Freda Warrington, fantasy author


Freda Warrington - fantasy author

Court of Midnight King

Read an extract from The Court of the Midnight King

Prelude: Bosworth 1485. "The truth that none dares utter."

Above Redemore Plain the sky darkened. It glowed violet, bluest violet, smudged with bars of cloud. On the humped back of Ambion Hill the encampment slept, waiting; the wind dropped and banners hung as ragged and as blue as the night. Silence rolled in.

So complete was the stillness that Raphael could hear the chirrup of frogs down in the marsh. He heard the rasp of horned toads and an owl’s fluting cry. Around him the land felt deserted. Even the slow spirits of the stones and the mercurial beings of the hedgerows were absent. Had they deserted in terror of the battle to come? Men feared the denizens of twilight, not realising that those spirits were more afraid of humans by far.

In the great, hushed darkness, he thought he could hear the voices of the enemy; snapping fragments of sound, far away. The usurper, flaunting his rose-red dragon and claiming to be sent by heaven to destroy the Adversary. Raphael spat a quiet curse in his direction, and slipped back into the king’s pavilion.

A lamp burned inside, glimmering on the cloth-of-gold walls, its flame as pallid as the gaunt face that reflected it. The king could not sleep. He had tried, only to wake with a shuddering gasp, complaining of dreadful nightmares, wraiths with pale fingers and yellow eyes waiting for him just below the surface of sleep. Recovering himself, he’d sent his concerned lieutenants away to their rest. Only Raphael remained, wide awake and glad to keep the vigil with him.

“Does anything stir out there?” asked the king. He was as Raphael had left him; sitting with his arms folded upon the table, gazing at the lamp.

“The sentries report that all is quiet.”

“Then it must be my own ghosts I can hear.”

“Sire, won’t you have an hour or two’s rest, at least?” Raphael spoke quietly, trying not to disturb the pages asleep in the outer chamber of the tent.

“It’s too late,” the king answered. “I’ll not sleep again tonight. I can only wait for the dawn. Fate tells me that I need a time of reflection.”

His face was a shell with light shining through; frail and pearly like that of a heavenly messenger, but more eerie than saintly. Raphael could imagine the same luminous face belonging to the most beautiful of angels, the morning star, Lucifer. The king’s hair was feathery shadow around his shoulders. His eyes were grey and shrouded, like twilight.

“Do you think that I am wicked, my friend?” he asked.

Raphael sat down on a canvas stool, facing him across the table. “No, sire, of course not.”

“I have been accused of poisoning, infanticide and incest, among other crimes. You know this full well.”


“Have I been so bad a king?” His voice sounded thin and distant, as if it already came from beyond the veil of death. “The tales they tell of me run like fire from mouth to mouth, so that I must deny them even to my friends. I’m sick to the stomach with denial. After all, how in honesty can I say there’s no truth to the stories?

“They are only words, rumours…” Raphael trailed off, helpless.

“On the strength of rumours, a non-entity named Henry Tudor fashions himself as the revolving sword of God, come to slay the Devil. And look! My kingdom is sinking into the marsh.”

“No!” Raphael was fierce with denial. “That is utterly untrue. I can’t bear to see you disheartened.”

The king shook his head, his hair moving softly, like crow’s wings. “No, I’m not disheartened, don’t think that. I’m thinking aloud to unearth the truth. You’ve always helped me in that. You know more of my secrets than any other being, and this could be the last chance I have.”

Shuddering fear went through Raphael, from the soles of his feet to the roots of his hair. His mouth was thick. He tried to go on breathing.

“It seems every weapon I ever used has been turned back upon me,” King Richard went on. “Myths are more enduring than truth, you have told me so yourself.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything. Ever.”

“No.” Richard spoke gently. “What, endured that on your own? You were right to tell me all. If you’d kept such matters to yourself, you would have failed me indeed. As it is, I’m prepared for the worst.”

Raphael had run out of answers. He wished himself anywhere but sitting in the midst of this quiet nightmare. “Dearest lord, don’t. You should rest, not think about…”

“My death?” Richard said calmly.

“I was going to say, my dream. It was only…”

“Perhaps real, and perhaps not. I know that. Well, in the morning this humour will be gone from me and I’ll go into battle roaring, a black dragon to affright the red. But now, Raphael, tell me…”

The merest slide of light changed Richard’s face from pearl to chiselled marble. He looked straight at Raphael and his expression was terrible, like that of a demon who’d passed through storms of madness to chilling serenity on the far side. “Is the Tudor right? Is his pious Beaufort mother right, everyone right? Have I been used as an instrument of Satan to bring the downfall of a rotten dynasty – while God has chosen to press his holy sword of vengeance into the paw of one Welsh-French nobody?”

“I’m surprised Tudor didn’t style himself with the name of an archangel,” said Raphael, so venomously that Richard laughed.

“Gabriel, or Michael… or Raphael. So, even the Devil’s chosen has an angel to comfort him through the longest night.”

Raphael poured wine for the king. His hand shook as he passed the cup. Receiving it, Richard kept his hand on Raphael’s for a moment. The king’s flesh felt as cold and steady as a dolmen.

“I don’t seem to be comforting you very well,” Raphael said.

“But you are.” Richard glanced behind him, where a small altar was set up near his bed. Candles fluttered around a small figure of the Virgin. “Given a choice between spending this night praying to a Creator who turned his back on me in childhood, and talking to a flesh and blood friend, I know which is more likely to save my soul.”

The wine was heavily watered, and tasted flat and ghostly. “I don’t care what you say, sire. There are souls in Tudor’s camp in far worse danger than yours.”

Richard grimaced. “I have done wrong, but what could I have done otherwise?” he said quietly. “Nothing. Thus I am condemned not only for my choices, but for what I am. Thus is the Devil condemned for being what his Creator made him.”

“Your Grace, don’t listen to their rumours and slanders. You can’t let yourself believe their lies.”

“I am not talking about the views of others,” Richard answered. “I’m talking about what I know of myself. There is a shadow in me, a great and dreadful shadow that would blot out the entire world if it were left unchecked. And this has not been stamped on me by enemies. They’ve glimpsed it, and that’s why they fear me. But the shadow was born with me, and awoke when I was a child. We were at Ludlow…”

His voice was soft and calm. The lamp burned blue. So intense was the hush outside that Raphael feared they had slipped into the hidden world. “Sire, you are low in spirits. This is nothing, a waking nightmare…”

“And you are an experienced walker in nightmares,” Richard retaliated. Suddenly he was disturbingly cheerful. “Asleep or awake, I can’t escape hideous visitations tonight, but at least I have you at my side. I have never told anyone this before. Let me tell you about the waking of the shadow.”


Richard ran through the wildwood, deeper and deeper. Vibrant images haunted him, of his father and brothers fighting a battle far away. It would be days before he knew whether they had lived or died. No one even cared to tell a boy of seven; he would be the last to know. Distraught with frustration, he had evaded tutors and guardians to escape the castle walls, and now he ran and ran.

At first he was bold, striking out at bushes and shadows with a twig sword. One day his weapons would be true metal and the shadows would be enemies of flesh and armour. He would fight alongside his brothers, turning the red rose crimson with blood.

He dreamed of survival, more than glory. His family’s survival.

But for now he was only a child, suddenly lost and cold. The shadows began to move and whisper. Looking back the way he’d come, he saw no path, only the gnarled gloom of woods enclosing him. The moss-green eyes of elementals followed him from heavy, wet canopies of leaves. He saw their thin long limbs, like folded brambles. They stared at him, pointing, whispering.

Richard let the sword fall to his side and backed away.

Dark blue twilight dripped through the trees. There was only one way to go, a thread of a path taking him even farther from safety. Ahead shone a gap in the trees, a patch of slate sky in which a single bright star hung like a white rose. He fled towards it, feet and heart pounding.

Where the trees ended there lay a marsh, stretching away into a blue mist. Two herons started up at his approach and flapped away, luminous in the dusk, their long legs stirring layers of vapour. The boy swallowed a cry of shock. He stood trapped between the wildwood and the marsh. Water gleamed in the saturated sapphire light. Tussocks crouched in the turbid water. Like ghosts the herons were gone and nothing moved, yet everything watched him, breathing.

Richard knew he’d made a dreadful mistake. He’d strayed out of the real world and into the netherworld, the dread place that came to life only while God-fearing men slept. He breathed hard, clutching his twig sword. Damp, rank air filled his lungs. Away to his left he saw a natural rock arch at the wood’s edge, and beyond, a great rock containing the slit of a cave mouth. If only he could reach the cave, he could shelter there, and set up his sword at the entrance like a cross to ward off the famished shadows. God the Creator would protect him until morning. So his mother always told him.

His feet slid on the tussocks. The cave was further away and bigger than it seemed. The entrance looked threatening, not a refuge but a mouth to the demon-realm. An eerie tongue of light lapped within. There was something alive in there, moving, chanting…

The fog thickened. He could see barely an arm-span ahead. He stopped, shivering, tasting blood. He’d bite his tongue to ribbons before he would let himself cry.

A woman took shape out of the mist like the prow of a ship.

He stood rooted and helpless as she sailed towards him. He glimpsed dangling sleeves of charcoal velvet, a tissue of black silk stiffly framing her head, a terrible, stern white face with gold eyes boring into his.

A sorceress.

“Child, how did you come here?” she said.

Richard couldn’t speak. Petrified, he watched her long pale hands coming towards him. Her fingers touched him, moving over his shoulders, his cheeks, into his hair. The touch felt light and waxen, faerie-like.

“It is late for you to be out alone. You strayed too far from the path. You trespass where you do not belong.”

He nodded, trying to say, Your pardon, my lady, I meant no harm. At last he managed a whisper. “The path brought me here.”

“And so it did. Therefore you have been called. No one comes among us without a reason. Would you walk the spiral chambers with us to the innermost heart of the shell?”

Her eyes frightened him. She looked mad, or in a trance. He tried to back away but her hands closed tight on his skull. The pressure made his bones ache, brought red fire behind his eyes – and then a grotesque vision.

His mouth fell open. He was looking at a severed head. The head of a robust man with greying hair and the plain weathered face of a foot-soldier, stuck on a spike beneath a market cross. The parchment skin was yellow and the lips hung slack. The eyes looked sideways at Richard, as if in deadly warning.

The face was dead and yet alive, animated by the leaping light of a hundred candles. An old woman was in the act of lighting them. She rose and lifted the head off its spike, cradled it for a moment then set it down amid the candles. She began to comb the grey hair and wash the blood-daubed cheeks, all the while sobbing and murmuring to the head.

“Your sons will avenge you,” she lamented. “Your grandson will avenge you.”

It was not only the head that horrified Richard, but the old woman’s despair.

He cried out. The vision vanished. The witch removed her hands from his hair and now gazed at him with her un-human eyes.

“With every step the path divides,” she said.

“The path divides,” echoed a higher voice.

The voice came not from the sorceress but from somewhere near her hip. Richard saw she had a small companion, a familiar that lurked behind her, peering around her skirts. It had wild black hair and eyes like marsh-fire. An elf-child. The words issuing from the childish mouth made the creature more terrifying than its mistress.

“What did you see?” asked the sorceress.

“What does it mean?” asked her familiar.

Richard shook his head mutely. Their faces shone with witch-light, mocking, demanding. He was sure he’d wandered into hell.

“I don’t know. A man beheaded. Is it…” He struggled for the right word. “Is it a prophecy?”

The elf-child’s eyes rolled back in its head, showing two moon-white crescents. Imp and witch spoke in unison.

“There is no such thing as prophecy. No such thing as destiny. This is the truth that none dares utter.”

The sorceress raised her hand to his shoulder and went on, “This is the truth. With every step, you weave the spider’s web for yourself. Shall you weave a great web or a small? One of shining dew colours or one of soot and barbs? None can tell. Your future is all darkness.”

She meant, he was sure, that he was going to die.

“No,” he said.

“Come in with us,” said the witch. She half-turned, her hand sweeping towards the cave. The entrance glimmered and smoked through the fog.

“In there?”

“Yes. Come into the labyrinth. The meaning of your vision will become clear. Some of your questions will be answered. The serpent’s bite brings wisdom, if you can bear the pain. Come with us.”

He stared at the terrible cave and felt his stomach turn liquid with terror.


Panicking, he stumbled out of her grasp, twisted around and ran. His feet splashed into water, mud sucked at his boots. He floundered. Death sighed and clawed him down with famished hands. Deep inside himself he felt a shadow waking and flapping anguished wings, and it was not fear of death but something far darker. Something that recognised this place and wanted to keep him there.

“That way.”

He glanced round. The sorceress was pointing, a wing of velvet hanging from her outstretched arm, back towards the wildwood. A wide, clear path had opened between the trees.

At the far end – another illusion, surely – he could see Ludlow Castle standing upon its hill. Home.

“Take that path, child,” said the sorceress. “No creature of the twilight will harm you while you’re under our protection. They’ll not dare. You’ll come back when you are ready.”

With those last ominous words chasing him, Richard pulled free of the marsh, and fled. He clutched his flimsy sword for all he was worth, teeth bared against green-eyed sprites that chittered in the undergrowth as he passed. The castle at the end of the starlit path stood aloof, never drawing any closer.

That was not my father’s head I saw, he told himself. Not my father’s. Yet tears of dread choked him.

He ran. He left the netherworld behind, although it tried to pull him back. Wraiths tugged at his heels with cold blue fingers. Blanched and staring faces swam before his blurred eyes. However far, however hard he fled, the terror rushed along with him.

Inside him, the shadow stretched fledgling wings and made its claim.


“She spoke the truth,” said the king, pacing slowly in the dim light of the tent. “My future was darkness. Almost everyone I have ever loved is dead. That was the head of Owen Tudor she showed me. He was the Welsh squire who married Henry the Fifth’s widow. Their son Edmund Tudor spawned my enemy, the pretender who waits for me now. But Owen Tudor did not lose his head until two years or more after I met the witches. When I heard the story of the madwoman lighting the candles… I knew I’d seen a glimpse of the future and I cannot describe the fear that this hellish netherworld struck into me. I don’t envy you your dreams, my friend.”

“I think that I would have gone into the cave,” Raphael said.

“Then you’re braver than me.”

“No. Just more afraid of them.”

“I knew – not thought, knew – that if I entered the cave, my soul would be lost.”

“But you might have understood what they wanted to show you.”

“Yes, perhaps so, and perhaps that would have given me undreamed-of power – but at the cost, as I said, of my soul. All my life, the shadows within me have been trying to drag me back there. The temptation has been almost unbearable, sometimes. But I fought back. If I lose my soul anyway, no one can say I haven’t battled to the death to keep it.”

Richard turned, his face aglow and ghastly. “I’ve never spoken of this to anyone. I could never confess my terror, not to my brothers, nor even to my mother. She would only have told me to pray for redemption. How could I explain what horror I’d seen, still less explain that this darkness is so interwoven with my soul that an eternity of praying and an army of priests could never exorcise it? They’d have thought me bewitched. All I’ve done to avert this destiny has been in vain. I might as well have torn down the altar, burned my prayer books, ripped out my own heart and offered it to Satan.”

His voice rose, making Raphael start. He was suddenly alight with passion. “Well, let Tudor come! Let them have the apocalypse they want. I shall fight as I have lived, and take as many with me as I may to the pits of hell.”

Outside, Raphael heard the first sounds of the camp coming to life.

King Richard rose, moved towards the pavilion’s entrance and lifted the flap. The first indigo glimmer of dawn brushed distant Redemore Plain. In the gloom, Raphael saw tiny figures toiling up the hill.

Very quietly, Richard said, “For all I’ve done, for all I am, and for all the sins of my family, I am punished. I’ve spun a web of soot and barbs. And now, the final act.”

Copyright (C) Freda Warrington


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