Sometimes starting the novel can be the hardest thing. I wanted to introduce two characters as quickly as possible and only one could feature significantly in the first chapter. See the final Chapter 1 for the choice I settled on. Here is a possible Chapter 1 that I didn’t use, for the other.
1: Running in the Family
Daniel Matthews had no idea that by the end of the day he would have seen men slaughtered for the second time in his twelve-year-long life. A peaceful English afternoon would have been torn apart by noise and battle and, even leaving aside that experience, his life would have changed forever.
“Mr Foreman!” he said as he moved slowly down the line of bushes in the rose garden of Branheath Manor. It was, he thought, a suitably resonant, commanding voice. He narrowed his eyes as he studied each individual flower carefully.
“Yes, sir?” he said in reply to himself. A higher, lighter, more servile tone. He breathed in through his nose, slowly, savouring what he found in the air. He could smell so much more than the roses directly in front of him. More distant, there was the slightly more cloying honeysuckle, the sharp relish of the recently scythed grass, and right at the back and far away, the slightest fruity waft from the orchard. But he could ignore those.
“Mr Foreman …” Gotcha! he thought. There, right in front of him, the delicate purity of the roses was contaminated by the unmistakable rot of worm. He reached into the mass of thorny stalks and snapped the offending plant between thumb and forefinger. A thorn jabbed him in the ball of his thumb and drew a drop of blood. “Mr Foreman, the leaves in the north field are showing signs of blight. I want each one of them inspected for fungus.”
“Why, sir, I don’t know how you does it! Me and the boys’ll get right on it.”
And the foreman would hurry off, shaking his head in wonder. That Master Matthews, he would think: arrived here with scarcely a penny in his pocket barely a year ago, and already the greatest tobacco planter in the colonies.
Daniel had heard of tobacco and Virginia, and they filled his dreams. He wasn’t entirely sure what the one was or where the other lay, but he knew one was a plant that people grew for a lot of money and the other was far across the sea. If his father, whom he had never met, could come to England from somewhere so remote no one had ever heard of it, then surely he, Daniel, could get as far as one of England’s colonies whose location was presumably known to most sailors. And as for growing plants — he knew he could do that. So, he would work at the manor to save up enough to get to London and buy passage to the New World. And then …
Daniel took the severed stem and withdrew it. He grinned. Once again, he had got the right one. The subtle tint of the petals was just beginning to fade, the delicate texture just starting to crumple. He threw it over his shoulder and stooped down to smell the bush once more, to see if the worm had spread.
But no, it seemed he had got there in time. He had removed the infection before it caught. Daniel smiled again, picked up the stem and set off for the bonfire. Now he wasn’t concentrating so hard, he winced and bit his lip when another thorn got him in the palm. He held his hands up and looked ruefully at the scratches. They were going to sting. Perhaps one day he would impress grouchy old Simon, the head gardener, enough to be allowed gloves. But these were almost like scars of battle, honourably won.
The smile faded. As one of the few able bodied people still to live in Branheath, and a veteran (albeit from behind the lines) of the battle at Edgehill, when the King and Parliament had clashed for the first time, Daniel knew that battle scars weren’t nearly as romantic as they were made out to be. This would be a thought he kept to himself.
Daniel had realised a long time ago that no one could smell smells quite like him. He had no idea where it came from, though he assumed it was another legacy of the father he had never met, along with his red hair, and the strong body and stamina which meant that he could outwork grown men twice his size and age, for a boy’s pay. With practice he could even tell from a distance when a fruit was in danger of over-ripening, when a flower was worm-struck. It was one of the things that he suspected had made Simon, if not exactly like him, then despise him less than he did the rest of his fellow men. But one day he would make it work for his own benefit.
The shout echoed around the gardens and he gave a guilty start. He had learnt the hard way, with more than one thick ear, not to daydream on the job. But there was no sign of the shouter, Simon. It was a general summons.
Daniel made his way back through the tangled and overgrown bushes. The gardens of Branheath Manor had had their way for three years — far too long — ever since the manor’s owner Sir Miles had died at Edgehill, along with most of the men from the village. Simon stood on the terrace by the manor’s south face and was beckoning him.
“The master wants yer! C’mon!”
Daniel hesitated. To obey the summons directly would mean to walk across the main lawn, which was usually forbidden.
So Daniel put one foot on the lawn, then more confidently the other, then hurried across to do his master’s bidding. Sir Edwin Willoughby, the nephew of the late Sir Miles was Parliament’s man and hence Sir Miles’s exact opposite, but he was the master and the likes of Daniel did as they were told. Simon led him round to the front of the house and the courtyard, and what he saw there brought him up short.
The yard was full of soldiers. His dreams had been so full of Virginia, and his nostrils of roses, that he hadn’t noticed them arrive. Normally a crowd of sweaty men this large could not have hidden itself from him.
And they were Parliament’s soldiers. They had to be because there, mounted on a horse, was Sir Edwin himself.
Daniel tried not to scowl. Granted that it had been the Royalist Sir Miles who had led Branheath’s men to fight for their King at Edgehill, it had been Parliament’s army that killed them there. It had been Parliament’s men who declared that his friend Francis Wetherby, vicar of Branheath, was vicar no more, and who had sacked the church and burnt the prayer books. Daniel owed his hearth and home to Francis, and as for those books, Francis had used them to teach him his letters. That was two more reasons to hate the enemy.
There was a rough kind of uniform among them, jackets of a ruddy brown-red and thick leather overcoats. Each man had an identical firearm slung over his shoulder. Daniel was no expert on weaponry but he assumed they were muskets.
Sir Edwin pulled his horse around and scowled first at Daniel, then at Simon.
“No, this won’t do,” he said. He had a round, red face and a loud voice that sounded slow, but was not. He looked and sounded like what he was — a country squire, more accustomed to worrying about the state of the fields, who had found himself sitting atop a powerful charger and leading a small army. “I said the strongest men, Simon. Not boys.”
To his surprise, Daniel felt an approving hand on his shoulder.
“Young Daniel’s the strongest there is, Sir Edwin. Could beat any man.”
“Really?” Sir Edwin ran his eyes down Daniel’s stocky frame, from the mop of red hair to his boots, then back again. “Very well. You see that cart, boy?”
The cart was parked up against one wall, loaded with boxes. Two more of the red-jacketed soldiers sat in the front and four men from the manor sat on the boxes in the back. They were all large, strong fellows.
“Yes, sir,” said Daniel.
“Lift down one of those boxes.”
“Yes, sir,” Daniel said again. The boxes were the size of a small trunk with a handle at each end. He had to stand on tiptoe to reach them, but he managed to take a handle in each hand and heave. The box slid off the cart and he realised just how heavy it was. He staggered, but he was able to hold it up.
“Good Lord,” Sir Edwin said, and there was a small round of applause from the soldiers. “Very well. Put it back, and jump up in.”
Daniel still had no idea what this was all about, but he climbed up as he was told. One of the men in the cart grinned at him.
“Bet them muscles comes in handy with the girls, eh?”
They all laughed except Daniel. His strength was actually much more useful with the boys: the boys who thought that because he was small and had never met his father, who had besides not been married to his mother, he was fair game. It never took long to disabuse them.
A minute later he had set off for battle. This time, apparently, it was on the side of Parliament, and he could guess exactly where they were going.
The river was narrow and lazy, trickling along a shallow valley whose sides curved up very gently on either side. The men tramped along the track that ran parallel to its north bank, and the cart bounced along in the ruts behind them. They passed the bridge and the road that led south to Newbury, and continued up the valley. Before long Daniel’s nose could pick up the scent of an army. A couple of hundred men, stale sweat, straw, woodsmoke from numerous small fires, and the pungent odour of horses. Soon after that, the procession peeled away from the river and headed into the trees. They were going to the siege.
The castle at Donnington stood alone and aloof at the top of a hill, which was the highest point at the end of a ridge of high ground. Four stark, grey walls with a fortified gatehouse at one end. Once it had dominated the crossing of two roads — the road that came from the west and ran east to London, and the road from the south that led up to the Midlands and beyond. Now the hill had been sculpted. The inhabitants of the castle had carved away at it to make sheer fortifications that bristled with pikes and small cannon and musketeers — the height of England’s killing arts.
The entire area around the base of the hill was cleared of trees and cover, and this was where the besiegers waited; a ring of tents and sentries, a few artillery pieces poised on their two-wheeled carriages, men dug into earthworks and fortifications of their own. Some of the men paraded with muskets almost as long as their own bodies, but their hearts didn’t seem to be in it. Others just sat in circles around the fires, eating and drinking.
It was a typical scene on a warm May afternoon. This was no sudden insurrection and neither side was in any hurry to engage the other. The King had been at Donnington briefly, but had escaped, and the place had been under siege ever since. The men waiting on one side of the castle walls were quite content to starve out the men on the other. Why waste lives throwing yourselves against those fortifications when the laws of nature would eventually do the job for you?
Into this indolent scene came Sir Edwin and his men like a stick inserted into an anthill. The sight of these polished, professional, grim-looking newcomers stirred the besiegers into at least trying to look smart and capable. Daniel could not help being interested as they scrambled to some kind of attention. He tried to be Royalist at heart, but he was a boy first and foremost and he took it all in through wide, receptive eyes.
Sir Edwin held up a hand as a captain walked up to them. “Halt!” Then, “Good day, sir. Kindly have your men stand to, ready to attack.”
The captain was clearly unimpressed.
“And who are you, sir?”
Sir Edwin held up a scroll and slapped it into the officer’s hand. “Willoughby,” he said. “Here by order of General Fairfax in Newbury. The Lord General thinks it is time to bring this siege to a close and has entrusted me with the task.”
The officer looked more respectfully impressed as he scanned the scroll, but it was grudging. “The Lord General should be aware that fortified locations such as this do not just tumble, sir. It is hardly a high priority in the course of this war.”
“No criticism is intended of you, sir,” said Sir Edwin. “This enterprise will also prove a test of our new weapons. Observe. Sergeant! Get the crates unloaded and have the riflemen fall in!” He turned back to the captain. “We’ll open the proceedings with a small demonstration, and then everyone can join in.”
Daniel and the other men from the manor were put to work unloading the crates from the cart. Daniel stayed in the cart, handing the crates down to the first man in the line, and at the other end of the line Sir Edwin’s soldiers queued up as the crates were opened. They seemed to be full of weighted strips of cloth, and a quartermaster would hand one of these to each man. It went over one shoulder and across his chest, to be fastened to his belt at the waist.
Eventually every one of the soldiers had one of the strips. They fell into two parallel lines and a drum began to beat. They marched forward for a few paces and stopped with the castle on their left. Then they turned to face it, one line in front of the other. They were safely outside musket range — the lines were two hundred yards away — and the castle’s defenders stood on the fortifications and watched with interest.
“Load your weapons!”
There was a rattle of metallic snaps and clicks down the lines. The defenders cheered and waved. They could see these soldiers were new to the siege. Perhaps they thought a fresh commander had taken over and was trying to prove a point.
The front line of soldiers knelt. The men in the second line stood sideways on to the enemy, one foot forward, and raised their rifles to their shoulders. On the ramparts, one of the defenders turned around and bared his buttocks.
It was not the soft boom of gunpowder and there were no billowing clouds of smoke. The rifles fired with a definite crack, an explosive burst snapping through the air faster than the speed of sound. The volley echoed around the valley and the row of defenders, standing on the first line of the earthworks, collapsed.
There was a stunned silence, broken only by:
Another series of those metallic clicks, and Daniel realised he hadn’t actually seen anyone load a rifle yet. At least, not as he understood it to be done: power poured down the barrel, ball dropped after it, wadding rammed home. Instead each men just worked a small lever beneath the stock of his gun and raised it to fire again.
And then the fortifications erupted in popping clouds of smokes as the defenders returned fire. It was a futile gesture, unless they were hoping that their own weapons had magically increased all of a sudden in range and accuracy, as Parliament’s apparently had.
More defenders collapsed. Some scrambled for the small cannon that were mounted facing the besiegers. They never reached them. Parliamentary gunfire cut them down.
Daniel, dazed by the unexpected effectiveness of the attack, heard Sir Edwin and the captain talking.
“… remarkable range,” said the captain. “Not the usual gunpowder?”
“Coal dust, believe it or not,” said Sir Edwin. “Crushed to a fine grain, treated with some mysterious essence, and many times more powerful than gunpowder. Look.” He dug into his belt and produced a small brass tube. It was perhaps the length of a man’s longest finger. One end was pointed and was a different colour, the dull grey of lead. He indicated the cases. “We have many hundreds of these. Each one is primed with coal dust, in place of the usual powder, and this …” He tapped the pointed end. “… which is a separate ball. Each rifle carries five of these, with a sixth in the breech if necessary. After a shot is discharged, the soldier moves a lever beneath the breech, which expels the old case and inserts a new, ready for firing.”
“Indeed, sir. All in all, a valuable service from the Lord General’s Hollykor allies.”
Daniel almost dropped the case he was holding.
He knew only two things about his father. He knew the name by which his father had been baptised, and he knew that his father had been Hollykor. No one had ever understood what the word meant. And now there was a group of them? He wondered if he dared ask Sir Edwin to expand on the subject, and drew a breath to see if he did.
The drumbeat began again and the twin rows marched forward. They fired from the shoulder again, and again.
The first one of them suddenly crumpled and fell. They had come within range of the muskets at last. Another joined him. They stopped marching and began to fire back at will, choosing their targets carefully. Three or four of them collapsed together as the ground at their feet exploded. Someone the other side of the ramparts had made it to a cannon.
Defenders were running out of the castle now, down towards the front line. They had seen the way the fight was going. The only way to respond to these strange new weapons, that could fire so accurately and so far and so continuously, was with a sheer mass of single-shot musketry.
Another line of Parliamentary riflemen ran forward to give aid to their fellows. The battle had opened with a single volley but now the rattle of shots was continuous: up and down the valley, through the trees, slapping flatly back from the castle’s stone walls. The smell reached Daniel: acrid, burnt and gritty. It stung the nose and dried up the mouth.
“I think we’ve softened ’em up,” said Sir Edwin. “Pass the word to prepare to attack. I’ll give the order once I’m mounted.”
“Very well, sir.”
A minute later the besieging cannons opened fire, shooting over the heads of the attackers and pounding the lines between the fortifications and the castle. They gave another round, and then all the attackers, the veterans of the siege and the newly arrived riflemen, charged with a mighty yell, Sir Edwin at their head. The attackers swarmed up the fortifications, meeting little resistance. The smoke from the musket-fire partially obscured the scene but every now and then Daniel caught glimpses: hand-to-hand fighting poised perilously on the lip of the ramparts; a rifleman using the bayonet on the end of his weapon to impale a Royalist; another rifleman tumbling as someone slashed at his hamstrings with a sword, to be set upon by two others as he lay writhing on the ground.
The men who had helped unload the cart were talking amongst themselves.
“We done our bit.”
“Reckon there’s a drink hereabouts?”
“Might be. Hold the fort for us, son.”
Daniel opened his mouth to protest, but even the manor workforce had its pecking order, and he was at the bottom of it. They turned and wandered off, leaving Daniel the sole guardian of Parliament’s new ammunition.
Something massive moved within the smoke, and it resolved into Sir Edwin astride his charger. Daniel cowered as the horse reared to a halt. Sir Edwin pushed back the three-barred visor of his helmet and gazed about blankly. He had acquired a rifle of his own from somewhere and it was slung over his back.
“Where did they go?” he said.
Daniel started to raise a hand to point in the direction of the hoped-for drink, but Sir Edwin was too impatient.
“Never mind, never mind,” he said as he swung down from the horse. He fell on the nearest box and threw off the lid. For the first time Daniel saw inside one clearly, and he could see why they were so heavy. They were packed with the brass cartridges that Sir Edwin had shown the captain, rows and rows of them; they gleamed with a pleasant oily tang and were tucked into those long cloth strips. “I think I’ve found the way in but we need supplies. Help me load up.”
There was no way to carry the box on the horse. Daniel helped Sir Edwin string a strip around his neck, then another. By the third, Sir Edwin was wilting under the weight.
“You’re a strong lad,” he said. “Could you manage a couple yourself?”
Daniel gaped at the thought, but Sir Edwin had already decided on the answer. “Well, come on, don’t hang around.”
And before he knew exactly what was happening, or why, Daniel found himself seated behind Sir Edwin, two more ammunition strips slung around him, and he was galloping off into the fray.
Daniel clung on for dear life as the horse carried them around the battlefield in a wide circle. To their right the once simple strategy of taking the castle by rifle fire had deteriorated into a free-for-all, still coyly shrouded in smoke that only occasionally parted to give the odd glimpse of the carnage. The impressions filled Daniel’s mind; they came in through his eyes and ears and nose and went straight for the brain. The dark shapes of men locked in mortal combat; the stink of gunpowder and rifle smoke that now contaminated every breath to the point where you had to think to notice it; the continuous sound of gunfire that had merged into a constant background crackle.
Even his unmilitary eye could see that the battle had become bogged down. It had not been so straightforward as Sir Edwin had hoped, perhaps due to the Royalists’ perfidious idea of fighting back. The Parliamentarians were up on the earth ramparts, but that was as far as they could get. The defence beyond them was just too strong, and close up, there wasn’t the room to bring a rifle to bear before someone came at you with a sword.
Something buzzed past his ear like a maddened insect. It took half a second to work out that it must have been a musket ball. They were within range now. He felt his bowels clench and he grit his teeth and wrapped his arms even more tightly around Sir Edwin’s waist.
They pulled up on the edge of the battle and Sir Edwin jumped down. He reached up and swung Daniel down behind him. They crouched low and ran over to a small clump of bushes. Sir Edwin seemed to know where he was going; Daniel only followed him because, mad as the man was, he was the only protection Daniel had at that point. Men lay in the shadow of the bushes, out of sight of the castle’s defenders. Daniel glanced at the bushes, then up at the fortifications beyond them, and reflected on how little protection the thin leaves offered.
“Got the ammunition,” Sir Edwin said. He pulled the belts off his shoulders and from Daniel, and the men got busy feeding the deadly brass cases into their rifles. Sir Edwin grinned back at Daniel. “Quite an adventure, eh boy?”
Daniel just stared at him and reflected that the tendency of the late Sir Miles to lead his men to certain death obviously ran in the family.
“Now, see there?” Sir Edwin said. He pointed with his rifle.
The fortifications made a jagged line around the castle hill. They drew a strange shape with many straight lines and many points, the idea being that every wall could be defended from at least two sides. Sir Edwin’s small group lay on the ground near one of those points, and that was where Sir Edwin was aiming. They were well around the field from the main battle and the point was barely defended.
“We can take those men from here,” said Sir Edwin. “We run forward, get up the walls and take the point before they can rally. When we raise the standard, the others will see us and come to join us. It’s a way in, you see? It’s narrow and can easily be held by us.”
Daniel stared at the fortifications. He could see four … no, five defenders beyond the ramparts. They should have been guarding their position but their attention was clearly on the main battle at the front of the castle. They hadn’t seen Sir Edwin’s group assembling close by.
He remembered they were Royalists. They were meant to be on the same side. He should be shouting warnings. Why had he suddenly turned traitor? How had he suddenly got involved in a Parliamentarian’s mad scheme?
But if he did shout a warning, he had no doubt one of these men here, even affable Sir Edwin, would simply put a knife into him. And if he ran, he would be a deserter, and he knew what happened to them. So he stared fixedly at the grass a couple of inches in front of him.
“Fire,” said Sir Edwin, and the shots cracked out. When Daniel looked up again, the fortifications were clear.
“Up and at ’em!” Sir Edwin bellowed, and he sprang to his feet and charged the rampart, with his men close behind.
The ramparts erupted in Royalists. The guards they had seen had been only a small part of the much larger group waiting below the rim. They seemed to burst out of the ground, wielding muskets, and Sir Edwin’s small group was caught right in the open. The defenders poured down musket fire at their attackers. Sir Edwin was the first to fold, clutching his stomach and screaming. He collapsed and tried to push himself to his feet again, but another shot got him and he lay still. His men crumpled around him.
Death, death, death. Daniel felt the sobs begin to well. Every breath hurt and his heart raced. He had to leave. He had to get away from this terrible place. And suddenly he realised he was standing, in clear view, and the defenders had seen him. Muskets swung around to face him, and he just had time to drop down to the ground before they opened fire. He curled up into the tightest ball he could and howled as musket balls whipped through the leaves around him. Then, before they could reload, he was on his feet and sprinting away from the battle. He no longer cared what they did to deserters. It was no worse than what they did to each other.
The trees were ahead of him, the edge of the battlefield. Then he was in among them and small branches whipped at his face. He kept running, and only stopped when the ground vanished from beneath his feet. He ploughed face forward into some water, sending up a mighty wave that dislodged some angry ducks.
Daniel propped himself up on his elbows and glanced up through the dirty water that streamed down his face. He lay there for a moment, sides heaving with every breath. He was in a stream, little more than ditch through the countryside, a brook that fed into the river.
And strong fingers dug into his hair and pulled him up. He stared into an ugly, angry face from a distance of two inches.
“Who’s this?” said the face.
A pause, then another voice said:
The ugly man shoved him over to the bank. He clambered up and squirmed around to face the two men. They weren’t in the uniform of Parliament’s new army but if they recognised him they must have come from the siege. He guessed immediately he wasn’t the only one to flee the battle. One of them had got hold of one of the new rifles.
He tried to say something. No words would come.
“Right.” The first man raised his rifle and worked the small level beneath the stock.
“He’s a kid, Jack …”
“He’ll tell.” The rifle muzzle swung round to meet him and Daniel looked down its dark eye. He no longer had the will to fight, run, even despair. He just shut his eyes and waited.
It all happened at once. A far-off, distant voice shouted something, and then the shots rang out, two of them, bang bang. And he was still alive, still there to notice them. It was the same sharp retort of Parliament’s new rifles but even faster. They came from behind him, and in front he heard a heavy splash. He opened one eye, then the other. Jack lay in front of him, limbs contorted, face turned up to the sky. The stream was too shallow for him to sink and it flowed lazily over his face. The water ran into his sightless eyes, but he didn’t blink; into his nose and open mouth, but he didn’t choke.
Jack’s companion stared dumbstruck at someone behind Daniel.
“Run,” said a voice. It was a simple word of command, harsh and guttural, cold and full of anger. The deserter turned tail and fled.
A horror began to well up inside him. It was starting again. He had been so close to being able to give it all up, just to die, to leave it all behind. Now he would have to keep on living in this world that had turned so terrible, and he didn’t know if he could.
Footsteps behind him, and two feet stood beside him. Daniel looked up and the sky was blotted out by a the powerful shape of a broad-shouldered man. He wore battered, nondescript travelling clothes and clutched in one hand was a small gun, something like a flintlock, but a design Daniel had never seen before. The man tucked it into a holster at his belt and held out his hand.
The outstretched arm was broad and muscular. Daniel’s gaze wandered along it and up to the face. The man was old, which was to say middle aged, with neatly cropped, bright red hair. His bright blue eyes were set beneath a deep brow and his face seemed wider than it was high, but not unpleasant to look at. The skin around his eyes was wrinkled as if he smiled a lot, and he was smiling now.
“You must be Daniel,” he said. It was the same voice, but suddenly warm and friendly. “I’m a friend of Francis.”
Daniel realised two things, with stark dismay. At some point between fleeing the castle and now, he had wet himself, though he was so soaked that no one could have told. And he was about to burst into tears, which he did.
Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2004. Not to be reproduced without permission.