I’m thrilled to be hosting an exciting extract from Viper’s Blood by David Gilman today. Viper’s Blood is part of the Master of War series and is published by Head of Zeus. Viper’s Blood is available for purchase here.
Edward III has invaded France at the head of the greatest host England has ever assembled. But his attempt to win the French crown is futile. The Dauphin will no longer meet the English in the field and the great army is mired in costly sieges, scavenging supplies from a land ruined by decades of conflict.
Facing a stalemate – or worse – the English are forced to agree a treaty. But peace comes at a price. The French request that Blackstone escort their King’s daughter to Italy to see her married to one of the two brothers who rule Milan – the same brothers who killed Blackstone’s family to revenge the defeats he inflicted on them. Blackstone, the French are certain, will never leave Milan alive…
An Extract From Viper’s Blood
Thomas Blackstone spat blood.
The axe-wielding Frenchman’s blow missed his open helm but the fist clutching the axe slammed into his face. Blackstone’s height and strength carried him past the assault into the hacking mêlée as John Jacob, a pace behind, rammed his blade beneath the man’s armpit. The snarling roar of close-quarter battle mingled with the screams of mutilated men. Blood and entrails squelched underfoot as the city’s defenders fell beneath English violence. Step by step Blackstone and his men fought their way through the defensive ditches that had been dug around the city of Rheims. The walls were higher than heaven. Men died in their shadow, cast down into bloodstained mud. Some who fought cursed the cold and the rain, and some the King of England, who had brought his host often thousand men to this place of death. Sweat stung Blackstone’s eyes as he carved a path towards the Prince of Wales, the man he was sworn to protect and who was in the vanguard of the battle.Two of Blackstone’s captains, Gaillard and Meulon, huge bears of men who matched Blackstone’s size and strength, flanked the Englishman they had served these past fourteen years. Their spears thrust into the terrified French, some of whom were city militia who had never experienced the surging terror that now befell them.
Blackstone saw the Prince wheel, his shield slamming down a French knight. The man raised his visor and cried out, but his voice was swept away in the bellowing cacophony. His gesture was one of surrender. The Prince hesitated, but the weight of men around him forced him across the fallen man as Meulon leaned forward and pushed his spear into the man’s face. The Frenchman’s hands desperately snatched at the steel; his body bucked. Meulon wrenched the blade free; the man was already dead. Blackstone trod on his chest, unconcerned at the spume of blood that splattered his legs. He reached the Prince who, despite being flanked by his retinue, cleaved a path towards the city gates. For the past thirty-three days of the siege no one had expected such resistance from the walled city’s defenders; no one had believed that the winter rain could be so persistent; and only Blackstone believed that King Edward III in his pursuit of the French crown had made a foolish mistake in trying to take the city whose guardian, the nobleman Gaucher de Châtillon, had fortified the walls, blocked the drawbridges and dug defensive ditches. Ditches that Blackstone and his men had fought through for the past two days, and whose quagmire sucked men’s legs and sapped strength. Two days of half-starved fighting so that the English King could seize the city that traditionally crowned every King of France. New Year had passed but Edward wanted that crown.
‘My Prince!’ Blackstone yelled as the King’s son slipped. He leapt forward, slamming his shield into mail-clad foot soldiers, forcing himself between fighters who had poured from the city gates wild with fear and determination to stop the vile English horde from advancing and thinking that they might seize Edward’s son. The sight of the Prince falling to his knees gave them renewed courage but then they saw the shield bearing Blackstone’s blazon: the mailed fist clasping the sword blade. Its cruciform and declaration, Défiant à la mort, heralded death and made them falter. To stand against the renowned Englishman whose very name was enough to make men surrender before his violence was unleashed was an invitation few would accept. But the weight of those behind pushed them forward. Frenzy ruled the day; blood-lust defeated fear. They fell on Blackstone. His shield took the blows of mace and sword as he half bent his body, turning their blows away and thrusting with killing jabs of Wolf Sword’s hardened steel. As he spun around he caught sight of the Prince of Wales vomiting. He spewed across his own men and those who lay dead and dying at his feet. A banner dipped as willing hands reached for him. Rich food and plenty of it! Blackstone thought derisively. A king’s table groaning with succulent cuts and rich sauces. A sight he and his men would never see, let alone share. Most of the troops were starving. Man and horse had been deprived of supplies as the French burned food stores ahead of the English advance and the flooded rivers ran with waste, poisoned by slaughtered carcasses. Deny the English invaders supplies and they will be defeated had been the Dauphin’s command. A worthless son of a worthless French King in a worthless land in a worthless war. For Christ’s sake! What were they dying for in this country? In this ditch?
Blackstone backhanded Wolf Sword’s pommel into a Frenchman’s face contorted with hatred and purpose; then he rammed the rim of his shield beneath the chin of another. He shifted his weight, allowed a strike against him, saw the man stumble past, left him to die beneath John Jacob’s sword and then surrendered to the blood haze that filled his mind and softened the roar of the battle. He was cocooned in the place he knew well. Now the killing rage was with him again; his instinct to kill and maim enveloped him like a rising tide and swept him along, a warring demon blessed by the angels. Beneath the rolling clouds that brought the swirling curtains of rain, a darker storm swept across the battlements. English archers laid a deluge of arrows onto the city walls. Blackstone saw the bowmen in his mind’s eye, felt their effort in his heart. Nock, draw, loose! Sheaves of arrows carried by pages and anyone else ordered to feed the greatest weapon in the King’s army would be borne relentlessly to the thousands of archers. Will Longdon would be in the sawtooth line with his men, Jack Halfpenny, Robert Thurgood: men who had fought and suffered with Thomas Blackstone. All of them had swept across France during the years of war, back and forth to Italy where Blackstone and his men defended the road to Florence until finally returning to France a year before last. It was there an Italian assassin had ripped away Blackstone’s heart by slaying his wife and child.
About David Gilman
David Gilman enjoyed many careers, including firefighter, soldier and photographer before turning to writing full time. He is an award winning author and screenwriter.
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