FLAMES OF REBELLION BOOK 6
Late afternoon-early evening, July 21, 1403, Shrewsbury Plain
The banners of Saints Edward and George fluttered above the royalist troops. King Henry stood beside Sir Walter Blount, a veteran of the Black Prince’s campaigns, who was dressed in the king’s livery and holding the royal standard. Or more precisely, Blount was one of three such decoys designed to confuse the enemy as to the King of England’s real identity. Otherwise, more than five thousand rebels would be focused on one target alone.
Most of July 21 had been wasted with fruitless back and forth negotiations. Thus, the opposing forces had less than two hours before the sun’s setting. Had they been fighting in winter—well, they wouldn’t be fighting in winter for by this time yeomen and peasants and their farm animals would have already settled in for the night. Leaving forests and fields to the owls, mice, foxes, and hedgehogs who claimed the darkness for their own.
Yet here, in mid-summer, the bells from Shrewsbury would have long since rung compline before darkness made it impossible for men to kill each other.
The weather remained far too hot and humid. Hours ago, Matthew’s arming squire had buckled him into his armor, which exacerbated his discomfort. For no good reason Matthew’s heart would increase its speed; his breathing become oddly labored. While his armor was like a second skin, expertly fitted for maximum comfort, flexibility and protection, Matthew’s cuirass felt as if it had been fashioned too tightly, causing him to be overly aware of his breathing. As he also noted that, despite his lack of physical exertion these past several hours, he was sweating more than he should. Was it because he knew the terror that would be unleashed with the first sounding of royal trumpets? Or the consequences for everyone he loved if Henry lost?
But Henry Bolingbroke will not lose.
The royalist forces consisted of three wings arranged in a checkerboard pattern of men-at-arms alternating with archers. Prince Hal was positioned to the left of his father the king; Henry in the center; to Henry’s right the forces of the twenty-six-year-old Earl of Stafford.
Matthew was part of the king’s formation, close to the royal standard bearer and Henry himself. Lancelot and Serill would fight near him; Lancelot’s oldest brother, Arthur, stood three rows to the front, easily recognizable by his painted helm. The other three Ravenne brothers who’d answered Henry’s call—Perceval, Tristan and Bors—were fighting under the banner of Edmund Stafford, 5th Earl of Stafford.
The Earl of Stafford was young, courageous and eager to prove himself in battle. What Edmund Stafford was not was a seasoned commander. After having appointed Stafford Constable of England, Henry had ordered him to lead the advance. The earl, thus honored, would soon give the command for the vanguard to march forward.
A selfless act of bravery, Matthew knew. For unless God were merciful, Edmund Stafford had presented himself as a sacrificial offering, willingly bleeding out in order to protect his sovereign.
As would Stafford’s men. Since they were largely militia, their physical protection was slipshod. No ordinary soldier could afford plate armor, so they would be particularly vulnerable to the archers’ sting. In other words, once Hotspur’s war bows were unleashed, Stafford’s vanguard would be cut down like grain before a monstrous scythe.
But full armor should protect Perceval, Tristan and Bors. The rest was up to them. And God.
Matthew could sense the increased tension, felt the familiar combination of excitement, fear and determination that caused his stomach to roil before each engagement.
Knowing that the time was upon them, King Henry mounted his destrier and rode the length of his formation before returning to its center. Pitching his voice at a lower register to better carry, Henry addressed his men.
“You are doing God’s work by defending your rightful king,” he began. He spoke of courage, honor and duty. Sincerely, if not eloquently.
For as much as Mathew loved Henry Bolingbroke, his liege was no orator.
Matthew remembered another day, nearly fifty years past, before the Battle of Poitiers. When Edward the Black Prince had walked among his men, exhorting them to vanquish the far superior forces of the French. Even now Matthew fancied he could hear Edward of Woodstock’s voice, see the fall light upon his golden hair, the way his armor seemed to be outlined in a holy nimbus. The euphoria that had come over Matthew when facing his first battle knowing, down to his very marrow, that the English would prevail. How could they fail with the Black Prince at their helm?
Henry Bolingbroke was no Edward, who, along with his father, had possessed that rare charisma which caused men to follow them out of sheer love and loyalty. Whether to death or victory it made no difference.
Henry’s personality was…smaller, though every bit as intense. It would be enough.
It has to be.
While Henry was finishing his speech, Matthew noticed a murmuration of starlings dipping and swirling, coming together and breaking apart in the sky over Harry Hotspur’s army. Darkening this tiny part of Shropshire, as would the arrows of Hotspur’s archers all too soon.
* * *
The mournful blast of a trumpet pierced the hot, humid air. Then a clarion’s call, followed by the beating of sticks upon kettle drums. The clanking of shields, weapons and armor as the Earl of Stafford’s vanguard readied to move out.
Scattered war cries. Shouts of “En avant banner!” The Earl of Stafford’s vanguard began its march toward the hillock upon which the rebel army awaited. Harry Hotspur had chosen his terrain well, particularly in regards to his dreaded Cheshire archers, many of whom still wore the white hart in honor of their dead King Richard. In addition to Hotspur’s superior position, the royalists would be marching with the sun’s rays directly in their eyes. They would also have to cross a treacherous pea field, as well as detour around two marshy ponds. All of which would further slow their advance.
“When will Hotspur loose his arrows?” Serill asked. He was standing between his father and Lancelot. Unconsciously, he touched his breastplate beneath which his talisman, the book Mon Coeur, was safely nestled in his aketon.
Matthew turned to study his son, hoping Serill’s query did not confirm Matthew’s secret worry, that his son would prove as lackluster a warrior as had his brother. Mercifully, Matthew saw no fear in Serill’s eyes. Simply a younger version of himself—though at Serill’s age Matthew had already been a veteran of the Poitiers and Rheims campaigns. Matthew’s eyes had long been leached of the eager innocence still visible in his son’s.
“Stafford is well within range,” Matthew replied. “Any time.”
Lancelot cradled his polished black helm against the right tasset protecting his upper thigh. “I pray my brothers are as ready as I am,” he said, a small frown between his eyes. He raised a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes against the lowering sun, as if that might somehow help him see his brothers among the colorful jupons, plainer brigandines and gambesons.
“Hart blood flows through their veins as well as Ravenne,” Matthew said, instantly regretting his flippant—and misguided—response. Lancelot of Glastonbury possessed more warrior blood than his seven brothers combined. If one knight walked away from this battle, Matthew knew it would be his sister’s sixth son. But Arthur, Tristan, Perceval and Bors? Rather than martial skills, their fates would depend on God’s beneficence— and blind luck.
Hoping to distract from his thoughtless comment, Matthew reached out to touch Lancelot’s gauntlet. Upon its surface a motto had been painted in scarlet.
“It is as it is,” Matthew read, pleased. With those words his nephew was paying homage to their great king, for that had been one of the third Edward’s mottos.
A half-smile. “Acceptance. Wise words to live by,” Lancelot said.
They once more turned their attention to Stafford’s advancement, easily monitored by his blue, yellow and red banner. Farther in the distance, upon the hillock, the great Percy lion trembled in a breeze from the east. Flashes of armor danced like the light from a thousand tiny suns.
Three hundred yards.
Well within archers’ range.
Kettle drums boomed as if in time to the beating of the army’s heart. Dust hung like a dirty fog around the knees of Stafford’s advancing men. The murmuration of starlings, which had been swooping and swirling and blackening the sky, had abruptly disappeared.
Matthew sensed that the fury’s unleashing was imminent. As if Lancelot and Serill were complete martial virgins, as if they’d not trained for combat nearly every day of their lives, he could not help but offer a final piece of advice. “A simple way to remember in the heat of battle—if they face you, they are enemy. If they face the same direction, they are ours.”
He pulled the retaining chain anchoring his great helm to shift it so he could grasp it between his gloved hands and raise it above his head.
“The rain of arrows will be short, particularly since they will be saving some firepower for our advancement. Bodkins will not pierce armor from that range. Only danger is the eye slits so when our turn comes do not look up. And after the arrows…”
Matthew did not finish. For, even as he positioned his helm upon his head, atop his bascinet, he knew. Before he heard or saw, before the trumpets even blasted their warning.
How many times had he heard that thwump of thousands of simultaneously released bow strings? Witnessed the manner in which thousands of shafts would darken the heavens? Like the murmuration of starlings? Or, as he had so often thought when viewing their flight, like that of wild geese in winter. With one goose always in the lead.
As there would always be the lead arrow.
The first thunk.
Followed by the deluge.
First fallen bodies.
The Earl of Stafford’s vanguard reached the pea field, thick with stakes as high as a man upon which pea plants had been twined. In the night Hotspur’s men had untangled the vines and tied them together in order to impede enemy progress. Now, Stafford’s foot soldiers had to hack through tendrils that clung relentlessly to boots and greaves and sabatons, that pulled men down as if they were fingers grasping upward from the grave.
Thus, the first slaughter began. The Earl of Stafford’s men, according to chroniclers, “fell as fast as leaves fall in autumn after the hoar frost.”
Chaos. Screaming, bucking horses; screaming men mad with pain or battle frenzy. More volleys. Gaps in the formation. Air thick with terror; the first coppery smell of released blood.
Stafford’s archers tried unsuccessfully to return fire. Unprotected as they were while readying their bows, they toppled over by the dozens.
Hotspur’s troops, led by a mounted Earl of Douglas, swarmed down the incline, waving their weapons and yelling the Percy motto, “Esperance, Percy!”
The Earl of Stafford’s banner struggled forward. Stafford himself urging troops who could not hear him above the din. Douglas hacking his way toward Stafford and his banner.
Hundreds already fallen. Again, the chroniclers: “like apples fallen in the autumn when stirred by the south west wind.”
Troops began deserting, running back toward the baggage train. Yet, even if Stafford’s men fled the field, King Henry and his eldest son, Prince Hal, would press forward. Matthew knew that the battle would not be lost with the annihilation of Stafford’s vanguard.
Beside Matthew, Lancelot made the sign of the cross. Doubtless praying for the safety of Perceval, Tristan and Bors, who were in the thick of it. Matthew was sending his own prayers heavenward. How could he face his sister if her boys were killed?
As suddenly as if it were a giant flower plucked from the earth, Stafford’s banner disappeared.
Triumphant shouts. Meaning, Matthew knew, that Stafford himself had been killed.
Easy enough to predict what would happen next.
Like insects swarming upon a carcass, deserters skittered back toward the royal baggage train, pursued by rebels. Once at the rear, rebel and royalist alike began grabbing booty and horses from the train before fleeing the battlefield all together.
Hotspur’s archers had already begun racing down the slope to retrieve spent arrows, ripping shafts from the wounded and dying and dead. So that when King Henry moved out, he would be treated to a similar deadly welcome.
In the space of minutes, nearly four thousand royalist troops had been killed or had fled.
Leaving Harry Hotspur’s men believing that the battle had already been won.
While many of Henry’s believed the king’s cause was already lost.
* * *
King Henry had already sent a message to his eldest son, ordering Prince Hal to attack Hotspur’s right flank, thus disrupting archers even now planting their arrows point down in the earth. Anticipating the second command to fire, this time against the Usurper himself.
Knowing that he must not show panic, Henry addressed those around him.
“Courage! Do not falter! God is on our side!”
He raised a gauntleted fist. Trumpeters signaled the advance. Drums beat their rhythmic tattoo. Pause. Repeat.
“St. George!” cried Henry’s men. “St. George!”
Matthew did not waste his oddly labored breath on shouts that would not be heard beyond his great helm. His throat was already raw from the cloying dust. Mercifully, the air was beginning to cool. More importantly, once both sides engaged, all physical discomforts would be forgotten in the struggle for survival.
Approaching the pea field where the last of Stafford’s vanguard grappled with the rebels.
Gripping his pollaxe, Matthew called a silent warning to his son, Lancelot and Arthur and all those around him. Dread, a tangible thing. Inhaling it along with air. It was ever the same, though when on horseback it was the destriers who trembled—albeit more with excitement than fear. For such horses, like their masters, had been trained for precisely these engagements.
Anticipating the moment when Hotspur would unleash his archers. After which Hotspur’s men would race down the hill, and the final battle would be joined.
Nearing twilight. A full moon would soon peek above the horizon, as if it were a shy bystander uncertain whether to oversee the remaining slaughter. Hours left with enough light to see, imperfectly. But well enough to kill.
The din was too great for Matthew to actually hear when the archers released their fusillade. Instinct caused him to raise his shield just in time to deflect the first missiles.
As did Serill and Lancelot.
Around them, soldiers began crumpling. One minute, marching forward, the next, falling clumsily or gracefully, as if yanked off their feet by invisible strings. Bodkins easily pierced the hodgepodge of old brigandines and gambesons, linen jacks; hauberks of outmoded mail; the iron helmets, bascinets and caps discarded by wealthier knights.
They reached the now badly trampled pea field. Stepping around obstructions that had once been men and horses.
Soon the two sides would be close enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat. And soon after that, Harry Hotspur would throw everything he had, on foot and horseback, into a final charge.
On command, King Henry’s archers returned fire. A dense crosshatch of arrows darkened the heavens.
As Matthew predicted, the second fusillade of enemy arrows proved even shorter than the first. Already it was easing. Imperceptibly. Then like stray drops following a summer squall, slackening. Ceasing all together.
Hotspur’s men engaged Henry’s first line.
Matthew shifted his pollaxe.
And made ready for his final battle.
* * *
Prince Hal, who at sixteen was already a seasoned commander, had done precisely what his father commanded. He and his men slammed Hotspur’s right flank, slashing, snapping, tearing like hungry wolves at an enemy thrown off balance by the surprise attack.
It was at this moment that fate intervened for the first time that day in the shape of an arrow. When Prince Hal raised his visor in order to better survey maneuvers, he was hit in the face by a shaft. Burrowing deep below his eye nearly to his nose. Life threatening. And yet, the prince, aided by seasoned commanders, continued his onslaught. Or so said the chroniclers. Though, if the prince could indeed effectively fight after such a grievous wound, he already deserved the warrior reputation he would carry through the ages as Henry V. Whether it was Prince Hal, or Prince Hal aided by his commanders, his forces relentlessly hammered the rebel column, pushing even the Cheshire archers into the center.
Closer to Harry Hotspur himself.
Evening, Shrewsbury Plain
Perched atop his destrier, Harry Hotspur surveyed the battlefield. Watching the chaotic dance below—the dipping, bobbing banners, as well as the royal standard, tall and straight and motionless near the center—mocking him.
Or extending an invitation?
“Come, if you would claim me,” it seemed to say, as if it were a mistress beckoning her beloved.
Aye, that I will.
But not for some lover’s tryst.
While Hotspur watched, he calculated the weaknesses and strengths of both armies, sifting through the confusion to the strategy beneath. For there was always a strategy. As there was a path to victory, no matter the odds.
It was true that the Usurper had surprised him by moving his troops so quickly that Hotspur had been unable to rendezvous with his father and Owen Glendower. Still, their great King Edward had won against overwhelming odds. As had the Black Prince. Hotspur enjoyed the superior terrain, and his men were far more experienced than the Usurper’s troops, many of whom had no martial experience beyond the required forty days per year.
What Harry Hotspur did not have was time.
King Henry’s main body alone contained more men than all of Hotspur’s. He might have swept thousands off the field, but the numerical odds remained against him. Nor did Hotspur underestimate the Usurper’s courage or tactical skills. Or the skills of young Prince Hal. If the Usurper’s formation did not buckle in the manner of Edmund Stafford’s, it could easily overrun Hotspur’s lines.
Victory would belong to the false king.
A full moon edged upward through a sky only marginally darkened by streaks of pink and lavender. Hours of adequate light left.
I must even the odds.
Harry Hotspur swiveled in his saddle to survey his household knights. One hundred mounted warriors, all wearing the blue and yellow Percy livery, each identifiable by the pennon positioned right below the individual spear tip of his resting lance. There should have been more, but some like his worthless cousin, Reginald Luci, had somehow disappeared along the way to Shrewsbury. Which might be all for the better.
Berwick was no place for amateurs.
Hotspur’s one hundred knights had all fought against the Welsh and the Scots; all were acquainted with both the risk and glory associated with this battle. Hotspur picked out the faces of those yet unhelmeted. He caught the gaze of Gerald Halle, short and squat and with the strength of ten. The Earl of Douglas, former enemy and experienced commander, who’d so ably dispatched the Earl of Stafford. Others from old families. Risking their lives and their family’s futures to wipe out the Usurper.
Counting on me to lead them to victory.
Harry Hotspur made a decision. While known for his impetuosity, Hotspur had survived thirty-nine years by obeying his instincts. And his instincts urged him to act. Battles were not won from defensive positions. Battles were not won by the faint of heart.
One hundred mounted knights scattering thousands of foot soldiers?
It could be done. It has been done. I will do it.
Hotspur’s gaze once more swept the Usurper’s forces. Calculating how easily they might be pushed to panic when faced by his cavalry.
There was nothing more terrifying to a foot soldier—especially a poorly trained foot soldier. The baron and his men could quickly smash through their ranks, causing them to break and run so that claiming his prize would be a simple thing. First, the Usurper’s standard. Then the Usurper himself.
Of course, should Hotspur’s charge be blunted, should royalist soldiers have time to surround him, they would crawl all over him and his men-at-arms like flies upon a corpse.
And corpses we will be. He thought suddenly of his crescent shaped sword, left behind by a careless squire. As he remembered the shiver that had passed through him when he’d learned of the name of the hamlet where they’d camped. Berwick. This, so the wizard had prophesied, was where he, Henry Percy the Younger, would die. At a place called Berwick. And without his favorite sword.
But great men command their own destinies, Harry Hotspur reminded himself. At least until God decrees otherwise.
The Usurper’s kettle drums rumbled like thunder before a gathering storm.
Hotspur gave the command to a runner, who passed it down the line. Knights lowered visors or settled great helms upon heads; removed swords from scabbards; couched lances.
Hotspur unsheathed his own sword, the sword that was not his talisman, and raised it over his head.
The knights charged, blue Percy lion streaming overhead.
“Esperance! Esperance, Percy!” they cried.
The caparisoned chargers were a blur of color, arranged in such close formation that their riders galloped knee to knee, couched lances pointing into the heart of the Usurper’s formation. Down the hill toward the royalists, horse’s hooves causing the ground to shake like an earthquake. Trailed by running foot soldiers, as well as the green and white liveried archers who had replaced their longbows with war hammers, swords and mallets.
Hotspur’s cavalry slammed into King Henry’s first line. Following the initial charge with lances, they cut, slashed, and beat with swords and maces and morning stars and war hammers that could easily pierce kettle hats and bascinets to the skulls beneath.
The first line pushed into the second. Destriers reared and kicked, downing or trampling fallen soldiers with as much eagerness as their riders.
Harry Hotspur’s soldiers attacked with a desperate fury. The field was a jumbled mass of thrusting, cutting weapons, straining men, maimed and falling bodies.
The final battle had been joined.
* * *
With the engagement of Hotspur and his cavalry, the din had increased tenfold. In the background, the ubiquitous kettle drums urged royalist troops to maintain order despite the unfolding carnage. Dying men, gutted men. Severed limbs. Headless torsos. Thrashing, shrieking horses. Blood soaking into the trampled field like contaminated rain.
The royal momentum had stalled.
The second line crashed into the first.
The third into the second.
Matthew wielded his pollaxe with disciplined fury. On foot a pollaxe was an all-purpose death-dealer, more effective than swords, which were virtually useless against full plate armor. A mindless task to block blows, trip those careless enough to enter Matthew’s range before burying the weapon’s spike into poorly protected chests. To use its axe to bash heads or, in one downward stroke, separate limbs from torsos.
It helped that, compared to others in Matthew’s past, Hotspur’s rebels were mediocre fighters and woefully inexperienced.
How many years had it been since he’d engaged in such brutal hand-to-hand combat? Decades? Though the muscle memory remained, Matthew’s breathing was impossibly labored. Yet understanding he must, as always, push past the pain, past the intermittent numbness in his right arm, ignore the sometimes blinding sweat bathing his face.
To dispatch one more rebel. Then another.
Finally, mercifully, the fighting lessened, at least among those not directly engaged with Hotspur’s cavalry. A mutual withdrawal in order to catch one’s breath, staunch minor wounds, grab water, allow arming squires to replace weapons and equipment.
Nearby, King Henry and George Dunbar, a fiercely loyal Scotsman and enemy of Hotspur’s Earl of Douglas, had piled up an impressive number of bodies. Still, if Harry Hotspur made it to the eye of the storm, King Henry should not be so weary he could scarce raise his sword. Time for a strategic withdrawal and re-evaluation.
Matthew removed his great helm, allowed it to fall free down his back until stopped by a retaining chain. Leaving him still protected by a bascinet and aventail but allowing easier communication with those around him.
He called out to Dunbar, pointing with his pollaxe to the rear of the lines.
The retreat of Dunbar and the king left Sir Walter Blount charged with carrying the royal standard on the field. At the mercy of an enemy who believed Blount to be England’s actual sovereign.
Once free of the fighting, Matthew handed his pollaxe to his arming squire before bending over, gauntlets on cuisses, gasping for breath, gratefully gulping in the cooling air.
Dispassionately assessing his physical condition—chest that felt as if it were constricted by an iron band; head pounding as though assaulted by a legion of galloping horses.
Finally, Matthew straightened, gulped water from his flask before handing it to another squire, who hurried to a nearby water barrel to refill. Matthew willed the frantic beating of his heart to slow, the iron band to loosen, the dancing spots before his eyes to recede.
Nearby, the king was being attended by a bevy of squires while Dunbar surveyed the field. As did Matthew. Easy to spot Harry Hotspur on his blue and yellow caparisoned destrier, looming above the milling mass of foot soldiers. No doubt that the baron and his knights had moved closer to the royal standard. But Matthew could chart their path and determine what the rebel leader could not—that he and his men were completely surrounded. With a fierce rush of joy, Matthew knew, aye, he knew that Henry Percy the Younger had gambled and lost. That the baron’s life had been reduced from the possibility of decades to the certainty of minutes.
In silent thanks to God and St George and all the saints, Matthew raised his eyes to the heavens. Imagining that his great king Edward, his king’s sons, Matthew’s parents and his brother gazed down upon him with pride. Acknowledging that once more Matthew Hart had discharged his duty.
It was then Matthew noticed that the normal twilight sky was no longer normal. The earlier pink and scarlet streaks had blurred together, deepening to purple. The full moon, which had begun its ascent as a golden ball, had gradually leached to white. The usual course of things but… Matthew blinked, mistrusting his eyes.
What is happening to a full moon that is no longer full? How can that be?
There were no clouds hiding part of its face, yet there it was. Now a gibbous moon, as if the phases had sped up and were unfolding in real time. Impossible. Matthew wiped his forehead with the padding of his jupon and looked again. He’d not been mistaken.
Matthew felt the hairs stand upon his neck. It must be a trick of the eye. A full moon that was not a full moon; that even as he looked appeared to further shrink, as if being nibbled by some monstrous maw.
A cry emerged from the heart of the battle. Matthew jerked his gaze back to his north star—the royal standard.
“King Henry dead!” came the cry. More forcefully, “The king is dead.”
A shiver ran through Matthew. He turned to Henry Bolingbroke, who remained very much alive.
Obviously, Walter Blount, arrayed in royal livery, had been mistaken for England’s king. Killed and the royal standard trampled underfoot.
“Henry Percy king!”
Wrong, thank Christ. Still, it was an eerie feeling, as if someone was shouting out the future. And the peculiar sky? Surely another troubling omen.
But for whom?
“Our men will rout,” Henry said flatly, jerking his head toward the field.
“Aye.” Matthew yanked the chain on his great helm.
Dunbar and the king followed suit.
All knew that if King Henry’s men mistakenly believed him to be dead and that all was lost, the falsehood could have the same impact as truth.
Matthew had seen it before—a disciplined force suddenly, unaccountably disintegrating into chaos. Bloody Christ, they’d just witnessed it with the Earl of Stafford’s men.
King Henry retrieved his sword from a waiting squire. “Time to finish what the traitors have begun.”
“It is as it is,” Matthew whispered, before accepting the pollaxe extended by his arming squire and again following his king into the fray.
* * *
If the battle did not halt completely, it seemed later to those remembering that it had. Destriers frozen mid-stride; men whose contorted expressions would remain forever thus; raised weapons that would never fall. Had the cacophonous noises abruptly ceased, replaced by an eerie silence, as if all earth’s creatures had taken to hiding? Or did memory simply make it so?
The moon had completely vanished, plunging Shrewsbury’s plain into total darkness. If every eye was not fastened upon the wonder unfolding above them, witnesses later claimed otherwise. A wind sprang up, gradually blowing away the curtain obliterating the moon’s surface. First, behaving like a coy mistress, it revealed itself as the barest sliver of light. Then more, until half its face was uncovered. Then three-quarters. But its color was unlike anything before seen. Neither white nor golden, nor even orange. Blood red. As men gaped, the darkness was gradually banished by a disk so huge and round it was like some monstrous demon’s mouth threatening to swallow the entire sky.
Soldiers dropped to their knees or crossed themselves and beseeched God’s mercy. Later, in the retelling, some swore that the moon dripped blood. Others that Satan’s face appeared. Yet others that armies battled across its surface.
The one thing everyone agreed upon: this particular eclipse was an especially evil omen. But for whom? Harry Hotspur? King Henry? England? The entire world?
As it turned out, there was no need for soothsayers to cast the Christian equivalent of pagan runes in order to interpret the object of its wrath.
* * *
Why did Harry Hotspur choose that particular moment to lift his visor? Did he gamble that in the gloaming he would not be targeted by some alert archer? An expertly thrown axe or spear? Or did he expose his face simply because he was in thrall to a wizard’s prophecy?
At that moment, a longbowman released the shaft that sealed Harry Hotspur’s fate. Silently, it raced toward its destination. To land squarely between the baron’s eyes.
What might have been Henry Percy the Younger’s last thoughts? Of the errant moon? The prophecies surrounding his demise? Had fear flashed like heat lightning inside his brain, warning him that all was lost? That they’d killed an imposter rather than the Usurper himself?
Or did the baron die believing he had triumphed?
Harry Hotspur tumbled from his horse.
Dead before he hit the ground.
Initially, few saw. Or knew. Or understood.
The cry was taken up by others.
With increased certainty. Followed by despair.
Morphing into a crescendo of wails.
Knowing that his belief in the rightness of his cause had been vindicated, Matthew Hart experienced a fierce euphoria.
We have saved Henry’s throne. Now ’tis simply a matter of mopping up.
Prince Hal’s men were already herding Hotspur’s right flank like sheep toward a pen; mercilessly slaughtering all those who tried to bolt for Watling Street and, so they hoped, the friendlier faces they would meet in Cheshire.
Matthew spotted Serill and Lancelot, still in the vicinity of the fallen royal standard. Serill, the white of his surcoat flashing in the waning light with his every stroke. Fighting with a frenzy Matthew would have been hardpressed to match in his own youth. Lancelot, feet planted, body angled to the side, shield raised with his left hand, pollaxe in his right, delivering the coup-de-grace to an already toppling solder. Even as Matthew continued his mindless maneuvers and counter maneuvers, he felt something loosen inside before completely falling away. An ancient burden, even now barely articulated. That if he should ever relinquish his sense of responsibility, remove the mantle of duty and obligation from his shoulders, his family, the entire Hart line would fall into ruin. Who besides himself was strong enough to protect those he loved, to continue its warrior legacy?
Aye, well, now he could rid himself of that particular notion, couldn’t he?
Already Hotspur’s cavalry was breaking rank. A few determined to fight to the death alongside their leader. Others being pulled from their horses or frantically trying to cut their way to the edge of the field and then hie themselves far away, beyond King Henry’s vengeance.
Matthew’s attention was caught by a particular horse and rider headed in their general direction. The silver rimming the destrier’s dark caparison shimmered with each frantic movement of the agitated stallion. His rider, whose helm was topped by an eagle’s crest, cut an especially menacing figure. The destrier, who had either been wounded or maddened by the surrounding chaos, reared and kicked. Soldiers tried unsuccessfully to hamstring the horse or grab its bridle, pull the eagle knight from his perch—or more often simply elected to stay out of the way.
Despite the horse’s erratic trajectory, Matthew guessed it posed the greatest threat to Serill, who was directly in his path and whose back was to the unfolding danger. The animal could easily trample Serill underfoot before he was even aware.
Matthew spotted the lather coating the horse’s muzzle, the rolling eyes, then the arrows sticking out of his hindquarters where he should have been protected by a croupier. A wounded animal driven mad by pain.
Matthew saw a clear path forward—a way he could distract horse and rider or take them out. He could trip the animal with his pollaxe, hamstring it, or, when it reared, bury his spike into the part of its underbelly unprotected by barding. Or focus on the rider, who was flailing about as if he had no real idea how to use a war hammer.
Intending to position himself between the danger and his son, Matthew hacked and thrust and butted his way forward. His lungs screamed in protest; his heart felt as if a giant’s hand had reached in to squeeze it to pulp. His vision darkened, mimicking the darkness of the eclipse.
But the distance had closed.
Then, as it sometimes did in battle, everything seemed to slow, to take on the fragmented quality of a dream. After dispatching his latest threat by burying the spear point of his pollaxe in the man’s chest, Serill stepped back. In time to see Lancelot, also free of danger, raise his pollaxe and point behind Serill in warning.
Serill spun around. To face the destrier, nearly on top of him.
Matthew could not reach his son in time.
The animal reared. When he crashed back to earth, he would trample Serill. Matthew saw his son plant his feet, bracing himself as expertly as if he’d faced such a threat every day of his life, angle his pollaxe so that its spear would hit the unprotected part of the animal’s breast.
The destrier’s front legs pawed the night. Descended with a sickening crash upon the spear’s wicked point, driving deep into the horse’s belly. Immediately halting its momentum. Screams. Like those of similarly wounded men, who had long ago taken up residence in Matthew’s nightmares.
Serill had stepped aside, had already withdrawn his sword from its scabbard. Either to finish off the horse or face its rider.
As the eagle knight’s mount seemed to shiver and then halt, Matthew watched the knight flailing about, striking empty air with his weapon. Matthew, having stumbled and leapt and forced a pathway to the trio, now stood close enough to engage. Unsheathed the bollock dagger at his right hip while he waited. As soon as the knight hit the ground, Matthew would step in to bury the dagger’s blade between gaps in the armor to the flesh beneath.
While Serill, crouched to the side of the mortally wounded animal, would finish it off.
Horse and rider crashed. The knight had not the presence of mind to kick free of his saddle. His right thigh and leg were pinned beneath the dying animal.
Completely focused on dispatching the fallen rider, Matthew lifted his bollock dagger…
Oblivious to the rebel behind him, who had raised his morning star to bury it in Matthew’s helm. Not hearing Lancelot scream, “Uncle! Behind!” Not seeing Lancelot trying to reach him before the weapon descended.
Serill, straightening, now aware of the danger. Simultaneously screaming a warning while bolting toward the rebel.
Matthew turning, even as the morning star descended, even as Serill and Lancelot reached the soldier. Lancelot driving a pollaxe into his back; Serill slicing through the tendons behind his knees. Causing the soldier to crumple to the ground.
On top of Matthew.
Who did not move.