Saturday, 20 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Agincourt /Azincourt

Agincourt (Azincourt in French) is one of the most famous battles ever fought; the victory of a small, despised, sick and hungry army over an enemy that massively outnumbered it.

Azincourt, tells the story of that small army; how it embarked from England confident of victory, but was beaten down and horribly weakened by the stubborn French defence of Harfleur. By the end of that siege common-sense dictated that the army sail for home, but Henry V was stubbornly convinced that God was on his side and insisted on marching from Harfleur to Calais to prove that he could defy the great French army that was gathering to crush him. He believed he could evade that army, but the march, like the siege, went disastrously wrong and the English were trapped and so forced to fight against an enemy that outnumbered them six to one.

Azincourt is the tale of Nicholas Hook, an archer, who begins the novel by joining the garrison of Soissons, a city whose patron saints were Crispin and Crispinian. What happened at Soissons shocked all Christendom, but in the following year, on the feast day of Crispin and Crispinian, Hook finds himself in that small army trapped at Azincourt.

The novel is the story of the archers who helped win a battle that has entered legend, but in truth is a tale, as Sir John Keegan says, 'of slaughter-yard behaviour and outright atrocity'.

To hear a recent interview with me and Cathi Bond from HarperCollins Canada regarding my latest book AZINCOURT: ..

In 1414 a group of mercenary English soldiers were among the garrison of Soissons, a town in Burgundian hands that was besieged by the French. The town fell, and what happened at its fall became notorious. The patron saints of Soissons were Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian and a year later, on their feast day, the French army was to meet a much smaller English army on the field of Azincourt. Some thought the saints would want revenge for what the French had done to their city, and among those was Nicholas Hook, an English archer, who was present at the fall of Soissons and on the field of Azincourt. This excerpt tells how the siege of Soissons ended.
On the evening of the siege's second day Hook thought the world had ended.It was a summer evening of warm and limpid air. The light was pale-bright and the river slid gently between its flowery banks where willows and alders grew. The French banners hung motionless above their tents. Some smoke still sifted from the burned houses to rise soft into the evening air until it faded high in the cloudless sky.Nicholas Hook leaned on the ramparts. His bow was propped there, unstrung. His thoughts were drifting back to England, to the manor, to the fields behind the long barn where the hay would be almost ready for cutting. There would be hares in the long grass, trout in the stream and larks in the twilight. He thought about the decaying cattle byre in the field called Shortmead, the byre with rotting thatch and a screen of honeysuckle behind which William Snoball's young wife Nell would meet him and make silent, desperate love. He wondered who was coppicing the Three Button wood and, for the thousandth time, how the wood had got its name. The tavern in the village was called the Three Buttons and no one knew why, not even Lord Slayton who sometimes limped under the tavern's lintel and put silver on the serving hatch to buy all present an ale. He thought of the Perrills, malevolent and ever-present in the village. He could not go back now, not ever, because he was an outlaw. The Perrills could kill him and it would not be murder, not even manslaughter, because an outlaw was beyond the law's help. He remembered the window in the London stable, and knew God had told him to take the girl through that window, but he had failed and he thought he must be cut off from the heavenly light beyond that window for ever.The evening peace vanished in noise.But first there was light. Dark light, Hook thought later, a stab of light, flame-dark red, that licked like a hell-serpent's tongue from an earthwork the French had dug close to one of their gaunt catapults. That tongue of fire was visible for an instant, then it was obliterated in a thunder cloud of dense black smoke that billowed sudden, and then the noise came, an ear-punching blow of sound that shook the heavens to be followed by another crack, almost as loud, as something struck the city wall.The wall shook. Hook's bow toppled and clattered onto the stones. Birds were screaming as they flew from the flame, smoke and lingering noise. The sun was gone, hidden by the black cloud, and Hook stared and was convinced, at least for a moment, that a crack had opened in the earth and that the fires of hell had squirmed their way to the surface."Sweet bloody Christ!" An archer said in awe."Was wondering when that would happen," another archer said in disgust. "A gun," he explained to the first man, "have you never seen a gun?""Never.""You'll see them now," the second man said grimly.
Hook had never seen a gun either, and he flinched when the second one fired to add its filthy smoke to the summer sky. The besiegers possessed six guns and those cannon did far more damage than the four great wooden machines. The catapults were inaccurate and their huge jagged boulders often missed the ramparts and dropped into the city to crush houses that started burning as their kitchen fires were scattered, but the cannon ate steadily at the city wall that was in bad repair. It took only two days for the outer face of the wall to crumble into the wide foetid ditch, and then the gunners systematically widened the breach as the Burgundians countered by making a semi-circular barricade behind the shattered wall.Each gun fired three times a day, their shots as regular as the bells of a monastery calling men to prayer. The Burgundians had their own gun which had been mounted on a southern bastion in the expectation that the French would attack from the Paris road and it took two days to drag the weapon to the western ramparts where it was slung up to the roof of the gate-tower. Hook was fascinated by its tube that was three times as long as his bowstave and hooped like an ale pot. The tube and its bindings were made of dark pitted iron and stood on a squat wooden carriage. The gunners were Dutchmen who spent a long time watching the enemy guns and finally aimed their tube at one of those French cannon and then set about the laborious task of loading their machine. Gunpowder was put into the barrel with a long-handled ladle, then tamped tight with a cloth-wrapped rammer. Soft loam was added next. The loam was puddled in a wide wooden pail, rammed onto the powder, then left to dry as the gunners sat in a circle and played dice. The gun-stone, a boulder chipped into a crude ball, waited beside the tube until the chief gunner, a portly man with a forked beard, decided the loam was dry enough, and only then was the stone pushed down the long hooped barrel. A wooden wedge was shoved after it and hammered into place to keep the shaped boulder tight against the loam and powder. A priest sprinkled holy water on the gun and said a prayer as the Dutchmen used long levers to make a tiny adjustment to the tube's aim."Stand back, boy," Sergeant Smithson said. He had deigned to come from the Goose tavern to watch the Dutchmen fire their weapon. A score of other men had arrived, including the Sire de Bournonville who called encouragement to the gunners. None of the spectators stood close to the gun, but instead watched as if the black tube were a wild beast that could not be trusted. "Good morning, Sir Roger," Smithson said, knuckling his forehead to a tall, arrow thin man. Sir Roger Stour, commander of the English contingent, ignored the greeting. He had a narrow, beak-nosed face with a lantern jaw, dark hair and the expression of a man forced to endure the stench of a latrine.The portly Dutchman waited till the priest had finished his prayer, then he pushed a stripped quill into a small hole that had been drilled into the gun's breach. He used a copper funnel to fill the quill with powder, squinted one more time down the length of the barrel, then stepped to one side and held out a hand. He was given a long, burning taper. The priest, the only man other than the artillerymen to be close to the weapon, made the sign of the cross and spoke a quick blessing, then the chief gunner touched the flame to the powder filled quill.The gun exploded.Instead of sending its stone ball screaming across to the French siege works the cannon vanished in a welter of smoke, flying metal and shredded flesh. The five gunners and the priest were killed instantly, turned to blood red mist and ribboned meat. A man at arms screamed and writhed as red hot metal sliced into his belly. Sir Roger, who had been standing next to the screaming man, stepped fastidiously away and grimaced at the blood that had spattered across the badge on his surcoat. That badge showed three hawks on a green field. "Tonight, Smithson," Sir Roger spoke from the blood-smelling smoke that writhed about the rampart, "you will meet me after sundown in Saint Antoine le Petit's church. You and your whole company."
"Yes, sir, yes," Smithson said faintly, "of course, Sir Roger." The first ten feet of the shattered cannon lay canted and ripped open, while the breach had been torn into jagged shards of smoking metal. Part of a hoop and a man's hand lay by Hook's feet while the gunners, hired at great expense, were nothing but eviscerated carcasses. The Sire de Bournonville, his jupon spattered with blood and scraps of flesh, stared in horror at the gun's remnants, while derisive jeers sounded from the French siege lines."We must plan for the assault," Sir Roger said."Very good, Sir Roger," Smithson said. The sergeant scooped a wet mess from his belt. "A Dutchman's goddamn brains," he said in disgust, flicking the gob towards Sir Roger who had turned and now strode oblivious away.Sir Roger, with three men at arms all wearing his badge of the three hawks, met the English and Welsh archers of the Soissons garrison in the church just after sunset. Sir Roger's surcoat had been washed, though the bloodstains were still faintly visible. He stood in front of the altar, lit by guttering rushlights that burned feebly in brackets mounted on the church's pillars, and his face still bore the distant look of a man pained to be in his present company. "Your job," he said, without any preamble once the eighty-nine archers had settled on the floor of the nave, "will be to defend the breach. I cannot tell you when the enemy will assault, but I can assure you it will be soon. I trust you will repel any such assault.""Oh we will, Sir Roger," Smithson put in helpfully, "rely on it, sir!"Sir Roger's long face shuddered at the comment, as though a shadow had just passed over his grave. "In the event," he said, "that you fail, you are to gather here, in this church." Those words caused a stir as men frowned and looked at each other. If they failed to defend the breach and lost the new defences behind it, then they expected to retreat to the castle."Sir Roger?" Smithson ventured hesitantly."I had not invited questions," Sir Roger said."Of your goodness, Sir Roger," Smithson persevered, knuckling his forehead as he spoke, "but wouldn't we be safer in the castle?""You will assemble here, in this church!" Sir Roger said firmly."Why not the castle?" an archer near Hook demanded belligerently.Sir Roger paused, searching the dim nave for whoever had spoken. He could not discover the questioner, but deigned to offer an answer anyway. "The townspeople," he finally spoke, "detest us. If you attempt to reach the castle you will be assaulted in the streets. This place is much closer to the breach, so come here." He paused again. "I shall endeavour to arrange a truce for you." There was an uncomfortable silence. The archers knew that most folk in Soissons hated them. The townspeople were French, they supported their king and hated the Burgundians, but they hated the English even more. "A truce," Smithson said dubiously."The French quarrel is with Burgundy," Sir Roger said, "not with us.""Will you be joining us here, Sir Roger?" An archer called out."Of course," Sir Roger said. He paused, but no one spoke. "Fight well," he said distantly. "and remember you are English!""Welsh," someone intervened.
Sir Roger flinched at that and then, without another word, led his three men-at-arms from the church. A chorus of protests sounded as he left. The church of Saint Antoine le Petit was stone-built and defensible, but not nearly so safe as the castle, though it was true the castle was at the other end of the town and Hook wondered how difficult it would be to reach that refuge if townsfolk were blocking the streets and French men-at-arms were howling through the breached ramparts. He looked up at the painted wall that showed men, women and children tumbling into hell. There were priests and even bishops among the doomed souls who fell in a screaming cascade to a lake of fire where black devils waited with leering grins and triple-barbed eel-spears. "You'll wish you were in hell if the Frenchies capture you," Smithson said, noticing where Hook was looking. "You'll beg for the comforts of hell if those bastards catch you. So remember! We fight at the barricade, then we comes here if it all goes wrong.""Why here?" a man called out."Because Sir Roger knows what he's doing," Smithson said, sounding anything but certain, "and if you've got sweethearts here," he went on with a leer, "make certain the little darlings come with you." He began thrusting his meaty hips backwards and forwards. "Don't want them left in the streets to be humped by half the French army, do we?"Next morning, as he did each morning, Hook gazed north across the Aisne to the low wooded hills where the beleaguered garrison hoped to see a Burgundian relief force. None came. The great gun-stones whirred across the ashes of the burned houses and bit into the crumbling wall to start up their clouds of dust that settled on the river where they drifted seawards like pale grey stains. Hook rose early every morning, before it was light, and went to the cathedral where he knelt and prayed. He had abandoned praying to Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian because he reckoned they cared more about the townsfolk, their own folk, and so he prayed to the mother of Christ because his own mother had been called Mary and he begged the blessed virgin for forgiveness because of the girl who had died in London. One morning a priest knelt beside him. Hook ignored the man."You're the Englishman who prays," the priest said in English, stumbling over the unfamiliar language. Hook said nothing. "They wonder why you pray," the priest went on, jerking his head to indicate the women who knelt before other statues and altars Hook's instinct was to go on ignoring the man, but the priest had a friendly face and a kindly voice. "I'm just praying," he said, sounding surly."Are you praying for yourself?""Yes," Hook admitted."Then ask something for someone else," the priest suggested. "God listens to those prayers more readily, I think, and if you pray for someone else then He will grant your own request too." He smiled, stood and lightly touched Hook's shoulder. "And pray to our saints, Crispin and Crispinian. I think they are less busy than the blessed Virgin. God watch over you, Englishman."
The priest walked away and Hook decided to take his advice and pray to the two local saints again and so he went to an altar beneath a painting of the two martyrs and there he prayed for the soul of Sarah, the girl whose life he had failed to save in London. He stared up at the painting as he prayed. The two saints stood in a green field scattered with golden stars on a hill above a white-walled city. They looked gravely and a little sadly towards Hook. They did not look like shoemakers. They were dressed in white robes and Crispin carried a shepherd's crook while Crispinian held a wicker tray of apples and pears. Their names were painted beneath each man and Hook, though he could not read, could tell which saint was which because one name was longer than the other. Crispinian looked much the friendlier man. He had a rounder face and blue eyes and a half smile of great kindliness, while Saint Crispin appeared much sterner and was half turned away, as though he was about to walk down the hill and into the city, and so Hook fell into the habit of praying to Crispinian each morning, though he always acknowledged Crispin too. He dropped two pennies in the jar each time he prayed."To look at you," John Wilkinson said that evening, "I wouldn't take you for a man of prayer.""I wasn't," Hook said, "till now.""Frightened for your soul?" the old archer asked.Hook hesitated. He was binding arrow fledging with the silk stolen from the cathedral. "I heard a voice," he blurted out suddenly."A voice?" Wilkinson asked. Hook said nothing. "God's voice?" the older man asked."It was in London," Hook said.He felt foolish for his admission, but Wilkinson took it seriously. He stared at Hook for a long time, then nodded abruptly. "You're a lucky man, Nicholas Hook.""I am?""If God spoke to you then he must have a purpose for you. That means you might survive this siege.""If it was God who spoke to me," Hook said, embarrassed."Why shouldn't He? He needs to speak to people, on account that the church don't listen to Him.""It doesn't?"Wilkinson spat. "The church is about money, lad, money. Priests are supposed to be shepherds, aren't they? Looking after the flock, but they're all in the manor hall stuffing their faces, so the sheep have to look after themselves." He pointed an arrow at Hook. "And if the French break into the town, Hook, don't go to Saint Antoine le Petit! Go to the castle""Sir Roger . . ." Hook began."Wants us dead!" Wilkinson said angrily."Why would he want that?""Because he's crammed to the throat with shit, that's why. You go to the castle, lad! That's what you do."The next few nights were dark. The moon was a sliver like a cut-throat's blade. The Sire de Bournonville feared a night attack and ordered dogs to be tethered out in the wasteland where the houses had been burned. If the dogs barked, he said, the warning bell on the western gate was to be rung, and the dogs did bark and the bell was rung, but no Frenchmen assaulted the breach. Instead, in the dawn, as a mist slid across the river, the besiegers catapulted the dogs' corpses into the town. The animals had been gelded then had their throats cut as a warning of the fate that awaited the defiant garrison.The feast of Saint Abdus passed, and no relief force arrived, and then Saint Possidius's feast came and went, and next day was the feast of the seven holy virgins, and Hook prayed to each one, and in the next dawn he sent a plea to Saint Dunstan, the Englishman, on his feast day, and the day after that to Saint Ethelbert, who had been a king of England, and all the time he also prayed to Crispinian and to Crispin, begging their protection, and on the very next day, on the feast of Saint Hospitius, he received his answer.When the French, who had been praying to Saint Denis, attacked Soissons.
* * *
The first Hook knew of the assault was the clanging sound of the city's church bells ringing in frantic haste and disorder. It was after dark and he was momentarily confused. He slept on straw at the back of John Wilkinson's workshop and he saw flames leap high as the old man threw wood on the brazier to give some light. "Don't lie there like a hog, boy," Wilkinson said, "they're here.""Mary, mother of God," Hook grumbled."I've an inkling she don't care one way or the other," Wilkinson said. He was pulling on a mail coat, struggling to get the heavy links over his head. "There's an arrow bag by the door," he went on, his voice muffled by the haubergeon, "full of straight ones. Left it for you. Go, boy, kill some bastards.""What about you?" Hook asked. He was tugging on his boots, new boots made by a skilled cobbler of Soissons."I'll catch up with you! String your bow, son, and go!"Hook buckled his sword belt, strung his bow, snatched his arrow-bag, then took the second bag from beside the door and ran into the tavern yard. He could hear shouting and screams, but where they came from he could not tell. Archers were pouring into the yard and he instinctively followed them towards the new defences behind the breach. The church bells were hammering the night sky with noise. Dogs barked and howled.Hook had no armour except for an ancient helmet that Wilkinson had given him and which sat on his head like a bowl. He had a padded jacket that might stop a feeble sword swing, but that was all his protection. Other archers had short mail coats and close fitting helmets. They all wore a brief surcoat, blazoned with the jagged red cross, and Hook saw the liveried archers lining the new wall that was made of wicker baskets filled with earth. None was drawing a cord, instead they just looked towards the breach that flared with sudden light as men threw pitch-soaked torches into the gap of the gun-ravaged wall.There was no enemy in the breach. Yet the bells rang and the screams sounded, and Hook swung round to realise that the French must be attacking the southern wall, maybe close to the Paris gate that was commanded by Sir Roger Stour and defended by the English men-at-arms. There was a glow in the sky above the rooftops, a glow that flickered lurid on the cathedral's tower, evidence that buildings burned somewhere near that southern gate.Sergeant Smithson looked nervous. He kept glancing towards the glow of the fires, then back to the breach that remained empty. "Devil's turd," he said of no one in particular."What's happening?" An archer demanded."How in God's name would I know?" Smithson snarled."I think they're already inside the city," John Wilkinson said mildly. He had brought a dozen sheaves of spare arrows that he dropped behind the archers. The screaming from the southern part of Soissons was louder. Burgundian crossbowmen ran past Hook, abandoning the breach and going towards the sound of the screams."If they're inside the town," Smithson said uncertainly, "then we go to the church!""Not the castle?" a man demanded."We go to the church!" Smithson said. "Do as Sir Roger says. He's gentry, isn't he? Must know what he's doing." "Now?" a man asked, "we go now?" but Smithson said nothing. He was confused.
Hook was staring at the breach. It was dark except for the feeble flames from the torches, but suddenly he was aware of other lights moving there, shifting silver-grey lights, like smoke in moonlight, or like the ghosts of All Hallows Eve. The lights, Hook thought, were beautiful; filmy and vaporous in the darkness. He stared, wondering what the glowing shapes were, and then the silver-grey turned to red and he realised, with a start of fear, that they were men. He was seeing the light of the torches reflected from plate armour. "Sergeant!" he shouted."What is it?" Smithson snapped back."Bastards are here!" Hook called, and they were. The bastards were coming through the breach. Their plate armour was scoured bright and they were coming beneath a banner of blue on which golden lilies blossomed. Their visors were closed and their long swords flashed back the flamelight. They looked like men of burning metal, phantoms from the dreams of hell, death coming in the dark to Soissons. He could not count them, they were so many."God's shit," Smithson said, "stop them!"Hook did what he was told. He stepped back to the barricade, plucked an arrow from the linen bag and lay it on the bow's stave,Most grown men in the prime of their strength could not pull a war bow's cord back to the ear. Even men-at-arms, toughened by war and hardened by sword exercises, could only draw the hemp cord halfway, but Hook made it look easy. His arm flowed back, his eyes sought a mark for the arrow's bright head and he did not even think as he released. He was already reaching for the second arrow as the first, a shaft-weighted bodkin, slapped through a breastplate of sheet steel and threw the man back onto the French standard bearer.And Hook loosed again, not thinking, only knowing that he had been told to stop this attack. He loosed shaft after shaft. He drew the cord to his right ear and was not aware of the tiny shifts his left hand made to send the white-feathered arrow on its short journey from cord to victim. He was not aware of the deaths he caused or the injuries he gave or of the arrows that glanced off armour to spin uselessly away. Most were not useless. The long bodkin heads could easily punch through armour at this close range and Hook was stronger than most archers who were stronger than most men, and his bow was heavy. John Wilkinson, when he had first met Hook, had drawn the younger man's bow and failed to get the cord past his chin, and he had given Hook a glance of respect, and now that long, thick-bellied bow made from the trunk of a yew cut in far off Savoy, was sending death in the screaming dark, except that Hook was only seeing the enemy who came across the breach where the guttering torches burned, and he did not notice the dark floods of men who surged at either edge of the wall's gap and who were already tugging at the wicker baskets. Then part of the barricade collapsed and the noise made Hook turn to see that he was the only archer left at the defences. The breach, despite the dead who lay there and the injured who crawled there, was filled with howling men. The light was fire, flame red, shot with smoke, loud with war-shouts. Hook realised then that John Wilkinson had shouted at him to run, but in the moment's excitement, the shout had not lodged in Hook's mind.But now it did. He plucked up the full arrow bag and ran.Men howled behind him. The barricade fell and the French swarmed across its remnants and into the city.
Hook understood then how the deer felt when the hounds were in every thicket and men were beating the undergrowth and arrows were whickering through the leaves. He had often wondered if an animal could know what death was. They knew fear, and they knew defiance, but beyond fear and defiance came the gut-emptying panic, the last moments of life as the hunters close in and the heart races and the mind slithers frantically. Hook ran. At first he just ran. The bells were still crashing, dogs howling, men roaring war shouts, horns calling, a building collapsing in flames beneath the smoke above a city lit raw by fire. He ran into a small square, a space where leather merchants usually displayed their hides, and it was oddly deserted, but then he heard the sounds of bolts being shot and he understood that folk were hiding in their houses and barring their doors. Crashes announced where soldiers were kicking or beating those locked doors down. Go to the castle, he thought, and he ran that way, but turned a corner to see the wide space in front of the cathedral filled with men in unfamiliar liveries, their surcoats lit by the torches they carried, and he doubled back like a deer recoiling from hounds. Go to Saint Antoine le Petit's church, he decided, and he sprinted down an alley, twisted into another, ran across the open space in front of the city's biggest nunnery, turned down the street where the Goose tavern was, and saw still more men in their strange liveries, and those men blocked his way to the church. They spotted him and a growl sounded, and the growl turned into a triumphant howl as they ran towards him, and Hook, desperate as any doomed animal, bolted into an alley, leaped at the wall which blocked the end, sprawled over into a small yard that stank of sewage, scrambled across a second wall and then, surrounded by shouts and quivering with fear he sank into a dark corner and waited.A hunted deer would do that. When it saw no escape it would freeze, shiver and wait for the death it must sense. Hook shivered.Then he realised his pursuers had evidently abandoned the chase. There was so much plunder for them in Soissons and so many victims, that one fugitive did not interest them and Hook, slowly recovering his senses, realised he had found a temporary refuge. He was in one of the Goose's back yards, a place beside the brewery where the barrels were washed and repaired. A door of the tavern suddenly opened and a flaming torch illuminated the trestles and staves and tuns. A man peered into the yard, said something dismissive and went back into the tavern where a woman screamed.Hook stayed where he was. He dared not move. The city was full of women screaming, full of hoarse male laughter, full of crying children. A cat stalked past him. The church bells had long ceased their clangour. He knew he could not stay where he was. Dawn would reveal him. Oh God, oh God, oh God, he prayed, unaware that he prayed. Be with me now and at the hour of my death. He shivered.He stood. Perhaps there was a chance he could reach the church? It was much closer than the castle, and Sir Roger had promised to make an attempt to save the archers' lives, and though it seemed a slender hope, it was all Hook could think of, and so he pulled himself up the yard's wall to peer over the top. The Goose's stables were next door. No noise came from them and so he climbed onto the wall and from there he could step onto the stable roof that half buckled under his weight, but by staying on the roof top, where the ridge beam ran, he could shuffle until he reached the farther gable where he dropped into a dark alley. He was shaking again, knowing he was more vulnerable here. He moved silently, slowly, until he could peer about the alley's corner to where the church lay.And he saw there was no escape. The church of Saint Antoine-le-Petit was guarded by enemies. There were over thirty men at arms there, and a dozen crossbowmen, all in liveries that Hook had not seen before. If Smithson and the archers were inside the church then they were safe enough, for they could defend the door, but it seemed plain to Hook that the enemy was simply there to prevent any archer escaping and, he assumed, they would stop any stray archer trying to approach the church. He thought of running for the doorway, but guessed it would be locked and that, while he was beating on the heavy timber, the crossbowmen would use him as a target.
The enemy was not just guarding the church. They had fetched barrels from the Goose and were drinking, and they had brought two girls from somewhere and had stripped them naked and tied them across the two barrels with their legs spread, and now the men took it in turns to hitch up their mail coats and rape the girls who lay silent as if they had been emptied of moans and tears. The city was full of women screaming, and the sound scored across Hook's conscience like an arrow head scraping on slate, and perhaps that was why he did not move, but just stood at the corner like an animal that had no place to run or hide,Then a door opened onto the alley and a flood of light washed across Hook who turned to see a man at arms stagger into the mud. The man wore a surcoat showing a silver wheatsheaf on a green field. The man fell to his knees and vomited as another man, in the same livery, came to the door and laughed. It was that second man who saw Hook and recognised the great war bow, and so drew his sword.Hook reacted in panic. He thrust the bow at the man. In his head he was screaming, unable to think, but the lunge had all his archer's strength in it and the horn-nock of the bow's tip pierced the man-at-arm's throat before his sword was half drawn. Blood misted black as the man scrabbled at his throat and still Hook thrust so that the bow ripped clean through windpipe and muscle, skin and sinew to strike the door jamb. The kneeling man was roaring, spraying vomit as he clawed at Hook who, still in panic, made a mewing noise of utter despair as he let go of the bow and thrust his hands at his new assailant. He felt his fingers crush the man's eyeballs and the man began to scream, and Hook was dimly aware that the rapists outside the church were coming for him and he scrambled through the door, half tripping on the first man who lay trying to pull the bow from his ruptured throat as Hook ran across a room, burst through another door, down a passage, a third door, and he was in another yard, still not thinking, over a wall, another wall, and there were shouts behind him and screams around him and he was in absolute terror now. He had lost his great yew bow, and had dropped the arrow bags, though he still had the sword every archer was expected to wear. He had never used it. He still wore the ragged red cross of Burgundy too, and he began to tear at the surcoat, trying to rid himself of the symbol as he looked desperately for an escape, any escape, and then saw a dark house with an open door and ran to it.
The door led into a large empty room where a lantern showed a dead man sprawled over a cushioned wooden bench. The man's blood had sheeted across the flagstones. A tapestry hung on one wall and there were cupboards and a long table holding an abacus and sheets of parchment that were speared on a tall spike. Hook reckoned the dead man must have been a merchant. In one corner a ladder climbed to a higher floor and Hook went up quickly to find a plastered chamber which held a wooden bed with a pallet and blankets. A second ladder led into the attic and he clambered up and pulled the ladder into the space beneath the rafters and cursed himself for not having done the same with the first ladder. Too late now. He dared not drop down into the house and so he crouched in the bat-droppings beneath the thatch. He was shaking. Men were shouting in the houses beneath him, and for a time it seemed he must be discovered, especially when someone climbed into the room where the bed stood, but the man only glanced about before leaving, and the rest of the searchers grew bored, or else found other quarry, for after a while their excited shouting died. The screaming went on, indeed the screaming became louder and it seemed to Hook, listening in puzzlement, that a whole group of women were just outside the house, all shrieking, and he crouched, flinching from the sound. He thought of Sarah in London, of Sir Martin the priest, and of the men he had just seen who had looked so bored as they raped their two silent victims.The screaming turned into sobbing, broken only by mens' laughter. Hook was shivering, not with cold, but with fear and guilt, and then he shrank into the rafters for the room beneath was suddenly lit by a lantern. The light leaked through the attic's crude floorboards that were loosely laid over untrimmed beams. A man had climbed into the room and was shouting down the ladder to other men, and then a woman cried and there was the sound of a slap."You're a pretty one," the man said, and Hook was so frightened that he did not even notice that the man spoke English."Non," the woman whimpered."Too pretty to share. You're all mine, girl."Hook peered through a crack in the boards. He could see a wide-brimmed helmet that half obscured the man's shoulders, and then he saw that the woman was a white-robed nun who crouched in a corner of the room. She was whimpering. "Jésus," she cried, "Marie, mère de Dieu!" And the last word turned into a scream as the man drew a knife. "Non!" she shouted, "non! Non! Non!" and the helmeted man slapped her hard enough to silence her as he pulled her upright. He put the knife at her neck, then slashed so that her habit was sliced down the front. He ripped the blade further and, despite her struggles, tore the white robe away from her and then cut at her undergarments. He threw her ruined clothes down to the lower floor and, when she was naked, pushed her onto the pallet where she curled into a ball and sobbed."Oh, I'm sure God was delighted with that day's work!" The voice said, though no one spoke because the voice was in Hook's head. It was John Wilkinson's voice, repeating the words the old archer had spoken to Hook in the cathedral, but in Hook's mind it was a saint who talked to him. It was Crispinian, the saint to whom he had addressed most of his prayers, and he was convinced that the martyr spoke to him, for he could see the two saints in his mind's eye. They wore their white robes and Crispinian carried his wicker tray of apples and pears, and he looked sadly at Hook, and Hook understood that heaven had given him a chance to make amends. The nun in the room below had cried to Christ's mother, and the Virgin must have spoken to the saints of Soissons who now spoke to Hook, but Hook was frightened. He was hearing voices again. He did not know it, but he was kneeling. God was speaking to him through Saint Crispinian.And Hook was terrified.The man in the room below threw down his helmet. He unbuckled his sword belt and tossed it aside, then he growled something at the girl before hauling his mail coat and its covering surcoat over his head. Hook recognised the badge on the surcoat as Sir Roger Stour's three hawks on a green field. What was that badge doing here? It was the victorious besiegers who were raping and ransacking the city, not the defeated garrison. "Now," Saint Crispinian said.Hook did not move."Now!" Saint Crispin snarled in Hook's head. Saint Crispin was not as friendly as Crispinian and Hook shuddered when the saint snapped the word. The man, Hook was not sure whether it was Sir Roger himself or one of his men at arms, was struggling with the heavy mail coat that was half over his head and constricting his arms."For God's sake!" Crispinian appealed to Hook."Do it, boy," Saint Crispin said harshly."Save your soul, Nicholas," Crispinian said gently.
And Hook saved his soul.He dropped through the hole in the attic floor. He forgot his sword, instead drawing the thick-bladed knife that he had once used to eviscerate deer carcasses. He fell just behind the man who could not see because his mail coat was over his head, but he heard Hook's arrival and he turned just as Hook's blade ripped across his belly. Nicholas Hook gutted the man. The strength of an archer's right arm was in the cut and the blade went deep and the guts slithered out like eels tumbling from a slit sack as the man gave a strangulated cry that was muffled by the heavy coat that shrouded his head, and he cried again as the knife gave a second cut, upwards this time as Hook pushed his knife hand deep into the man's ruined belly to drive the blade up under the rib cage to find and puncture the rapists's heart.The man dropped back onto the bed and was dead before he hit the pallet.And Hook, blood wet to his elbow, stared down at his victim.He realised later that the down-filled pallet had saved his life for it soaked up the blood which otherwise would have dripped through the floorboards to alarm the men beneath. There were two of them, both wearing Sir Roger's livery, but Hook, standing in fear over his victim, noticed that the dead man's surcoat was made of much finer cloth than was usual. He moved away from the hatch in the floor. The two men were ransacking a store cupboard and seemed oblivious of the death that had just occurred above their heads.The dead man's mail coat was tight-linked and polished, studded with the buckles that had anchored his plate armour. Hook crouched and tugged the coat clear of the man's head and saw that he had killed Sir Roger Stour. Sir Roger, ostensibly a Burgundian ally, had been left alive to rape and steal, which surely meant that Sir Roger had been secretly on the side of the French. Hook tried to comprehend that betrayal, while the naked girl stared at him with eyes and mouth wide open. She appeared scared and Hook feared she was about to scream and so he put a finger to his lips, but she shook her head and suddenly began to make small desperate noises, half moans, half gasps, and Hook frowned, then understood that silence was more suspicious than the noise of her distress. He nodded at her, then cut away a blood-drenched purse attached to Sir Roger's belt. He also pulled Sir Roger's surcoat clear of the mail coat and tossed it with the purse into the attic then reached up and gripped one of the beams. He pulled himself into the roofspace, then stretched his right arm for the girl.She gave him her hand and he pulled her up as easily as he hauled back a bowstring. It took less effort. He gestured at the surcoat and purse and she scooped them up, then followed him along the attic. He pushed through the flimsy wattle screen that divided the roof space, treading carefully as the light diminished. He went to very end, three houses down from where he had killed Sir Roger, and he gestured at the girl again, motioning her to crouch by the gable wall, and then, working slowly so as to make as little noise as possible, he pulled down the roof thatch.It took maybe an hour. He not only dragged down the thatch, but forced some pegged rafters off the ridge timber, and when he had finished he reckoned it looked as though the roof had collapsed and he and the girl crept under the straw and timbers and huddled there. He had made a hiding place.
And all he could do was wait. The girl waited with him and sometimes she spoke, but Hook had learned little French during his stay in Soissons. He hushed her, and after a while she leaned against him and fell asleep, though sometimes she would whimper and Hook awkwardly tried to soothe her. She was wearing Sir Roger's surcoat, still damp with his blood. Hook untied the purse's strings and saw coins, gold and silver, the price, he suspected, of betrayal.Dawn was smoky grey. Sir Roger's gutted corpse was found before the sun came up and there was a great hue and cry and Hook heard the men ransacking the row of houses beneath him, but his hiding place was cunningly made and no one thought to look in the tangle of straw and timber. The girl woke then and Hook laid a finger on her lips and she shivered as she clung to him. Hook's fear was still there, but it had settled into a resignation, and somehow the company of the girl gave him a hope that had not been in his soul the night before. Or perhaps, he thought, the twin saints of Soissons were protecting him and he made the sign of the cross and sent a prayer of gratitude to Crispin and Crispinian. They were silent now, but he had done what they had told him to do. He had done what he had failed to do in London and so hope flickered inside him. It was a feeble hope, small as a candle's flame in a high wind, but it was there. The city had become quieter as the dawn approached, but as the sun rose over the cathedral the noise began again. There were screams and moans and cries. Hook could see down into the small square in front of the church of Saint Antoine le Petit. The two girls who had been tied to the barrels were gone, though the men at arms were still there. An elderly nun lay dead, her head lying in a pool of black blood. A man at arms rode through the square, a naked girl draped belly down on the saddle in front of him. He slapped her rump as he rode, and the watching men laughed.Hook waited. He needed to piss badly, but dared not move, so he wet his breeches and the girl smelt it and grimaced, but had to pee herself a moment later. She began to cry softly and Hook held her close until her tears stopped. She murmured to him, and he murmured back, and neither understood the other, but both were comforted.Then the sound of more hooves made Hook twist back to peer down into the square to see that a score of horsemen had arrived in front of the church. One man carried a banner of golden lilies on a blue field. The horsemen were in armour, though none wore a helmet, and they were followed by armoured men at arms who came on foot.Then Hook saw the surcoat which showed three hawks on a green field and he realised that one of the mounted men must be an Englishman who had been in Sir Roger's service, and it was that man who spurred his horse to the church and, leaning from the saddle, pounded a shortened lance on the door. He shouted something, though Hook was too far away to hear, but it must have been words of reassurance because, a moment later, the church door opened and Sergeant Smithson peered out.The two men talked, then Smithson went back into the church, and there was a long pause. Hook waited, wondering what was happening, then the church door swung open again and the English archers filed warily into the sunlight. It seemed that Sir Roger had kept his word and Hook, watching from the ravaged gable, wondered if there was any chance of joining the bowmen who now gathered in front of the Englishman's horse. Sir Roger must have agreed that the archers would be spared, for the French appeared to be welcoming them. Smithson's men piled their bows, arrow-bags and swords by the church door, and then, one by one, knelt to a horseman whose stallion was gaudy with the golden lilies on their blue cloth. The rider wore a gold coronet and bright polished armour and he raised a hand in what appeared to be a kindly benediction towards the suppliant archers. Only John Wilkinson hung back close to the church.If I can reach the street, Hook thought, then I can run to join my countrymen. "No," Saint Crispinian whispered in Hook's head, startling him. The girl was clutching him."No?" Hook whispered aloud.
"No," Saint Crispinian said again, very firmly.The girl asked Hook something and he hushed her. "Wasn't talking to you, lass," he whispered.The blue and gold horseman held his mailed fist high for a few heartbeats, then abruptly dropped his hand.And the massacre began.The men at arms drew swords and attacked the kneeling archers. The first of the bowmen died swiftly, because they were unprepared, but others drew their short knives and fought back, but the Frenchmen were in plate armour and they carried the longer blades and they came at the archers from every side. Sir Roger's man-at-arms watched. John Wilkinson snatched up a sword from the pile by the church door, but a man-at-arms ran him through with a shortened lance, and a second Frenchman cut down through his neck so that Wilkinson's blood sprayed high on the door's stone archway that was carved with angels and fishes. Some archers were taken alive, bludgeoned back to the ground and guarded there by the grinning men at arms.The man in the golden coronet turned and rode away, followed by his standard bearer, his squire, his page and a dozen followers. The Englishman wearing the badge of the three hawks rode with them, turning his back on the surviving archers who called out for mercy. But there was no mercy.The French had long memories of defeat and hated the men who drew the long war bow. At Crecy the French had outnumbered the English and trapped them, and the French had charged across the low valley to rid the world of the impudent invaders, and it had been the archers who had defeated them by filling the sky with goose-fledged death and so cut down noble knights with their wicked long-nosed arrows. Then, at Poitiers, the archers had ripped apart the chivalry of France and at that day's end the King of France was a prisoner of the English, and all those insults still rankled, and so there was no mercy.Hook and the girl listened. There were thirty or forty archers still alive and the French chopped off two fingers of each man's right hand so they could never again draw a bow. And maybe, Hook thought, the revenge would end there, but it had only begun.A tall man, mounted on a high horse, watched the archers' deaths. The man had long black hair that fell below his shoulders and Hook, who had the eyesight of a hawk, could see the man's handsome, sun-darkened face. Over his armour he wore a bright surcoat which showed a golden sun from which rays snaked and shot, and on the bright sun was an eagle's head. The girl did not see the man. She had her face buried in Hook's arms. She could hear the screams and she whimpered, but she would not watch.But Hook watched. He reckoned the tall man who wore the eagle and the sun could have stopped the torture and murder, but he did nothing. He just sat in his saddle and watched as the French stripped the surviving archers naked, then took their eyes with the points of long knives. The men-at-arms taunted the newly-blinded archers and scoured out their sockets with sharp blades. One Frenchman pretended to eat an eyeball, and the others laughed. The long-haired man did not laugh, he just observed, and his face showed nothing as the blinded men were laid flat on the cobbles to be castrated. Their screams filled the city, that was already filled with screaming. The handsome man on the handsome warhorse left the square and the archers were left to bleed to death, sightless under a summer sky. Death took a long time, and Hook shivered though the air was warm. Saint Crispinian was silent.
All day the sack of the city continued. The cathedral and the parish churches and the nunnery and the priories were all plundered. Women and children were raped again and again, and their menfolk were murdered and God turned his face away from Soissons. The Sire de Bournonville was executed, and he was fortunate, for he died without being tortured first. The castle, supposedly a refuge, had fallen without a fight as the French, permitted into the town by the treachery of Sir Roger, found its gate open and its portcullis raised. The Burgundians died, and only Sir Roger's men, complicit in their dead leader's betrayal, had been allowed to live as the city was put to the sword. The citizens had resented their Burgundian garrison and had never abandoned their loyalty to the King of France, but now, in a welter of blood, rape and theft, the French rewarded that loyalty with massacre."Je suis Melisande," the girl said over and over, and Hook did not understand at first, but at last realised she was saying her name."Melisande?""Oui," she said."Nicholas.""Nicholas," she repeated. They spoke in whispers, they waited, they listened to the sound of a city screaming, they smelt the ale and the blood."I don't know how we get out of this place," Hook said to Melisande who did not understand what he said. She nodded anyway, then fell asleep under the straw with her head on his shoulder and Hook closed his eyes and prayed to Crispinian. Help us out of the city, he begged the saint, and help me get home. Except, he thought with sudden despair, an outlaw has no home."You will reach home," Saint Crispinian said to him.Hook paused, wondering how a saint could speak to him. Had he imagined the voice? Yet it seemed real, real as the screams that had marked the death of archers. Then he wondered how he could escape the city because the French would surely have sentries on all the gates."Then use the breach," Saint Crispinian suggested gently."We'll go out through the breach," Hook said to Melisande, but she was sleeping.As night fell Hook watched pigs, evidently released from their sties behind the city's houses, feasting on the dead archers. Soissons was quieter now, the victors' appetites slaked on bodies and ale. The moon rose, but God sent high clouds that first misted the silver, then hid it, and in the darkness Hook and Melisande made their way downstairs and out into the reeking street. It was the middle of the night and men snored in broken houses. No one guarded the breach. Melisande, swathed in Sir Roger's bloody surcoat, held Hook's hand as they crossed the wall's rubble, and then as they walked uphill past the abandoned besieger's camp and so into the higher woods where no blood stank and no corpses lay.
Soissons was dead.
But Hook and Melisande lived.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Book Title: The Face of Battle
Author: Sir John Keegan
The ultimate book on men-at-war, with a riveting chapter on Agincourt

Book Title: Agincourt A New History
Author: Anne Curry
Another brilliant book, but somewhat confusing about the numbers involved.

Book Title: Agincourt
Author: Juliet Barker
Undoubtedly the best book available on Agincourt!

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