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May 1640. On the surface all is peaceful, but in reality storm clouds are gathering for a war that will tear three kingdoms apart: civil war, the most brutal of conflicts, where everyone has his or her own reasons for taking sides: a deep faith, personal loyalty, friendship, fear, hatred.
Among them are Ludovick Milburn, hardened by his experiences in the savage battlefields of Flanders, now returning to his Northumberland home to claim his inheritance; Walter Barras, London apprentice with his roots in the North; Sir Ralph Liddell, wealthy landowner and family man; Richard Metcalfe, devout Puritan and Member of Parliament; and Susannah Fawcett, forthright and independent, gifted with a passion for medicine learned from her devoted father.
As the conflict grows their lives are interwoven and changed for ever, bringing anger, grief, heartache – and the most unlikely of loves.
A couple of passages, to taste:
From Chapter One
It was the first of May, so in many of the villages through which they passed maypoles had been set up, and men and women in their Sunday best, decked – like the maypoles – with flowers and ribbons, were dancing round them to the lively screeching of fiddles. The air was full of music and laughter. Trees and hedgerows were coming into leaf, sharply green in the clear northern light against a blue sky, roadside banks and meadows covered with violets and primroses, cowslips and daisies and early dandelions. Even the stinking squalor of the colliery settlements through which they passed at first was softened by the strong sunlight and the holiday celebrations.
Yet there was, Ludovick thought, something odd, unreal about it all, something he could not quite put his finger on, not at first. Then it came to him: there were no signs of war here, no convoys of wagons, well guarded, carrying supplies of food or cash, no burnt-out villages and frightened people, no sound of gunfire; no stench of death. Women looked round in mere curiosity as they passed; children played without fear. In the fields, crops sent green shoots into a brown earth untrampled by the hooves of passing cavalry. In gardens, neat rows of vegetables had been planted, in the clear expectation that no thieving army would prevent their growing. A tranquil land, untouched by disharmony, with not a soldier in sight. ‘You wouldn’t think it was the same universe’
Rob looked round, clearly puzzled. ‘As what?”
‘No, you’re right.’
They both had in their minds memories of the past five years: of endless marches through a landscape scarred by war; of sieges and sacked towns, burning buildings, soldiers greedy for loot; of men and women and children tortured and raped and mutilated – a world in which it felt sometimes as if all humankind had been reduced to savagery. It was hard now in the brightness of this May morning to believe that such horrors were still taking place just a few miles away across the sea. It was hard even to believe that the peace of this land might ever be threatened. If their host of last night had been afraid, it did not seem that anyone else was.
From Chapter Nine
Susannah glanced round; and found herself looking up into the face of a fair and very young man on a big brown horse. He was grinning, but not pleasantly, and he had a pistol cocked in his hand. Behind him other young men sat making appreciative comments. Anne screamed, again and again, the noise growing fainter as they dragged her further into the house. Susannah stayed where she was, very still and straight and cold, looking at the young men. Now that she could see them face to face she no longer felt in the least bit afraid, simply very angry. ‘Have you nought better to do than frighten women and children?’ she demanded sharply.
There was a chorus of hoots from behind the first rider, but he merely tucked his pistol into his belt and swung himself out of the saddle. ‘Aye, mistress, that I have.’ He waved a paper in front of her nose, too close for her to see what was written on it. ‘The king’s commission. I have authority to take what arms I can from this nest of Roundheads for his Majesty’s service.’ Then he unsheathed his sword. Susannah saw that the blade was rusty, though a recent attempt had been made to polish it.
There was some kind of confused movement behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Dame Alice come into view at her side. ‘Harry Middleton!’ said the old woman. ‘It is Harry Middleton, isn’t it?’
‘Captain Middleton,’ the young man corrected her, though Susannah thought he looked just a little less sure of himself. Dame Alice was a formidable woman and he was very young. ‘In the king’s service.’ There were enthusiastic yells from his companions.
‘If you take what is my son’s without his authority then you are Robber Middleton and do the king’s service no credit,’ said Dame Alice staunchly. Susannah wondered if she was wise to say anything that could be taken to show that Richard was absent. In the other hand, they probably knew that already. ‘In any event, we have no arms here.’
The young man glanced round at his company. ‘Come, lads, let’s take a look. Never trust the word of a Roundhead.’