06 April 2017

Prologue

The wind snatched at them, alive and full of malice. It filled their chests in sudden gusts and made their mouths ache with cold. The two men shuddered under the assault, yet continued to climb, on iron rungs that stung their hands. Though they did not look down, they could sense the watching crowd below. 

Both men had been raised far to the south, in the same village of the county of Middlesex. They were a long, long way from home, but with their master, they’d been given a task by Queen Margaret herself. That was what mattered. They’d ridden further north from Sandal Castle, leaving behind the bloody ground and the pale, stripped bodies lying on it. They’d taken cloth sacks to the city of York, with the gales rising around them. 

Sir Stephen Reddes watched from below, one hand raised against ice flecks on the wind. The choice of Micklegate Bar was no accident. English kings had always used that tower to enter York from the south. It did not matter that hail stung his men or that darkness was thick as dust in the air. They had their charge, their orders – and all three were loyal.

Godwin Halywell and Ted Kerch reached a narrow wooden ledge above the crowd. They edged out on to it, leaning back when they feared a wild gust might snatch them off. The crowd thickened beneath them, gleaming just a little with white hail resting on dark hair. Shuffling figures still came out of houses and inns, some of them demanding answers from the local men on the walls. There were no replies called back. The guards had not been told.  

Short iron spikes had been set a dozen feet above the ground, too high for friends of executed men to reach. There were six in all, driven deep in good Roman mortar to lean out over the city. Four of them bore rotted heads, gaping at the night.  

‘What do we do with these?’ Halywell called. He gestured helplessly to Kerch over the row of heads between them. There’d been no orders about the remains of criminals. Halywell swore under his breath. His temper was shortening and the hail seemed to blow even harder, a lash against his skin.  

He let anger smother his revulsion, reaching out to the first head and taking hold. Its mouth was full of white beads of ice, shifting. Though he knew it was idiocy, a fear of being bitten meant he could not bring himself to put his hand between the jaws. Instead, he hooked his fingers under and just heaved the thing off its spike into the darkness. The lurching effort almost sent Godwin Halywell after it. He grasped the stones with white fingers, panting. Voices cried out below and the crowd surged back and forth, shocked at the idea that heavy, dangerous things might come flying down amongst them from the gatehouse tower.

Bloodline

Between them, they’d challenged for the throne and they’d lost it all

Halywell looked along the wall to Kerch and they exchanged a glance of grim resignation, just two men getting on with unpleasant work while others watched and judged them from relative safety. It took time to remove and throw down the remaining heads. One of them all but shattered on the stones below, with a noise like pottery breaking.

Halywell supposed they did not have to clear all the spikes. They carried only three heads in the two sacks they bore, but somehow it did not seem right to set their charges alongside common criminals. He had a sudden thought of Christ sharing the hill of skulls with thieves, but he shook his head, concentrating on the job at hand.  

While the wind howled, Halywell brought his sack up to his right shoulder, fumbling in its depths to wrap his fingers around locks of hair. Blood had stuck the heads to the cloth, so he had to wrestle the sack half inside out, almost tumbling off the wall again with his efforts. Gasping in fear and weariness, Halywell held it steady enough to snatch out the head of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury.  

The hair wound around his fingers was iron- grey and the eyes had not rolled up, so that the slack face seemed to peer at him in the torchlight. Halywell muttered a prayer he had almost forgotten, wanting to cross himself, or at least to close the eyes. He had thought he was inured to horrors, but having a dead man watch him was something new.  

It was no small task to spike a head. Halywell had received no instructions, as if every man of sense would have known immediately how it should be done. As it happened, he’d spent a summer of his childhood slaughtering pigs and sheep with a dozen other lads, earning the odd silver farthing or a bit of glistening liver to take home. He had a vague idea of there being a space at the base of a skull, but he couldn’t seem to find it in the dark. He was almost sobbing as he worked the head back and forth, his hands slipping and his teeth chattering. All the time, the crowd were watching, murmuring names of men.  

The iron rod sank in suddenly, piercing the brain and running up against the inside of the skull. Halywell sighed in relief. Below his feet, many in the crowd crossed themselves, like a flutter of wings.  

He pulled out the second head on good, dark hair, much thicker than the grey locks of the first. Richard, Duke of York, had been clean- shaven at the moment of his death, though Halywell had heard bristles would keep growing for a time, after. Sure enough, he could feel an unpleasant roughness on the jaw. He triednot to look at the face and jammed the head down on to its own iron point with his eyes pressed shut.  

With hands smeared in seeping muck, Halywell made the sign of the cross. Along the line, Kerch had spiked the third head alongside York. That had been an evil thing, everyone said. The rumour was that York’s son Edmund had been fleeing the battlefield. Baron Clifford had caught him and cut the boy down, just to spite his father.  

All the heads were fresh, with their jaws sagging open. Halywell had heard of undertakers who sewed the lower jaw to the cheek or stuck it shut with a mouthful of tar. He didn’t think it mattered. Dead was dead.  

He saw Kerch was turning back to the iron rungs set in the stone, their work done. Halywell was about to do the same when he heard Sir Stephen calling up to him. He could barely make out words over the wind, but the memory sprang alive and he swore aloud.  

A paper crown nestled at the bottom of his sack, stiff and dark with dried blood. Halywell unfolded it, looking askance at the head of York. He had a handful of thin split- pegs in a pouch at his waist, cut from dry reeds. Muttering about foolishness, he bent to the head and fixed the thing on to the dark hair, lock by lock. He thought it might remain for a while, in the shelter of the tower, or be blown across the city by the time he was down on solid ground. He didn’t much care. Dead was dead, that was what mattered. All the hosts of heaven wouldn’t care if you’d worn gold or paper, not then. Whatever the insult was meant to be, Halywell couldn’t see it.  

With care, he swung on to the ladder and climbed down the first couple of steps. As his eyes came level with the row of spiked heads, he paused, looking across them. York had been a good man, a brave man, so he’d heard. Salisbury too. Between them, they’d challenged for the throne and they’d lost it all. Halywell thought about telling his grandchildren he was the one who’d spiked York’s head on the walls of the city.  

For an instant, he had a sense of presence, of a breath on his neck. The wind seemed to fall away in a lull and he was staring across three humiliated men in silence. ‘God be with you all,’ he whispered. ‘May He forgive your sins, if you had no time to ask at the end. Let Him welcome you lads. And bless you all. Amen.’  

Halywell descended then, away from the moment of terrifying stillness, back into the heaving crowd and all the noise of men and cold of winter. 

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