Title: The Blood of the Fifth Knight
Author: E.M. Powell
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Genre: Historical Mystery/Thriller
England, 1176. King Henry II has imprisoned his rebellious Queen for her failed attempt to overthrow him. But with her conspirators still at large and a failed assassination attempt on his beautiful mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the King must take action to preserve his reign.
Desperate, Henry turns to the only man he trusts: a man whose skills have saved him once before. Sir Benedict Palmer answers the call, mistakenly believing that his family will remain safe while he attends to his King.
As Palmer races to secure his King’s throne, neither man senses the hand of a brilliant schemer, a mystery figure loyal to Henry’s traitorous Queen who will stop at nothing to see the King defeated.
The Blood of the Fifth Knight is an intricate medieval murder mystery and worthy sequel to E.M. Powell’s acclaimed historical thriller The Fifth Knight.
Palmer ran across the deserted courtyard, headed for the silent bell that hung high in its centre. The sharp smell of smoke cut the damp night air.
‘Fire! Awake!’ His shouts echoed into the silence as he undid the neatly coiled stout rope and twisted this way, that, looking for any sign that folk in the many buildings had heard. He pulled down hard, and the big bell swung above him in the first peal. ‘Fire!’ He shouted again, tugged hard on the rope to make as much and as loud a clamour as he could.
Lights flickered at windows—one, two, then several at once. People were stirring, throwing shutters open.
Palmer pulled hard and fast on the rope, his shouts drowned out by the bell’s loud call.
He tipped his head back to check the tower. The glow had brightened in the windows. A lick of flame shot from one and dropped back. The fire was gaining in strength. He dropped his gaze to the main door of the tower. Firmly closed. No sign of Rosamund, no sign of anyone fleeing from within.
Over the clangs of the bell, he heard faint shouts from the main part of the palace. But still no stir from the tower. He flung the rope from his hand, the bell’s work done in waking folk up.
Palmer ran to the tower’s door and turned the large metal handle. Unlocked. Good for him to get in. But bad that no one had come out. Rosamund was up there, and Geoffrey had said he’d posted guards. Nothing could be holding anyone back except the flames. He wrenched the door open. Inside, smoke hazed the air. A wooden spiral staircase led upwards from the narrow vestibule.
Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted upwards. ‘Wake up! Wake up! The tower’s afire!’
Nothing from above.
He filled his lungs for another shout and drew in smoke. He coughed it out and shouted again. ‘Awake!’
Palmer looked back out to the courtyard. The bell hung silent now. Should he ring it more, push the urgency?
A few sparks drifted down in the darkness, the start of a lethal blizzard.
Faith, Rosamund was only a girl. She could be cowering where she thought she was safe, not realizing that smoke brought death as sure as the flames. He had to go up.
Palmer climbed the curving wooden staircase, two, three steps at a time.
‘Guards, stir yourselves!’ The smoke thickened, stung his eyes and nose as well as his throat. And still no response.
He climbed on, breath fast and deep with his exertion as his lungs pulled in dirty air. His spittle thickened, along with water streaming from his eyes. He knuckled at them, trying to clear them. Each step up became harder, his legs weighing more as he raised them again and again.
Finally: a landing. Though he could scarce see through the hot, stinging fug, he could make out a smaller staircase at the other end. He must be close now. Stumbling the few steps across it, his foot caught on a large object. He bent low and his fingers found the metal of chainmail. One of the guards, face down on the floor.
‘Stir yourself!’ A storm of coughing broke with the effort of his words. He shook the man hard but there came no reply, no movement.
Palmer peered around.
Another form lay close by. Surely not? He moved to it, keeping low, heartsick at what he might find. A large body. More chainmail. Another guard, this man as unmoving as the other.
The smoke must have felled them suddenly. Too suddenly. But even if they yet lived, he couldn’t save them. They were too far gone. His own chest tightened worse than ever. And he still hadn’t found Rosamund.
Searching the nearby floor with careful quick hands, his fingers closed on what he sought. The handle of a sword.
As he went to carry on, he heard a shrill scream from above.
‘Rosamund!’ He shot to his feet into thick smoke and bad air. Doubling over, he retched his stomach empty of sour bile. ‘Rosamund!’ He ran low and swift to the next staircase and looked up.
A worse challenge than the smoke. Fuelled by air from narrow windows, flames ate at it, the heat pulsing at his face and head.
‘Help me! For the love of God!’
Rosamund. Her screams held pure terror.
Palmer ducked, his forearm across his face. He charged up the burning stairs, fire stinging his flesh and singeing his hair in a hissing stench. He stumbled from the top step onto a small corridor, a closed door facing him. He flung himself at the handle, sleeve pulled over his hand to grasp the hot metal. It wouldn’t budge.
‘It’s me, Benedict!’ His voice came hoarse. ‘Open the door!’
‘I can’t, I can’t! It’s locked!’
Palmer swore. The guards must have the keys. But he couldn’t waste time fighting his way back down. ‘Stand back from the door, Rosamund. Stand well back’. He raised the sword high and hit it against the door.
The wood gave.
Coughing hard, he swung again. This time, he broke through. Raising a boot, he kicked three, four times. Then he was in.
‘Benedict’. Rosamund cowered beneath the window, wearing only her shift, her eyes streaming from terror and smoke. ‘You came for me’. She choked into rasping coughs and sobs.
Palmer strode into the room and grabbed her by the arm. ‘We need to get out of here. We have little time’.
‘Back through there?’ Her eyes widened in horror as she stared past him at the burning staircase.
‘Yes’. He yanked a small, heavy wool tapestry from the wall. ‘Cover your head with this. Hair catches the worst’.
She followed his order but still didn’t move. ‘I don’t think I can’.
‘You can’. He flung an arm across her shoulders and hauled her from the room towards the top of the stairs.
The flames leapt fiercer, higher then when he’d ran through just minutes before. He hesitated for a moment.
The burning wood gave a loud creak, followed by sharp, loud cracks. Then the staircase collapsed in a cascade of burning wood, throwing out sparks and a wave of intense, new heat.
There was no way out now.
About the Author
E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thriller The Fifth Knight, which was a #1 Amazon Bestseller. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in the northwest of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society (HNS), International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America, as well as a reviewer of fiction and nonfiction for the HNS.