Azincourt (Extract)

The priest walked away and Hook decided to take his advice and pray to the two local saints again and so he went to an altar beneath a painting of the two martyrs and there he prayed for the soul of Sarah, the girl whose life he had failed to save in London. He stared up at the painting as he prayed. The two saints stood in a green field scattered with golden stars on a hill above a white-walled city. They looked gravely and a little sadly towards Hook. They did not look like shoemakers. They were dressed in white robes and Crispin carried a shepherd’s crook while Crispinian held a wicker tray of apples and pears. Their names were painted beneath each man and Hook, though he could not read, could tell which saint was which because one name was longer than the other. Crispinian looked much the friendlier man. He had a rounder face and blue eyes and a half smile of great kindliness, while Saint Crispin appeared much sterner and was half turned away, as though he was about to walk down the hill and into the city, and so Hook fell into the habit of praying to Crispinian each morning, though he always acknowledged Crispin too. He dropped two pennies in the jar each time he prayed.
“To look at you,” John Wilkinson said that evening, “I wouldn’t take you for a man of prayer.”
“I wasn’t,” Hook said, “till now.”
“Frightened for your soul?” the old archer asked.
Hook hesitated. He was binding arrow fledging with the silk stolen from the cathedral. “I heard a voice,” he blurted out suddenly.
“A voice?” Wilkinson asked. Hook said nothing. “God’s voice?” the older man asked.
“It was in London,” Hook said.
He felt foolish for his admission, but Wilkinson took it seriously. He stared at Hook for a long time, then nodded abruptly. “You’re a lucky man, Nicholas Hook.”
“I am?”
“If God spoke to you then he must have a purpose for you. That means you might survive this siege.”
“If it was God who spoke to me,” Hook said, embarrassed.
“Why shouldn’t He? He needs to speak to people, on account that the church don’t listen to Him.”
“It doesn’t?”
Wilkinson spat. “The church is about money, lad, money. Priests are supposed to be shepherds, aren’t they? Looking after the flock, but they’re all in the manor hall stuffing their faces, so the sheep have to look after themselves.” He pointed an arrow at Hook. “And if the French break into the town, Hook, don’t go to Saint Antoine le Petit! Go to the castle”
“Sir Roger . . .” Hook began.
“Wants us dead!” Wilkinson said angrily.
“Why would he want that?”
“Because he’s crammed to the throat with shit, that’s why. You go to the castle, lad! That’s what you do.”
The next few nights were dark. The moon was a sliver like a cut-throat’s blade. The Sire de Bournonville feared a night attack and ordered dogs to be tethered out in the wasteland where the houses had been burned. If the dogs barked, he said, the warning bell on the western gate was to be rung, and the dogs did bark and the bell was rung, but no Frenchmen assaulted the breach. Instead, in the dawn, as a mist slid across the river, the besiegers catapulted the dogs’ corpses into the town. The animals had been gelded then had their throats cut as a warning of the fate that awaited the defiant garrison.
The feast of Saint Abdus passed, and no relief force arrived, and then Saint Possidius’s feast came and went, and next day was the feast of the seven holy virgins, and Hook prayed to each one, and in the next dawn he sent a plea to Saint Dunstan, the Englishman, on his feast day, and the day after that to Saint Ethelbert, who had been a king of England, and all the time he also prayed to Crispinian and to Crispin, begging their protection, and on the very next day, on the feast of Saint Hospitius, he received his answer.
When the French, who had been praying to Saint Denis, attacked Soissons.

* * *

The first Hook knew of the assault was the clanging sound of the city’s church bells ringing in frantic haste and disorder. It was after dark and he was momentarily confused. He slept on straw at the back of John Wilkinson’s workshop and he saw flames leap high as the old man threw wood on the brazier to give some light. “Don’t lie there like a hog, boy,” Wilkinson said, “they’re here.”
“Mary, mother of God,” Hook grumbled.
“I’ve an inkling she don’t care one way or the other,” Wilkinson said. He was pulling on a mail coat, struggling to get the heavy links over his head. “There’s an arrow bag by the door,” he went on, his voice muffled by the haubergeon, “full of straight ones. Left it for you. Go, boy, kill some bastards.”
“What about you?” Hook asked. He was tugging on his boots, new boots made by a skilled cobbler of Soissons.
“I’ll catch up with you! String your bow, son, and go!”
Hook buckled his sword belt, strung his bow, snatched his arrow-bag, then took the second bag from beside the door and ran into the tavern yard. He could hear shouting and screams, but where they came from he could not tell. Archers were pouring into the yard and he instinctively followed them towards the new defences behind the breach. The church bells were hammering the night sky with noise. Dogs barked and howled.
Hook had no armour except for an ancient helmet that Wilkinson had given him and which sat on his head like a bowl. He had a padded jacket that might stop a feeble sword swing, but that was all his protection. Other archers had short mail coats and close fitting helmets. They all wore a brief surcoat, blazoned with the jagged red cross, and Hook saw the liveried archers lining the new wall that was made of wicker baskets filled with earth. None was drawing a cord, instead they just looked towards the breach that flared with sudden light as men threw pitch-soaked torches into the gap of the gun-ravaged wall.
There was no enemy in the breach. Yet the bells rang and the screams sounded, and Hook swung round to realise that the French must be attacking the southern wall, maybe close to the Paris gate that was commanded by Sir Roger Stour and defended by the English men-at-arms. There was a glow in the sky above the rooftops, a glow that flickered lurid on the cathedral’s tower, evidence that buildings burned somewhere near that southern gate.
Sergeant Smithson looked nervous. He kept glancing towards the glow of the fires, then back to the breach that remained empty. “Devil’s turd,” he said of no one in particular.
“What’s happening?” An archer demanded.
“How in God’s name would I know?” Smithson snarled.
“I think they’re already inside the city,” John Wilkinson said mildly. He had brought a dozen sheaves of spare arrows that he dropped behind the archers. The screaming from the southern part of Soissons was louder. Burgundian crossbowmen ran past Hook, abandoning the breach and going towards the sound of the screams.
“If they’re inside the town,” Smithson said uncertainly, “then we go to the church!”
“Not the castle?” a man demanded.
“We go to the church!” Smithson said. “Do as Sir Roger says. He’s gentry, isn’t he? Must know what he’s doing.”
“Now?” a man asked, “we go now?” but Smithson said nothing. He was confused.

Hook was staring at the breach. It was dark except for the feeble flames from the torches, but suddenly he was aware of other lights moving there, shifting silver-grey lights, like smoke in moonlight, or like the ghosts of All Hallows Eve. The lights, Hook thought, were beautiful; filmy and vaporous in the darkness. He stared, wondering what the glowing shapes were, and then the silver-grey turned to red and he realised, with a start of fear, that they were men. He was seeing the light of the torches reflected from plate armour. “Sergeant!” he shouted.
“What is it?” Smithson snapped back.
“Bastards are here!” Hook called, and they were. The bastards were coming through the breach. Their plate armour was scoured bright and they were coming beneath a banner of blue on which golden lilies blossomed. Their visors were closed and their long swords flashed back the flamelight. They looked like men of burning metal, phantoms from the dreams of hell, death coming in the dark to Soissons. He could not count them, they were so many.
“God’s shit,” Smithson said, “stop them!”
Hook did what he was told. He stepped back to the barricade, plucked an arrow from the linen bag and lay it on the bow’s stave,
Most grown men in the prime of their strength could not pull a war bow’s cord back to the ear. Even men-at-arms, toughened by war and hardened by sword exercises, could only draw the hemp cord halfway, but Hook made it look easy. His arm flowed back, his eyes sought a mark for the arrow’s bright head and he did not even think as he released. He was already reaching for the second arrow as the first, a shaft-weighted bodkin, slapped through a breastplate of sheet steel and threw the man back onto the French standard bearer.
And Hook loosed again, not thinking, only knowing that he had been told to stop this attack. He loosed shaft after shaft. He drew the cord to his right ear and was not aware of the tiny shifts his left hand made to send the white-feathered arrow on its short journey from cord to victim. He was not aware of the deaths he caused or the injuries he gave or of the arrows that glanced off armour to spin uselessly away. Most were not useless. The long bodkin heads could easily punch through armour at this close range and Hook was stronger than most archers who were stronger than most men, and his bow was heavy. John Wilkinson, when he had first met Hook, had drawn the younger man’s bow and failed to get the cord past his chin, and he had given Hook a glance of respect, and now that long, thick-bellied bow made from the trunk of a yew cut in far off Savoy, was sending death in the screaming dark, except that Hook was only seeing the enemy who came across the breach where the guttering torches burned, and he did not notice the dark floods of men who surged at either edge of the wall’s gap and who were already tugging at the wicker baskets. Then part of the barricade collapsed and the noise made Hook turn to see that he was the only archer left at the defences. The breach, despite the dead who lay there and the injured who crawled there, was filled with howling men. The light was fire, flame red, shot with smoke, loud with war-shouts. Hook realised then that John Wilkinson had shouted at him to run, but in the moment’s excitement, the shout had not lodged in Hook’s mind.
But now it did. He plucked up the full arrow bag and ran.
Men howled behind him. The barricade fell and the French swarmed across its remnants and into the city.