11 April 2013

Excerpt Thursday: The White Hawk by David Pilling

This week, we're welcoming author David Pilling, whose latest title is The White Hawk. Join us on Sunday, when the author will offer a free copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor. Here's the blurb: 

"A Bolton! A Bolton! The White Hawk!"

England, 1459: the rival factions of Lancaster and York have plunged the kingdom into civil war. The meek and feeble King Henry VI presides over the chaos, unable to prevent his ambitious, bloodthirsty nobles from tearing each other to pieces. 

Book One of The White Hawk follows the fortunes of one family, the Boltons, as they attempt to survive and prosper in this world of brutal warfare and shifting alliances. Surrounded by enemies, their loyalty to the ruling house of Lancaster will be tested to the limit in a series of bloody battles and savage twists of fate...

**An Excerpt from The White Hawk**

  Somerset stood proudly under his banner, surrounded by his retainers. Like Richard he favoured the poleaxe in battle, and his body was sheathed in costly steel harness. After the Lancastrian victories at Wakefield and Saint Albans, both masterminded by Somerset and his able lieutenant, Sir Andrew Trollope, Richard had come to revere the Duke.
Today, he thought, we shall stand side-by-side in the press and carve out a new future for England in the bodies of our enemies.
His own body was stiff and aching. Four long, muscle-wearing hours had elapsed since dawn, while the armies adjusted their ranks and waited for stragglers to catch up.
Please God, let it begin soon, Richard prayed, before my courage fails.
The howling wind changed direction and started to blow in the faces of the Lancastrians, spattering them with flurries of snow and sleet. Through the blizzard Richard saw the archers of the Yorkist vanguard, commanded by Lord Fauconberg, rush down into the valley.
As soon as the archers came within bowshot of the Lancastrian lines they stopped, notched, drew, and shot their arrows high into the air. Driven on a tail wind, the arrows dropped deep into the cramped ranks of Somerset’s men.
Richard held his hand in front of his face, gritting his teeth as he anticipated the bite of a bodkin head in his flesh. Screams and yells erupted behind him. Memories of braving the arrow-storm at Blore Heath flashed through his mind.
The Lancastrian archers, stung into responding, ran a little way down the slope and started shooting at a furious rate. Half-blinded by the snow, and shooting against the wind, their sheaves were quickly spent, and almost all their arrows fell short. Curses rippled up and down the line of Somerset’s vanguard as the Yorkist archers ran down to collect the arrows and promptly send them back.
Richard cringed as a shaft whipped past his ear. Gaps appeared in the line as more men fell, and he wondered if Somerset meant to keep them standing there until their line was shot to pieces. The vanguard was the main target for the Yorkists, though the Earl of Northumberland’s division on the left flank was also taking some punishment.
Richard had spent most of the night dreading the prospect of this battle. At Wakefield he had fought on horseback in a one-sided massacre, and at Saint Albans he had been posted in the rearguard and seen little actual fighting. Here, however, he would have to engage in close-quarter combat on foot, the most cruel and murderous form of warfare.
He found it a blessed relief when trumpets blasted through the air to signal the advance. True to his aggressive nature, Somerset had lost patience with the unequal archery duel and decided to take the fight to the enemy.  
The Lancastrian vanguard, some fourteen thousand men, surged down the slope of Towton Dale. Richard moved in step with the rest, careful to watch his footing on the uneven, snow-covered ground. A man to his left gurgled wetly as a Yorkist arrow smacked into his neck, but then the arrow-hail died away. Fauconberg’s archers hurriedly fell back to their main army, leaving a few shafts sticking out of the ground to impede the oncoming Lancastrians.
There was no stopping the remorseless tide of Lancastrian infantry. Somerset and his retainers led the way, like the steel tip of a lance. Richard felt the confidence and hatred fuelling the men around him. He absorbed it, used it to drown his fears and drive him on.
Veins pounding in his neck, he strode up the opposite slope, holding his poleaxe at shoulder height in a two-handed grip. He wore his father’s sword as a secondary weapon, thrust into his belt, along with a mace and a dagger.
Though outnumbered, Fauconberg’s vanguard moved down to meet their enemy. The momentum of the slope caused their advance to spill into a headlong rush. At the same time the eager press of men behind Richard shoved him forward. In his battle-fury he welcomed the encounter, and snarled like an animal as the opposing front ranks impacted and crushed hard against each other.
He found himself pressed against a Yorkist, neither man able to use their poleaxes, only grip each other in a parody of a lover’s embrace. The Yorkist’s face was hidden by his gorget and helm, but his eyes – emerald green, Richard noticed, with long lashes like a girl’s – were brimful of terror. Screams and war-shouts and the scrape and grind of metal resounded in Richard’s ears as the rear ranks of both armies lunged with staff weapons over the heads of those in front.
His free hand groped behind the Yorkist’s back, and closed on the hilt of a stiletto. He slipped it round and up between the Yorkist’s thighs, into his unprotected groin. The emerald green eyes widened in shock, and their owner screeched in unspeakable agony. A warm gush of blood flowed down over Richard’s gauntlet. He released the stiletto, straining to push the dying Yorkist away, and almost fell over as the entire Yorkist line shuddered and retreated.
Now there was room for Richard to bring his poleaxe into play. He stepped over the writhing body of the man he had stabbed, planted his feet wide for balance and thrust the stabbing point of the weapon at the exposed face of another Yorkist. His opponent, who wielded a glaive, parried the thrust, but Richard skillfully reversed the point and struck downwards, impaling one of the Yorkist’s feet. The stricken man screamed and fell onto one knee. Giddy with bloodlust, Richard smashed the hammer-head of the poleaxe down onto his helm, crumpling the iron and stoving in his skull. A third Yorkist stabbed at him with a spear, but he dodged and buried his bloody point into the man’s face, dropping him where he stood.

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