1356 (extract)

1356 is a novel about the further exploits of Thomas of Hookton ,. . . though he doesn’t appear in this excerpt from an early chapter in the novel.  Instead I’ve chosen a passage about Thomas’s friend, Robbie Douglas, who has travelled to France with a band of Scottish men-at-arms who are sworn to help the French King fight their old enemy, the English.


The warm weather came. It was campaigning weather and all across France men sharpened weapons, exercised horses and waited for the summons to serve the King. The English were sending reinforcements to Brittany and to Gascony and men thought that surely King Jean would raise a great army to crush them, but instead he took a smaller army to the edges of Navarre, to the castle of Breteuil, and there, facing the stronghold’s gaunt walls, his men constructed a siege tower.
It was a monstrous thing, taller than a church’s spire, a scaffold of three floors perched on two iron axles joined to four massive wheels of solid elm. The front and sides of the tower were sheathed in oak planks to prevent the castle’s garrison from riddling the platforms with crossbow bolts, and now, in a cold dawn, men were nailing stiff leather hides to that wooden armour. They worked a mere four hundred paces from the castle and once in a while a defender would shoot a crossbow bolt, but the range was too long and the bolts always fell short. Four flags flew from the tower’s summit, two with the French fleur de lys and two showing an axe, the symbol of France’s patron saint, the martyred Saint Dennis. The flags stretched and twisted in the wind. There had been a gale in the night and the wind still blew strong from the west.
‘One shower of rain,’ the Lord of Douglas said, ‘and this damn thing will be useless. They’ll never move it! It’ll bog down in mud.’
‘God is on our side,’ his young companion said placidly.
‘God,’ the Lord of Douglas said disgustedly.
‘Watches over us,’ the young man said. He was tall and slender, scarce more than twenty or twenty-one years old, with a strikingly handsome face. He had fair hair that was brushed back from a high forehead, blue eyes that were calm and a mouth that seemed constantly hovering on the edge of a smile. He was from Gascony where he owned a fief that had been sequestered by the English, leaving him without the income of his lands, which loss should have rendered him poor, but the Sire Roland de Verrec was renowned as the greatest of France’s tournament fighters. Some had claimed that Joscelyn of Berat was the better man, but at Auxerre Roland had defeated Joscelyn three times, then tormented the brutal champion, Walther of Siegenthaler, with quicksilver swordplay. At Limoges he had been the only man standing at the end of a vicious melee, while in Paris the women had sighed as he destroyed two hardened knights who had twice his years and many times his experience. Roland de Verrec earned the fees of a champion because he was lethal.
And a virgin.
His black shield bore the symbol of the white rose, the rose without thorns, the flower of the Virgin Mary and a proud display of his own purity. The men he so constantly defeated in the lists thought he was mad, the women who watched him thought he was wasted, but Roland de Verrec had devoted his life to chivalry, to sanctity and to goodness. A woman had once been driven to tell Roland de Verrec that he was beautiful. She had reached out and touched his cheek, ‘all that fighting and not one scar!’ she had said, and he had drawn back from her, then said that all beauty was but a reflection of God’s grace. ‘If I believed otherwise,’ he had told her, ‘I would be tempted to vanity,’ and perhaps he did suffer from that temptation because he dressed with inordinate care and always wore his armour blanched; scrubbed with sand, vinegar and wire until it reflected the sun with dazzling brilliance. Though not on this day because the sky above Breteuil was low, grey and dark.
‘It’s going to rain,’ the Lord of Douglas growled, ‘and this damned tower will go nowhere.’
‘It will bring us victory,’ Roland de Verrec said, sounding quietly confident. ‘The Bishop of Châlons blessed it last night, it will not fail.’
‘It shouldn’t even be here,’ Douglas snarled. The Scottish knights had been summoned by King Jean to join this attack on Breteuil, but the defenders were not Englishmen, they were other Frenchmen. ‘I didn’t come here to kill Frenchmen,’ Douglas said, ‘I came here to kill the English.’
‘They’re Navarese,’ Roland de Verrec said, ‘the enemies of France, and our King wants them defeated.’
‘Breteuil is a God-damned pimple!’ The Lord of Douglas protested. ‘For Christ’s sake, what importance does it have? There are no bloody Englishmen inside!’
Roland smiled. ‘Whoever is inside, my Lord,’ he said quietly, ‘I do my King’s bidding.’
The King of France, ignoring the Englishmen in Calais, in Gascony and in Brittany, had instead chosen to march against the Kingdom of Navarre on the edge of Normandy. The quarrel was obscure and the campaign a waste of scarce resources, for Navarre could not threaten France, yet King Jean had chosen to fight. It was evidently a family quarrel, one the Lord of Douglas did not comprehend. ‘Let them rot here,’ he said, ‘while we march against England. We should be chasing the boy Edward and instead we’re pissing on a spark at the edge of Normandy.’
‘The King wants Breteuil,’ Roland said.
‘He doesn’t want to face Englishmen,’ the Lord of Douglas said, and he knew he was right. Ever since the Scottish knights had come to France the King had hesitated. Jean had chosen to go south one day, west the next and to stay put on the third. Now, finally, he had marched against Navarre. Navarre! And the English had erupted from their strongholds in Gascony and were ravaging inland again. Another army was gathered on England’s south coast, doubtless to be landed in Normandy or Brittany, and King Jean was at Breteuil! The Lord of Douglas could weep at the thought. Go south, he had urged the French King, go south and crush the puppy Edward, capture the bastard, trample his mens’ guts into the mud, and then imprison the Prince as a bargaining piece for Scotland’s captured King.. Instead they were besieging Breteuil.
The two men were standing on the topmost platform of the tower. Roland de Verrec had volunteered to lead the attack. The siege tower would be trundled forward, pushed by dozens of men, some of whom must fall to crossbow bolts, but others would replace them and eventually the whole tower would crash against the castle wall and Roland’s men would slash through the ropes holding the drawbridge which protected the front of the upper platform. The drawbridge would fall, making a wide bridge to Breteuil’s battlements, and then the attackers would stream across, screaming their war cry, and those first men, the men most likely to die, must hold the captured battlement long enough to let hundreds of the King of France’s troops climb the tower’s ladders. They had to climb those ladders while cumbered by mail, by plate-armour, by shields and by weapons. It would take time, and the first men across the drawbridge had to buy that time with their lives. There was great honour in being among those first attackers, honour earned by the risk of death, and Roland de Verrec had gone on his knees to the King of France and begged to be granted that privilege.
‘Why?’ the King had asked Roland, and Roland had explained that he loved France and would serve his King, and that he had never been in battle, he had only fought in tournaments, and that it was time his talents as a fighter were put to a noble cause, and all that had been true. Yet the real reason Roland de Verrec wished to lead the assault was because he yearned for a great deed, for a quest, for some challenge that would be worthy of his purity. The King had graciously given Roland permission to lead the attack, and then granted the same honour to a second man, the Lord of Douglas’s nephew, Robbie.
‘You want to die,’ the Lord of Douglas had grumbled at Robbie the night before.
‘I want to feast in that castle’s hall tomorrow night,’ Robbie had answered.
‘For what?’ the Lord of Douglas demanded. ‘For what God damned purpose?’
‘Talk to him,’ the Lord of Douglas now appealed to Roland de Verrec. That was why Douglas had come to the tower, to persuade Roland de Verrec, reputed to be the greatest fool and most chivalrous knight in all France, to urge Robbie to his duty. ‘Robbie respects you,’ he told Roland, ‘he admires you, he wants to be like you, so tell him it’s his Christian obligation to fight the English and not die in this miserable place.’
‘He took an oath,’ Roland de Verrec said, ‘an oath not to fight against the English, and that oath was taken freely and piously. I cannot advise him to break it, my Lord.’
‘Damn his oath! Talk to him!’
‘A man cannot break an oath and keep his soul,’ Roland said calmly, ‘and your nephew will win great renown by fighting here.’
‘Bugger renown,’ the Lord of Douglas said.
‘My Lord,’ Roland turned to the Scotsman, ‘if I could persuade your nephew to fight the English, I would. I am flattered you think he would listen to me, but in all Christian conscience I cannot advise him to break a solemn oath. It would be unchivalrous.’
‘And bugger chivalry too,’ the Lord of Douglas said, ‘and bugger Breteuil and bugger the bloody lot of you.’ He went down the ladders and scowled at Robbie who waited with the forty other men-at-arms who would lead the assault across the tower’s drawbridge. ‘You’re a damned fool!’ he shouted angrily.
It was an hour before the hides were finally nailed into place and had been soaked with water, and by then a small cold rain had began to spit from the west. The men-at-arms filed into the tower, the bravest climbing the ladders to the topmost platform so they would be first across the drawbridge. Robbie Douglas was one. He had armoured himself in leather and mail, but had decided against wearing any plate except for greaves to cover his shins and a vambrace on his right forearm. His left arm was protected by his shield which bore the red heart of Douglas.
His sword was an old one, old but good, with a plain wooden hilt in which was concealed a fingernail of Saint Andrew, Scotland’s patron. The sword had belonged to another uncle, Sir William Douglas, Knight of Liddesdale, but he had been murdered by the Lord of Douglas in a family quarrel. Robbie, afterwards, had been forced to kneel to the Lord of Douglas and swear allegiance. ‘You’re mine now,’ the Lord of Douglas had said, knowing Robbie had been fond of Sir William, ‘and if you’re not mine you’re no man’s, and if you’re no man’s then you’re an outlaw, and if you’re an outlaw I can kill you. So what are you?’
‘Yours,’ Robbie had said meekly, and knelt. Now, as he joined Roland de Verrec at the top of the tower, he wondered if he had chosen right. He could have ridden back to Thomas of Hookton’s friendship, but he had made his choice, sworn allegiance to his uncle, and now he would charge across a drawbridge to probable death on the wall of a fortress that meant nothing to him, nothing to Scotland and little to anyone else. So why join the attack? Because, he thought, it was his gift to his family. A gesture to show the French the quality of Scottish fighting men. This was a battle he could fight with a clean conscience even if it meant his death.
It was an hour after dawn that the King of France ordered his crossbows forward. There were eight hundred of them, mostly from Genoa, but a few from Germany and each crossbowman had an attendant carrying a great shield, a pavise, behind which the archer could shelter as he rewound the bow. The crossbowmen and their shield carriers made phalanxes either side of the tower which now had long poles thrust through its base so that men could push the vast contraption forward.
Behind the tower were two lines of men at arms, the men who would follow the first attackers up the ladders to flood Breteuil’s ramparts, and they gathered beneath the banners of their lords. The wind was still strong enough to spread the colourful flags; a flaunting of lions and crosses, harts and stars, stripes and gryphons, the barony of France gathered for the attack. Priests walked in front of the men, offering blessings, assuring them that God favoured France, that the Navarese scum were doomed to hell, and that Christ would aid the assault. Then a new banner appeared, a blue banner blazoned with golden fleur de lys, and the men at arms cheered as their King rode between their lines. He wore plate armour that had been polished to brilliance and around his neck was a cloak of red velvet that lifted in the wind. His helmet glittered, and about it was a gold crown set with diamonds. His horse, a white destrier, lifted its feet high as Jean of France rode between his soldiers, looking neither right nor left, and then he reached the long poles waiting for the peasants who would thrust the tower forward and there he turned. He curbed the horse and men thought he was about to say something and silence spread across the field, but the king merely raised his left hand as if offering a blessing and the cheers began again. Some men knelt, others looked in awe at the king’s long, pale face that was framed by his polished helmet. Jean the Good, he was called, not because he was good, but because he enjoyed the worldly pleasures that were a King’s prerogative. He was not a great warrior, and he had a famous temper, and he was reputed to be indecisive, yet at this moment the chivalry of France was ready to die for him.
‘Not much point in the man riding a bloody horse,’ the Lord of Douglas grumbled. He was waiting with a half dozen of his Scotsmen behind the tower. He was dressed in a simple leather haubergeon for he had no intention of joining the attack. He had brought his company to kill Englishmen, not swat a few Navarese. ‘You can’t ride a bloody horse up stone walls.’
His men growled agreement, then stiffened as the King, followed by his courtiers, rode towards them. ‘Kneel, you bastards,’ Douglas ordered them.
King Jean curbed his horse close to Douglas. ‘Your nephew fights today?’ he asked.
‘He does, your Majesty,’ Douglas said.
‘We are grateful to him,’ King Jean said.
‘You’d be more grateful if you led us south, Sire,’ Douglas said, ‘south to kill that puppy Edward of Wales.’
The King blinked. Douglas, who alone among the Scotsmen had not gone down on one knee, was publicly reprimanding him, but the King smiled to show no offence had been taken. ‘We shall go south when this business is settled,’ the King said. He had a thin voice with a tone of petulance.
‘I’m glad of it, Sire,’ the Lord of Douglas said fiercely.
‘Unless other business intrudes,’ the King qualified his first remark. He raised a hand in a gesture of vague benediction and rode on. The rain became more insistent.
‘Unless other business intrudes,’ the Lord of Douglas said savagely. ‘He’s got Englishmen harrowing his lands, and he thinks other business might intrude?’ He spat, then turned as a cheer from the waiting men-at-arms announced that the tower was at last being pushed towards the high walls. Trumpets blared. A great banner showing Saint Dennis had been unfurled from the tower’s top. The flag showed the martyred Dennis holding his own severed head.
The great siege-tower lurched as it was shoved forward and Robbie needed to hold on to one of the stanchions which held the drawbridge in place. The long poles had been pushed clean through the tower’s base so they protruded on either side and scores of men were thrusting on them, encouraged by men with whips and by drummers who beat a steady rhythm on nakers, great goatskin tubs that boomed like cannon.
‘We should have had cannon,’ the Lord of Douglas grumbled.
‘Too expensive.’ Geoffrey de Charny, one of King Jean’s greatest warlords, had come to stand beside the Scottish lord. ‘Cannons cost money, my friend, and gunpowder costs money and France has no money.’
‘It’s richer than Scotland.’
‘The taxes are not collected,’ Geoffrey said bleakly. ‘Who will pay these men?’ he gestured at the waiting soldiers.
‘Send them to collect the taxes.’
‘They would keep the taxes.’ Geoffrey made the sign of the cross. ‘Pray there is a pot of gold inside Breteuil.’
‘There’s nothing but a pack of bloody Navarese inside Breteuil. We should be marching south!’
‘I agree.’
‘Then why don’t we?’
‘Because the King has not ordered it.’ Geoffrey watched the tower. ‘But he will,’ he added softly.
‘He will?’
‘I think he will,’ Geoffrey said. ‘The Pope is pushing him to war, and he knows he can’t let the damned English run riot over half France again. So yes, he will.’
Douglas wished de Charny sounded more certain, but he said nothing more, just followed the Frenchman to watch the tower sway and lurch across the turf. The crossbowmen advanced, keeping pace with the tower, and after fifty yards the first bolts came from the castle walls and the crossbowmen ran forward and shot back. Their job was simple, to keep the defenders crouched behind their battlements as the gaunt tower trundled on. The bolts hissed up, clattered on stone and shook the great banners hanging from the crenellations, bolt after bolt flew as the crossbowmen shot, then they ducked behind their pavises and turned the big handles that winched back the strings. The defenders shot back, their bolts thumping into the turf or banging into the pavises, and soon the first bolts hammered into the tower itself.
Robbie heard them. He saw the drawbridge shudder with the strikes, but the bridge, which was now hinged upright to form a wall at the front of the top platform, was made of thick oak covered with hides, and none of the Navarese bolts penetrated the leather and timber. They just struck home, a constant banging, and beneath him the tower swayed and creaked and juddered forward. It was just possible to peer past the right hand edge of the drawbridge and he saw the castle was two hundred paces away. Great banners hung down the wall’s front, many of them pierced by crossbow bolts. The defenders’ bolts slammed into the tower, making its leading wall a pin-cushion of leather-fledged missiles. The drums were banging, and trumpets were calling and the tower rolled another few yards, sometimes dipping as the turf dropped, and a few crossbow bolts, shot from the walls to either side, slashed into the labouring peasants. More were brought up to replace the wounded or dead, and the men-at-arms shouted at them, whipped them, and they heaved on the poles and the great tower trundled on, going faster now, so fast that Robbie drew his sword and looked up at one of the twisted ropes that held the drawbridge in place. There were two hemp ropes, one on either side, and when the tower was close enough they had to be cut to send the great bridge crashing down onto the battlements. Not long now, he thought, and he kissed the hilt of his sword where the relic of Saint Andrew was hidden.
‘Your uncle,’ Roland de Verrec said, ‘is angry with you.’ The Frenchman looked absolutely calm as the tower thundered slowly forward and as the defenders’ bolts thumped harder into the drawbridge.
‘He’s always angry,’ Robbie said. He was nervous of Roland de Verrec. The young Frenchman was too composed, too certain of his own certainty and Robbie felt inadequate. He was certain of nothing.
‘I told him you could not break your oath,’ Roland said. ‘It was not forced on you?’
‘What was in your heart as you made it?’ the Frenchman asked.
Robbie thought. ‘Gratitude,’ he said after a while.
‘A friend tended me through the pestilence. I should have died, but didn’t. He saved my life.’
‘God saved your life,’ Roland corrected him, ‘and he saved it for a special purpose. I envy you. You have been chosen.’
‘Chosen?’ Robbie asked, clinging to the stanchion as the tower rocked.
‘You were sick with the pestilence, yet you survived. God needs you for a reason. I salute you,’ Roland de Verrec lifted his drawn sword in salute. ‘I envy you,’ he said again.
‘Envy me?’ Robbie asked, surprised.
‘I search for a cause,’ Roland said.
And then the tower stopped.
It stopped dead with such a lurch that the men on board were thrown to one side. One wheel had dropped into a hole, a hole big enough to trap the vehicle, and no amount of shoving would drive the wheel up and out, instead the heaves only skewed the tower further to the left. ‘Stop!’ a man shouted, ‘stop!’
The defenders jeered. Crossbow bolts slashed through the thin rain to slash into the peasants who had been pushing the tower. Blood coloured the turf and men screamed as the thick quarrels bored into flesh and shattered bones.
Geoffrey de Charny ran forward. He wore a mail coat and helmet, but carried no shield. ‘The levers!’ he shouted, ‘the levers!’ He had hoped this would not happen, but the French were ready for it, and a group of men equipped with stout oak poles ran to the trapped side of the tower where they placed anvil-like blocks of timber that would be used as fulcrums so that the levers could lift the left hand side of the tower and so allow it to be shoved on. Other men brought buckets of stones to fill the hole so that the rearward wheel could roll over it.
The crossbow bolts poured down from the walls. Two, three men were down, then Geoffrey bellowed at the nearest pavise holders to bring their shields to protect the men hauling on the levers, and it all took time and the defenders, emboldened by the stalled tower, rained down more bolts. Some Navarese defenders were hit by the French crossbow bolts, but only a few as the garrison ducked behind their stone merlons to rewind their bows. Geoffrey de Charny seemed to have a charmed life because he was not protected by any shield and though the bolts seared close to him none struck as he organised the men who would thrust down on the great oak levers to free the tower. ‘Now!’ he called, and men tried to lift the monstrous tower with the long oak poles.
And the first fire arrow streaked from the castle.
It was a crossbow bolt, wrapped with kindling that was protected by a leather skirt, and the kindling was soaked in pitch that left a black wavering trail of smoke as the bolt streaked from the rampart and thumped into the lower part of the tower. The flame flickered briefly, then went out, but a dozen more fire arrows followed.
‘Water! Water!’ Roland de Verrec called. There were already some leather pails of water on the top platform, but the lurching tower had spilt much of it, but Roland’s men tipped what was left over the top of the drawbridge so that it cascaded down the tower’s front face to soak the already wet hides. More and more fire arrows were thumping home so that the front of the tower smoked in a score of places, but the smoke came only from burning arrows. So far the dampened hides were protecting the tower.
‘Heave!’ Geoffrey de Charny shouted and the men on the levers hauled down and the levers bent and the tower creaked, then one of the levers snapped, sending a half dozen men sprawling. ‘Bring another pole!’
It took five minutes for another pole to be fetched, then the men hauled down again and the peasants were told to shove forward at the same time, and some men at arms ran to help the peasants. Crossbow bolts came thick. More fire arrows were shot, this time at the right hand side of the tower, and one struck under the edge of a hide and lodged in the oak sheathing. No one saw it. It burned there, the flames creeping up into the space between the hides and the planks, hidden by the leather, and though smoke seeped from beneath the stiff leather sheets, there was so much other smoke that it went undetected.
Then the Navarese crossbowmen changed their tactics. Some kept shooting the fire arrows, and some, from the slits in the walls, aimed at the men clustered by the left side of the tower, while the rest aimed their crossbow high in the air so that the bolts screamed into the sky, hung there an instant, then plummeted down onto the tower’s open platform. Most of the bolts missed. Some struck the men waiting to heave on the poles, but a few crashed down onto the platform and Roland, fearing that his men would be killed, ordered them to hold up their shields, but then they could not pour the water that had started to arrive in leather pails. The tower was jerking now as some men levered at the side and others shoved at the back. There was a smell of burning.
‘Pull it back!’ The Lord of Douglas advised Geoffrey de Charny. A crossbow bolt slammed down to bury itself in the turf at the Scotsman’s feet and he kicked it irritably. The drums were beating still, the trumpets were tangling their notes, the defenders were shouting at the French who heaved again at the levers and shoved again at the tower that would not move, and it was now that the Navarese defenders unveiled their last weapon.
It was a springald, an oversized crossbow, that had been mounted on the wall and was drawn back by four men cranking on metal handles. It shot a quarrel fully three feet long and as thick about as a man’s wrist, and the garrison had chosen to keep it hidden until the tower was just a hundred paces away, but the French disarray persuaded them to use it now. They pulled away the great timber screen that had sheltered the weapon and released its metal arrow.
The quarrel hammered into the face of the tower, rocking it back, and such was the force in the steel reinforced bow yard, that was fully ten feet across, that the great iron head pierced leather and wood to stick halfway through the tower’s front. It sprayed sparks and buckled one of the hides, revealing the planks beneath, and three fire arrows thumped home into the bare wood as the springald was laboriously rewound.
‘Pull the damn thing back!’ the Lord of Douglas snarled. Maybe the tower could be backed out of the hole instead of being pushed through it, then the dip could be filled and the great contraption started forward again.
‘Ropes!’ Geoffrey de Charny shouted. ‘Fetch ropes!’
The watching men at arms were silent now. The tower was slightly canted and wreathed in gentle smoke, but it was not obvious what was wrong except to the men close by the stalled tower. The King, still mounted on his white horse, rode a few yards forward, then checked. ‘God is on our side?’ he enquired of a chaplain.
‘He can be on no other, Sire.’
‘Then why?’ The King began the question and decided it was better not answered. Smoke was thickening on the right hand side of the tower now, which suddenly shuddered as a second springald bolt crashed home. A man at arms limped away from the levers with a bolt through his thigh as squires ran with armfuls of rope, but it was too late.
Fire suddenly showed in the centre floor. For a moment there was just a great billow of smoke, then flames shot through the grey. The planks on the right side were alight and there was not enough water to douse the blaze. ‘God can be very fickle,’ the King said bitterly, and turned away. A man was waving a flag to and fro on the ramparts, revelling in the French defeat. The drums and the trumpets fell silent. Men were screaming in the tower, others were jumping to escape the inferno.
Roland was unaware of the fire until the smoke began churning up through the ladder’s hole. ‘Down!’ he shouted, ‘down!’ The first men scrambled down the ladder, but one of their scabbards became entangled in the rungs, and then flame burst through the hole as the trapped man screamed. He was being roasted in his mail. Another man jumped past him and broke a leg when he fell. The burning man was sobbing now, and Roland ran to help him, beating out the flames with his bare hands. Robbie did nothing. He was cursed, he thought. Whatever he touched turned to ash. He had failed Thomas once, he failed his uncle now, he had married, but his wife had died in her first childbirth and the child with her. Cursed, Robbie thought, and he still did not move as the smoke thickened and the flames licked at the platform beneath him, and then the whole tower lurched as a third springald bolt crashed home. There were three men left on the top platform with him and they urged him to try and escape, but he could not move. Roland was carrying a wounded man down the ladders and God must have loved the virgin knight because a fierce swirl of wind blew the flames and smoke away from him as he descended the rungs. ‘Go!’ a man shouted at Robbie, but he was too dispirited to move.
‘You go,’ he told the men with him, ‘just go.’ He drew his sword, thinking at least he could die with a blade in his hand, and he watched as the three men tried to climb down the scaffold of timbers at the tower’s open back, but all were scorched by the fierceness of the flames and they jumped to save their lives. One was unharmed, his fall cushioned by men beneath, but the other two broke bones. One of the four flags topping the tower was burning now, the fleur de lys turning into glowing cinders, and then the whole tower collapsed. It fell slowly at first, creaking, throwing sparks, then the fall became faster as the great contraption keeled over like a proud ship foundering. Men scattered from its base and still Robbie did not move. Roland had reached the ground and Robbie was now alone and rode the burning tower down, clinging to the great stanchion, and the tower fell with a thump and an explosion of sparks and Robbie was thrown clear, rolling amidst small flames and thick smoke, and two Frenchmen saw him and ran into the smoke to pull him clear. He had been knocked unconscious by the impact, but when men splashed his face with water and pulled off his mail coat they found him miraculously uninjured.
‘God saved you,’ one of the men said. The Navarese on Breteuil’s wall were jeering. A crossbow bolt slapped into a timber of the fallen tower that was now an inferno of blazing wood. ‘We must get away from here,’ Robbie’s rescuer said.
The second man brought Robbie his sword while the first helped him to his feet and guided him towards the French tents. ‘Roland,’ Robbie asked, ‘where’s Roland?’ A last crossbow quarrel pursued him, skidding uselessly in the mud. Robbie clutched his sword. He was alive, but why? He wanted to weep, but dared not because he was a soldier, but a soldier for whom? He was a Scot, but if he could not fight against the English then what use was he?
‘God saved you, my friend,’ Roland de Verrec, quite unharmed by the tower’s destruction, spoke to Robbie. The Frenchman held out his hand to help steady Robbie. ‘You have a holy destiny,’ he said.
‘Tournament!’ A second voice snarled.
Robbie, still dazed, saw his uncle, the Lord of Douglas, standing in the smoke of the burning tower. ‘Tournament?’ Robbie asked.
‘The King is going back to Paris and he wants a tournament! A tournament! The English are pissing all over his land and he wants to play games!’
‘I don’t understand,’ Robbie staggered when he stood.
‘Wasn’t there someone who played the lute while his city burned?’
‘Nero,’ Robbie said, “I think.’
‘We’re to play at tournaments while the English piss all over France. No, not piss, while they drop great stinking turds all over King Jean’s precious land and does he give a rat’s fart for that? He wants a tournament! So get your horse, pack up, be ready to leave. Tournament! I should have stayed in Scotland!’
Robbie looked round for Roland. He was not sure why, except that he admired the young Frenchman and if anyone could explain God’s reason for inflicting this defeat then surely it was Roland, but Roland was deep in conversation with a man who wore a livery unfamiliar to Robbie. The man’s jupon displayed a rearing green horse on a white field, and Robbie had seen no other men in King Jean’s army wearing that badge. The man spoke softly and earnestly to Roland who appeared to ask a few questions before shaking the stranger’s hand, and when Roland turned towards Robbie his face was suffused with happiness. The rest of the King’s army might be dejected because the hopes of France were now a burning mass of timber in a wet field, but Roland de Verrec fairly glowed with joy. ‘I have been given a quest,’ he told Robbie, ‘a quest!”
‘There’s going to be a tournament in Paris,’ Robbie said, ‘I’m sure you’ll be needed there.’
‘No,’ Roland said. ‘A maiden is in trouble! She has been snatched from her lawful husband, carried off by a villain, and I am charged with her rescue.’
Robbie just gaped at the virgin knight. Roland had said those words with utmost seriousness, as if he believed he truly was a knight in one of the romances that the troubadours sang.
‘You will be paid generously, sire,’ the knight in the green and white jupon said.
‘The honour of the quest is payment enough,’ Roland de Verrec said, then added hastily, ‘though if your master the Count should offer some small token of thanks then I will, of course, be grateful.’ He bowed to Robbie. ‘We shall meet again,’ he said, ‘and do not forget what I said. You have been saved for a great purpose. You are blessed. And so am I! A quest!’
The Lord of Douglas watched Roland de Verrec walk away. ‘Is he really a virgin?’ he asked in disbelief.
‘He swears so,’ Robbie said.
‘No wonder his right arm is so bloody strong,’ the Lord of Douglas said, ‘but he must be mad as a sack of bloody stoats.’ He spat.
Roland de Verrec had a quest and Robbie was jealous.