Thanks to a deal I’ve managed to score with the noted historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell, here are some extracts from the seventy-sixth book in his acclaimed series The Parliamentary Quest.
In this book, young Nathaniel Sharphook, the National MP for Whangamamatara, continues his search for the person who killed his family. But first he must win the heart of a powerful noblewoman, Lady Judith, and survive an epic battle with the opposition parties that will threaten his party’s existence.
The banners of the enemy ranged out before Nathaniel and his comrades. Rising above them was the giant red flag of the enemy king, Philip the First. Nathaniel’s bowels loosened as he realised what the red banner signified.
“The godless bastards aren’t taking prisoners today,” said a sour old man to Nathaniel’s left, a crusty old veteran with as many campaigns behind him as he had rotten teeth.
King Philip was mounted on a powerful destrier that strained for battle. Philip had surrounded himself with the most notable knights of his realm, and their polished armour glittered despite the mud of the battlefield. Nathaniel recognised some of the enemy banners. The golden mallard of Sir Trevor, a pugnacious fighter who was both feared and reviled by his enemies. Then Nathaniel saw on one side of the King the colours of Lord David, Duke of New Lynn, who was tall and lean; and to the kings other side the flag of Sir Shane, the most eloquent man in the land, whose golden tongue was only matched by his fearsome reputation as a warrior.
“When they come at you,” growled one of the party whips, “you stay in line. Nobody leaves the line for anything. If you need to shit you shit in your pants, if you need to die then do it standing up.”
“But why aren’t they taking prisoners today?” Nathaniel asked the man.
The whip yelled into his face. “No more talking, you useless wastrel, unless you want me to kick your arse all the way back to your electorate office!”
A spray of red blocked Nathaniel’s view momentarily, as the echo of the enemy’s guns shuddered in his ears.
“Sweet Jesus,” whimpered one of his caucus colleagues as the unmistakable odour of a score of bowels voiding wafted across Nathaniel’s nose. Another man cursed as he scraped great globs of flesh from his armour. The enemy’s guns had eviscerated a row of men, and the place where a dozen MPs had once stood now resembled an offal shop, with mounds of blood, viscera and gore now replacing a column of men.
“The bastards have got their eye in now,” remarked the old campaigner standing next to Nathaniel, wiping jellied brain matter from his spectacles. “We’re well and truly in the shit now.”
“No talking!” bellowed the whip, just as the enemy’s trumpets blasted and as the first wave of mounted knights began their charge.
And as the real battle began.
The enemy crossed the ground between the two armies in a moment, ploughing as a mass into the thin line of men where Nathaniel stood. He had no time to think or even yell “point of order, Mr Speaker!”, as a dark knight on a great charger reared towards him.
Nathaniel thrust his poleaxe at the man and watched in astonishment as the point ripped through the knight’s visor, tearing through the man’s face. The enemy was flung from his horse as he wriggled, screaming, and Nathaniel yanked his weapon free. Gobbets of eye and brain were lodged on the tip, but the man was still alive, so Nathaniel smashed the axe end down onto the knight’s head and watched with pleasure as a trickle of dark ooze came from the now-still man’s helmet.
His first kill. I am a real MP now, he told himself. Nobody can take that from me now.
And then the world went dark.
He awoke with a start. I am not dead, he realised as he lurched to his side, just in time to avoid a mass of intestines and other internal organs spilling onto his face. One of his colleagues had been skewered and ripped open, and now stood in astonishment as his insides were dumped onto the ground in a steaming heap.
Nathaniel realised that he had been knocked to the ground, and that the fight was still on all around him.
“Nathaniel Sharphook!” roared a voiced that chilled him. A voice from the grave. It was Sir Darren.
“I thought you must be dead,” said Nathaniel as he realised he was unarmed. His poleaxe was on the ground, snapped in two.
Sir Darren rode a powerful charger and pointed a lance towards Nathaniel’s chest. “They could never kill me, Nate. You of all people must know that. And now for that unfinished business of ours.”
Nathaniel stared into the face of his half-brother, a man he had not seen for years. A man responsible for the murder of Nathaniel’s mother and the betrayal of Nathaniel’s country.
“I gave you the opportunity to do the right thing last time we met,” Sir Darren said over the din of slaughter. The man nearest to Nathaniel fell clutching his neck as blood spurted from a gaping sword wound. The battle was not going well.
“But, alas, you chose poorly.”
“I chose the path of honour!” Nathaniel retorted.
But his half-brother just snorted. “You were always too pure for your own good. Goodbye Nate.”
And Nathaniel prepared to die.
King John wiped the smeared blood from his sweat-stained face, handed his sword to a man-at-arms, and lifted the wine flask to his mouth, drinking deeply.
“A great day,” he told his second-in command, Lord Dipton.
Dipton nodded. “Let us celebrate this victory, your majesty. But I fear that dark days are still ahead. They are defeated but not destroyed.”
The king planted himself on a stool before his tent. Dressed in a full suit of armour it was no easy task. “Then I shall ride into their lands and finish them once and for all.” He turned to the archbishop. “What is your thinking on this matter?”
Archbishop Murray wore a robe that was soiled with blood. He claimed he had been administering last rites to fallen men, but Nathaniel had seen him going about the battlefield despatching wounded men with relish rather than comforting them in their final moments.
“The Lord has shone his light upon us today and blessed us with this victory,” hissed the priest. “He would not have given us this gift if he meant for us to squander it. Let us now go forth and wipe this godless Labour swarm from the Earth.”
Nathaniel squirmed uncomfortably as the archbishop turned towards him. “But first there is one among us who shares common blood with the enemy. A viper in our midst, a Judas, a traitor we must expurgate from our host before we march a step further. That man!” The long bony finger of the wicked priest stabbed into his chest.
The king’s men laid hold of Nathaniel before he could make a move, and they dragged him towards the scaffold where the hangman waited with his rope. They fixed the noose around his neck, and Nathaniel realised this would ruin his chances of re-election.
Lord Dipton growled. “Oh, that’s not a good look.”
Wincing, Nathaniel awaited the sudden pull that would mark the end of his days.
And then the enemy returned.
“Aye, now here’s a lively one,” roared Ulg, slapping the side of the serving woman as she placed a tankard of ale in front of him. “How much for a tickle, my love?”
Nathaniel was dreamily picturing the moment when he would return home, no longer an outcast but instead a champion, a knight of the realm. He was on the front bench now, after slaying Sir Trevor in single combat, and was one of King John’s most trusted advisers. He would reach the village of Whangamamatara tomorrow if the weather held and if the roads remained open. Lady Judith would be there. Would she open her heart to him again as she had the previous summer?
Ulg purred. “It would be dishonouring the good name of this establishment now, Nate, if we didn’t sample the fine wenches here, don’t you think?”
But Nathaniel did not hear him. His eyes were fixed on the man standing in the doorway of the tavern. A man he had thought dead.
He moved quickly as his half-brother’s axe slammed into Ulg’s skull. Nathaniel’s travel companion died instantly, his head exploding and his brains spilling all over the table. But Nathaniel was too quick and was already sliding under the table, his knife in his hand. Nathaniel stabbed upwards, and his blade tore into flesh. Sir Darren howled in astonishment, staggering away grasping the gaping wound in his belly, as his entrails slid between his fingers and piled onto the sawdust floor. As Sir Darren died, wriggling and gurgling, a mangy dog made away with part of his spleen.
And the next day the enemy came.
And after that they came again.
And then they had a battle.
And after that there was a lot more of the same thing.
And then the book ended.