Saturday, 20 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: The Heretic

Heretic is the third in the 'Grail Quest' series, and it takes Thomas of Hookton south into Gascony and to a final confrontation with his cousin, Guy Vexille. The novel begins with the fall of Calais, and most of the events occur in the subsequent truce, but for Thomas and his companions there can be no truce, only a vicious small war which ends with them being besieged, not just by enemies intent on finding the grail, but by the Black Death. (ISBN 0-00-714988-3)

Excerpt: Heretic
Chapter 2
The Dominican friar arrived at Castillon d’Arbizon in the autumn dusk, just as the watchman was shutting the western gate. A fire had been kindled in a big brazier that stood inside the gate’s arch to warm the town’s watchmen on what promised to be the first chill night of the waning year. Bats were flickering above the town’s half-repaired walls and about the tower of the high castle which crowned Castillon d’Arbizon’s steep hill.
God be with you, father, one of the watchmen said as he paused to let the tall friar through the gate, but the watchman spoke in Occitan, his native tongue, and the friar did not speak that language and so he just smiled vaguely and sketched a sign of the cross before he hitched up his black skirts and toiled up the town’s main street towards the castle. Girls, their day’s work finished, were strolling the lanes and some of them giggled for the friar was a fine looking man despite a very slight limp. He had ragged black hair, a strong face and dark eyes. A whore called to him from a tavern doorway and prompted a cackle of laughter from men drinking at a table set in the street. A butcher sluiced his shopfront with a wooden pail of water so that dilute blood swilled down the gutter past the friar while above him, from a top floor window where she was drying her washing on a long pole, a woman screamed insults at a neighbour. The western gate crashed shut at the foot of the street and the locking bar dropped into place with a thud.
The friar ignored it all. He just climbed to where the church of Saint Sardos crouched beneath the pale bastion of the castle and, once inside the church, he knelt at the altar steps, made the sign of the cross and then prostrated himself. A black-dressed woman praying at the side-altar of Saint Agnes made the sign of the cross and, disturbed by the friar’s baleful presence, hurried from the church. The friar, lying flat on the top step, just waited.
A town sergeant, dressed in Castillon d’Arbizon’s livery of grey and red, had watched the friar climb the hill. He had noticed that the Dominican’s robe was old and patched and that the friar himself was young and strong, and so the sergeant went to find one of the town’s consuls and that official, cramming his fur trimmed hat onto his grey hair, ordered the sergeant to bring two more armed men while he fetched Father Medous and one of the priest’s two books. The group assembled outside the church and the consul ordered the curious folk who had gathered to watch the excitement to stand back. There is nothing strange, he said officiously.
But there was. A stranger had come to Castillon d’Arbizon and all strangers were cause for suspicion, and so the crowd stayed and watched as the consul pulled on his official robe of grey and red cloth trimmed with hare fur, then ordered the three sergeants to open the church door.
What did the people expect? A devil to erupt from Saint Sardos’s? Did they think to see a great charred beast with crackling black wings and a trail of smoke behind his forked tail? Instead the priest and the consul and two of the sergeants went inside, while the third sergeant, his stave of office showing the badge of Castillon d’Arbizon which was a hawk carrying a sheaf of rye, guarded the door. The crowd waited. The woman who had fled the church said that the friar was praying. But he looks evil, she added, he looks like the devil, and she made the sign of the cross.
When the priest, the consul and the two guards went into the church the friar was still lying flat before the altar with his arms spread wide so that his body made the shape of the cross. He must have heard the nailed boots on the nave’s uneven flagstones, but he did not move, nor did he speak.
Paire? Castillon d’Arbizon’s priest asked nervously. He spoke in Occitan and the friar did not respond. Father? The priest tried French.
You are a Dominican? The consul was too impatient to wait for any response to Father Medous’s tentative approach. Answer me! He also in French, and sternly too, as befitted Castillon d’Arbizon’s leading citizen. Are you a Dominican?
The friar prayed a moment longer and then brought his hands together above his head, paused for a heartbeat, then stood and faced the four men.
I have come a long way, he said imperiously, and need a bed, food and wine.
You are a Dominican? The consul repeated his question.
I follow the blessed Saint Dominic’s way, the friar confirmed. The wine need not be good, the food merely what your poorest folk eat, and the bed can be of straw.
The consul hesitated. The friar was tall, evidently strong and just a bit frightening, but then the consul, who was a wealthy man and properly respected in Castillon d’Arbizon, drew himself up to his full height. You are young, he said accusingly, to be a friar.
It is to the glory of God, the Dominican said dismissively, that young men follow the cross instead of the sword. I can sleep in a stable.
Your name? The consul demanded.
An English name! There was alarm in the consul’s voice and the two sergeants responded by hefting their long staves.
Tomas, if you prefer, the friar said, seemingly unconcerned as the two sergeants took a menacing pace towards him. It is my baptismal name, he explained, and the name of that poor disciple who doubted our Lord’s divinity. If you have no such doubts then I envy you and I pray to God that he grants me such certainty.
You are French? The consul asked.
I am a Norman, the friar said, then nodded. Yes, I am French. He looked at the priest. Do you speak French?
I do, the priest sounded nervous, some. A little.
Then may I eat in your house tonight, Father?
The consul would not let Father Medous answer, but instead instructed the priest to give the friar the book. It was a very old book with worm-eaten pages and a black leather cover that the friar unwrapped. What do you want of me? He demanded.
Read from the book, the consul demanded. He had noticed that the friar’s hands were scarred and the fingers slightly twisted. Damage, he thought, more fitting for a soldier than a priest. Read to me! The consul insisted.
You cannot read for yourself? The friar asked derisively.
Whether I read or not, the consul said, is not your business. But whether you can read, young man, is our business, for if you are not a priest then you will not be able to read. So read to me.
The friar shrugged, opened a page at random and paused. The consul’s suspicions were roused by the pause and he raised a hand to beckon the sergeants forward, but then the Dominican suddenly read aloud. He had a good voice, confident and strong, and the Latin words sounded like a melody as they echoed from the church’s painted walls. After a moment the consul held up a hand to silence the friar and looked quizzically at Father Medous. Well?
He reads well, Father Medous said weakly. The priest’s own Latin was not good and he did not like to admit that he not entirely understood the echoing words, though he was quite sure that the Dominican could read.
You know what the book is? the consul demanded.
I assume, the friar said, that it is the life of Saint Gregory. The passage, as you doubtless recognised, there was sarcasm in his voice, describes the pestilence that will afflict those who disobey the Lord their God. He wrapped the limp black cover about the book and held it out to the priest. You probably know the book as the Flores Sanctorum?
Indeed, the priest took the book and nodded at the consul.
That official was still not entirely reassured. Your hands, he said, how were they injured? And your nose? It was broken?
As a child, the friar said, holding out his hands, I slept with the cattle. I was trampled by an ox. And my nose was broken when my mother struck me with a skillet.
The Consul understood those everyday childhood accidents and visibly relaxed. You will understand, father, he said to the friar, that we must be cautious of visitors.
Cautious of God’s priests? The Dominican asked caustically.
We had to be sure, the consul explained. A message came from Auch which said the English are riding, but no one knows where.
There is a truce, the friar pointed out.
When did the English ever keep a truce? The Consul retorted.
If they are indeed English, the Dominican said scornfully. Any troop of bandits is called the English these days. You have men, he gestured at the sergeants who did not understand a word of the French conversation, and you have churches and priests, so why should you fear bandits?
The bandits are English, the consul insisted. They carried war bows.
Which does not alter the fact that I have come a long way, and that I am hungry, thirsty and tired.
Father Medous will look after you, the consul said and he gestured at the sergeants and led them back down the nave and out into the small square. There is nothing to worry about! the consul announced to the crowd. Our visitor is a friar. He is a man of God.
The small crowd dispersed. Twilight wreathed the church tower and closed about the castle’s battlements. A man of God had come to Castillon d’Arbizon and the small town was at peace.
The man of God ate a dish of cabbage, beans and salt bacon. He explained that he had made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to pray at the tomb of Saint James and now he was walking to Avignon to fetch new orders from his superiors. He had seen no raiders, English or otherwise, he told Father Medous.
We have seen no English in many years, Father Medous said, making a hasty sign of the cross to avert the evil he had just mentioned, but not so long ago they ruled here. The friar, eating his meal, appeared not to be interested. We paid taxes to them, Father Medous went on, but then they went and now we belong to the Count of Berat.
I trust he is a Godly man? Friar Thomas asked.
Very pious, Father Medous confirmed. He keeps some straw from the manger at Bethlehem in his church. I would like to see that.
His men garrison the castle? The friar demanded, ignoring the more interesting topic of the baby Jesus’s bedding.
Indeed, Father Medous confirmed.
Do the garrison hear mass?
Father Medous paused, obviously tempted to tell a lie, then settled for a half truth. Some do.
The friar put down his wooden spoon and stared sternly at the uncomfortable priest. How many are they? And how many of them hear mass?
Father Medous was nervous. All priests were nervous when Dominicans appeared, for the friars were God’s ruthless warriors in the fight against heresy and if this tall young man reported that the folk of Castillon d’Arbizon were less than pious then he could bring the Inquisition and its instruments of torture to the town. There are ten of them in the garrison, Father Medous said, and they are all good Christians. As are all my people.
Friar Thomas looked sceptical. All of them?
They do their best, Father Medous said loyally, but . . . he paused again, evidently regretting that he had been about to add a qualification and, to cover his hesitation, he went to the small fire and added a log. The wind fretted at the chimney and sent a back draught of smoke whirling about the small room. A north wind, Father Medous said, and it brings the first cold night of the autumn. Winter is not far off, eh?
But? The friar had noted the hesitation.
Father Medous sighed as he took his seat. There is a girl. A heretic. She was not from Castillon d’Arbizon, God be thanked, but she stayed here when her father died. She is a beghard.
I did not think the beghards were this far south, the Friar said. Beghards were beggars, but not just any importunate folk. Instead they were heretics who denied the church and denied the need to work and claimed all things came from God and therefore that all things should be free to all men and women, and the church, to protect itself against such horrors, burned the beghards wherever they were found.
They wander the roads, Father Medous pointed out, and she came here, but we sent her to the bishop’s court and she was found guilty. Now she is back here.
Back here? The friar sounded shocked.
To be burned, Father Medous explained hurriedly. She was sent back to be burned by the civil authorities. The bishop wants the people to see her death so they know the evil is gone from among them.
Friar Thomas frowned. You say this beghard has been found guilty of heresy, that she had been sent here to die, yet she is still alive. Why?
She is to be burned tomorrow, Father Medous said hastily. I had expected Father Roubert to be here. He is a Dominican like yourself and it was he who discovered the girl’s heresy. Perhaps he is ill? He did send me a letter explaining how the fire was to be made.
Father Thomas looked scornful. All that’s needed, he said dismissively, is a heap of wood, a stake, some kindling and a heretic. What more can you want?
Father Roubert, the priest explained, insisted that we use small faggots and that they stand upright. He illustrated this requirement by bunching his fingers like sticks of asparagus. Bundles of sticks, he wrote to me, and all pointing to heaven. They must not lay flat. He was insistent about that.
Father Thomas smiled as he understood. So the fire will burn bright, but not fierce, eh? She will die slowly.
It is God’s will, Father Medous said.
Slowly and in great agony, the friar said, relishing the words, that is indeed God’s will for heretics.
And I have made the fire as he instructed, Father Medous said weakly.
Good. The girl deserves nothing better, the friar said, and mopped his dish with a piece of dark bread. I shall watch her death with joy and then walk on. He made the sign of the cross. I thank you for this food.
Father Medous gestured at his hearth where he had piled some blankets. You are welcome to sleep here.
I shall, Father, the friar said, but first I shall pray to Saint Sardos. I have not heard of him, though. Can you tell me who he is?
A goatherd, Father Medous said. He was not entirely sure that Sardos had ever existed, but the local people insisted he did and had always venerated him. He saw the lamb of God on the hill where the town now stands. It was being threatened by a wolf and he rescued it and God rewarded him with a shower of gold.
As is right and proper, the friar said, then stood. You will come and pray to the blessed Sardos with me?
Father Medous stifled a yawn. I would like to, he said without any enthusiasm.
I shall not insist, the friar said generously. Will you leave your door unbarred?
My door is always open, the priest said, and felt a pang of relief as his uncomfortable guest stooped under the door’s lintel and went into the night.
Father Medous’s housekeeper smiled from the kitchen door. He’s a good looking one, she said, for a friar. Is he staying tonight?
He is, yes.
Then I’d better sleep in the kitchen, the housekeeper said, because you wouldn’t want a Dominican to find you between my legs at midnight. He’ll put us both on the fire with the beghard. She laughed and came to clear the table.
The friar did not go to the church, but instead went the few paces down the hill to the nearest tavern and pushed open the door. The noise inside slowly subsided as the crowded room stared back at the friar’s unsmiling face. When there was silence the friar shuddered as though he was horrified at the revelry, then he stepped back into the street and closed the door. There was a heartbeat of silence inside the tavern, then men laughed. Some reckoned the young priest had been looking for a whore, others merely supposed he had opened the wrong door, but in a moment or two they all forgot about him.
The friar limped back up the hill to Saint Sardos’s church where, instead of going into the goatherd’s sanctuary, he stopped in the black shadows of a buttress. He waited there, invisible and silent, noting the few sounds of Castillon d’Arbizon’s night. Singing and laughter came from the tavern, but he was more interested in the footsteps of the watchman pacing the town wall that joined the castle’s stronger rampart just behind the church. Those steps came towards him, stopped a few paces down the wall and then retreated. The friar counted to a thousand and still the watchman did not return and so the friar counted to a thousand again, this time in Latin, and when there was still nothing but silence above him he moved to the wooden steps that gave access to the wall. The steps creaked under his weight, but no one called out. Once on the wall he crouched beside the high castle tower, his black robe invisible in the shadow cast by the waning moon. He watched down the wall’s length where it followed the hill’s contour until it turned the corner to the western gate where a dim red glow showed that the brazier was burning strongly. No watchmen were in sight. The friar reckoned the men must be warming themselves at the gate. He looked up, but saw no one at the castle’s rampart, nor any movement in the two half lit arrow slits that glowed from lanterns inside the tall tower. He had seen three liveried men inside the crowded tavern and there might have been others that he had not seen, and he reckoned the garrison was either drinking or asleep and so he lifted his black skirts and unwound a cord that had been wrapped about his waist. The cord was made of hemp stiffened with glue, the same kind of cord that powered the dreaded English war bows, and it was long enough so that he was able to loop it about one of the wall’s crenellations and then let it drop to the steep ground beneath. He stayed a moment, staring down. The town and castle were built on a steep crag around which a river looped and he could hear the water hissing over a weir and he could just see a gleam of reflected moonlight glancing from a pool, but he could see nothing else. The wind tugged at him, chilled him, and he retreated to the mooncast shadow and pulled his hood over his face.
The watchman reappeared, but only strolled halfway up the wall where he paused, leaned on the parapet for a time, then wandered back towards the gate. A moment later there was a soft whistle, jagged and tuneless like the song of a bird, and the friar went back to the cord and hauled it up. Knotted to it now was a rope that he tied around the crenellation. It’s safe, he called softly in English, and then he flinched at the sound of a man’s boots scuffing on the wall as he climbed the rope.
There was a grunt as the man hauled himself over the rampart and a loud crash as his scabbard thumped on the stone, but then the man crouched beside the friar. Here, he gave the friar an English war bow and a bag of arrows. Another man was climbing now. He had a war bow slung on his back and a bag of arrows at his waist. He was more nimble than the first man and made no noise as he crossed the battlement, and then a third man appeared and crouched with the other two.
How was it? the first man asked the friar.
They didn’t suspect you?
Made me read some Latin to prove I was a priest.
Bloody fools, eh? the man said. He had a Scottish accent. So what now?
The castle.
Christ help us.
He has so far. How are you, Sam?
Thirsty, one of the other men answered.
Hold these for me, Thomas said, giving Sam his bow and arrow bag, and then, satisfied that the watchman was out of sight, he led his three companions down the wooden steps to the alley which led beside the church to the small square in front of the castle’s gate. The wooden faggots piled ready for the heretic’s death were black in the moonlight. A stake with a chain to hold the beghard’s waist jutted up from the waiting timber.
The castle’s tall gates were wide enough to let a farm cart enter the courtyard, but set into one leaf was a small wicket gate and the friar stepped ahead of his companions and thumped the small door hard. There was a pause, then a shuffle of feet sounded and a man asked a question from the gate’s far side. Thomas did not answer, but just knocked again, and the guard, who was expecting his companions to come back from the tavern, suspected nothing and pulled back the two bolts to open the door. Thomas stepped into the flame light of two high torches burning in the inner archway and in their flickering glow he saw the guard’s look of astonishment that a priest had come to Castillon d’Arbizon’s castle in the darkness, and the man still looked astonished as the friar hit him hard, straight in the face and then hit him again in the belly. The guard fell back against the wall and the friar clamped a hand across the man’s mouth. Sam and the other two came through the gate that they locked behind them. The guard was struggling and Thomas brought up a knee which made the man give a muffled squeal. Look in the guardroom, Thomas ordered his companions.
Sam, with an arrow on his bow’s string, pushed open the door which led from the castle’s entrance. A single guard was there, half standing from a table on which was a skin of wine, two dice and a scatter of coins. The guard stared at Sam’s round, cheerful face and he was still staring open-mouthed when the arrow took him in the chest and threw him back against the wall. Sam followed, drawing a knife, and blood slashed up the stones as he cut the man’s gullet.
Did he have to die?’ Thomas asked, bringing the first guard into the room.
He was looking at me funny, Sam said, like he’d seen a ghost. He scooped up the cash on the table and dropped it into his arrow bag. Shall I kill him too? he asked, nodding at the first guard.
No, Thomas said. Robbie? Tie him up.
What if he makes a noise? Robbie, the Scotsman, asked.
Then let Sam kill him.
The third of Thomas’s men came into the guardroom. He was called Jake and he was a lank, skinny man with crossed eyes. He grinned at the sight of the fresh blood on the wall. Like Sam he carried a bow and an arrow bag, and had a sword at his waist. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> He picked up the wine skin.
Not now, Jake, Thomas said and the lank man, who looked far older and far more cruel than the younger Thomas, meekly obeyed. Thomas went to the guardroom door. He knew the garrison numbered ten men, he also knew that one was dead, one was a prisoner and at least three were still in the tavern. So five men could be left. He peered into the courtyard, but it was empty except for a farm wagon heaped with bales and barrels, and so he crossed to the weapon rack on the guardroom wall and selected a short sword. He tested the edge and found it sharp enough. Do you speak French? he asked the captive guard.
The man shook his head, too terrified to speak.
Thomas left Sam to guard the prisoner. If anyone knocks on the castle gate, he said, ignore it. If he makes a noise, he jerked his head towards the prisoner, kill him. Don’t drink the wine. Stay awake. He slung his bow on his shoulder, pushed two arrows into the rope belting his friar’s robe, then beckoned to Jake and Robbie. The Scotsman, dressed in a short mail hauberk, had his sword drawn. Keep it silent, Thomas said to them, and the three slipped into the courtyard.
Castillon d’Arbizon had been at peace for too long. The garrison was small and careless, its duties little more than to levy tariffs on goods coming to the town and despatching the taxes to Berat where their lord lived. The men had become lazy, but Thomas of Hookton, who had pretended to be a friar, had been fighting for months and his instincts were those of a man who knew that death could be waiting at every corner. Robbie, though he was three years younger than Thomas, was almost as experienced in war as his friend, while cross-eyed Jake had been a killer all his life.
They began with the castle’s undercroft where six dungeons lay in foetid darkness, but a flickering rushlight showed in the jailer’s room where they found a monstrously fat man and his equally fat wife. Both were sleeping. Thomas pricked the man’s neck with the sword’s point to let him smell blood, then marched the couple to a dungeon where they were locked away. A girl called from another of the cells, but Thomas hissed at her to be quiet. She cursed him in return, then went silent.
One down, four to go.
They climbed back to the courtyard. Three servants, two of them boys, were sleeping in the stables and Robbie and Jake took them down to the cells, then rejoined Thomas to climb the dozen broad steps to the keep’s door, then up the tower’s winding stair. The servants, Thomas guessed, would not be numbered among the garrison, and there would doubtless be other servants, cooks and grooms and clerks, but for now he worried only about the soldiers. He found two of them fast asleep in the barracks room, both with women under their blankets, and Thomas woke them by tossing in a torch he took from a becket on the stairway. The four sat up, startled, to see a friar with an arrow nocked on his drawn bow. One woman took breath to scream, but the bow twitched and the arrow was pointing straight at her right eye and she had the sense to stifle her alarm.
Tie them up, Thomas said.
Quicker to slit their gizzards, Jake suggested.
Tie them up, Thomas said again, and stuff their mouths.
It did not take long. Robbie ripped a blanket into strips with his sword and Jake trussed the four. One of the women was naked and Jake grinned as he tied her wrists and then hoisted her up to a hook on the wall so that her arms were stretched. Nice, he said.
Later, Thomas said. He was at the door, listening. There could be two more soldiers in the castle, but he heard nothing. The four prisoners were all being half suspended from the big metal hooks that normally held swords and mail shirts and, when the four were silenced and immobilised, Thomas went up the next winding stair to where a great door blocked his path, Jake and Robbie followed him, their boots making a slight noise on the worn stone steps. Thomas motioned them to silence, then pushed on the door. For a moment he thought it must be locked and so he pushed harder and the door jerked open with a terrible shriek of rusted metal hinges. The sound was fit to wake the dead and Thomas stood, appalled, to stare into a great high room hung with tapestries. The squeal of the hinges died away, leaving silence. The remnants of a fire burned in a big hearth and gave enough light to show that the hall was empty. At its far end was a dais where the Count of Berat, the lord of Castillon d’Arbizon, would sit when he visited the town and where his table would be placed for any feasts. The dais was empty now, except that at its rear, hidden by a tapestry, there was an arched space where another flicker of light showed through the moth-eaten weave.
Robbie slipped past Thomas and crept up the side of the hall beneath the slit windows that let in slanting bars of silvered moonlight. Thomas put an arrow on the black bow, then drew the cord and felt the immense power of the yew stave as he took the string back to his right ear. Robbie glanced at him, saw he was ready, and so reached out with his sword to pull back the threadbare tapestry.
But before the blade even touched the tapestry it was swept aside as a big man charged Robbie. He came roaring and sudden, astonishing the Scot who tried to bring his sword back to meet the attack, but Robbie was too slow and the big man leaped on him, fists flailing, and just then the big black bow sang. The arrow, that could strike down an armoured knight at two hundred paces, slid through the man’s rib cage and span him around so that he flailed bloodily across the floor. Robbie was still half under him, his fallen sword clattering on the thick wooden floorboards. A woman was screaming. Thomas guessed the wounded man was the castellan, the garrison’s commander, and he wondered if the man would live long enough to answer some questions, but Robbie had drawn his dagger and, not knowing that his assailant was already pierced by an arrow, was flailing the short blade at the man’s fat neck so that a sheet of blood spilled dark and shining across the boards and even after the man had died Robbie still gouged at him. The woman screamed on. Stop her noise, Thomas said to Jake and went to pull the heavy corpse off the Scot. The man’s long white nightshirt was red now. Jake slapped the woman and then, blessedly, there was silence.
There were no more soldiers in the castle. A dozen servants were sleeping in the kitchens and store rooms, but they made no trouble. The men were all taken down to the dungeons, then Thomas climbed to the keep’s topmost rampart from where he could look down on the unsuspecting roofs of Castillon d’Arbizon, and there he waved a flaming torch. He waved it back and forth three times, threw it far down into the bushes at the foot of the steep slope on which the castle and town were built, then went to the western side of the rampart where he laid a dozen arrows on the parapet. Jake joined him there. Sam’s with Sir Robbie at the gate, Jake said. Robbie Douglas had never been knighted, but he was well born and a man at arms, and Thomas’s men had given him the rank. They liked the Scotsman, just as Thomas did, which was why Thomas had disobeyed his lord and let Robbie come with him. Jake laid more arrows on the parapet. That were easy.
They weren’t expecting trouble, Thomas said. That was not entirely true. The town had been aware of English raiders, Thomas’s raiders, but had somehow convinced themselves that the raiders would not come to Castillon d’Arbizon. The town had been at peace for so long that the townsfolk were persuaded the quiet times would go on. The walls and the watchmen were not there to guard against the English, but against the big companies of bandits that infested the countryside. A dozy watchman and a high wall might deter those bandits, but it had failed against real soldiers. How did you cross the river? he asked Jake.
At the weir, Jake said. They had scouted the town in the dusk and Thomas had seen the mill weir as the easiest place to cross the deep and fast-flowing river.
The miller?
Scared, Jake said, and quiet.
Thomas heard the crackling of breaking twigs, the scrape of feet and a thump as a ladder was placed against the angle between the castle and the town wall. He leaned over the inner parapet. You can open the gate, Robbie, he called down. He put an arrow on his string and stared down the long length of moonlit wall.
Beneath him men were climbing the ladder, hoisting weapons and bags that they tossed over the parapet and then followed after. A wash of flame light glowed from the open wicket gate where Robbie and Sam stood guard, and after a moment a file of men, their mail clinking in the night, went from the wall’s steps to the castle gate. Castillon d’Arbizon’s new garrison was arriving.
A watchman appeared at the wall’s far end. He strolled towards the castle, then suddenly became aware of the sound of swords, bows and baggage thumping on stone as men clambered over the wall. He hesitated, torn between a desire to get closer and see what was really happening and a wish to find reinforcements, and while he hesitated both Thomas and Jake loosed their arrows.
The watchman wore a padded leather jerkin, protection enough against a drunkard’s stave, but the arrows slashed through the leather, the padding and his chest until the two points protruded from his back. He was hurled back, his staff fell with a clatter, and then he jerked in the moonlight, gasped a few times and was still.
What do we do now? Jake asked.
Collect the taxes, Thomas said, and make a nuisance of ourselves.
Until what?
Until someone comes to kill us, Thomas said, thinking of his cousin.
And we kill him? Jake might be cross eyed, but he held a very straightforward view of life.
With God’s good help, Thomas said and made the sign of the cross on his friar’s robe.
The last of Thomas’s men climbed the wall and dragged the ladder up behind them. There were still half a dozen men a mile away, across the river and hidden in the forest where they were guarding the horses, but the bulk of Thomas’s force was now inside the castle and its gate was again locked. The dead watchman lay on the wall with two goose-feathered shafts sticking from his chest. No one else had detected the invaders. Castillon d’Arbizon either slept or drank.
And then the screams began.

Suggestions for Further Reading.
The Grail Quest
A note from the author: I am not offering a comprehensive reading list for the mediaeval period, but rather suggesting some books that I found useful when I was writing Harlequin(The Archer's Tale). I'll add others as we go along, but if anyone has suggestions of good books about the period then please let us know and I will check them out and post them here.

Book Title: TRIAL BY BATTLE, The Hundred Years War I
Author: Jonathan Sumption
This is a narrative history at its best - an account of the Hundred Years War in two big volumes of which this is the first. I have a lot of books on medieval history and a number of original sources for the campaigns of Edward III, but when I was writing Harlequin (a.k.a. The Archer's Tale ) this was the book that lay open beside the keyboard.

Author: Jim Bradbury
Everything you ever wanted to know about the medieval archer, and probably a lot more besides. This book, written by an enthusiast, covers a long period - from the Norman conquest right up to the Wars of the Roses - and it's full of good stuff.

Author: Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy
A beautifully produced book on the longbow and archery.

Book Title: THE BATTLE OF CRECY 1346
Author: Andrew Ayton and Sir Phillip Preston
A thorough examination of the campaign, the battle and the armies.

Book Title: MEDIEVAL WARFARE, a History
Author: Edited by Maurice Keen
This is a collection of essays by twelve leading scholars. They survey a long period and pinpoint the technical advances that changed the face of battle.

Author: Clive Bartlett
This is a slim paperback, just 64 pages, but like all the Osprey military series it is full of good material. Anyone wanting to know more about the longbow and why it was such an effective weapon could do no better than start with this book.

Book Title: ARMIES AND WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE AGES, The English Experience
Author: Michael Prestwich
The best book I know on medieval warfare. Very detailed, full of information and liable to surprise people who believe war in the middle ages was either a mindless contest of thugs or a bloodless clash of chivalrous dilettantes

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