. “Richard, wake up, you drunken sod.”
“Get off me,” I said to the man-shaped shadow above me. My head pounded. My throat was full of wine-flavoured bile. I had been sleeping heavily, dead to the world.
“We are attacked,” Jocelyn cried. “Arm yourself before they force their way inside.”
It was dark but for Jocelyn’s lamp, held high by his head. The shadows it cast on his face made him look older than his thirty-one years.
I rolled from my bed and pulled myself upright on his arm. “Out of my way.”
Usually, I slept naked but I had fallen into bed without fully undressing the night before so I wore a long shirt and hose. I staggered to my swords. Always, I have kept at least one near me when I slept. Keep your weapons within reach at all times, or else why even keep them? I grabbed the best blade from the stand in the corner and the familiar feel of a hilt against my palm brought me to my senses.
A man was shouting outside. A sharp thud echoed through the building. Then another. It was coming from the ground floor, just below my bedchamber.
“What is happening?” I growled at Jocelyn as I pushed my bare feet into a pair of shoes. “What is that fellow yelling about?”
“Sounds as though he is urging us to wake up,” Jocelyn said. “And the banging noise, I assume, means they are attempting to break down the hall door.”
I grunted. I had made sure that the main door into my hall was reinforced with iron bands and heavy timbers. “They are welcome to try. What of Emma?” I asked him.
“I checked on her. She said her door is barred and she had armed herself behind it.” Jocelyn shrugged. “What she is armed with, I can only imagine. A stern word, perhaps.”
“Where is Anselm?” I asked as I pushed by Jocelyn. He was not tall but he was as broad at the shoulder as an ox.
He stomped after me out of my chamber and through what was called the solar, or the day room, that led to the stairs down into the hall below. Two other doors led off the solar, Jocelyn’s bedchamber and his sister Emma’s bedchamber. Both very small rooms but I could never have afforded to build anything larger.
“Stay in your chamber, Emma,” I shouted as we stomped through.
She shouted something I did not hear but no doubt it was very witty.
Jocelyn answered my earlier question. “Anselm is carrying our shields to the hall.” He spoke French, as we did when talking amongst ourselves.
“Good man,” I said, meaning his squire.
Two more thuds in quick succession resounded on the timbers downstairs.
The shouting man outside the hall fell silent. Yet the massive thudding continued as I clattered down the stairway into the rear of the hall. A dozen of my servants waited down there in the parlour, gathered together like frightened geese. All but two were men. Some faces were young, most were old. They smelled of stale smoke and the shivering-sweat stink of fresh fear.
“Do not be concerned,” I said to the servants in English as I descended the stairs. “It sounds as though we have a few drunken robbers attempting a raid.” I looked at each face in turn. “We must suppose that they do not know who is the lord here. If they know this is the manor house of Sir Richard of Ashbury then they are desperate outlaws indeed, are they not?”
I was never particularly gifted when it came to levity. A few of them chuckled but they were nervous. Everyone in Ashbury remembered the attack on the manor house twenty-five years earlier when the lord, his family and almost all the servants had been slaughtered in the night by William de Ferrers and his knights. The lord back then had been my brother Henry. My half-brother, as I had discovered, although no one in Ashbury knew I was a bastard. So they feared the Ashbury family curse had returned. A few of the people before me had lost family of their own in that same attack.
A huge blow from the fellows pounding and hacking on the door shook the timbers again. A couple of servants jumped, startled at the sound. They had been woken from where they slept in the hall, were shivering in thin shifts and undergarments under their cloaks or blankets. Most were ashen-faced in the candlelight.
Yet, Old Cuthbert, my faithful, sour-faced steward, clutched a splitting axe to his chest and had his ancient iron helm jammed down upon his narrow head. Others had grabbed their spears. Those without true weapons had their daggers in their hands, even the women who clutched tight to their husbands.
“Look at you all,” I said. “You brave souls would strike terror into any man who broke in here. I could almost pity them. Perhaps we should pray for them, what do you say?”
The pounding continued. There was a crack as one of the door timbers split.
Jocelyn pushed past me and through the servants and strode into the hall, calling to his squire, Anselm.
“They must be hungry indeed to attempt such an attack as this,” I said to my servants, speaking lightly. “We must ensure we give them a proper welcome. Cuthbert, see that the hearth fire is started. Light plenty of lamps and candles and have them placed throughout the hall, especially by the door. Do so as quickly as you can and then wait together at the back of the hall where I can see you all.”
“Yes, my lord,” Old Cuthbert said and turned to the others, his weasel face pinched with concern. “Right then, you heard the lord. Let’s prepare for visitors.” He snapped out orders like a veteran commander so I left him to it and followed Jocelyn into the darkness of my hall.
At the far end was Jocelyn’s squire, Anselm, who was sixteen years’ old and full to the brim with a powerful sense of duty. Anselm held a lamp aloft, casting a faint ring of yellow light about him and Jocelyn.
“Your shield,” Jocelyn said and generously held it for me while I threaded my arm into the strap. It was kite-shaped, with a flat top. Jocelyn favoured the old fashioned sort with the longer, tapered shape, like a beech leaf to better protect his left leg when on horseback.
“Shall I bring your hauberks, my lords?” Anselm asked, his eyes wide in the torchlight. The lad was, strictly speaking, Sir Jocelyn’s squire alone but the boy was performing double duty. I decided I had to hurry up and accept a new squire. It was not fair on Anselm to look after two knights.
The door thudded and cracked again. There were angry voices outside, beyond the door. Likely, it was no more than two or three men, I thought. I could hear no other voices through the timber walls to either side of the hall.
The axe blade on the other side squeaked as it was wiggled from the cleft it had gouged into my door.
“We have plenty of time to put on our hauberks, Richard,” Jocelyn said, seeing my hesitation. “They would need an army with a battering ram to break down that ridiculous door.”
My servants busied themselves behind me, whispering to each other as they lit lamps and tallow candles. Few of them understood French well enough to know what Jocelyn was saying.
“No need for us to be armoured,” I said, loudly and in English for my servant’s benefit. “It is no more than a handful of desperate peasants. We could deal with them in our underwear.”
Jocelyn looked unconvinced. Of course, he was quite right. I was being an arrogant fool, as usual.
The door shuddered again. The reinforced frame shook.
“He’s strong,” I said, appreciatively.
Jocelyn grunted. “Still take them forever to get through it. What are we going to do with ourselves until then?”
It was light enough in the hall to see by. My servants gathered at the back of the hall by the top table, as far from the door as possible.
“Do not be absurd, man,” I said to Jocelyn. “I am not allowing them to damage that door any more than they already have. Do you know how much that timber cost me? I had to send Cuthbert all the way to Nottingham to buy the iron for the hinges. We shall open it and let them in.”
“I understand your reasoning with regards to preserving the door,” Jocelyn said. “But have no knowledge of what is on the other side of it. You yourself have said to me that knowledge of your enemy should be the first place that you strike.”
“I have never uttered anything as absurd as that. Go on, Jocelyn, stand by the door and be ready to lift the bar,” I said and drew my sword. I swung it in arcs to loosen my arm. “I should have taken a piss,” I said.
Jocelyn shook his head. “I have not seen you this happy since Normandy.”
“Men are breaking into my home,” I said. “I am not happy.”
He snorted and went to the door, leaving his squire standing by my side.
“What should I do, my lord?” Jocelyn’s squire Anselm asked.
“You know your duty,” Jocelyn said from the shaking door.
I glanced at the boy. His eyes shone in the candlelight. He was brave and strong but I remembered well what it was like to be young. “Stand by Jocelyn’s side, with your sword and shield held ready. Remember your training. Anselm, have I ever told you that you are as fine a squire as I have ever known?”
There was just enough light to see his face flushed. “No, sir.”
“You’ll do well. “
The door cracked again, shaking under the power of the blow.
“He is not tiring, is he,” Jocelyn said and he spat on his hands and rubbed them on his tunic. His sword was sheathed and hanging from his belt and he slung his shield on his back by the shoulder strap.
“If it goes against us and we fall,” I added to Anselm. “You run to the Lady Emma’s bedchamber and defend her door against intruders. Understand?”
“I shall defend her with my life, my lord,” Anselm said, swallowing hard.
I nodded to Jocelyn. He waited until the centre of the door resounded once more from a blow and he lifted the locking beam out of its iron hooks. It was a heavy thing, thick enough for a castle keep, but Jocelyn was strong and he pulled it up and tossed it aside, it bouncing and rolling to a stop.
Jocelyn yanked the door open wide.
When that door opened, I expected to find two or three starving peasants, shivering in the night air. I expected the largest of them to be holding a woodman’s axe. I would see them cast in the lamplight from my hall and hopefully they would be blinded by it. My intention was to charge into the men there and knock them senseless. I was hoping that they would not give up without, at least, having a go at me. Depending on how well they fought, I would either knock them senseless or spill their guts onto my doorstep.
So I was not afraid.
And despite all that, I lifted my up shield.
It was a reflex. It was the most natural thing in the world. I had trained for years to hold my shield high and head low at the beginning of combat. It was as natural as taking a deep breath before plunging into a cold lake.
And a lucky thing it was, too.
An arrow shot through the door before it was halfway open. It thudded into the top of my shield, sheering off to the side but hitting with power enough to knock the rim back to strike me upon the forehead.
I kicked myself for not taking the time to dress for war. Why would I not take the time to put on a helmet or a mail coif or even an arming doublet? Sheer arrogance. My anger boiled up and I stepped forward to murder that bastard bloody peasant archer.
A man charged through the door, two-handed axe raised over his head. He came right at me, screaming a wordless challenge. His hair and beard were wild, matted and filthy. The fellow was soaked, his dark green clothes heavy with rain.
For a big, heavy man he was faster than he had any right to be.
I let him come to me. He swung the axe at an angle, down and round at my head in a wide arc. Instead of taking such a wild, log-splitting blow upon my shield, I stepped back. His axe whooshed past my face leaving him overbalanced, his mouth snarled up behind his beard. I braced and smashed the side of his body with my shield.
With my incredible strength, a thump like that would knock most men down, sprawling, dazed, and weeping. Instead, with that huge hairy madman, it was like bashing a stone wall. He rocked back, shook his head like a bull and swung again.
His hand speed was fast. But he was swinging for power, not for swiftness. His strike came from down low, up toward my balls but he assumed that I would stand and wait for the blow to fall, as if I were a tree trunk or a hall door.
I stepped forward and drove the point of my sword through his chest, punching through his clothes, skin and flesh up the crosspiece, which I punched into him and bore him down. My blade was as sharp as the devil’s tongue and I yanked the steel out of his body without catching on ribs or cloth, before the point touched the floor. Blood gushed and bubbled out of his chest, front and back. I had managed to run him through the heart, or close enough. The smell of that fresh blood was delicious. I wanted to bury my face in the body, to close my mouth about the frothing wound and drink it down. Instead, I resisted and came to my senses.
To shouting and the clash of arms.
A second man drove Jocelyn back away from the doorway, snarling and smacking against his shield with a huge blade. Jocelyn was trying to turn the attacker, stepping sideways as he retreated.
Anselm shuffled away in a guard position to give his master room to fight. My servants shouted encouragement and screamed in terror behind me.
Another arrow flashed from the darkness beyond the open doorway.
I raised my shield and the thing thudded hard through the layered wood and leather. The whole arrowhead, barbs and all, punched through. The wicked point on it stopped an inch from my eyeball.
I peered over the rim.
Two bowmen lurked outside in the dark, ten yards beyond the doorway on the path. Little more than shadows in the shade.
“I’ll gut you bastards,” I roared, shaking my sword and shield like a madman. I strode toward them.
The archers fled. They flitted like black-grey birds and ran. I reached the doorway in time to see them swarming up and over the ten-foot high gateway like rats. Then they were gone.
They moved with a speed and manner the like of which I had not seen for more than twenty years and a thousand miles.
Full with the blood lust, I ran back inside to the remaining attacker. That man hacked at Jocelyn’s shield with the widest falchion I had ever seen. It was a cross between a sword and a meat cleaver.
“Out of the way, Anselm,” I shouted at the squire, who should have been running the attacker through instead of standing back from him.
Despite his attempts at clever footwork, Jocelyn had cornered himself. His shield was being chopped to pieces by the huge blade that the man smashed down over and over with an animal ferocity. His shield all but gone, Jocelyn was parrying with his blade.
“Now you die,” I said to the man as I came within range of a strike.
He spun like a whip and his blade slashed at me, roaring in anger with his reeking, rotten mouth. I was expecting it, wanted it, but he was faster than any man I had fought in years. Faster even that the axemen I had felled. The blade cut the air over my head but he was hugely overextended and before he could recover, I straightened to smash the pommel of my sword into the top of his head. It cracked his skull in and his legs buckled.
Still he fell no further than to one knee, resting his weight upon his falchion. It was a blow that would have felled a horse and yet the fellow struggled to his feet.
William de Ferrers’ men, those he had fed with his own blood, had been able to resist such a strike.
Jocelyn pushed forward and bashed what was left of the shield into the man’s back. He staggered forward, slammed into the wall beside the doorway, breaking off a whole section of the painted plaster I had done a couple of years before. The man slumped and dropped his falchion by his side. His eyes glazed over and a trickle of shining dark blood ran down his cheek from the crack I had made in his skull.
Jocelyn, his face twisted in anger, stalked forward to finish the stranger off.
“Wait,” I commanded.
Jocelyn half-turned to me. “He is mine to kill.”
“Yes but I wish to know who he is,” I said, fighting the urge to crack Jocelyn on the skull for speaking to me with such disrespect.
“He’s a bloody madman, is who he is,” Jocelyn said, his eyes wide. “Do you see what he has done to my shield, Richard?”
I was laughing when the man leapt to his feet and charged me, screaming like a demon.
“Christ!” Jocelyn shouted and jumped back out of the way.
I checked the man’s rush, the arrow stuck in my shield snapping against his body. He rebounded from me and I pushed him back down against the wall in a shower of plaster. The damage to the wall was particularly infuriating because I had spent money I did not have in order to brighten up my hall in an effort to keep Emma happy.
So I stamped on his knee, hard and all he did was growl at me so I smashed his nose with my fist, crunching the bone and splitting the skin apart. His head rocked back and he settled down, finally, clutching his destroyed face and whimpering.
He was younger than I had first thought. His green clothes were dirty but not ragged and had barely been mended, suggesting they were new. He wore a cap dyed the same shade of green. Like his friend, he was sopping wet from the night’s rain.
“You are a keen fellow,” I said. “Who are you?”
He snarled and started to rise so stabbed my sword through his knee and ground the point against the bones inside. He screamed like an animal. And he smelled like one, too.
“He moves as quickly as you do,” Jocelyn said, sounding offended. “Or almost.”
The man thrashed around and cursed, his voice hoarse from screaming. He was smearing his blood all over my wall and floor.
“Go and see to the door,” I said to Jocelyn. “There was a third and fourth man. Archers, both. They ran.”
“I am sure they did,” Jocelyn said and ran to the door. His squire followed and together they shut it and came back to me.
“Watch him closely,” I said to Jocelyn and turned to my servants. “It is over for now. The sun will be up soon enough. There are at least two more of these fellows but I doubt they will return. Cuthbert, I shall ride out for those archers this morning. Have the horses readied. My grey courser. Bert the Bone, wake up your bloody useless dogs. We shall all need food. God bless your brave souls. Worry not about this man here, nor the filthy fellow over there. I shall deal with them both. Now, be about your day.”
They busied themselves with excited whispers and I turned my attention to my prisoner.
The man was jammed up against the wall, half propped up and half lying to one side. He leaned on one elbow and his other hand clutched his ruined knee. I had no doubt he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. His head was bleeding and his nose smashed. A stream of blood welled from his head and ran down his face and neck onto his chest. The blood from his leg leaked onto the floor. It smelled wonderful, almost masking the foulness of his skin and hair.
“I am Sir Richard of Ashbury,” I said to the man speaking English. “I am lord of the manor. I should take you to the sheriff, I suppose but I think that instead I shall kill you.”
In truth, I had no intention to kill him. My blood lust was fading. His speed and power intrigued me, as it reminded me of the men I had fought many years before, in Palestine. Instead, I was attempting to unsettle him.
He laughed. A gurgling, hacking laugh that shook his body.
“I cannot die,” the man said, his manner of speech that of a commoner. His voice was a growl like gravel grinding on steel. “I will live forever in Eden. By the power of the Green Lord’s blood in this life. I die and I live again. I cannot die. You can do nothing to me, nothing.”
Jocelyn bristled. “He is truly a madman,” he said and stopped when he turned to me. “What is it?”
His words were echoes of the mad ravings of the followers of William de Ferrers twenty-five years before, in the Holy Land. The talk of a Green Lord was new but it was the same madness.
“Richard?” Jocelyn said, prompting me. I shook my head.
Could it be, I wondered, that William had returned to England? It was the sort of attack he liked to make. If so, why send merely a few men to attack me? I was almost offended that he would send so few, and those few barely competent. If it was indeed William, surely he would have known they would fail.
Jocelyn sighed at my prolonged silence and sank to his knees before the man. The hall behind me grew lighter as the hearth fire grew to flame and the servants busied themselves lighting more tallow candles.
“Did you not hear?” Jocelyn said. “Are your ears stoppered with mud? A lord has commanded you to speak your name. From where have you come? Why did you attack us so? You know that we are knights, do you not? You could never have defeated us.”
The man stared at Jocelyn. His eyes ran, behind his smashed nose, a small smile on his bloody lips. He chuckled, like a saw catching on a knot of wood.
“Do not think feigning madness will save you,” Jocelyn said. “Madness or not, you shall be tried and the court will certainly condemn you to death. Do you understand that? Do you? But perhaps you can do right by God. Perhaps the court will treat you with sympathy if you were merely doing as commanded. Did your lord send you here? Who is he? Is he one of the rebels? Which of the rebel barons is your master?”
The man’s eyes were wild and full of joy. His bloody smile spread slowly wider across his face. The man licked his lips.
“Jocelyn,” I said, starting a warning.
Jocelyn half turned to me and the man darted forward, quick as a cat and yanked Jocelyn’s dagger from his belt.
Startled, Jocelyn fell back and scrambled away. I moved forward, ready to stop the man in green from stabbing Jocelyn.
Instead, the man plunged the dagger into his own eye, up to the hilt.
He was laughing as he died.
We all fell silent as the body slump sideways to the floor. It lay still, but for a jerking foot.
“What in the name of God?” Jocelyn cried.
The hall crackled with the sound of the growing hearth fire. My servants froze in the middle of whatever task they were doing. Anselm’s face, behind me, was white.
“He murdered himself,” Jocelyn said.
Anselm cleared his throat. “Why would he do such a thing, lord?”
I looked back at the body of the other attacker. It may have been my imagination or the flickering of the firelight but I thought perhaps the dead man’s body moved. A leg jigging. Bodies did that sometimes and yet I wanted to be certain.
Jocelyn spoke to Anselm. “He was a madman,” he said. “Moon touched.”
“We will carry both men into the yard,” I said to Jocelyn and Anselm. “We three. We shall take their heads and toss the corpses into a pit by the pig sty.” They both stared at me as if I was mad. I cuffed at my mouth. The smell of the blood was making me salivate. “And then we shall eat while our horses are prepared. We have a pair of archers to catch.”
With those archers, I had two more chances to discover if my old enemy had truly returned to England.
If so, I would torture from them the truth of what William de Ferrers’ intentions were.
And where, precisely, I could find him.
White Wind Rising: Gunpowder & Alchemy Book 1
Chapter 1 – A Terrible Mistake
‘Alchemist!’ Archer called. His voice came out quietly and blew away on the wind. He cleared his throat and tried again, louder. ‘Alchemist!’
The Alchemist’s Tower stretched above him. Tall and white and silent but for the wind that whistled in his ears.
The Tower stood in the centre of the Vale upon a great rock plinth. The Vale was a long flat floodplain surrounded by hills and the Moon Forest.
There were no doors on the Tower and no windows either. The only way in had to be through magic.
Archer did not want to go in. The thought was terrifying. All he wanted was to make a perfectly reasonable request and then get home.
‘Alchemist!’ he called again. ‘I have come to ask a favour.’
Archer wondered how to ask it but, in truth, it was simple enough.
‘Please, this year would you allow my mother and father to keep more of their grain? Just a little more would make all the difference.’
When the grown-ups spoke of the Alchemist at all, they did so in whispers. They said that the Alchemist was all-powerful. He watched everyone in the Vale from the top of the Tower. There was a dragon inside. If you were naughty then the Alchemist would come and take you away. The Alchemist walked the Vale, hooded and cloaked.
When it was dark, they said, you might see his eyeball gleaming through the keyhole in your front door. Archer did not believe that was true but he could not walk by the door of the farmhouse at night without glancing at it.
‘Alchemist,’ he cried. ‘It’s me, Archer.’ Then he felt foolish because of course the Alchemist would surely have no idea who he was. He was just a farmer’s boy from up Vale way.
If the Alchemist were really up there, looking down, then Archer would look like nothing. He would be a speck. Like a flea on the back of a great white sheepdog. All Archer had was his bow and a few arrows. What defence that would be against the powers of the Alchemist?
His heart hammered at the thought of his insignificance compared to the Tower and to the Alchemist. He could not run away, not now that he had come all the way down the Vale. He had walked halfway to Morningtree!
Archer ran up and kicked the Tower.
‘Ouch!’ Archer danced back, holding his toes through his boot. He hopped around, shaking his foot.
‘Who do you think you are, anyway?’ Archer shouted, his voice louder than it had ever been. ‘You will never see me. Will you? You will never speak to me. You just sit up there forcing us to work but you know nothing of the troubles of the Vale folk. You force us to give you almost everything we grow or make, every year. My parents cart up our wheat and our wool. And what do you give us in return? Nothing, that’s what.’
A white anger gripped his heart.
‘You should not treat us this way. We deserve better.’ Archer struggled to find words for his feelings. ‘All you do is take. You are a bad person. We would all be better off if you were not up there. Why don’t you just go away and leave us all alone?’
The Tower filled his vision and stretched up into the blue sky above. The wind blew about his ears and kicked up a cloud of white dust underfoot. In the distance, a sheep bleated.
Archer opened his mouth to call one last time before he gave up and went home.
A flash of light. Purple and white sounds filled his head.
Everything went slow.
There was a rushing through his heart like a cold white wind, down in the core of himself. It was frightening, even terrifying but also good. It was new. It was familiar. The white wind made him feel strong. It made him feel connected to something. If he could reach out and touch it, then he would know….
The world turned blue.
Then yellow and green.
Red and orange sparks fell in a shower all around him. Archer’s body twisted and turned. He was lighter than a fletch and then heavy like a millstone.
He fell to the ground, the wind knocked out of him.
It was dark. He was on his knees. On flagstones.
He looked up. It took a few moments to adjust from the glare of the sunlight and the flashing, colourful lights. But there was the flickering of a large fire in one side of the room.
He was in a room.
Inside the Tower.
Archer leapt to his feet and his head swam. Bile rose up from his guts and he bent to his knees.
‘Blurgh,’ he said but he was not sick.
He wobbled for a moment until his head cleared. He dusted himself off. He had never had spell cast on him before and he was not sure that he liked it all that much. He felt weak and shaky; the kind of feeling you get after you have vomited yourself empty or if you have not eaten for two or three days. Like last winter.
Taking a deep breath, he looked around.
He was near the centre of very large room, a room with a wall that went all the way round in a vast circle.
Light came from the fire in the vast fireplace against the wall. The deep orange-red light casting flickered shadows everywhere. It was hot. A good fire. Even though the room was so enormous he could feel the warmth of the fire on his face from the other side.
There was a solid old table by the fire with a jug and cups and bowls on it. The side of the room opposite the fire was dark. Up beyond the rafters it was too dark to even see a ceiling.
Around the wall to one side was hundreds of sacks of grain, on the other were vast stacks of logs. Hanging from the rafters on long strings were row upon row of dried herbs and garlics and dried vegetables.
It was a kitchen. A very large kitchen, ten times bigger and more than the one in his house. But it was still a kitchen.
Next to him, in the centre of the room there was a stone-walled well with a bucket and coil of rope.
There was no way out.
No door. No window.
He was alone.
‘Hello?’ Archer said, his voice echoing softly around the cavernous space.
‘YOU DARED APPROACH MY TOWER.’
The voice boomed out of the walls and ceiling so loudly that Archer clamped his hands over his ears.
‘Yes,’ said Archer, speaking up toward the dark ceiling. He cleared his throat and said what he had come to say. ‘I come to you humbly to ask if you would please stop asking for quite so much of our wheat and our wool. My parents give you almost all of it, every year. And then there is never quite enough bread to eat. And there is not enough left over to sell at the markets in Bures or Morningtree or to trade for the other things we need. I hope you will not think I am asking too much.’
‘NO.’ The voice of the Alchemist boomed out again. ‘YOU ARE A FOOL.’ The voice was thunder. ‘YOU DEMAND FAVOURS YET YOU OWE YOUR EXISTENCE TO ME. I PROTECT YOU ALL FROM THE WORLD BEYOND THE VALE.’
Archer realised then that he had a terrible mistake in coming to the Alchemist’s Tower.
‘I see,’ he said, his heart pounding in his chest, the voice so loud it hurt his head. ‘I am sorry. I will go back home.’
‘NO,’ the Alchemist’s voice hammered. ‘YOU ARE MY NEW BAKER. EVERY DAY YOU WILL BAKE FIVE LOAVES OF BREAD.’ The echo of the voice boomed round the small room. ‘EVERY DAY YOU WILL FILL FIVE JUGS OF WATER. NOW, MY LITTLE BAKER. GET TO WORK.’
The echo bounced around the walls and all was then still. The fire crackled.
‘What?’ The boy whispered to himself, then looked up at the distant ceiling. ‘No. Alchemist, please. I did not mean to offend you. Please, let me go home. My parents will not know where I am. You must let me go.’
‘GO?’ The voice returned, slamming into him, knocking him to his knees. The voice laughed a slow, deep, humourless laugh. Archer, on all fours on the floor, pushed his forehead against the stone floor and wrapped his arms around his head. ‘YOU WILL BAKE MY BREAD OR YOUR FAMILY SHALL KEEP NOTHING.’
‘But,’ Archer said. ‘I want to go home.’
‘YOU HAVE CHOSEN. YOU ARE MINE NOW.’
‘For how long?’ he asked.
‘FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.’
Keep reading White Wind Rising. Get it on Amazon US / UK
Dark Water Breaking: Gunpowder & Alchemy Book 2
Chaper 1 – I’m Not a Witch!
‘Get in there, witch,’ the bailiff said as he shoved Writer hard through the doorway.
She staggered into the tiny room.
‘And don’t try no witchy business, neither. We got your magic spell book so you can’t do nothing. We’re going to be watching you.’
‘You ignorant great brute,’ Writer said, spinning round on him and the other bailiff who stood with him just outside the door of the Guildhall records room. ‘How many times must I say it? I’m not a witch,’ she said while rubbing her upper arm where he had gripped her so roughly. ‘You fools are going to regret this.’
The first man’s face twisted in anger and he took a step inside the door and raised his fist.
‘I don’t like you should speak to me like that,’ he said looming over her, blocking the light from the doorway.
Writer knew from the blank look in his eyes and his garbled speech that he was truly stupid. But he was also enormous. He filled the small room almost from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.
She backed away ready to defend herself. Flashes of half-remembered enchantments raced uselessly through her mind. If only they had not stolen Bede’s spell book from her.
‘Hold up, Ned,’ the other bailiff said and reached up from behind to grab the stupid giant on his shoulder with his right arm. The arm moved awkwardly and made a strange whirring sound. He wore a glove over that hand. ‘Hopkins says you can’t do anything to her until after the trial. You remember that, don’t you, Ned?’
Ned twisted half around and looked at the bailiff who was in charge. Writer could see Ned’s tiny brain working; his ugly face screwed up in concentration.
‘Hopkins says not hurt the witch until after trial?’ he said, his voice as thick as a dollop of mud. ‘That what you be saying to me, Stearne?’
‘That’s right, Big Ned,’ the other brute called Stearne said, with a sigh. ‘Come on out now, leave her be.’
Ned thought about it, looked back at Writer with a sneer, turned, and ducked out of the room.
‘Thank you,’ she said to the other brute, Stearne.
‘Shut your face, witch,’ Stearne said, and spat on the floor. ‘You’ll get what’s coming to you soon enough, don’t you worry.’ He laughed at her and stepped inside. He had a long face, pockmarked and scarred and a nose broken and reset all wonky. His teeth were the colour of rotten sandstone.
She raised one hand, as if she was going to cast a spell. ‘Don’t try anything,’ she said. ‘I’ll kill you.’
Stearne laughed. ‘If you could do magic you’d have done it last night when my lads kicked your door in. I hope your old dad wasn’t hurt too bad. Fancy putting up a fight, at his age? I bet he’s having a right moan at Hopkins right now, for all the good it’ll do him. Nah, you can’t do magic, girl. Pull the other one.’
He had seen through her feeble lies. It was infuriating.
‘You’re a prisoner now,’ Stearne said, his both hands on his hips, the strange one twitching inside its thick glove. ‘You’ll be here a couple days while Hopkins gets everything ready for your trial, like talking round the locals and getting folk fired up. Don’t worry about Ned or the other lads. Torture is against the law in England so we’ll get your confession without hurting you.’
‘Confession?’ she said. ‘Why would I confess if I am not guilty?’
Stearne laughed. ‘You’re guilty if our court finds you guilty. And it will. Hopkins will see to that.’
‘I am not a witch,’ she said, defiantly.
‘Everyone denies it their first night,’ Stearne said, grinning. ‘What do you reckon they’re saying by their last night?’
Who did these outsiders think they were? They had hammered on her parents’ front door in the middle of the night and barged in, knocking her elderly father to the floor. Four large men armed with cudgels and a sheet of parchment that war barely legible and written in the most appallingly sloppy hand stating that she, Maerwynn of Straytford was to be taken for trial to answer accusations of the malicious practice of witchcraft and for fraternisation with alchemists and treason against the Parliament of England. Fraternisation, she knew, meant associating with someone in a brotherly fashion. Fraternising with Bede? It was utterly, ludicrously absurd.
‘Who even are you people?’ Writer demanded. ‘You are outsiders, are you not? You are not of the Vale. By what authority do you arrest me in the middle of the night and drag me here to Morningtree? Why am I being locked in the records room in the Guildhall? What have the Guildsmen got to do with anything? You claim to be bailiffs but bailiffs for whom? And who is this Hopkins, is he in charge of you brutes? I must speak with him.’
Stearne grinned. ‘By the authority of the Parliament of England. We’re bailiffs for Hopkins who is the Witchfinder General and who carries warrants and writs and passes commanding him to root out all those who practice alchemy or malicious witchery or support the traitor king Charles Stuart. So you put that in your pipe and smoke it, girl. As for Hopkins, well you’ll meet him, girl, all in good time.’
‘I have some information about you here.’ Stearne pulled a rolled up piece of paper from one sleeve and opened it. His right hand was stiff and the fingers continued opening and closing almost at random for a few moments while he held the paper with his left hand. ‘Now, it says you lived and fraternised with the Alchemist of the Vale, a renegade of the Guild called Bede, for many years. That true, girl?’
‘Lived with him? Fraternised?’ she asked, astonished. ‘I was his prisoner. He made me copy out text all day long, day after day.’ She had written out books, codices and scrolls and translated texts and treatises. She did not see how she could be responsible for anything criminal when it was she that had been the prisoner. She had never had a choice.
‘I see,’ Stearne said, nodding and looking at the paper. ‘And he taught you alchemy.’
‘He taught me nothing. Everything I learned, I learned by myself. In spite of him.’
‘And yet we found Bede’s Codex, his spell book, in your possession.’
‘I took it when I escaped.’ Then she had kept the book, which Bede had always called his Wicungboc under her bed at home. Stearne and his brutes had found it when they tore through her home and arrested her. The Wicungboc had been the first thing she read after she woke and the last thing she read before she fell asleep. She had been determined to master the spells within and had been practising every day.
‘You took it to do magic with,’ Stearne said.
But the Vale folk had been talking these last few weeks since she had returned. The story of how she had defeated the Alchemist with one of the spells in his book had been repeated up and down the Vale and that must be why she was now accused of practising alchemy. ‘But me trying to do spells isn’t practising alchemy. Alchemy is about metallurgy, chemistry, history and herbalism and engineering and politics and the great mysteries of the world. I am no alchemist, no matter what anyone says.’
‘You admit to casting spells on people?’ Stearne sneered. ‘So you are a witch after all.’
‘I have never cast a spell on a person, other than Bede who had it coming. I am not even certain what a witch is.’ She assumed from stories that witches were old women who lived alone and healed people with herbs and potions but there were no witches in the Vale.
‘We’ll just see about that, won’t we,’ Stearne said. ‘And you’ll see how that charge of Treason goes.’
‘Treason? Against what?’
‘Against England, dear. Against her Parliament.’
‘I know the Vale is within a land called England but I have never left the Vale. The only person I ever met from outside was a soldier called Pym. He attacked me and my friends in the Moon Forest after we escaped the Tower. How could I owe allegiance to somewhere I have never been? I have sworn no oath to it. It has done nothing to me but this.’ She gestured at her tiny cell.
‘Sounds like treasonous words to me, girl.’ Stearne grinned.
Her spirits sank, suddenly. The records room was cold. Outside it was winter and the stone walls were like ice and freezing air poured in from the strip of window high on the rear wall. Yesterday, she had seen the edges of the Sweetwater freezing and the river had been running lazy and thick as treacle. How she wished she were out there now. She pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders, feeling tired. It was a mere five paces from that rear wall to the only door, which was blocked by Stearne. Dim lamplight poured in from the corridor outside. There was no way out.
Stearne coughed. ‘Tell me about your friends.’ He glanced at the piece of paper he was holding. ‘What about this one; little blond lad, uses a bow and arrow?’
How did Stearne know about Archer? Archer would have thought of a way out by now, she thought. He would come up with a way to break through the window or prise the door open or something. It was strange that despite all her knowledge she could not think of a way to do those things.
‘I hear he got an ear shot off. Memorable, a one-eared boy. I know what it’s like to lose an important body part. That stays with you.’
She shook her head. During their confinement, the Alchemist Bede had somehow administered to her and her friends something called the Elixir of Life. Archer had regrown his destroyed ear in a single night so they knew he had it inside him for sure but Writer would not know unless she received an injury. And she would rather not.
‘Denial, is it? Quick learner.’ Stearne said, and looked at his sheet again. ‘Tell me about this girl. Another witch, sounds like. Dark hair, green eyes. Good with a knife.’
Weaver. How did he know about her? Weaver was always angry, for some reason but she was tough and would never have let herself be taken away without a fight. Writer had only spent a few days with Weaver but she felt sure the small, skinny girl would have fought the four brutes for all she was worth, even if it meant being hurt. Writer was forced to conclude that she herself was more of a coward than Weaver.
‘No?’ Stearne sighed. ‘Waste of time but there’s another lad. The one with the dragon.’
Of course he knew about the dragon. All anyone in the Vale wanted to ask her about was the dragon. The boy called Keeper and the dragon he had named Burp had been locked up together in Bede’s Tower and become inseparable. Keeper would have said something to cheer her up if he were here. Writer missed Keeper. He always trusted that things would turn out well.
She felt angry at being asked about her friends. ‘You’re not from the Vale,’ she said. ‘I know how you got in, the Alchemist’s protection spells failed. But how are you here? The Guildhall is a meeting place for tradespeople. My mother and father are members of the Brewer’s Guild and there are the builders and cobblers guilds, and the bakers and millers and the weavers and rest. This is where the most well-respected and powerful people of Morningtree and the whole Vale make their decisions. And this is the records room, the scrolls of who owns what in the Vale and only the Guildmaster and Record Keeper are allowed access.’
‘So what?’ Stearne asked, sneering.
‘That means you have the support of the Guildmaster.’ It was an awful thought.
‘Hopkins is good at persuading people. With your alchemist dead, Bede’s Vale has no protection at all. Your Guildmaster knows which side his bread is buttered. There’s no one to stop us from taking everything we want. You peasants have no defences at all. You ain’t even got a militia. No alchemist. Just a baby dragon and when we get our hands on him we’ll be very well rewarded. I shall finally retire to the country.’ He turned and banged on the door with his strange arm jerking and whirring. The key turned from the other side.
‘I shall prove my innocence in court but even if I do not I shall stop you.’ Writer said to his back.
‘You still don’t understand, girl,’ Stearne said, turning back to her as Big Ned pulled open the door from the other side. ‘You won’t be found innocent. And then you won’t be stopping anyone.’
Green Earth Shaking: Gunpowder & Alchemy Book 3
Chapter 1 – Weaver’s March
‘I want to be a soldier,’ Weaver said. ‘But it’s the most boring job in the whole world, ain’t it.’
She walked, with her friends, in the middle of thousands of men, women, horses, wagons and oxen. A heaving, steaming, noisy mass of people that clanked and stank of sweat and manure.
General Cromwell’s New Model Army had been walking for a whole week. They called it marching.
Marching was supposedly a special idea that only soldiers and the army followers did but, actually, it just meant walking together in a big bundle of people. A bundle that was wider than any road they walked on and about five miles long, probably.
They had barely marched any distance at all from the Vale, maybe not even fifty miles. And they had to go at least a hundred and fifty before they would find the King’s Army and the remnants of the Alchemist’s Guild. That army was cowering on the other side of England, like a bunch of sheep cringing away from a dog. When they found the King’s Army, then Cromwell’s Army was going to smash them up.
Weaver could not wait.
She knew why the army was so slow. It was because there were thousands of soldiers and other folk in the army. It was impossible to move that many people with their wagons and landships much faster than a stroll. The landships bigger than houses, crawling along belching smoke and stinking everything up and making a terrible din. Every day at least one of them would sink into the ground a bit and hundreds of men and oxen would drag them back into motion again. At least they were always at the back.
Horses took lots of looking after. Everyone always said horses were fast but that was just for short distances. Horses walked most of the day and had to be fed and watered and cared for morning, noon and night, like they were newborn babies.
Knowing the reason it was slow didn’t stop it being annoying.
Weaver was stuck marching between two battalions of soldiers, along with Archer and Keeper. Burp the dragon had his own ox-drawn wagon to pull him, because he found it hard to walk on his wings for very long. Keeper sat in the wagon with the monstrous great beast, feeding him cabbages all day long.
‘We’re marching to battle,’ Archer said, walking next to her. ‘The battle to decide who will rule England. There are thousands and thousands of soldiers on the other side. They have all the Alchemists on their side and everyone in this army is terrified of Alchemists. It’s not something we should be looking forward to.’
Archer was worried about whether they had done the right thing joining Cromwell’s army. He was worried about rescuing Writer and he was worried about everything else, too, probably. But Archer enjoyed worrying about things so Weaver knew there was nothing to worry about.
‘Exactly, Archer, exactly,’ Weaver said. ‘It’s as if they don’t want to get anywhere. Takes all morning to get all these stupid redcoats to break camp. Then we walk for about ten steps and then spend evening making camp again. Grownups are so slow. They afraid of a fight, or something? We’ve been in a battle before, you and me against a whole army and we won, didn’t we? What’s the matter with these people? Let’s just get on with it.’
‘There’s more to it than that,’ Archer said. He was always pretending like he was a grown up, these days. Just because Cromwell treated him like one, Weaver reckoned. ‘You don’t want to just go rushing in to a battle. You have to take your time about these things. You do these things called manoeuvres and you have to make sure you are in what is called a good position.’
Weaver laughed. ‘What do you know about it? You don’t know nothing about it, that’s what. It’s boring, Archer. Tell me you’re not bored.’
Archer sighed. ‘I’m bored with something, all right. You should find something to do, like us. Keeper and Burp are working the forges every night when we stop to make camp. I’m practising with my rifle with the sharpshooter company.’
‘Yeah, you lot are so brilliant,’ Weaver said. ‘I wish I could be like you.’
Archer ignored her whenever she was nasty to him.
She would have loved something to do while everyone else was off having fun. It was just that no one had asked her to help. But Weaver didn’t care. She didn’t care at all.
The army around them stomped its way through the dirt and the grass. Hills, covered with the black trunks and branches of trees rose above the wide brimmed, floppy hats and steel helmets of the red-coated soldiers. Weaver wished she could climb one of those far trees and be alone for a bit.
The horizon was too far away, though. It would take forever to push past hundreds of grown men to get there. The soldiers would call her darling or little miss or sweetheart or other stupid, idiot names. They would tell her they had a little girl just like her back at home that they missed, as if Weaver cared about them or their stupid little girls. The women were almost as bad. Lots of the men had their wives marching with them. Apparently, they wouldn’t fight but the men were not capable of looking after themselves properly. The women were always asking Weaver if she wanted to help them darn stockings or wash clothes. It was ridiculous.
‘Anyway,’ Archer said after a while. ‘This marching won’t last long. We’ll fight soon enough. I hope we’re ready. I bet it’ll be really bad.’
‘You’re always so miserable,’ Weaver said, laughing because it was true. ‘You always think something bad is going to happen? We saved the Vale, didn’t we? Your family’s safe in their home and free of the Alchemist Bede. Free from any soldiers smashing up their stuff. Why can’t you enjoy yourself? It’s lovely weather right now, right? Winter is over.’
‘You’re the one who’s complaining,’ Archer said, almost wailing.
Weaver allowed herself a smile. Archer was fun to wind up. ‘Look, I’m bored, Archer, that’s all I’m saying. I was expecting a proper scrap, expecting to be a soldier and instead it’s just this.’ She gestured at all the men and horses bobbing along.
‘We’re marching to battle, Weaver,’ Archer said again, frowning. ‘We’re going to stop King Charles’ army. Cromwell expects us to fight. You and me and even Keeper and Burp. We have to use our powers to help win the war, once and for all. He wants me to use the storm wind to stop the musketballs from reaching our army. He wants you to throw up earthworks like the one that stopped the cannonballs at Bede’s Tower. He wants us to use our powers to make a new England.’
Archer was always so dramatic about everything.
‘Does he?’ Weaver said. ‘I reckon Cromwell just wants us where he can see us. He just don’t want the King to get his filthy hands on us and our amazing powers.’
Archer shrugged. ‘We don’t actually know what Cromwell wants, do we. We have barely seen him since the Vale. He’s always rushing off.’
‘You’re talking like he’s your best friend,’ Weaver said, mocking him. ‘Cromwell’s the biggest bossy boots in the whole world.’ She paused. ‘Hold on. I just realised that’s why you love him so much. He’s like you.’ She creased up laughing but stopped when she saw he had not so much as smiled.
‘I know he’s got an army to run. But from what he said to us I just thought we would be more welcomed than this,’ Archer said, looking round at the thousands of soldiers stomping along with them. ‘More useful. We’re supposed to be saving England.’
‘Who cares about Old Bossy Boots Cromwell?’ Weaver said. ‘And who cares about England? What even is England anyway? You never even knew it existed until the other day. Cheer up, Archer. Look around at the world, mate. It’s a lovely day. Winter is nearly over, isn’t it? I saw a bumblebee this morning.’
‘This makes you happy,’ Archer said, peering at her.
‘What does?’ Weaver said.
‘Having a go at me,’ Archer said. ‘The only thing that makes you happy is trying to wind me up.’
Weaver laughed. She knew the real reason why Archer was miserable. The Alchemists Bede and Cedd had taken Writer away.
Archer liked Writer. She was posh and boring but she was also tall and pretty so Archer thought she was the best. And, fair’s fair, she had flooded the army camp at Bede’s Tower by diverting the Sweetwater. Her doing that had washed away hundreds of soldiers before they could steal the Vale and the Tower from the Vale folk. Weaver could not take any of that away from her and she was willing to risk her life to help to get Writer back.
Yet Weaver didn’t miss her.
She certainly wasn’t keen on Writer coming back and watching Archer going all silly over her again.
Up on the big wagon next to them, the dragon belched and a thin jet of flame escaped his muzzle. It sizzled and burned the air for just a moment. The arc of yellow fire turned to smoke and fizzled out, leaving just the stink of brimstone and hot metal.
The wagon driver ducked and shouted at his oxen, yanking on the reins to stop them from panicking. A few soldiers clapped and someone cheered, although it was not such a spectacle as it had been. Mostly, everyone was used to the random jets of flame shooting out of the huge beast’s mouth. Even the stupid oxen had become accustomed to it. They barely broke stride any more.
Burp lifted his long, spiky black tail and did a poo on the back of the wagon. It thudded like a stone. Burp’s dung made entirely from iron.
Metal dung was strange but was also about a hundred times better than actual horse dung. There were hundreds of horses in the army, thousands probably, and all of them were doing poos all day long, all over the place. Pretty much whenever you looked at a horse it was doing a dung and then all the thousands of redcoat soldiers who walked behind would stomp the dung everywhere. Because Weaver and her friends were in the middle of the army, there were thousands of horses and men in front of them. By the time Weaver got to any bit of ground it was covered in horse dung that was all kicked up, spread everywhere then stomped down. They were basically marching on a never-ending carpet of dung.
‘Good boy, Burp,’ Keeper said as he picked up the iron lump and added it to the mound of dragon metal lumps in the corner of the wagon.
The pile of shiny, dark, metal poo had gotten big, Weaver noticed.
‘Can’t believe you collect dragon dung,’ Weaver said to him. ‘What are you like, Keeper? Honestly.’
Keeper laughed. He was all happy now he was with his stupid dragon again. ‘It’s not like normal dung, is it. It is dragonsteel. Bede used to collect it when we lived in the tower. It’s special.’
‘Special how?’ Archer asked. ‘What can you use it for?’
‘I don’t know,’ Keeper said, grinning.
Burp stretch out in the bottom of the wagon. He was so big now that when he stretched himself his head stuck out over the front to where the wagon driver sat and beyond, out over the backs of the oxen that pulled the wagon. His tail stretched down off the back and was long enough to drag on the road, leaving a groove through the mud and horse poo. Burp sighed a big cloud of steam and then curled up, folding his crippled wings underneath his scaly black body.
‘I do know that dragonsteel is harder than any other metal,’ Keeper said to Archer. ‘And it’s probably magic as well, come to think of it. It has to be, if Bede was interested in gathering it. I wonder what he did with it all. Do you think it is all back in Bede’s Tower, somewhere?’
‘Could be. What can you make out of it?’ Archer asked. He was always acting like he was interested in whatever anyone was saying.
‘I don’t know,’ Keeper said, hanging his head. ‘It’s too hard to forge. Much too hard. I tried getting the forge as hot as it goes, hot enough to turn steel soft and squishy. We worked the bellows like madmen. But nothing happened to the dragonsteel. It barely even glowed. That’s how I know it’s not normal.’
‘You’re not normal,’ Weaver said. Keeper looked upset and she felt bad for a moment but then she remembered that he wasn’t normal, so it was fine to say it.
The dragon scared the soldiers. Rightly so, as far as Weaver was concerned. From the start, Cromwell had ordered Burp to be unchained. Just doing that had won Keeper over to Cromwell and the army forever. Keeper thought the sun shone out of Cromwell’s backside.
Cromwell had then asked Keeper to make sure the dragon kept to the wagon all day and all night long, every day. Cromwell said it was so that the soldiers knew he would not be roaming the camp and burning them alive with his fire breath.
After Keeper begged Cromwell for two days, Burp was also allowed to go with Keeper to the forges that got set up every night when the army halted and camped. Burp helped to get the cold forges heated again right away and so the blacksmiths loved him and let him curl up by the warmth and sleep while Keeper made swords or cast musketballs, or whatever it was that he did all night.
Burp’s great belly rumbled beside her up on the wagon. It sounded like a raging fire deep down inside his guts.
Weaver could well understand why the soldiers were frightened of Burp. The dragon was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. He was like a giant lizard, or a snake with a body in the middle, covered with thick scales that were hard and black as wrought iron. His wings were bent and crippled from being chained up by Bede for hundreds of years or something. But when he unfurled them they looked like the wings of some monstrous bat. Seeing a thing like that made people nervous.
That’s why Keeper and Burp had to sleep at their own little camp every night and the soldiers and horse troops camped well away. Weaver and Archer stayed with them, of course, because where else would they go, anyway? So although they were surrounded by thousands of soldiers all day and all night, everyone gave them a wide berth. Which was just fine, as far as Weaver was concerned. She could still hear them talking and drinking and snoring and farting the whole night and there were thousands of them. Lots of the soldiers had their wives with them, even though none of them were going to actually do any fighting. They just sort of hung around, cooking food and talking like idiots.
Keeper and Archer had told Weaver that the soldiers were also afraid of Weaver’s mechanical arm. The brass arm that she had torn from Stearne’s shoulder before she shoved him into the floodwaters back in the Vale. The strange thing was that the arm writhed and grasped still now, even though it was not attached to anything.
Before she had been stolen away by Cedd and Bede, Writer had told them about the arm. There was a thing called a demon trapped inside it that made the arm move around.
Weaver didn’t like the arm. It made her nervous. But she refused to let anyone else take it because it was her magical device. She had won it, fair and square in a fight and so she kept it tied up in a bag in Burp’s wagon under a pile of cabbages. It writhed away against the sack as if it was ever trying to get out.
She never looked at it. Mostly, she tried to not think about it.
‘Winstanley’s coming,’ Archer said, pointing forward down the line. ‘He’s coming with that posh horse captain you like.’ Archer winked at her.
‘Shut up, I don’t like him.’
Cromwell had ordered Captain Smith to look after Weaver. And the others, too. He had to make sure they had everything they needed while they marched. He had to make sure they were safe and well protected. Smith was also a brilliant soldier, the best horse commander in the whole army, probably. It was quite amazing, in fact, that someone as brilliant as Captain Smith had been ordered to look after Weaver. And the others.
The Captain rode as if his horse was part of him, flowing up and down like a weeping willow in a steady breeze. He cantered back down through the lines of soldiers toward her. He was bareheaded, his cheeks a ruddy pink from the cold air on his smooth, clear skin. Captain Smith pulled his magnificent horse around and walked it next to them and Burp’s wagon. The horse snorted and tossed its magnificent combed mane.
Winstanley was riding next to Captain Smith. Getting in the way, as usual.
‘Hello, my friends,’ Winstanley said.
‘How are our newest recruits today?’ Captain Smith asked. His voice was as loud and clear and bright as the ringing of a bell.
‘Hello, Captain,’ Weaver said. But then she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
‘We’re very well, thank you, Captain,’ Archer said. If he kept acting like he was a grown-up then she was going to have to hit him. ‘Weaver was just saying how bored she is with this endless walking. She’s got nothing to do.’
‘No I never!’
‘Ah, well if you’re bored then you could work with me, Weaver,’ Winstanley said, his stupid face happy.
‘What do you even do here, Winstanley?’ Weaver scoffed. ‘You aren’t a soldier. You shouldn’t even be here, should you?’ She saw Smith cover his mouth to hide his smirk and she liked him even more for that.
Winstanley raised his eyebrows and stared at her for a moment. ‘Indeed, I am most certainly not a soldier. I never want to be. However, I am someone who believes very strongly that the tyranny of the King and the Alchemists must be confronted and defeated. And so I help these good fellows in the New Model Army in other ways. In ways that do not involve galloping horses or firing muskets. At the moment, I am planning on collecting herbs and bark and roots for the physicians and planting them in a garden. It’s important work, especially with a battle looming. There’ll be lots of men needing healing soon enough.’
‘It sounds like more walking around, to me,’ Weaver said.
‘Well then,’ Captain Smith said with a grin. ‘If you do not care for walking, perhaps you would like to try riding with my troop, Weaver?’
‘Yes!’ Weaver blurted out. ‘Yes, please.’
‘Surely you are joking? She’s just a young girl, Smith,’ Winstanley said. ‘It’s not safe.’
Weaver could have punched him. ‘Shut up, Winstanley. I can go if I want.’ Winstanley looked hurt again but she didn’t care.
‘Can you ride, Weaver?’ Captain Smith asked, still smiling at her.
She was about to lie. She was about to say that she used to ride up and down the Vale and she knew all about horses but at the last moment she realised how quickly she’d get found out. ‘No,’ she admitted, afraid that would be the end of it.
‘Well, no matter,’ Captain Smith said. ‘You can ride upon my saddle with me until you learn. It is very easy, you know.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I do have some conditions, however,’ Captain Smith said, growing stern. ‘You must do precisely as I say, when I say it. If you ride with me, then you shall be an honorary trooper and so you must obey orders. It is not just your life that depends on it but the lives of your fellows in the company.’
‘Yes sir, I understand, sir. I will obey your orders, sir,’ Weaver said, meaning it.
‘That is what I like to hear from my men… I mean, my troopers. In war, obedience is vitally important.’
‘It’s important to me too, sir,’ Weaver said. Archer and Keeper snickered but she ignored those idiots.
‘And another condition is that you shall carry no weapons,’ Captain Smith said. ‘Muskets and swords will be more likely to hurt you or the other troopers than the enemy.’
‘Fine,’ Weaver said but she knew she’d take her knife. That was all she needed anyway, not some stupid stinking musket or a big sword.
Winstanley cleared his throat. ‘You’ll have to be careful, Weaver. Look out for yourself. Whatever you do, don’t rely on these villains to truly protect you. If there’s any danger then you run away.’
‘We are merely scouting, Winstanley, you old maid,’ Captain Smith said, chuckling. ‘Besides, Cromwell ordered me to give Weaver a job. If she wants one.’
‘Do you mean to say that Cromwell actually ordered you to put her in your horse troop?’ Winstanley said, looking stupid. ‘Why would he risk her life?’
‘He knows I’m powerful,’ Weaver said, her heart racing. ‘Everyone knows what I can do, right? He wants me to help him win the war, finally.’
‘He does,’ Captain Smith said, nodding emphatically. ‘We need you, Weaver. England needs you. Look, Winstanley, what do you think the terrifying General Cromwell would do to me if anything happened to Weaver? He would have my guts for garters, that’s what.’
Weaver laughed. ‘Right, then, Captain. Let’s go,’ She was ready to mount up and ride off.
‘Ah, not until tomorrow or the day after, perhaps,’ Captain Smith said, smiling. ‘My horse company is heading off on a raid now. Off toward the north and west. But never fear, dear Weaver. I shall see you when I return.’
‘I can go on a raid,’ Weaver said. ‘I can be useful.’
‘Of course you can,’ Smith said. ‘Eventually. You will come with me on scouting but to take part in a raid you must first learn to ride. A raid requires a quick escape and every man… er… that is to say, every trooper requires their own horse.’
‘Oh.’ Weaver tried not to feel angry.
‘Good day to you all,’ Captain Smith said and turned his horse around in a fluid motion and cantered away back up the line.
‘Don’t be downhearted, Weaver,’ Winstanley said, cheerfully. ‘This means you can help me to prepare my travelling garden until you go.’
‘Your what?’ Weaver asked. ‘Gardens can’t travel, you hazelnut.’
Winstanley was an odd fellow. Nice enough, she supposed but totally strange. For one thing, he didn’t like fighting. He called himself a pacifist. If someone punched him, he reckoned he wouldn’t even punch them back. Even if it was a punch in the face. A punch on the nose, even. She’d never heard anything so ridiculous in all her life.
‘Everyone knows I am no soldier,’ Winstanley said, without even looking embarrassed. ‘You know that I write pamphlets about how people should grow food together and share what they grow?’
‘I suppose so,’ Weaver said. It sounded familiar but she never properly paid attention to what he said. She had no idea what a pamphlets was.
‘Cromwell tolerates my presence with the army because he’d rather I be within his grasp than out causing trouble. And he knows you are my friends and he wants to keep you on his side. So I thought I would take advantage of my tenuous position while it lasts and I have requested a sturdy wagon, a team of oxen and the loan of some manpower so I may create a garden. But a garden that moves.’ Winstanley grinned.
‘That’s a wonderful idea,’ Keeper said from up on his wagon. ‘How would it work?’ Typical, she thought, he was happy about something before he even knew what it was.
Winstanley was delighted by Keeper’s interest. ‘I thought I could plant in half-barrels and horse troughs full of earth. That way the garden can accompany us as the army travels and we shall always have fresh and therefore potent medicinal herbs. And you, Weaver, can help me move the earth and plant the seeds and seedlings. Your power would be extremely helpful.’
‘And it would give you the chance to practice using your power without frightening any of the soldiers or risking hurting anybody.’ Winstanley said it hesitantly, as if he was afraid of what she’d say.
Weaver thought the whole thing was the stupidest, most pointless idea she’d ever heard in her life.
‘Fine,’ she said, watching Captain Smith on his fine horse disappearing off through the crowd of marching redcoats that stretched as far as the eye could see and as far as the earth could feel.
‘And there’s someone I would love for you to meet,’ Winstanley said to her.
She ignored him.
Two more days of marching and then she could be a real soldier. Just like Captain Smith.