I have been thinking much upon Death of late; my own demise mostly, but also that of beloved comrades. I do not fear the Reaper—I like to think that I never have—and yet I can sense his presence just over the next rise. Death is not the enemy; no, he is an old, old friend coming as promised to collect me and take me on a strange journey. And perhaps when he raps at my chamber door with his bony knuckles I shall even be pleased to see him, weary as I am: for he will take me to a place where I shall see the face of God and, I earnestly pray, be reunited at last with those whom I have loved and who went on before me.
Friend or enemy, he is coming, and soon. I can feel it in my old and creaking bones; I feel it in my bladder that now needs to be emptied almost hourly in the long nighttime, or so it seems. I feel Death in my aching kidneys, in my shortness of breath and my constant, grinding weariness. But I have a task to complete before his shadow stains my threshold: I must set down another tale of my young days as a bold warrior, another tale of my friend Robert Odo, Earl of Locksley; a lord of war, a master thief, King Richard the Lionheart’s loyal lieutenant, and the man the people remember best as the outlaw Robin Hood.
I have not recalled this part of my life for a long time; it has been five years since I last took up the quill to write about my strong, youthful self. My daughter-in-law Marie, who, with her husband Osric, runs this manor of Westbury on my behalf, had convinced me that it was not good for me to be dwelling on ancient battles and fruitless quests. She told me with uncommon firmness—it was indeed little short of a command—that I must pay attention to the present, that I must accept the life of the man I am today, white-haired, stooped, and well past sixty winters, and not pine for the man I was and for all my glorious yesterdays. And I think she may be right; for a while, for a year or more, I spent my days at Westbury inside the hall at my writing stand, setting down the old stories of Robin and myself. It was not a healthy life: my eyes grew blurred and tinged with blood, my hands ached from the long hours of scribbling, and my legs protested at their forced stillness, for I stirred little beyond the courtyard for months on end. The unbalanced humors in my torpid body made me irritable, even angry; worse, my mind became clouded and confused. In these past five years, with the writing stand dismantled and packed away and my quills curling, moth-chewed and dusty in an old wooden mug, I have rediscovered the joy of fresh breezes and bright sunlight, and of riding, if only on a gentle ambling mare, and I have joined my hunt servants in flying noble falcons and running the eager hounds over my lands.
However, a visit to Westbury this week by my only grandson, Alan, has changed my mind, and decided me that I must grind black ink, cut a fresh goose feather or two, and pore over parchment once again. That and the fact that Marie has gone to visit her sick cousin Alice in Lincoln, and will not return for a week or more. So here I stand in the hall of the manor of Westbury, in the fair county of Nottinghamshire, casting my mind back forty years, scratching out these lines as quickly as I may and rekindling my old, half-forgotten skills.
He is a delightful lad, Alan; strong-limbed, cheerful, clean and obedient, with a fine seat on a horse and an ear for a pretty tune—though he cannot sing a true note. He serves as a squire to the Earl of Locksley, not my old friend Robin, who has long been in his grave, alas, but his vigorous son, the new earl. Alan is being trained in warfare and gentility at Kirkton Castle, and seemingly has a respectable amount of talent with a blade; and I have received good reports of his courtly conduct, too. But my grandson has almost no notion of events that took place before his birth, fourteen short summers ago. He knows nothing and is oddly incurious about his grandmother Goody, my beloved but blazing-tempered wife, and about his own father Robert, our son. Alan seems to believe that our good Henry of Winchester has been on the throne of England for an eternity, since time began, when it has been no more than four and twenty years. And, while he has heard garbled tales of the noble sovereign King Richard and his long wars in France, he once asked me, I believe quite seriously, if it was true that he had a lion’s head. So it is for young Alan, in order that he might learn the truth of these long-ago struggles and the men and women who took part in them, that I set down this tale, this tragic tale of cruel wars and savage devastation, of ugly, unnecessary deaths and the inevitable search for bloody vengeance.
Prince John was on his knees. The youngest son of old King Henry, second monarch of that name, and brother of Lionhearted Richard, now cowered on the greasy, fishy-smelling rushes on the floor of a run-down manor house in Normandy. Tears streamed from reddened eyes down his pale cheeks and he clutched at the right hand of his elder brother, who was standing over him. John’s thick shoulder-length reddish hair brushing the back of Richard’s hand, his oily teardrops anointing the King’s knuckles as he babbled of mercy and forgiveness, swearing before Almighty God and all the saints that he would be a loyal man, a true subject from this moment forth and forever, if only his generous brother could find it in his heart to forgive him. Richard remained silent, looking down coldly at his disheveled sibling. But he did not pull his hand away.
I was watching this strange performance in the solar of the old manor house of Lisieux, in northern Normandy, some thirty miles east of Caen. I was in the small, crowded room off the main hall, standing with a score of knights a pace or two behind King Richard, and I must admit that I was thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. Prince John, once titled Lord of Ireland and Count of Mortain, who had until recently enjoyed the enormous revenues of the plump English counties of Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, was once again John Lackland, a man without a clod of earth to his name. Yet his fall was richly deserved, for John had a list of black crimes to his credit as long as my lance: when King Richard had been captured and imprisoned in Germany the year before, this sniveling prince had made an attempt to snatch the throne of England—and he had very nearly succeeded. He had schemed with Richard’s enemy, King Philip Augustus of France, to keep the Lionheart imprisoned, hampering the collection of the enormous sum in silver that Richard’s captor, the Holy Roman Emperor, had demanded—and even going so far as to join the French King in making a counter-offer to the Emperor if he would hold his brother in chains for another year. But he had failed, God be praised: the ransom had been painfully gathered from an already tax-racked English populace and paid over, and Richard had been freed.
On his release, the Lionheart had crushed the rebellion in England in a matter of weeks. Then, just a few days prior to this painful scene, he had crossed to Normandy with a large, well-provisioned army of seasoned fighting men. His avowed aim was to push King Philip and his French troops out of the eastern part of his duchy, which they had annexed during his long imprisonment, and contain them in the Île de France, the traditional land-locked fief of the French kings. And Prince John, who had so treacherously sided with Philip, was now on his knees before his brother, weeping and begging for forgiveness.
Truly, John had been a bad brother; disloyal, duplicitous and treasonous, and all of this despite Richard’s great kindness to him before his departure for the Holy Land. I despised the man—and not only for his underhand actions against my King; I hated him on my own account, too. The previous year I had found myself, unwillingly, in John’s service—and I had seen, at close quarters, his evil deeds, his callousness toward the people of England and his unholy delight in wanton cruelty. He had, in fact, ordered my death on two occasions, and it was only by the grace of God and the help of my friend and comrade, my lord Robert, Earl of Locksley, that I had escaped with my life.
I found that I was actually grinning while watching John’s kneeling discomfort. King Richard was quite capable of inflicting a terrible vengeance: in the Holy Land, victorious after the fall of Acre, he had ordered the public beheading of thousands of helpless Muslim captives; and while he was retaking the fortress of Nottingham on his return to England, he had casually hanged half a dozen English prisoners of war, just to make a point to the occupants of the castle about his very serious intent. So there was no doubt that Richard was equal to the task of punishing his brother in a fitting manner; but I also knew deep in my heart that he would not. Richard would forgive John, and almost every man in that small overcrowded chamber knew it. For the King loved to show mercy, whenever and wherever he could; it pleased him to display a magnificent clemency as much as to demonstrate his wrathful vengeance. More to the point, he had a very strong sense of family duty. Whatever his crimes, the fellow now snuffling wetly on the floor before him was his own flesh and blood. How could he tell his mother, the venerable Queen Eleanor, that he had executed her youngest son?
John continued to babble and sob at the feet of the King—who remained stern and silent—when a voice from the far side of the chamber, a dry, cold voice, with a hint of the nasal twang of Gascony, called out: “Sire, give him to me, I beseech you. Give him into my hands and I will strip every inch of skin from his living body and leave him in raw, screaming agony, begging for the sweet mercy of death.”
Prince John’s whimpering stopped as if his mouth had been plugged; his bowed red head whipped round to the right and he stared into the gloom on the far side of the chamber from whence the voice had come, seeking its owner. I knew that voice. It belonged to Mercadier, King Richard’s longtime captain of mercenaries, a grim and merciless man. Mercadier had been fighting on Richard’s behalf in Normandy longer than any of us and, as a warrior and leader of several hundred battle-hardened paid fighters, he was worthy of respect—yet he had the most unsavory reputation of any man in Richard’s army. His men, while fanatically loyal to the King, were, when unleashed to ravage an enemy’s territory, capable of a savagery that was certainly bestial and very nearly demonic. There were tales of nuns raped and crucified, churches looted and burned to their foundations, of babies tossed into the air and caught on his laughing men’s spear-points; the streets of towns captured by these men quite literally ran with hot, fresh blood. A ghastly foretaste of the Hell they would doubtless one day inhabit followed these soldiers of fortune, these routiers, as they were sometimes called, wherever they plied their ungodly trade.
Mercadier stared boldly at the King from the far side of the chamber, awaiting a response to his bloodthirsty offer—which I had not the smallest doubt was entirely genuine. He was not a handsome man, I reflected, although his looks were certainly striking. Beneath a mop of jet black, longish hair, which looked as if it had been cut with a sword, and probably had been, the mercenary captain’s dead brown eyes stared out of a swarthy, sun-darkened face that was bisected by a long, jagged scar that ran from his left temple, across his broad nose, to the bottom right-hand corner of his mouth. In the slanting afternoon light of the chamber that long yellow-white cicatrice gave him an almost monstrous appearance, like some misshapen creature from one of the Devil’s uglier realms. Mercadier’s offer to flay the royal traitor hung in the air: the silence thickened, clotted, until John gave a little coughing sob and dropped his red head into his two cupped hands.
Then I heard a deep voice, growling like a bear, half under its breath: “Oh, for God’s sake, Sire, have we not had enough of this tomfoolery?” and looked to my left where William the Marshal, Earl of Striguil, Lord of Pembroke, Usk, Longueville, Orbec and Meuller, and dozens of other castles and manors in England and Normandy, was scowling over the King’s shoulder. This veteran warrior—perhaps the finest in the army, and a man of unimpeachable courage and chivalry, a knight sans peur et sans reproche, as the trouvères put it—was looking disgustedly at the tableau before him, impatient for this pantomime of contrition and forgiveness to come to an end.
Finally, the King spoke, with an edge of grumpiness in his voice, the tone of a man whose private pleasure has been curtailed. “Oh, all right. Get up now, John, will you? And let us put an end to all this nonsense.”
“Do you forgive me then, Sire?” asked Prince John, his white-and-red blotched face staring up piteously at his elder brother, looking very much like a well-whipped lapdog.
Richard nodded. “Let us put it behind us. You are no more than a child who has been badly advised by your friends. Come, brother, on your feet.”
As John rose, I caught his eye and he gave me a glare of such ferocity and hatred that for a moment I was taken aback. I managed to suppress my broad grin and adopt a stern expression while our eyes were engaged. But I understood that look. Quite apart from our past involvements—and the fact that, as he saw it, I had tricked and betrayed him—he was a proud man in his late twenties, the son of a king, who had been forced to humble himself in front of a room full of his brother’s knights—and, to boot, he had been called a stupid child to his face. His humiliation was complete.
Richard gave no sign of having seen the spark of fury in John’s eye. He raised him up and kissed his younger sibling, clapped an arm around his shoulders and said: “Come on, let us all go and have a bite of dinner together. What have you got for us today, Alençon?” The King addressed his question to a gloomy young Norman knight standing by the doorway, who owned the hall in which we were gathered. The knight sighed lugubriously; housing and feeding a royal household full of active hungry men put a heavy strain on the purse of even the richest lord: “We have two pair of salmon, Sire; caught fresh from the Touques this morning. And there is cold venison, left over from yesterday. Some boiled ham. Rabbit pie, too, I think. We have a milk pudding…”
“Excellent!” Richard clapped his hands together, cutting short his host’s doleful speech. “Then let us eat at last.”
As we all trooped into the hall, the knights joking quietly with each other as they filed through the door, I heard one say a mite too loudly: “He’s no more than a naughty little boy!” His companion half-laughed, then frowned and said: “Have a care, Simon, he’s still royalty; he might even be King one day and, if so, I doubt he’ll be as forgiving as his brother to those who have crossed him.”
* * *
At first light the next morning, well fed and rested, I rode out of Lisieux at the head of a column of a hundred armed men. At my left shoulder, on a quiet brown rouncey, rode Thomas ap Lloyd, my squire, a serious dark-haired youth on the lip of manhood, who cared for my weapons and kit, spare lances and shields, cooking and camping equipment and so on, with a zeal and efficiency that verged on the miraculous. At my right shoulder rode Hanno, a tough, shaven-headed Bavarian man-at-arms, who had attached himself to me on the long road back to England from the Holy Land, and who treated me with the friendly disrespect warranted by an oak-hard killer who had taught me so much of the arts of war, ambush and bloody slaughter.
Behind Hanno and Thomas rode Owain the Bowman, a short and deep-chested captain of archers—my second in command. Owain carried a banner on a tall pole: an image of a snarling wolf’s head in gray and black on a field of white. It was the standard of my lord and master the Earl of Locksley, whom I had left behind in Yorkshire to recover from a javelin wound to his left thigh, taken at the siege of Nottingham in March.
It was now May, in the Year of the Incarnation eleven hundred and ninety-four, the fifth year of the reign of King Richard, and a magnificent spring morning. The fruit trees were still adorned with the remains of their delicate lacy blossom, the grass on the verges glowed vivid green, birds called and swooped about the column, men smiled for no particular reason, the sky was a deep, innocent blue, with a scattering of plump clouds. The world seemed fresh and new and filled with possibilities; and I was on a mission of great import and no little danger for my beloved King.
Because Robin had been wounded, as had his huge right-hand man “Little” John Nailor, I had been given the honor of leading a company of a hundred of Robin’s men to Normandy as part of King Richard’s army. I had never had sole command of such a force before, and I have to admit that the feeling was intoxicating: I felt like a mighty warlord of old; the leader of a band of brave men riding forth in search of honor and glory.
The bold Locksley men of my war-band were a mixed force of roughly equal numbers of men-at-arms and archers—all of them well mounted. The men-at-arms were lightly armored but each was the master of a deadly lance twice as long as a man. In addition to his lance, each cavalryman had been issued with a protective padded jacket, known as an aketon or gambeson, a steel helmet and sword, and a thick cloak of dark green that marked them out as Robin’s men. Many of the men had additional pieces of armor that they had provided themselves: old-fashioned kite-shaped or even archaic round shields, iron-reinforced leather gauntlets, mail coifs and leggings and the like, scraps of iron, steel and leather, strapped here and there to protect their bodies in the mêlée; and many had armed themselves with extra weapons that ranged from long knives and short-handled axes to war hammers and nail-studded cudgels.
The mounted archers were mostly Welshmen who boasted that they could shoot the eye out of a starling on the wing. The bowmen had each been issued with a short sword, gambeson, helmet and green cloak, as well as a six-foot-long yew bow, and had two full arrow bags, each containing two dozen arrows, close at hand.
Under a billowing red linen surcoat emblazoned over the chest with a wild boar in black, I was clad in a full suit of mail armor—an extremely costly gift from Robin. The mail, made of interlocking links of finely drawn iron, covered me from toe to fingertip, saddle seat to skull, in a layer that was very nearly impenetrable to a blade. I had a long, beautifully made sword, worth almost as much as the armor, hanging on my left-hand side, and a very serviceable, long triangular-bladed stabbing dagger, known as a misericorde, on the right of my belt. A short, flat-topped wood-and-leather shield that tapered to a point at the bottom was slung from my back, painted red—or gules, as the heralds would have it—and decorated in black with the same image of a walking or passant wild boar as adorned my chest, an animal I had long admired for its ferocity in battle and its enduring courage when faced with overwhelming odds. I was proud of my new device, which, since I had been knighted—by no lesser personage than King Richard himself—I was now entitled to bear, and which I had formally registered with the heralds. A conical steel cap with a heavy nose-guard and a long ash lance with a leaf-shaped blade completed my panoply.
We had sailed from Portsmouth in the middle of May, after a delay of several days due to bad weather, and landed at Barfleur to tremendous celebration from the Norman folk, overjoyed at the return of their rightful Duke. On that fine spring day, a week later, trotting southeast out of Lisieux on my tar-black stallion Shaitan, I felt the familiar lapping of excitement in my belly—I would soon be going into battle for the first time on Norman soil and taking my sword to the enemy. The King had charged me with reinforcing the garrison of the castle of Verneuil-sur-Avre, forty miles to the southeast, which was now besieged by King Philip. In truth, I had volunteered for the task: I had a very good reason for wanting to preserve one of the occupants of Verneuil from the wrath of our King’s enemies. The plan was to use surprise and speed to break through the French king’s lines to the north of the fortress. Once inside, we were ordered to bring hope and good cheer to the besieged, stiffen their defense, and to reassure them that Richard and his whole army of some three thousand men were only a matter of days behind us.
Apart from my private reasons for wanting to succeed in this task, I was very conscious of the fact that, as captain of the Locksley contingent, I was representing Robin. While I knew that King Richard had confidence in me as a soldier, I wanted to do well in this task for Robin, my liege lord, and for all the men of the Locksley lands. But I was more than a little concerned about being able to fulfill Richard’s instructions. He had spoken breezily of our galloping through King Philip’s battle lines, as if they were merely a cobweb to be brushed aside. I didn’t think it would be so easy. So, when we stopped at noon to rest the horses and snatch a bite to eat, I detailed Hanno and two mounted archers to ride several miles forward as scouts and bring back a report on the French dispositions.
As we approached the vicinity of Verneuil the mood in the column changed significantly. I put out more scouts to the east and south and we all rode in our full armor, with lances at the ready, swords loose in their scabbards and our eyes constantly searching the copses, woods and hedgerows for signs of horsemen. The flat land we rode through that afternoon, once so rich and well cultivated, now bore the harsh imprint of war. King Philip’s Frenchmen had been ravaging the farms and villages hereabouts with all the usual savagery of soldiers let loose to plunder and burn at will. It was a common tactic that allowed the occupying army to provision itself at no cost to its commanders and at the same time destroyed enemy lands and deprived the local lord of the bounty of his wheat and barley fields, his root crops, animals and orchards.
We rode through a battered, scorched landscape, the crops burned down to charred stubble, the hamlets black and reeking, the bodies of slaughtered peasants—men, women and even children—lying unburied at the roadside, with the crows pecking greedily at their singed corpses. We did not stop to bury the dead like Christians, not wishing to delay our advance, though we could all feel the presence of unquiet spirits as we rode more or less in silence through those cinder-dusted, desecrated lands.
I was, however, sorely tempted to have the men stop and dig a decent grave for a young fair-haired peasant that we passed hanging by his neck from a walnut tree. There was something horribly familiar about the canted angle of his neck and the awful vulnerability of his dangling bare feet. I realized as I rode past that gently swaying corpse that it put me in mind of my father’s death, ten years before, in the little hamlet just outside Nottingham where I was born. My father Henry, my mother Ellen and my two younger sisters Aelfgifu and Coelwyn and I all scratched a living from a few strips of land in the fields on the edge of the village. Despite long days of hard labor, we were barely able to feed ourselves; but there had been an abundance of laughter and happiness in our small cottage, and much music and singing. My father had a wonderful voice, slow-rolling and sweet like a river of honey, and my fondest memories of that simple household were of my mother and father singing together, their voices intertwining, their melody lines looping and folding over each other in the smoky air of the low, one-room cottage like gold and silver threads in a fine castle tapestry. My father was the one who taught me to sing—and it was thanks to that skill that I first came to the attention of my master Robin Hood. Six years later, I was his personal trouvère—a “finder” or composer of songs—and also his trusted lieutenant. In a way, I owed my extraordinary advancement from dirt-poor laborer to lord of war to my father’s love of music.
He had been a strange man, my father. I had been told that he was the second son of an obscure French knight, the Seigneur d’Alle, and, as such, he had been destined for the Church. He had duly become a monk, a singer at the great cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. But somehow he had been disgraced and forced to flee to England. Robin, who had known him then, had told me that some valuable objects had gone missing from the cathedral and my father had been accused of their theft—accusations that my father had strenuously denied. Nevertheless, he had been cast out of the Church and had had to make a living with his voice. As a masterless trouvère, he had traveled to England and wandered the country singing for his supper and a place to lay his head at the castles across the land, but tidings of his expulsion from Paris ran ahead of him and he could find no secure position; no lord was willing to take a thief into his household. Eventually, during his long wanderings he met my mother, Ellen—a lovely woman in her youth—and married her and submitted to the dull but stable life of a common man working the land. I remember him cheerfully saying to me once, when I was no more than five or six years old: “None of us knows what God has in store for him, Alan; we may not have fine-milled bread on the board or fur-trimmed silk on our backs, but we can wrap ourselves in love, and we can always fill our mouths with song.”
My family was a contented one, happy even; I might well have inherited the strips of land my father worked and been trudging behind a pair of plow oxen on them to this day, had it not been for his untimely death. Before dawn one morning, as we slept—my mother, father, myself and my two sisters, all snugged up together on the big straw-stuffed mattress in our tiny hovel—half a dozen armed men burst through the door and dragged my father outside. There was no pretense of a trial; the sergeant in charge of the squad of men-at-arms merely announced that the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire had declared that my father was a thief and an outlaw. Then his men wrestled a rope around my father’s neck and summarily hanged him from the nearest oak tree.
I watched them do it, at the raw age of nine; restrained by a burly man-at-arms and trying not to cry as my father kicked and soiled himself and choked out his life before my terrified eyes. Perhaps I am weak, but I’ve never been able to watch a hanging since—even when the punishment is well deserved—without a sense of horror.
That act of unexpected violence destroyed our family. My mother lost the land that my father had plowed and, to stave off destitution, she was forced to gather firewood each day and barter it to her neighbors for food or sell it to any that would buy; and few would. Why hand over a precious silver penny for sticks of timber when there was plenty of kindling to be had for free in the woodlands not three miles away? We slowly began to starve: my two sisters died of the bloody flux two years after my father’s death, a lack of nourishment making them too feeble to fight off the sickness when it struck. Faced with a stark choice, I became a thief; cutting the leather straps that secured the purses of rich men to their belts and making away with their money into the thick crowds of Nottingham market. I like to think that I was good at it—I have always been lucky, all my long life. But, of course, one cannot rely on luck alone. I was thirteen when I was caught in the act of stealing a beef pie; the Sheriff would surely have lopped off my right hand if I hadn’t managed to escape. That was when I went to join Robin Hood’s band of men in the trackless depths of Sherwood Forest.
I never forgot that it was the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire—a black-hearted bastard named Sir Ralph Murdac—who had sent his men to hang my father. Even as a child I swore to be revenged on him. Years passed and I learned to fight like gentlefolk, a-horse with sword and lance, and joined King Richard on the Great Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At the siege of Nottingham, on our return, I had the good fortune to capture the same Ralph Murdac, who was defying the King, and deliver him bound hand and foot to my royal master. I had meant to kill him, to cut his head off in the name of my father—and I would have done so gladly, but for one thing. As he knelt before me, bound, helpless, his neck stretched for my sword, he told me that if I killed him I would never discover the name of the man who was truly responsible for my father’s death. In the face of Death, Murdac claimed that he had been acting on the instructions of a very powerful man, a “man you cannot refuse.” If I spared him, he said, he would reveal the man’s name.
And so I spared him. But, as God willed it, he never told me the name of the man who had ordered Henry d’Alle to be destroyed. King Richard had hanged Murdac the next day, as a warning to the rebellious defenders of Nottingham Castle, before I could thoroughly question him.
I felt the weight of my father’s death—and the need to find the man who had ordered it—like a lead cope around my shoulders. But I was a blindfolded man groping in the dark: I had no idea who this powerful man—this “man you cannot refuse”—could be, nor how I might discover his identity and, almost as important to me, find out why he had reached out his long arm to extinguish my father’s existence. So, although I was in France on behalf of Robin, commanding his troops, I had chosen to be here because it brought me closer to the place of my father’s birth, and perhaps closer to solving the riddle of his death.
For the moment I pushed these thoughts of vengeance and powerful, shadowy enemies away, to concentrate on the task at hand. A scout rode up on a sweat-lathered horse and reported that the enemy lines were no more than three miles away. The sun was sinking low in the sky and we made our camp, quiet and fireless in a small copse in a fold of a shallow valley. Sentries set, and gnawing on a stick of dried mutton, I conferred with Hanno, Owain and the returned scouts.
“The castle of Verneuil still defies Philip,” began Hanno. “I see Richard’s lions flying above the tower.”
I nodded and swallowed a lump of roughly chewed mutton with difficulty. I found that my mouth was dry. “Earthworks?” I said. “Siege engines?”
“They dig earthworks, yes,” said Hanno, scratching at his round shaven head. “But one, two trenches and a little wall to protect the diggers; they are not very far along. But I see four big siege engines, three trebuchets, I think, and a mangonel; also small stuff, balistes and onagers. The walls have taken some hurt, and the tower, too, but they are holding.” Hanno paused and frowned. “But the siege does not feel very … lively, very quick. The Frenchmen are not working so hard, just waiting for the castle to fall. There is no discipline, no proper order. The men are taking their ease around their fires—drinking, gambling, sleeping. I do not think it will be difficult for us to break through.”
“How many are they?” I asked the Bavarian warrior.
“King Philip is there; his fleur-de-lys flies over a big gold tent to the east of the castle. And many of his barons are with him, too, I think. So, perhaps two thousand knights and men-at-arms; crossbowmen, too—yes, two thousand men in all, maybe more.”
I blinked at him. “Two thousand?”
“I think so,” said Hanno. “But they will never expect us. We can get into the castle without much difficulty, if they will open the gate to us. After that…” He shrugged.
I had been told that the besieged garrison of Verneuil numbered just over a hundred men, and I looked at my own little command, my puny war-band, wrapping themselves in their thick green cloaks and bedding down for the night around me, and thought to myself—ten to one. Not good. But I said nothing, trying to appear as if I had absolute confidence in the success of our mission.
“Then we’d better kill as many Frenchmen as possible on the way in,” I said, achieving a shaky nonchalance. “I think we will play this one straight as an arrow; we’ll go in early tomorrow morning, kill the pickets, ride hard, cut through the enemy lines and proceed directly up to the castle’s front gate. Hard and fast. Understood?”
There were murmurs of agreement.
“Fine. Now, let’s sleep. But might I have a word with you, Owain? I need your bow to get a message into the castle. I need to make damn sure they open the gates to us.”
* * *
The French sentry was alert: from his position on a small rise perhaps half a mile outside Verneuil he saw our column approaching slowly from the southwest. Though he had been reclining on the grassy ridge, taking his ease, he leaped to his feet the moment he spotted us emerging from a small wood a mile away and shouted something inaudible over his shoulder. As we walked our horses up the slight slope, affecting the tired boredom of men at the end of a long and uneventful journey, two horsemen in bright mail, with gaudy pennants on their lances, cantered down the slope to meet us.
With Hanno at my side, I spurred forward to greet the two knights, leaving the column behind me with strict instructions to continue their pose as exhausted travelers until I gave the signal. When we were twenty yards from the two strangers, the foremost one called loudly, angrily in French for us to halt. And Hanno and I reined in and sat obediently staring at the two heavily armed men.
“Who are you?” shouted the first knight in French. “What is your name and what business have you here?”
“I am the Chevalier Henri d’Alle,” I said in the same language. For some reason the only false name I could think of was my father’s; but then he had been much on my mind of late. “I serve Geoffrey, Count of the Perche,” I continued, “and my men and I are riding to join my master’s liege lord, King Philip of France, at Verneuil.”
My answer seemed to calm the knight. He glanced at my boar-shield and nodded to himself; it was common knowledge that Count Geoffrey had revoked his proper allegiance to King Richard and come over to King Philip’s side. It was also known that, despite pleas from King Philip for him to join the fight in Normandy, Geoffrey had refused his blandishments and had stubbornly remained in his fortress of Chateâudun fifty miles to the south of Verneuil. It was a plausible enough story, although it would not bear too close a questioning. The knight nodded and beckoned us to approach. “We will escort you to the King,” he said in a more friendly tone.
Signaling to the company to come forward, I walked my horse over to the two knights. The four of us began to climb the gentle slope up to the ridgeline together. The knight beside me, who had politely introduced himself as Raymond de St. Geneviève, started to question me about recent events in the Perche, which I answered only in monosyllabic grunts—I knew almost nothing of the county, bar that it was famous for its horses and reputed to be full of hills and valleys and dark haunted forests. As we reached the top of the rise, the knight was frowning at my surly answers to his friendly questions and beginning to look at me curiously. I changed the subject.
“What news of the King of England?” I asked my companion. “Will he attack here?”
“Oh, he is still in Barfleur, we are told, marshaling his forces. His rabble of an army, many of them no more than filthy paid men, routiers and the like, is far away…,” said St. Geneviève with a dismissive roll of his shoulders.
I could hear the company coming up onto the ridge behind me, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Hanno fiddling with something out of sight, apparently a loose strap on the far side of his saddle. My own right hand went to the belt at my waist. Before me, spread out in a wide semicircle, was the encampment of the soldiers of King Philip—all two thousand of them—a great swath of drab blue tents and brightly colored pavilions and browny-green brushwood and turf shacks, a spill of campfires, a smear of gray smoke, the mounds of fresh earth from the siege workings, neat lines of tethered horses, stacks of fodder, weapons, shields and spears, and piles of baggage. Beyond the army, I could see the fortress of Verneuil, a gray, stone-walled block crouched on the north bank of the River Avre, with four square towers, one at each corner, and a large wooden gate in the center of the front wall. A gaudy red-and-gold flag fluttered from a squat stone keep in the middle of the castle, and I knew that Hanno had spoken true: the little garrison was still bravely defying the King of France and all his legions.
“What was that you said?” I cupped my left hand to my ear and leaned forward from the back of Shaitan toward the knight. “What did you say just then about the English?”
The knight looked perplexed. He leaned toward me in the saddle and enunciated loudly and clearly as if I were an imbecile. “I said: King Richard is in Barfleur—those cowardly English rascals are still many leagues away.”
“Let me tell you a secret,” I said quietly, leaning even further toward him and placing my left hand in a companionable fashion on his right shoulder. Obligingly, he bent his head to me until it was only inches from mine.
“They are not.” And I swung my right hand up, hard, and slammed the point of my misericorde, my long killing dagger, through the soft skin under his chin and on, up through the root of his tongue and the roof of his mouth and deep into his skull. His whole body jerked wildly upward with the force of my sudden blow, but I kept him firmly in the saddle with my left hand on his shoulder. His eyes, massive with shock and pain, stared into mine as he took leave of his life. He coughed once, expelling a great scarlet gobbet of blood, and his hands scrabbled briefly at my right fist on the handle of the long blade still embedded under his chin, then he very slowly slid over backward out of the saddle and away from me, hitting the earth like a loose sack of turnips, his tumbling fall tearing my dagger free from his throat.
“Perfect,” said Hanno, grinning at me savagely from his saddle and displaying his awful rotting teeth. He wrenched his own small hand axe from where it was embedded in the top of the second knight’s spine and callously kicked the unstrung, speechless, dying man out of the saddle. “A perfect kill, Alan!” Hanno it seemed was very pleased with my performance. “A soldier should be very happy to die from such a perfect strike. I teach you well.”
Neither of our victims had made more than a moan of complaint before we sent them to God. My mounted company was coming up the slope at a fast canter and we barely paused once they reached the top of the low hill. “Now,” I shouted to the oncoming horsemen, their young faces rosy with the light of imminent battle, “now, we ride for our lives—ride for the castle gate, don’t stop for anything. Ride as if the Devil himself were on your heels!”
Copyright © 2012 by Angus Donald