Saturday, 20 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Vagabond


Vagabond is a follow-up to Harlequin (The Archer's Tale in the US) - and starts almost as soon as the earlier book ends, carrying on Thomas of Hookton's story. He has been sent back to England to pursue his father's mysterious legacy which hints that the Holy Grail might exist and gets tangled with the Scottish invasion of 1347. He survives that only to discover that various powerful folk in France are pursuing the same quest, a complication that takes Thomas back to Brittany and the brutal fighting about La Roche-Derrien

The second novel starts almost as soon as the earlier book ends, carrying on Thomas of Hookton's story. He has been sent back to England to pursue his father's mysterious legacy which hints that the Holy Grail might exist and gets tangled with the Scottish invasion of 1347. While participating in the fight, Eleanor is frustrated by Thomas' willingness to fight and goes on to the monastery with Father Hobbe. There Eleanor and Father Hobbe come across the old monk they are looking for who is talking with a Dominican and Vexille. Both are killed by Vexille. Meanwhile the Scots lose the battle and David II is captured. Thomas is devastated when he finds out the fate of Eleanor and again vows to kill Guy Vexille. He continues back to Hookton with Robbie, a captured Scottish noble. Thomas and Robbie travel to Hookton and find that the Dominican has also been to Hookton. Thomas meets with his old friend Sir Giles Marriott who gives him a book that his father wrote about the Grail. Thomas also receives a letter from Sir Guillaume that he has been outlawed by France and his castle is under siege.

Winter Siege
Thomas and Robbie go to Sir Guillaume's aid, but cannot do much for there are only two of them. Thomas uses his cunning and preys on small French parties and blowing up French cannon's gun powder. The two then rescue Sir Guillaume and travel back to La Rochen were he rediscovers Jeanette.
Jeanette convinces Thomas to retrieve her son and Thomas agrees. Thomas then leads a small raiding party to where small Charles is being held. However, he is betrayed and ends up in the Dominicans' captivity. Thomas is questioned and tortured by the Domicans. Eventually Thomas is let go and reabilitated by his friends.
La Rochen Meanwhile a large army marches on La Rochen and lays siege to it hoping to lure the nearby English army out and defeat the only remaining army that is not in one of the garrisons. It works and after a long battle which results in English victory but at a terrible cost to Thomas for his commander and friend, Sir William Skeat dies.
At the end Thomas decides to continue searching for the Grail and kill Guy Vexille on the way.

Excerpt: VAGABOND
Chapter One

It was October, the time of the year’s dying when cattle were being slaughtered before winter and when the northern winds brought a promise of ice. The chestnut leaves had turned golden, the beeches were trees of flame and the oaks were made from bronze. Thomas of Hookton with his woman, Eleanor, and his friend, Father Hobbe, came to the upland farm at dusk and the farmer refused to open his door, but shouted through the wood that the travellers could sleep in the byre. Rain rattled on the mouldering thatch. Thomas led their one horse under the roof that they shared with a woodpile, six pigs in a stout timber pen and a scattering of feathers where a hen had been plucked and the feathers reminded Father Hobbe that it was Saint Gallus’s day and he told Eleanor how the blessed saint, coming home in a winter’s night, had found a bear stealing his dinner. “He told the animal off!” Father Hobbe said, “he gave it a right talking-to, he did, and then he made it fetch his firewood.”
“I’ve seen a picture of that,” Eleanor said, “and didn’t the bear become his servant?”
“That’s because Gallus was a holy man,” Father Hobbe explained, “bears wouldn’t fetch firewood for just anyone! Only for a holy man.”
“A holy man,” Thomas put in, “who is the patron saint of hens.” Thomas knew all about the saints, more indeed than Father Hobbe. “Why would a chicken want a saint?” he enquired sarcastically.
“Gallus is the patron of hens?” Eleanor asked, confused by Thomas’s tone, “not bears?”
“Of hens,” Father Hobbe confirmed, “indeed of all poultry.”
“But why?” Eleanor wanted to know.
“Because he once expelled a wicked demon from a young girl.” Father Hobbe, broad faced, hair like a stickleback’s spines, peasant-born, stocky, young and eager, liked to tell stories of the blessed saints. “A whole bundle of bishops had tried to drive the demon out,” he went on, “and they had all failed, but the blessed Gallus came along and he cursed the demon, he cursed it! And it screeched in terror,” Father Hobbe waved his hands in the air to imitate the evil spirit’s panic, “and then it fled from her body, it did, and it looked just like a black hen. Just like a pullet. A black pullet.”

“I’ve never seen a picture of that,” Eleanor remarked in her accented English, then gazed out through the byre door, “but I’d like to see a real bear carrying firewood,” she added wistfully.
Thomas sat beside her and stared into the wet dusk that was hazed by a small mist. He was not sure it really was Saint Gallus’s day for he had lost his reckoning while they travelled. Perhaps it was already Saint Audrey’s day? It was October, he knew that, and he knew that one thousand, three hundred and forty six years had passed since Christ had been born, but he was not sure which day it was. It was easy to lose count. His father had once recited all the Sunday services on a Saturday and he had to do them again next day. Thomas surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. He was a priest’s bastard and that was said to bring bad luck. He shivered. There was a heaviness in the air that owed nothing to the setting sun or to the rain clouds or to the mist. God help us, he thought, but there was an evil in this dusk and he made the sign of the cross again and said a silent prayer to Saint Gallus and his obedient bear. There had been a dancing bear in London, its teeth nothing but rotted yellow stumps and its brown flanks matted with blood from its owner’s goad. The street dogs had snarled at it, slunk about it and shrank back when the bear swung on them.
“How far to Durham?” Eleanor asked, this time speaking French, her native language.
“Tomorrow, I think,” Thomas answered, still gazing north to where the heavy dark was shrouding the land. “She asked,” he explained in English to Father Hobbe, “when we would reach Durham.”
“Tomorrow, pray God,” the priest said.
“Tomorrow you can rest,” Thomas promised Eleanor in French. She was pregnant with a child that, God willing, would be born in the springtime. Thomas was not sure how he felt about being a father. It seemed too early for him to become responsible, but Eleanor was happy and he liked to please her and so he told her he was happy as well and, some of the time, that was even true.
“And tomorrow,” Father Hobbe said, “ we shall fetch our answers.”
“Tomorrow,” Thomas corrected him, “we shall ask our questions,”
“God will not let us come this far to be disappointed,” Father Hobbe said, and then, to keep Thomas from arguing, he laid out their meagre supper. “That’s all that’s left of the bread,” he said, “and we should save some of the cheese and an apple for breakfast.” He made the sign of the cross over the food, blessing it, then broke the hard bread into three pieces, “we should eat before nightfall.”
Darkness brought a brittle cold. A brief shower passed and after it the wind dropped. Thomas slept closest to the byre door and sometime after the wind died he woke because there was a light in the northern sky.
He rolled over, sat up and he forgot that he was cold, forgot his hunger, forgot all the small nagging discomforts of life, for he could see the grail. The Holy Grail, the most precious of all Christ’s bequests to man, lost these thousand years and more, and he could see it glowing in the sky like shining blood and about it, bright as the glittering crown of a saint, rays of dazzling shimmer filled the heaven.

Thomas wanted to believe. He wanted the grail to exist. He thought that if the grail were to be found then all the world’s evil would be drained into its belly. He so wanted to believe and that October night he saw the grail like a great burning cup in the north and his eyes filled with tears so that the image blurred, yet he could see it still, and it seemed to him that a vapour boiled from the holy vessel. Beyond it, in ranks rising to the heights of the air, were rows of angels, their wings touched by fire. All the northern sky was smoke and gold and scarlet, glowing in the night as a sign to doubting Thomas. “Oh, Lord,” he said aloud and he threw off his blanket and knelt in the byre’s cold doorway, “oh, Lord.”
“Thomas?’ Eleanor woke beside him. She sat up and stared into the night. “Fire,” she said in French, “c’est un grand incendie,” her voice was awed.
“C’est un incendie?” Thomas asked, then came fully awake and saw there was indeed a great fire on the horizon from where the flames boiled up to light a cup-shaped chasm in the clouds.
“There is an army there,” Eleanor whispered in French. “Look!” She pointed to another glow, farther off. They had seen such lights in the sky in France, flamelight reflected from cloud where England’s army blazed its way across Normandy and Picardy.
Thomas still gazed north, but now in disappointment. It was an army? Not the grail?
“Thomas?” Eleanor was worried.
“It’s just rumour,” he said. He was a priest’s bastard and he had been raised on the sacred scriptures and in Matthew’s gospel it had been promised that at the end of time there would be battles and rumours of battles. The scriptures promised that the world would come to its finish in a welter of war and blood, and in the last village, where the folk had watched them suspiciously, a sullen priest had accused them of being Scottish spies. Father Hobbe had bridled at that, threatening to box his fellow priest’s ears, but Thomas had calmed both men down and spoken with a shepherd who said he had seen smoke in the northern hills. The Scots, the shepherd said, were marching south, though the priest’s woman scoffed at the tale, claiming that the Scottish troops were nothing but cattle raiders. “Bar your door at night,” she advised, “and they’ll leave you alone.”
The far light subsided. It was not the grail.
“Thomas?” Eleanor frowned at him.
“I had a dream,” he said, “just a dream.”
“I felt the child move,” she said, and she touched his shoulder. “Will you and I be married?”
“In Durham,” he promised her. He was a bastard and he wanted no child of his to carry the same taint. “We shall reach the city tomorrow,” he reassured Eleanor, “and you and I will marry in a church and then we shall ask our questions.” And, he prayed, let one of the answers be that the grail did not exist. Let it be a dream, a mere trick of fire and cloud in a night sky, for else Thomas feared it would lead to madness. He wanted to abandon this search, he wanted to give up the grail and return to being what he was and what he wanted to be: an archer of England.
* * *

Bernard de Taillebourg, Frenchman, Dominican friar and Inquisitor, spent the autumn night in a pig pen and, when dawn came thick and white with fog, he went to his knees and thanked God for the privilege of sleeping in fouled straw. Then, mindful of his high task, he said a prayer to Saint Dominic, begging the saint to intercede with God to make this day’s work good. “As the flame in thy mouth lights us to truth,” he spoke aloud, “so let it light our path to success.” He rocked forward in the intensity of his emotion and his head struck against a rough stone pillar that supported one corner of the pen. Pain jabbed through his skull and he invited more by forcing his forehead back against the stone, grinding the skin until he felt the blood trickle down to his nose. “Blessed Dominic,” he cried, “blessed Dominic! God be thanked for thy glory! Light our way! Light our path!” The blood was on his lips now and he licked it and reflected on all the pain that the saints and martyrs had endured for the church. His hands were clasped and there was a smile on his haggard face.
Soldiers who the night before had burned much of the village to ash and raped the women who failed to escape and killed the men who tried to protect the women, now watched the priest drive his head repeatedly against the blood-spattered stone. “Dominic,” Bernard de Taillebourg gasped, “oh, Dominic!” Some of the soldiers made the sign of the cross for they recognised a holy man when they saw one. One or two even knelt, though it was awkward in their mail coats, but most warily watched the priest or else watched his servant who, sitting outside the sty, returned their gaze.
The servant, like Bernard de Taillebourg, was a Frenchman, but something in the younger man’s appearance suggested a more exotic birth. His skin was sallow, almost as dark as a Moor’s, and his long hair was sleekly black which, with his narrow face, gave him a feral look. He wore mail and a sword and, though he was nothing but a priest’s servant, he carried himself with confidence and dignity. His dress was elegant, something strange in this ragged army. No one knew his name. No one even wanted to ask, just as no one wanted to ask why he never ate or chatted with the other servants, but kept himself fastidiously apart. Now the mysterious servant watched the soldiers and in his left hand he held a knife with a very long and thin blade, and once he knew enough men were watching him, he balanced the knife on an outstretched finger. The knife was poised on its sharp tip that was prevented from piercing the servant’s skin by the cut-off finger of a mail glove that he wore like a sheath. Then he jerked the finger and the knife span in the air, blade glittering, to come down, tip first, to balance on his finger again. The servant had not looked at the knife once, but kept his dark-eyed gaze fixed on the soldiers. The priest, oblivious to the display, was howling prayers, his thin cheeks laced with blood. “Dominic! Dominic! Light our path! Light our way!” The knife span again, its wicked blade catching the foggy morning’s small light. “Dominic! Guide us! Guide us!”
“On your horses! Mount up! Move yourselves!” A grey haired man, a big shield slung from his left shoulder, pushed through the onlookers. “We’ve not got all day! What in the name of the devil are you all gawking at? Jesus Christ on His God damn cross, what is this, Eskdale bloody fair? For Christ’s sake, move! Move!” The big shield on his shoulder was blazoned with the badge of a red heart, but the paint was so faded and the shield’s leather cover so scarred that the badge was hard to distinguish. “Oh suffering Christ!” The man had spotted the Dominican and his servant. “Father! We’re going now. Right now! And I don’t wait for prayers.” He turned back to his men. “Mount up! Move your bones! There’s devil’s work to be done!”
“Douglas!” The Dominican snapped.
The grey-haired man turned fast back. “My name, priest, is Sir William, and you’ll do well to remember it.”
The priest blinked. He seemed to be suffering a momentary confusion, still caught up in the ecstasy of his pain-driven prayer, then he gave a perfunctory bow as if acknowledging his fault in using Sir William’s surname. “I was talking to the blessed Dominic,” he explained.
“Aye, well I hope you asked him to shift this damn fog?’
“And he will lead us today! He will guide us!”

“Then he’d best get his damn boots on,” Sir William Douglas, Knight of Liddesdale, growled at the priest, “for we’re leaving whether your saint is ready or not.” Sir William’s chain mail was battle-torn and patched with newer rings. Rust showed at the hem and at the elbows. His faded shield, like his weather-beaten face, was scarred. He was forty six now and he reckoned he had a sword, arrow or spear scar for each of those years that had turned his hair and short beard white. Now he pulled open the sty’s heavy gate. “On your trotters, father. I’ve a horse for you.”
“I shall walk,” Bernard de Taillebourg said, picking up a stout staff with a leather thong threaded through its tip, “as our Lord walked.”
“Then you’ll not get wet crossing the streams, eh, is that it?” Sir William chuckled, “you’ll walk on water will you, father? You and your servant?” Alone among his men he did not seem impressed by the French priest or wary of the priest’s well-armed servant, but Sir William Douglas was famously unafraid of any man. He was a border chieftain who employed murder, fire, sword and lance to protect his land and some fierce priest from Paris was hardly likely to impress him. Sir William, indeed, was not overfond of priests, but his King had ordered him to take Bernard de Taillebourg on this morning’s raid and Sir William had grudgingly consented.
All around him soldiers pulled themselves into their saddles. They were lightly armed for they expected to meet no enemies. A few, like Sir William, carried shields, but most were content with just a sword. Bernard de Taillebourg, his friar’s robes mud-spattered and damp, hurried alongside Sir William. “Will you go into the city?”
“Of course I’ll not go into the bloody city. There’s a truce, remember?”
“But if there’s a truce . . .”
“If there’s a bloody truce then we leave them be.”
The French priest’s English was good, but it took him a few moments to work out what Sir William’s last three words had meant. “There’ll be no fighting?”
“Not between us and the city, no. And there’s no God damned English army within a hundred miles so there’ll be no fighting. All we’re doing is looking for food and forage, father, food and forage. Feed your men and feed your animals and that’s the way to win your wars.” Sir William, as he spoke, climbed onto his horse that was held by a squire. He pushed his boots into the stirrups, plucked the skirts of his mail coat from under his thighs and gathered the reins. “I’ll get you close to the city, Father, but after that you’ll have to shift for yourself.”
“Shift?” Bernard de Taillebourg asked, but Sir William had already turned away and spurred his horse down a muddy lane that ran between low stone walls. Two hundred mounted men at arms, grim and grey on this foggy morning, streamed after him and the priest, buffeted by their big dirty horses, struggled to keep up. The servant followed with apparent unconcern. He was evidently accustomed to being among soldiers and showed no apprehension, indeed his demeanour suggested he might be better with his weapons than most of the men who rode behind Sir William.

The Dominican and his servant had travelled to Scotland with a dozen other messengers sent to King David II by Philip of Valois, King of France. The embassy had been a cry for help. The English had burned their way across Normandy and Picardy, they had slaughtered the French King’s army near a village called Crécy and their archers now held a dozen fastnesses in Brittany while their savage horsemen rode from Edward of England’s ancestral possessions in Gascony. All that was bad, but even worse, and as if to show all Europe that France could be dismembered with impunity, the English King was now laying siege to the great fortress harbour of Calais. Philip of Valois was doing his best to raise the siege, but winter was coming, his nobles grumbled that their king was no warrior, and so he had appealed for aid to Scotland’s King David, son of Robert the Bruce. Invade England, the French king had pleaded, and thus force Edward to abandon the siege of Calais to protect his homeland. The Scots had pondered the invitation, then were persuaded by the French king’s embassy that England lay defenceless. How could it be otherwise? Edward of England’s army was all at Calais or else in Brittany or in Gascony, and there was no one left to defend England, and that meant the old enemy was helpless, it was asking to be raped and all the riches of England were just waiting for Scottish hands.
And so the Scots had come south.
It was the largest army that Scotland had ever sent across the border. The great lords were all there, the sons and grandsons of the warriors who had humbled England in the bloody slaughter about the Bannockburn, and those lords had brought their men at arms who had grown hard with incessant frontier battles, but this time, smelling plunder, they were accompanied by the clan chiefs from the mountains and islands; chiefs who led their wild tribesmen who spoke a language of their own and fought like devils unleashed. They had come in their thousands to make themselves rich and the French messengers, their duty done, had sailed home to tell Philip of Valois that Edward of England would surely raise his siege of Calais when he learned that the Scots were ravaging his northern lands.
The French embassy had sailed for home, but Bernard de Taillebourg had stayed. He had business in northern England, but in the first days of the invasion he had experienced nothing but frustration. The Scottish army was twelve thousand strong, larger than the army with which Edward of England had defeated the French at Crécy, yet once across the frontier the great army had stopped to besiege a lonely fortress garrisoned by a mere thirty eight men, and though the thirty eight had all died, it had wasted four days. More time was spent negotiating with the citizens of Carlisle who had paid gold to have their city spared, and then the young Scottish King frittered away three more days pillaging the great priory of the Black Canons at Hexham. Now, ten days after they had crossed the frontier, and after wandering across the northern English moors, the Scottish army had at last reached Durham. The city had offered a thousand golden pounds if they could be spared and King David had given them two days to raise the money. Which meant that Bernard de Taillebourg had two days to find a way to enter the city, to which end, slipping in the mud and half blinded by the fog, he followed Sir William Douglas into a valley, across a stream and up a steep hill. “Which way is the city?” he demanded of Sir William.
“When the fog lifts, father, I’ll tell you.”
“They’ll respect the truce?”

“They’re holy men in Durham, father,” Sir William answered wryly, “but better still, they’re frightened men.” It had been the monks of the city who had negotiated the ransom and Sir William had advised against acceptance. If monks offered a thousand pounds, he reckoned, then it would have been better to have killed the monks and taken two thousand, but King David had overruled him. David the Bruce had spent much of his youth in France and so considered himself cultured, but Sir William was not thus hampered by scruples. “You’ll be safe if you can talk your way into the city,” Sir William reassured the priest. The horsemen had reached the hilltop and Sir William turned south along the ridge, still following a track that was edged with stone walls and which led, after a mile or so, to a deserted hamlet where four cottages, so low that their shaggy thatched roofs seemed to swell out of the straggling turf, clustered by a crossroads. In the centre of the crossroads, where the muddy ruts surrounded a patch of nettles and grass, a stone cross leaned southwards. Sir William curbed his horse beside the monument and stared at the carved dragon encircling the shaft. The cross was missing one arm. A dozen of his men dismounted and ducked into the low cottages, but they found no one and nothing, though in one cottage the embers of a fire still glowed and so they used the smouldering wood to fire the four thatched roofs. The thatch was reluctant to catch the fire for it was so damp that mushrooms grew on the mossy straw.
Sir William took his foot from the stirrup and tried to kick the broken cross over, but it would not shift. He grunted with the effort, saw Bernard de Taillebourg’s disapproving expression and scowled. “It’s not holy ground, father. It’s only bloody England.” He peered at the carved dragon, its mouth agape as it stretched up the stone shaft. “Ugly bastard thing, isn’t it?”
“Dragons are creatures of sin, things of the devil,” Bernard de Taillebourg said, “so of course it is ugly.”
“A thing of the devil, eh?” Sir William kicked the cross again. “My mother,” he explained as he gave the cross a third futile kick, “always told me that the bloody English buried their stolen gold beneath dragons’ crosses.”
Two minutes later the cross had been heaved aside and a half dozen men were peering disappointedly into the hole it had left. Smoke from the burning roofs thickened the fog, swirled over the road and vanished into the greyness of the morning air. “No gold,” Sir William grunted, then he summoned his men and led them southwards out of the choking smoke. He was looking for any livestock that could be driven back to the Scottish army, but the fields were empty. The fire of the burning cottages was a hazed gold and red in the fog behind the raiders, a glow that slowly faded until only the smell of the fire was left and then, suddenly, hugely, filling the whole world with the alarm of its noise, a peal of bells clanged about the sky. Sir William, presuming the sound came from the east, turned through a gap in the wall into a pasture where he checked his horse and stood in the stirrups. He was listening to the sound, but in the fog it was impossible to tell where the bells were or how far away they were being tolled and then the sound stopped as suddenly as it had began. The fog was thinning now, shredding away through the orange leaves of a stand of elms. White mushrooms dotted the empty pasture where Bernard de Taillebourg dropped to his knees and began to pray aloud. “Quiet, father!” Sir William snapped.
The priest made the sign of the cross as though imploring heaven to forgive Sir William’s impiety in interrupting a prayer. “You said there was no enemy,” he complained.
“I’m not listening for any bloody enemy,” Sir William said, “but for animals. I’m listening for cattle bells or sheep bells.” Yet Sir William seemed strangely nervous for a man who only sought livestock. He kept twisting in his saddle, peering into the fog and scowling at the small noises of curb chains or hooves stamping on damp earth. He snarled at the men at arms closest to him to be silent. He had been a soldier before some of these men had even been born and he had not stayed alive by ignoring his instincts and now, in this damp fog, he smelt danger. Sense told him there was nothing to fear, that the English army was far away across the channel, but he smelt death all the same and, quite unaware of what he was doing, he pulled the shield off his shoulder and pushed his left arm through its carrying loops. It was a big shield, one made before men began adding plates of armour to their mail, a shield wide enough to screen a man’s whole body.

Then a soldier called out from the pasture’s edge and Sir William grasped his sword’s hilt, then he saw that the man had only exclaimed at the sudden appearance of towers in the fog which was now little more than a mist on the ridge’s top, though in the deep valleys either side the fog flowed like a white river. And across the eastern river, way off to the north where they emerged from the spectral whiteness of another hill crest, was a great cathedral and a castle. They towered through the mist, vast and dark, like buildings from some doom-laden wizard’s imagination, and Bernard de Taillebourg’s servant, who felt he had not seen civilisation in weeks, stared entranced at the two buildings. Black-robed monks crowded the tallest of the cathedral’s three towers and the servant saw them pointing at the Scottish horsemen.
“Durham,” Sir William grunted. The bells, he reckoned, must have been summoning the faithful to their morning prayers.
“I have to go there!” The Dominican climbed from his knees and, seizing his staff, set off towards the mist shrouded city.
Sir William spurred his horse in front of the Frenchman. “What’s your hurry, father?” he demanded, and de Taillebourg tried to dodge past the Scotsman, but there was a scraping sound and suddenly a blade, cold and heavy and grey, was in the Dominican’s face. “I asked you, father, what the hurry was?” Sir William’s voice was as cold as his sword, then, alerted by one of his men, he glanced over and saw that the priest’s servant had half drawn his sword. “If your bastard man doesn’t sheath his blade, father,” Sir William spoke softly, but there was a terrible menace in his voice, “I’ll have his collops for my supper.”
de Taillebourg said something in French and the servant reluctantly pushed the blade fully home. The priest looked up at Sir William. “Have you no fear for your mortal soul?” He asked.
Sir William smiled, paused and looked about the hilltop, but he saw nothing untoward in the shredding fog and decided his earlier nervousness had been the result of imagination. The result, perhaps, of too much beef, pork and wine the previous night. The Scots had feasted in the captured home of Durham’s Prior and the Prior lived well judging by his larder and cellar, but rich suppers gave men premonitions. “I keep my own priest to worry about my soul,” Sir William said, then raised the tip of his sword to force de Taillebourg’s face upwards. “Why does a Frenchman have business with our enemies in Durham?” He demanded.
“It is church business,” de Taillebourg said firmly.
“I don’t give a damn whose business it is,” Sir William said, “I still wish to know.”
“Obstruct me,” de Taillebourg said, pushing the sword blade away, “and I shall have the King punish you and the church condemn you and the Holy Father send your soul to eternal perdition, I shall summon . . .”
“Shut your God damned bloody face!” Sir William said. “Do you think, priest, that you can frighten me? Our King is a puppy and the church does what its paymasters tell it to do.” He moved the blade back, this time resting it against the Dominican’s neck. “Now tell me your business, priest. Tell me why a Frenchman stays with us instead of going home with his countrymen. Tell me what you want in Durham.”

Bernard de Taillebourg clutched the crucifix that hung about his neck and held it towards Sir William. In another man the gesture might have been taken as a display of fear, but in the Dominican it looked rather as though he threatened Sir William’s soul with the powers of heaven. Sir William merely gave the crucifix a hungry glance as if appraising its value, but the cross was of plain wood while the little figure of Christ, twisted in death’s agony, was only made of yellowed bone. If the figure had been made of gold then Sir William might have taken the bauble, but instead he spat in derision. A few of his men, fearing God more than their master, made the sign of the cross, but most did not care. They watched the servant carefully, for he looked dangerous, but a middle-aged cleric from Paris, however fierce and gaunt he might be, did not scare them. “So what will you do?” de Taillebourg asked Sir William scornfully, “kill me?”
“If I must,” Sir William said implacably. The presence of the priest with the French embassy had been a puzzle, and his staying on when the others left only compounded the mystery, but a garrulous man at arms, one of the Frenchmen who had brought two hundred suits of plate armour as a gift to the Scots, had told Sir William that the priest was pursuing a great treasure and if that treasure was in Durham then Sir William wanted to know. He wanted a share. “I’ve killed priests before,” he told de Taillebourg, “and another priest sold me an indulgence for the killings, so don’t think I fear you or your church. There’s no sin that can’t be bought off, no pardon that can’t be purchased.”
The Dominican shrugged. Two of Sir William’s men were behind him, their swords drawn, and he understood that these Scotsmen would indeed kill him and his servant. These men who followed the red heart of Douglas were border ruffians, bred to battle as a hound was raised to the chase and the Dominican knew there was no point in continuing to threaten their souls for they gave no thought to such things. “I am going into Durham,” de Taillebourg said,” to find a man.”
“What man?” Sir William asked, his sword still at the priest’s neck.
“He is a monk,” de Taillebourg explained patiently, “and an old man now, so old that he may not even be alive. He is a Frenchman, a Benedictine, and he fled Paris many years ago.”
“Why did he run?”
“Because the King wanted his head.”
“A monk’s head?” Sir William sounded sceptical.
“He was not always a Benedictine,” de Taillebourg said, “but was once a Templar.”
“Ah,” Sir William began to understand.
“And he knows,” de Taillebourg continued, “where a great treasure is hidden.”
“The Templar treasure?”
“It is said to be hidden in Paris,” de Taillebourg said, “hidden for all these years, but it was only last year that we discovered the Frenchman was alive and in England. The Benedictine, you see, was once the sacrist of the Templars. You know what that is?”
“Don’t patronise me, father,” Sir William said coldly.
de Taillebourg inclined his head to acknowledge the justice of the reproof. “If any man knows where the Templar treasure is,” he went on humbly, “it is the man who was their sacrist, and now, we hear, that man lives in Durham.”
Sir William took the sword away. Everything the priest said made sense. The Knights Templar, an order of monkish soldiers who were sworn to protect the pilgrims’ roads between Christendom and Jerusalem, had become rich beyond the dreams of Kings, and that was foolish for it made Kings jealous and jealous Kings make bad enemies. The King of France was just such an enemy and he had ordered the Templars destroyed to which end a heresy had been cooked up, lawyers had effortlessly distorted truths and the Templars had been disbanded. Their leaders had been burned and their lands confiscated, but their treasures, the fabled treasures of the Templars, had never been found and the order’s sacrist, the man responsible for keeping those treasures safe, would surely know their fate. “When were the Templars disbanded?” Sir William asked.

“Twenty nine years ago,” de Taillebourg answered.
So the sacrist could yet be alive, Sir William thought. He would be an old man, but alive. Sir William sheathed his sword, utterly convinced by de Taillebourg’s tale, yet none of it was true except that there was an old monk in Durham, but he was not French and he had never been a Templar and, in all probability, knew nothing of any Templar treasure. But Bernard de Taillebourg had spoken persuasively, and the story of the missing hoard was one that echoed through Europe, spoken of whenever men gathered to exchange tales of marvels. Sir William wanted the story to be true and that, more than anything, persuaded him it was. “If you find this man,” he said to de Taillebourg, “and if he lives, and if you then find the treasure, then it will be because we made it possible. It will be because we brought you here, and because we protected you on your journey to Durham.”
“True, Sir William,” de Taillebourg said.
Sir William was surprised by the priest’s ready agreement. He frowned, shifted in his saddle and stared down at the Dominican as if gauging the priest’s trustworthiness. “So we must share in the treasure,” he demanded.
“Of course,” de Taillebourg said readily.
Sir William was no fool. Let the priest go into Durham and he would never see the man again. Sir William twisted in his saddle and stared north towards the cathedral. The Templar treasure was said to be the gold from Jerusalem, more gold than men could dream of, and Sir William was honest enough to know that he did not possess the resources to divert some of that golden hoard to Liddesdale. The King must be used. David II might be a weak lad, scarce breeched and too softened by having lived in France, but Kings had resources denied to knights and David of Scotland could talk to Philip of France as a near equal, while any message from William Douglas would be ignored in Paris. “Jamie!” he snapped at his nephew who was one of the two men guarding de Taillebourg. “You and Dougal will take this priest back to the King,” Sir William ordered.
“You must let me go!” Bernard de Taillebourg protested.
Sir William leaned from his saddle. “You want me to cut off your priestly balls to make myself a purse?” He smiled at the Dominican, then looked back to his nephew. “Tell the King this French priest has news that concerns us and tell him to hold him safe till I return.” Sir William had decided that if there was an ancient French monk in Durham then he should be questioned by the King of Scotland’s servants and the monk’s information, if he had any, could then be sold to the French King. “Take him, Jamie,” he ordered, “and watch that damned servant! Take his sword.”
James Douglas grinned at the thought of a mere priest and his servant giving him trouble, but he still obeyed his uncle. He demanded that the servant yield his sword and, when the man bridled at the order, Jamie half drew his own blade. de Taillebourg sharply ordered his servant to obey and the sword was sullenly yielded. Jamie Douglas grinned as he hung the sword from his own belt. “They’ll not bother me, Uncle.”

“Away with you,” Sir William said and watched as his nephew and his companion, both well mounted on fine stallions captured from the Percy lands in Northumberland, escorted the priest and his servant back towards the King’s encampment. Doubtless the priest would complain to the King and David, so much weaker than his great father, would worry about the displeasure of God and the French, but David would worry a great deal more about Sir William’s displeasure. Sir William smiled at that thought, then saw that some of his men on the far side of the field had dismounted. “Who the devil told you to unhorse?’ He shouted angrily, then he saw they were not his men at all, but strangers revealed by the shredding mist and he remembered his instincts and cursed himself for wasting time on the priest.
And as he cursed so the first arrow flickered from the south. The sound it made was a hiss, feather in air, then it struck home and the noise was like a poleaxe cleaving flesh. It was a heavy thump edged with the tearing of steel in muscle and ending with the harsh scrape of blade on bone, and then a grunt from the victim and a heartbeat of silence.
And after that the scream.
* * *
Thomas of Hookton heard the bells, deep toned and sonorous, not the sound of bells hung in some village church, but bells of thunderous power. Durham, he thought, and he felt a great weariness for the journey had been so long.
It had begun in Picardy, on a field stinking of dead men and horses, a place of fallen banners, broken weapons and spent arrows. It had been a great victory and Thomas had wondered why it left him dulled and nervous. The English had marched north to besiege Calais, but Thomas, duty bound to serve the Earl of Northampton, had received the Earl’s permission to take a wounded comrade to Caen where there was a doctor of extraordinary skill, but then it was decreed that no man could leave the army without the King’s permission and so the Earl approached the King and thus Edward Plantagenet heard of Thomas of Hookton and how his father had been a priest who had been born to a family of French exiles called Vexille, and how it was rumoured that the Vexille family had once possessed the grail. It was only a rumour, of course, a wisp of a story in a hard world, but the story was of the holy grail and that was the most precious thing that had ever existed in all the world, if indeed it had existed, and the King had questioned Thomas of Hookton and Thomas had tried to scorn the truth of the grail story, but then the Bishop of Durham, who had fought in the shield wall that broke the French assaults, told how Thomas’s father had once been imprisoned in Durham. “He was mad,” the bishop explained to the King, “wits flown to the winds! So they locked him up for his own good.”
“Did he talk of the grail?” the King asked, and the Bishop of Durham had answered that there was one man left in his diocese who might know, an old monk called Hugh Collimore who had nursed the mad Ralph Vexille, Thomas’s father, and the King might have dismissed the tales as so much churchly gossip had not Thomas recovered the lance of Saint George in the battle that had left so many dead on the green slope above the village of Crécy. The battle had also left Thomas’s friend and commander Sir William Skeat wounded and he wanted to take Skeat to the doctor in Normandy, but the King had insisted that Thomas go to Durham and speak with Brother Collimore. So Eleanor’s father had taken Sir William Skeat to Caen and Thomas, Eleanor and Father Hobbe had accompanied a royal chaplain and a knight of King Edward’s household to England, but in London the chaplain and the knight had both fallen sick with an early winter fever and so Thomas and his companions had travelled north alone and now they were close to Durham, on a foggy morning, listening to the cathedral’s bells. Eleanor, like Father Hobbe, was excited for she believed that discovering the grail would bring peace and justice to a world that stank of burned cottages. There would be no more sorrow, Eleanor thought, and no more war, and perhaps even no more sickness.

Thomas wanted to believe it. He wanted his night vision to be real, not flame and smoke, but if the grail existed at all he thought that it would be in some great cathedral, guarded by angels. Or else it was gone from this world, and if there was no grail on earth then Thomas’s faith was in a war bow made of Italian yew, painted black, strung with hemp, that drove an arrow made of ash, fledged with goose feathers and tipped with steel. On the bow’s belly, where his left hand gripped the yew, there was a silver plate engraved with a yale, a fabulous beast of claws and horns and teeth and scale that was the badge of his father’s family, the Vexilles. The yale held a cup and Thomas had been told it was the grail. Always the grail. It beckoned him, mocked him, bent his life, changed all, yet never appeared except in a dream of fire. It was mystery, just as Thomas’s family was a mystery, but perhaps Brother Collimore could cast light on that mystery and so Thomas had come north. He might not learn of the grail, but he expected to discover more about his family and that, at least, made the journey worthwhile.
“Which way?” Father Hobbe asked.
“God knows,” Thomas said. Fog shrouded the land.
“The bells sounded that way,” Father Hobbe pointed north and east. He was energetic, full of enthusiasm, and naively trusting in Thomas’s sense of direction, though in truth Thomas did not know where he was. Earlier they had come to a fork in the road and he had randomly taken the left hand track that now faded to a mere scar on the grass as it climbed. Mushrooms grew in the pasture that was wet and heavy with dew so that their horse slipped as it climbed. The horse was Thomas’s mare and it was carrying their small baggage and in one of the sacks hanging from the saddle’s pommel was a letter from the Bishop of Durham to John Fossor, the Prior of Durham. “Most beloved brother in Christ,” the letter began, and went on to instruct Fossor to allow Thomas of Hookton and his companions to question Brother Collimore concerning Father Ralph Vexille, “whom you will not remember for he was kept closed up in your house before you came to Durham, indeed before I came to the See, but there will be some who know of him and Brother Collimore, if it pleases God that he yet lives, will have certain knowledge of him and of the great treasure that he concealed. We request this in the name of the King and in the service of Almighty God who has blessed our arms in this present endeavour.”
“Qu’est que c’est?” Eleanor asked, pointing up the hill where a dull reddish glow discoloured the fog.
“What?” Father Hobbe, the only one who did not speak French, asked.

“Quiet,” Thomas warned him and held up his hand. He could smell burning and see the flicker of flames, but there were no voices. He took his bow from where it hung from the saddle and he strung it, bending the huge stave to loop the hemp string over the piece of nocked horn. He pulled an arrow from the bag and then, motioning Eleanor and Father Hobbe to stay where they were, he edged up the track to the shelter of a deep hedge where larks and finches flitted through the dying leaves. The fires were roaring, suggesting they were newly set. He crept closer, the bow half drawn, until he could see there had been three or four cottages about a crossroads and their rafters and thatch were well ablaze and sending sparks whirling up into the damp grey. The fires looked recent, but there was no one in sight; no enemy, no men in mail, just the burning cottages and so he beckoned Eleanor and Father Hobbe forward and then, over the sound of the fire, he heard a scream. It was far off, or perhaps it was close but muffled by fog, and Thomas stared through the smoke and the fog and past the seething flames and suddenly two men in mail, both mounted on black stallions, cantered into view. The horsemen had black hats, black boots and black scabbarded swords and they were escorting two other men who were on foot. One was a priest, a Dominican judging by his black and white garb, and he had a bloodied face while the other man was tall, dressed in mail, and had long black hair and a narrow, intelligent face. The two followed the horsemen through the smoky fog, then paused at the crossroads where the priest dropped to his knees and made the sign of the cross.
The leading horseman seemed irritated by the priest’s prayer for he turned his horse back and, drawing his sword, prodded the blade at the kneeling man. The priest looked up and, to Thomas’s astonishment, suddenly rammed his staff up into the stallion’s throat. The beast twitched away and the priest slammed the staff hard at the rider’s sword arm. The horseman, unbalanced by his stallion’s jerking motion, tried to cut down across his body with his long blade. The second horseman was already unsaddled, though Thomas had not seen him fall, and the black-haired man in mail was astride his body with a long knife drawn. Thomas just stared in puzzlement for he was convinced that neither the two horsemen nor the priest nor the black-haired man had uttered the scream, yet no other folk were in sight. One of the two horsemen was already dead and the other now fought the priest in silence and Thomas had a sense that the conflict was unreal, that he was dreaming, that in truth this was a morality play in dumbshow and the black-clad horseman was the devil and the priest was God’s will and Thomas’s doubts about the grail were about to be resolved by whoever won and then Father Hobbe seized the great bow from Thomas. “We must help!” Father Hobbe protested Thomas’s inaction.
Yet the priest hardly needed help. He used the staff like a sword, parrying his opponent’s cut, lunging hard to bruise the rider’s ribs, then the man with the long black hair rammed a sword up into the horseman’s back and the man arched, shivered, and his own sword dropped. He stared down at the priest for a moment, then he fell backwards from his saddle. His feet were momentarily trapped in the stirrups and the horse, panicking, galloped uphill. The killer wiped the blade of his sword, then took a scabbard from one of the dead men.
The priest had run to secure one of the two horses and now, sensing he was being watched, he turned to see two men and a woman in the fog. One of the men was a priest who had an arrow on a bowstring. “They were going to kill me!” Bernard de Taillebourg protested in French. The black-haired man turned fast, the sword rising in threat.
“It’s all right,” Thomas said to Father Hobbe and he took the black bow away from his friend and hung it on his shoulder. God had spoken, the priest had won the fight and Thomas was reminded of his night vision when the grail had loomed in the clouds like a cup of fire. Then he saw that under the bruises and blood the strange priest’s face was hard and lean, a martyr’s face, the look of a man who had hungered for God and achieved an evident saintliness and Thomas almost fell to his knees. “Who are you?” He called to the Dominican.
“I am a messenger,” Bernard de Taillebourg snatched at any explanation to cover his confusion. He had escaped from his Scottish escort and now he wondered how he was to escape from the tall young man with the long black bow, but then a flight of arrows hissed from the south and one thumped into a nearby elm trunk while a second skidded along the wet grass, and a horse shrieked nearby and men were shouting in disorder. Father de Taillebourg called to his servant to catch the second horse that was trotting uphill and, by the time it was caught de Taillebourg saw that the stranger with the bow had forgotten him and was staring south to where the arrows flew.
So he turned towards the city, called his servant to follow him and kicked back his heels.
For God, for France, for Saint Dennis and for the Grail.
* * *

Sir William Douglas cursed. Arrows were hissing all about him. Horses were screaming and men were lying dead or injured on the grass. For a heartbeat he felt bewildered, then he realised that his forage party had blundered into an English force, but what kind of force? There was no English army nearby! The whole English army was in France, not here! Which meant, surely, that the citizens of Durham had broken their truce and that thought filled Sir William with a terrible anger. Christ, he thought, but there would not be one stone left on another when he had finished with the city, and he tugged the big shield to cover his body and spurred south towards the bowmen who were lining a low hedge and he reckoned there were not so many of them, maybe only fifty, and he still had nearly two hundred men mounted and so he roared the order to charge. Swords scraped from scabbards. “Kill the bastards!” Sir William shouted, “kill them!” He was savaging his horse with his spurs and thrusting other confused horsemen aside in his eagerness to reach the hedge. He knew the charge would be ragged, knew some of his men must die, but once they were over the blackthorn and in among the bastards they would kill them all. Bloody archers, he thought. He hated archers. He especially hated English archers and he detested traitorous, truce-breaking Durham archers above all others. “On! On!” he shouted. “Douglas! Douglas!” He liked to let his enemies know who was killing them, and who would be raping their wives when they were dead. God, but if the city had broken the truce, then God help the city for he would sack, rape and burn the whole of it. He would fire the houses, plough the ashes and leave the bones of its citizens to the winter blight, and for years men would see the bare stones of the ruined cathedral and watch the birds nesting in the castle’s empty towers and they would know that the Knight of Liddesdale had worked his revenge. “Douglas!” he shouted, “Douglas!” and he felt the thump of arrows smacking into his shield and then his horse screamed and he knew more arrows must have driven deep into its chest for he could feel the beast stumbling. He kicked his feet from the stirrups as the horse slewed sideways. Men charged past him, screaming defiance, then Sir William threw himself out of the saddle and onto his shield that slid along the wet grass like a sledge, and he heard his horse screaming in pain, but he himself was unhurt, hardly even bruised and he pushed himself up, found his sword that he had dropped when he fell and ran on with his horsemen. A rider had an arrow sticking from his knee. A horse went down, eyes white, teeth bared, blood flecking from the arrow wounds. The first horsemen were at the hedge and some had found a gap and were spurring through and Sir William saw that the damned English bowmen were running away. Bastards, he thought, cowardly bloody English rotten whoreson bastards, then more bows sounded harsh to his left and he saw a man fall from a horse with an arrow through his head and the fog lifted enough to show that the enemy archers had not run away, but had merely joined a solid mass of dismounted men at arms. The bowstrings sounded again. A horse reared in pain and an arrow sliced into its belly. A man staggered, was struck again and fell back with a crash of mail.
Sweet Christ, Sir William thought, but there was a damned army here! A whole damned army! “Back! Back!” he shouted, “haul off! Back!” He yelled till he was hoarse. Another arrow drove into his shield, its point whipping through the leather-covered willow and, in his rage, he slapped at it, breaking the ash shaft.
“Uncle! Uncle!” A man shouted and Sir William saw it was Robbie Douglas, one of his eight nephews who rode with the Scottish army, bringing him a horse, but a pair of English arrows struck the beast’s quarter and, enraged by pain, it broke away from Robbie’s grasp.
“Go north!” Sir William shouted at his nephew. “Go on, Robbie!”

Instead Robbie rode to his uncle. An arrow struck his saddle, another glanced off his helmet, but he leaned down, took Sir William’s hand and dragged him northwards. Arrows followed them, but the fog swirled thick and hid them. Sir William shook off his nephew’s grip and stumbled north, made clumsy by his shield that was stuck with arrows and by his heavy mail. God damn it, God damn it!
“Mind left! Mind left!” A Scottish voice shouted and Sir William saw some English horsemen coming from the hedgerow. One saw Sir William and thought he would be easy pickings. The English had been no more ready for battle than the Scotsmen. A few wore mail, but none was properly armoured and none had lances. But Sir William reckoned they must have detected his presence long before they loosed their first arrows, and the anger at being so ambushed made him step towards the horseman who was holding his sword out like a spear. Sir William did not even bother to try and parry. He just thrust his heavy shield up into the horse’s mouth, punching it up, and he heard the animal whinny in pain as he swept his sword at its legs and the beast twisted away and the rider was flailing for balance and was still trying to calm his horse when Sir William’s sword tore up under his mail and into his guts. “Bastard, bastard,” Sir William snarled and the man was whimpering as Sir William twisted the blade, and then Robbie rode up on the man’s far side and chopped his sword down onto his neck so that the Englishman’s head was all but severed as he fell from the saddle. The other horsemen had mysteriously shied away, but then arrows flew again and Sir William knew the fickle fog was thinning. He dragged his sword free of the corpse, scabbarded the wet blade and hauled himself into the dead man’s saddle. “Away!” he shouted at Robbie who seemed inclined to take on the whole English force single-handed. “Away, boy! Come on!” By God, he thought, but it hurt to run from an enemy, yet there was no shame in two hundred men fleeing six or seven hundred. And when the fog lifted there could be a proper battle, a murderous clash of men and steel, and Sir William would teach these bastard English how to fight. He kicked his borrowed horse on, then saw an archer in a hedge. A woman and a priest were with him and Sir William put a hand to his sword hilt and thought about swerving aside to take some revenge for the arrows that had ripped into his forage party, but behind him the English were shouting their war cry. “Saint George! Saint George!” And so Sir William left the archer alone. He rode on, leaving good men on the autumn grass. They were dead and dying, wounded and frightened. But he was a Douglas and so he would come back and he would kill and he would have his revenge.

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