The seventh book in David Gilman‘s Master of War series, Shadow of the Hawk, is due out next week. Head of Zeus were kind enough to provide an excerpt to share in advance of its release. Here’s the novel’s synopsis:
The King is dead.
Defeated on the field of Poitiers, Jean Le Bon, King of France, honoured his treaty with England until his death. His son and heir, Charles V, has no intention of doing the same. War is coming and the predators are circling.
Sir Thomas Blackstone, Edward III’s Master of War, has been tasked with securing Brittany for England. In the throes of battle, he rescues a young boy, sole witness to the final living breaths of the Queen of Castile. The secret the boy carries is a spark deadly enough to ignite conflict on a new front – a front the English cannot afford to fight on.
So Blackstone is ordered south to Castile, across the mountains to shepherd Don Pedro, King of Castile, to safety. Accompanied only by a small detachment of his men and a band of Moorish cavalrymen loyal to the king, every step takes Blackstone further into uncertain territory, deeper into an unyielding snare.
For the Master of War, the shadow of death is always present.
The excerpt is after the break.
The rider was frozen dead in the saddle. Snow, and then bodkin-tipped frost driven into bones by a snarling wind, had torn away the man’s soul. But it was not the hand of God that led him to Blackstone’s encampment. A hardy monk returning on foot to the safety of Blackstone’s protection at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Boschaud had come across the exhausted man, who with his final breaths had gasped for help to find the English King’s Master of War. The monk, seeking refuge from the bitter winter that was killing man and beast across the land, had plodded on towards the fortified abbey, deep in prayer and leading the man’s suffering horse.
Strong arms, fingers clawing in the biting cold, reached for the dead man, cutting the reins to free his frozen grip. Blackstone saw the satchel bearing the Prince’s seal. The messenger’s clothing creaked when they eased him from the saddle. The horse faltered, head low. Men guided it towards the stable with a gentleness reserved for a beast with a courageous heart that deserved to be saved. Blankets, deep, soft straw, boiled oats and warmth from the other horses would aid its chances of survival.
They settled the dead man onto a stool, propping his back against the wall. Blackstone looked into his blue eyes. The Prince’s messenger had fought against his own death in his determination to deliver the contents of the satchel. Blackstone reached out to close the man’s eyes but the lids were frozen open, gazing out from eternity at the gathered men. Some crossed themselves.
‘Shall we put him close to the fire?’ said Blackstone’s centenar Will Longdon.
‘Sweet Jesus, you idiot, you want him rotting?’ the veteran knight Gilbert Killbere said. ‘Get him down to the cellars. He needs to be kept cold until the thaw and then the monks can bury him.’
The veteran archer shrugged. ‘We’ll put him in the cheese room – then we won’t notice when he starts to stink.’
‘You’re a disrespectful godless wretch,’ said Killbere.
Blackstone turned to the gathered men. ‘As are many of us, Gilbert, but we will treat this man with respect. The rigor in his muscles will ease. Have the monks wrap him in linen and lay him somewhere close to God.’ He turned to his squire. ‘John, speak to the abbot, make my request known to him. Ask for a side chapel and prayers to be said.’
John Jacob nodded and gestured to the men to bear the messenger away. As they bent to their task, he glanced at the satchel. ‘I’ll wager that’s bad news, Sir Thomas.’
Killbere closed the door behind them and pushed more wood into the fire; then he tugged his heavy cloak around him. Like the others, he wore strips of cloth wrapped over his boots to help ward off the bone-cracking cold of the stone floors. Monks were not lords of a manor who placed fresh reeds beneath their rugs.
‘Worst winter I can remember and this is already spring,’ said Killbere, squatting on a stool, pushing his swaddled boots towards the flames. ‘Snot drips and freezes like damned icicles. We hack wine casks open and melt chunks of wine over a fire. It’s too cold to fight even if we could find a Frenchman to raise a sword against and not a whore or a nun in sight to embrace beneath the blankets. It’s not just the cold wind that makes your eyes water. It’s the ball ache. We should go back to Italy. South. Naples or somewhere.’
Blackstone held the unopened satchel containing orders from the Prince of Wales. He felt the leather stiff beneath his fingertips. ‘Knowing the Prince, he’ll find something to warm us.’
‘Then open it. It’s time we left this place.’
Blackstone took out the folded parchment and broke its wax seal. A loyal messenger had sacrificed his life to deliver the summons. What was so important that he should pay such a price? His eyes followed a clerk’s neat hand. Killbere waited, eyebrows raised, questioning.
‘Agen,’ said Blackstone, his mind’s eye placing the ancient city halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse in the south- west. Close enough to the northern Spanish kingdom of Navarre.‘We travel to meet the Prince and Charles of Navarre.’
Killbere poked the fire in disgust. ‘That popinjay. We saved his bastard arse when we fought the Jacquerie. These damned noblemen. Peacocks on the battlefield. All he’s fit for is killing peasants. What does he want now?’
Blackstone shook his head and passed Killbere the letter. ‘All we know is that the Prince summons us.’
‘Two days’ ride in this weather,’ said Killbere. ‘At least. I tell you, Thomas, the King of Navarre is up to no good. I’m not joyful at the thought that we’ll be dragged into a fight to help him.’ He tossed the folded document onto the table. ‘God’s tears, our King and our Prince won the damned war thanks to men like ours shedding their blood; if this upstart has ambitions beyond his ability then let others ride to their deaths on his behalf, not us. He should stay in that sliver of land he calls a kingdom.’
The Abbaye Notre-Dame de Boschaud nestled in the heart of Aquitaine between the Prince’s palace in Bordeaux and the seneschal at Poitiers. If routiers or the French struck, Blackstone was well placed to retaliate. What prompted this summons south? Defence or attack?
‘You wanted a fight, Gilbert, perhaps we are being given one.’