As an early Christmas gift to you, here is the latest chapter from my current work-in-progress, Servants of Infamy!
After stewing in their disease-ridden camp, the marshland their idle feet had made of the Kent Downs, John Mortimer’s rebels marched northwards. He rode along their scattered column and harangued his truculent followers, reminding them of how the king’s officers stole bread from the mouths of their children, how his court grew fat through the betrayal of Kent’s honest landowners and labourers.
His tongue whipped them into a fast march and the head of the column arrived outside the market town of Dartford at sunset on the second day. Their spirits set to soaring heights as the common men caught sight of the wide channel of the River Thames.
Mansford’s expression grew dark and webbed scars twitched at the corners of his eyes. It became real in that moment. Until then the men around him had been no more than a disorganised rabble, stumbling through a waking dream with their gaze fixed on the distant fantasy of marching into London.
But there the rebels were, close enough to throw a stone into the same river which fed Mansford’s home city. The thought of Kentish boots tramping over its sluggish channel and into his city brought another spasm tugging at his jaw.
Jack spared the Thames a brief glance and turned his gaze back to the road. The river had never held any significance for him. He had seen the bounty of the Scottish lochs, the raw power of the Irish Sea in storm and the terrifying size of the endless expanse of waves which lay beyond the Channel’s western mouth. They had only been glimpsed as his grandfather hurried him south to France, but they lay as glittering pools of a hundred shades of green and grey in his mind’s eye.
The men of Kent could drink the Thames dry and piss it back out for all he cared. It was half a sewer already. Moreover, it was a great wall of water standing between him and the chance of battle. English soldiers waited for them across that river of filth. With John Mortimer’s help, he would see them drown in it.
A shout went up from the front and the column halted its advance. Jack cursed Mansford’s slow gait for bringing them away from the foremost ranks. All around them men were dropping their packs and sitting on the grassy verge to strip away their mud-soaked wool hose. The sickly caseic odour of feet wedged into hard leather shoes and marched raw over broken roads for two days hung damp in the air.
“If half these men ain’t got the rot, I’ll be an archbishop.” Mansford said, clamping forefinger and thumb over his nose.
Jack wondered at the man who could spill blood without thought, but who flinched at the smell of stricken flesh. His mind groped for a clever rebuke to throw at Mansford. Before one came to mind, Jack heard a frantic rush of feet coming towards them.
A young lad raced past, sprinting between the discarded packs and wailing in terror as he bolted for the rear of the rebel column. His waving red hair was already some way into the distance before Jack could make sense of his cries, now being repeated in low mutters by the men around him.
“The king’s come! He’s come to hang us! The king’s come with an army!”
Jack once more cursed Mansford’s reluctance to be at the front and wished John Mortimer had taken the time to bring order to the men who followed him. The rebels were scattered back along the road for over a mile, with some still marching in ignorance of the halt. If it were not for the terrified lad’s warning, those in the middle and rear would never have known an army blocked their path.
Just in front of Jack there was a low hillock around which the road snaked. It cut of all sight of John Mortimer’s vanguard. For all they knew, the battle could have been fought and lost with them being none the wiser.
They would know either way soon enough, Jack thought, when the king’s knights rode down over the hillock and hacked them apart where they stood.
“What are you waiting for? Get up there and see if it’s true, Jock.” Mansford said. He had a tremble of panic in his voice and Jack saw the cutthroat’s hands were still, keeping well clear of his dagger. It would be of no use against armoured knights on horseback and Mansford was ready to run at the first hoofbeat he heard.
Jack jogged up to the crest of the mound. Every step felt like an ordeal, as if fear had taken hold of him by the midriff and was hauling him back towards the safety of the Kentish rebels.
His knees were weak and he was bone weary by the time the slope evened out. Jack settled into a crouch to stop his legs from shaking, and to make himself a smaller target. As he crept towards the summit, he cranked back the string of his crossbow.
Why not run? Jack knew he could survive if he made it back among the crowd lining the road. Many of them were still barefoot. They would be too slow to avoid a charging horseman, but he, on the other hand, might get away free if he could get down off the hillock.
Mansford came up beside him, crawled ahead a few paces to peer over the top of the rise and stood upright.
There was a cold slackness in Jack’s gut, threatening to loosen his bowels, but he clamped his jaw shut and rose behind the cutthroat. A long breath hissed out between his clenched teeth.
Three hundred yards from where they stood, a stream cut a straight path across the bare meadow. The steep ditch through which it ran was spanned by a narrow bridge of dark, uneven stone.
Beyond the meadow, Jack could see a cluster of dwellings. There was Dartford. It seemed so near over the expanse of green that Jack almost overlooked the enemy.
Several hundred footmen stood in untidy ranks on the far side of the bridge, armed with billhooks and pikes wavering in the breeze. A solitary banner hung limp on its pole at the centre of their line. The thousand or more men of John Mortimer’s vanguard faced them across the meadow.
“Bloody Christ.” Mansford swore. He turned to call back to the men waiting behind them. “That ain’t the king. It’s the Sheriff of Kent and whatever bullyboys he could cobble together on short notice. They’re stamping their feet like frightened hens.”
Jack could see the sheriff’s men shifting in their ranks, irregular ripples of movement passing to and fro along their line. Ten trained men-at-arms might have held the bridge against an army, but even a fool could see the sheriff’s men lacked the stomach for what was to come.
“Aye, looks like the sheriff is even more of a coward than his men.” Jack said, pointing towards a shadow of movement in the distance.
His eyes followed a lone rider as he spurred his mount away from the sheriff’s levies. The king’s officer rode hard across the meadow, leaving the rebel army and the town he had sworn to protect behind in a trail of dust which scattered in the wake of his horse’s hooves. The host of hired footmen seemed to shudder as heads turned to watch his flight.
Mortimer trotted his own mount in front of his vanguard, five other landowners of Kent riding behind him. The traitor’s fat body wobbled as he stood in the saddle, his loud bellow carrying clear to Jack’s ears on the quiet breeze.
“That town you see yonder is Dartford.” he began, heaving his thick torso around to gesture over the stream. “It is a hallowed place for we men of Kent. Wat Tyler, a goodly man who led the honest people of our county in revolt not seventy years ago, was born in that place.” A furious cheer went up from men whose grandfathers had marched behind Wat Tyler and knew how the king’s officers had betrayed him. “Brave King Henry, whose son now wears the crown, walked this road on his way to Agincourt.” Another deafening cry met the name of the place where the Kentish men’s fathers had bent bows and sent death raining down on the flower of French nobility. “He, too, has been betrayed. Those men you see before us, barring our path, are loyal to the Sheriff of Kent.”
“And I’m the Duchess of York.” Mansford said in a soft, bitter murmur. “They’re loyal to the two silver groats the sheriff paid them.”
“The sheriff,” Mortimer continued, wheeling his horse to face the bridge. “Is abed with Queen Margaret who seeks to poison our king’s mind against his honest subjects. Those soldiers trample our livelihoods and rob our babes of food to keep them well through the winter. Let us show them justice, Kentish justice, and sharpened steel!”
Mortimer’s thick legs kicked back at his horse’s flanks and the animal plunged forwards onto the uneven stones of the bridge. His companions galloped after him, drawing their swords and thrusting the bright points into the air above their heads.
The vanguard gave a shout which seemed to shake the earth beneath Jack’s feet and they were flowing like a surging tide into the steep ditch.
Air whipped past his face and Jack was hurtling down the slope. His feet scarcely touched the grass as the meadow drew nearer. He lifted his gaze and saw the footmen close ranks at the head of the bridge. Their pikes stuck up towards the clouded sky like upright reeds on the edge of a river.
Had the Devil taken their senses from them? Their only chance of holding against horsemen was to lower pikes and stand their ground. Even as Jack sprinted the last hundred feet to where the rebels were struggling up the far side of the ditch, he saw the sheriff’s hired army take a faltering step back.
These were not knights or soldiers blooded in the wars with France. Mansford had been right. They were farmers and apprentices called to the sheriff’s banner and offered a silver groat or two to carry a hook or pike.
Mortimer’s horse hit the first rank like a hammer striking glass. Men reeled away and were kicked to the ground by thrashing hooves. Wickedly sharp steel sliced through the air at unguarded heads and necks.
The rebels rose out of the ditch to find their enemies towering over them, but not one man in the meadow owned a shield to defend against a cut from below. Scythes, axes and clubs lashed out at the legs of the men above and the footmen dropped, shrieking in agony.
Jack could not see the sheriff’s banner any more. It was like watching a forest being hacked to kindling. Pikes trembled in the air before toppling down onto the heads of those nearby, dropped as the footmen sprinted away from the howling terrors clambering up the stream’s steep bank.
He was too late. Jack was panting and gasping for air as he watched the rebel vanguard set off towards Dartford in pursuit of the two groat army.
His foot lashed out and kicked the bloodstained stones of the bridge, sending a flash of white hot pain up his leg. Jack bent double and moaned in agony. Then he straightened his back and let the fire wash through him, burning away his frustration.
Only one thing mattered to him now. The road to London was clear. Its streets would soon run with fresh-spilled blood, or his name was not Jack Cade.
He turned and saw Mansford walking with a slow, measured tread towards him. His eyes were narrowed and his mouth was set in a grimace of unease. Scarred flesh bunched into deep grooves across his brow.
“By the Virgin, I never thought they’d get this far.” he said, his voice a hollow whisper.