Azincourt (Extract)

Hook understood then how the deer felt when the hounds were in every thicket and men were beating the undergrowth and arrows were whickering through the leaves. He had often wondered if an animal could know what death was. They knew fear, and they knew defiance, but beyond fear and defiance came the gut-emptying panic, the last moments of life as the hunters close in and the heart races and the mind slithers frantically. Hook ran. At first he just ran. The bells were still crashing, dogs howling, men roaring war shouts, horns calling, a building collapsing in flames beneath the smoke above a city lit raw by fire. He ran into a small square, a space where leather merchants usually displayed their hides, and it was oddly deserted, but then he heard the sounds of bolts being shot and he understood that folk were hiding in their houses and barring their doors. Crashes announced where soldiers were kicking or beating those locked doors down. Go to the castle, he thought, and he ran that way, but turned a corner to see the wide space in front of the cathedral filled with men in unfamiliar liveries, their surcoats lit by the torches they carried, and he doubled back like a deer recoiling from hounds. Go to Saint Antoine le Petit’s church, he decided, and he sprinted down an alley, twisted into another, ran across the open space in front of the city’s biggest nunnery, turned down the street where the Goose tavern was, and saw still more men in their strange liveries, and those men blocked his way to the church. They spotted him and a growl sounded, and the growl turned into a triumphant howl as they ran towards him, and Hook, desperate as any doomed animal, bolted into an alley, leaped at the wall which blocked the end, sprawled over into a small yard that stank of sewage, scrambled across a second wall and then, surrounded by shouts and quivering with fear he sank into a dark corner and waited.
A hunted deer would do that. When it saw no escape it would freeze, shiver and wait for the death it must sense. Hook shivered.
Then he realised his pursuers had evidently abandoned the chase. There was so much plunder for them in Soissons and so many victims, that one fugitive did not interest them and Hook, slowly recovering his senses, realised he had found a temporary refuge. He was in one of the Goose’s back yards, a place beside the brewery where the barrels were washed and repaired. A door of the tavern suddenly opened and a flaming torch illuminated the trestles and staves and tuns. A man peered into the yard, said something dismissive and went back into the tavern where a woman screamed.
Hook stayed where he was. He dared not move. The city was full of women screaming, full of hoarse male laughter, full of crying children. A cat stalked past him. The church bells had long ceased their clangour. He knew he could not stay where he was. Dawn would reveal him. Oh God, oh God, oh God, he prayed, unaware that he prayed. Be with me now and at the hour of my death. He shivered.
He stood. Perhaps there was a chance he could reach the church? It was much closer than the castle, and Sir Roger had promised to make an attempt to save the archers’ lives, and though it seemed a slender hope, it was all Hook could think of, and so he pulled himself up the yard’s wall to peer over the top. The Goose’s stables were next door. No noise came from them and so he climbed onto the wall and from there he could step onto the stable roof that half buckled under his weight, but by staying on the roof top, where the ridge beam ran, he could shuffle until he reached the farther gable where he dropped into a dark alley. He was shaking again, knowing he was more vulnerable here. He moved silently, slowly, until he could peer about the alley’s corner to where the church lay.
And he saw there was no escape.
The church of Saint Antoine-le-Petit was guarded by enemies. There were over thirty men at arms there, and a dozen crossbowmen, all in liveries that Hook had not seen before. If Smithson and the archers were inside the church then they were safe enough, for they could defend the door, but it seemed plain to Hook that the enemy was simply there to prevent any archer escaping and, he assumed, they would stop any stray archer trying to approach the church. He thought of running for the doorway, but guessed it would be locked and that, while he was beating on the heavy timber, the crossbowmen would use him as a target.

The enemy was not just guarding the church. They had fetched barrels from the Goose and were drinking, and they had brought two girls from somewhere and had stripped them naked and tied them across the two barrels with their legs spread, and now the men took it in turns to hitch up their mail coats and rape the girls who lay silent as if they had been emptied of moans and tears. The city was full of women screaming, and the sound scored across Hook’s conscience like an arrow head scraping on slate, and perhaps that was why he did not move, but just stood at the corner like an animal that had no place to run or hide,
Then a door opened onto the alley and a flood of light washed across Hook who turned to see a man at arms stagger into the mud. The man wore a surcoat showing a silver wheatsheaf on a green field. The man fell to his knees and vomited as another man, in the same livery, came to the door and laughed. It was that second man who saw Hook and recognised the great war bow, and so drew his sword.
Hook reacted in panic. He thrust the bow at the man. In his head he was screaming, unable to think, but the lunge had all his archer’s strength in it and the horn-nock of the bow’s tip pierced the man-at-arm’s throat before his sword was half drawn. Blood misted black as the man scrabbled at his throat and still Hook thrust so that the bow ripped clean through windpipe and muscle, skin and sinew to strike the door jamb. The kneeling man was roaring, spraying vomit as he clawed at Hook who, still in panic, made a mewing noise of utter despair as he let go of the bow and thrust his hands at his new assailant. He felt his fingers crush the man’s eyeballs and the man began to scream, and Hook was dimly aware that the rapists outside the church were coming for him and he scrambled through the door, half tripping on the first man who lay trying to pull the bow from his ruptured throat as Hook ran across a room, burst through another door, down a passage, a third door, and he was in another yard, still not thinking, over a wall, another wall, and there were shouts behind him and screams around him and he was in absolute terror now. He had lost his great yew bow, and had dropped the arrow bags, though he still had the sword every archer was expected to wear. He had never used it. He still wore the ragged red cross of Burgundy too, and he began to tear at the surcoat, trying to rid himself of the symbol as he looked desperately for an escape, any escape, and then saw a dark house with an open door and ran to it.

The door led into a large empty room where a lantern showed a dead man sprawled over a cushioned wooden bench. The man’s blood had sheeted across the flagstones. A tapestry hung on one wall and there were cupboards and a long table holding an abacus and sheets of parchment that were speared on a tall spike. Hook reckoned the dead man must have been a merchant. In one corner a ladder climbed to a higher floor and Hook went up quickly to find a plastered chamber which held a wooden bed with a pallet and blankets. A second ladder led into the attic and he clambered up and pulled the ladder into the space beneath the rafters and cursed himself for not having done the same with the first ladder. Too late now. He dared not drop down into the house and so he crouched in the bat-droppings beneath the thatch. He was shaking. Men were shouting in the houses beneath him, and for a time it seemed he must be discovered, especially when someone climbed into the room where the bed stood, but the man only glanced about before leaving, and the rest of the searchers grew bored, or else found other quarry, for after a while their excited shouting died. The screaming went on, indeed the screaming became louder and it seemed to Hook, listening in puzzlement, that a whole group of women were just outside the house, all shrieking, and he crouched, flinching from the sound. He thought of Sarah in London, of Sir Martin the priest, and of the men he had just seen who had looked so bored as they raped their two silent victims.
The screaming turned into sobbing, broken only by mens’ laughter. Hook was shivering, not with cold, but with fear and guilt, and then he shrank into the rafters for the room beneath was suddenly lit by a lantern. The light leaked through the attic’s crude floorboards that were loosely laid over untrimmed beams. A man had climbed into the room and was shouting down the ladder to other men, and then a woman cried and there was the sound of a slap.
“You’re a pretty one,” the man said, and Hook was so frightened that he did not even notice that the man spoke English.
“Non,” the woman whimpered.
“Too pretty to share. You’re all mine, girl.”
Hook peered through a crack in the boards. He could see a wide-brimmed helmet that half obscured the man’s shoulders, and then he saw that the woman was a white-robed nun who crouched in a corner of the room. She was whimpering. “Jésus,” she cried, “Marie, mère de Dieu!” And the last word turned into a scream as the man drew a knife. “Non!” she shouted, “non! Non! Non!” and the helmeted man slapped her hard enough to silence her as he pulled her upright. He put the knife at her neck, then slashed so that her habit was sliced down the front. He ripped the blade further and, despite her struggles, tore the white robe away from her and then cut at her undergarments. He threw her ruined clothes down to the lower floor and, when she was naked, pushed her onto the pallet where she curled into a ball and sobbed.
“Oh, I’m sure God was delighted with that day’s work!” The voice said, though no one spoke because the voice was in Hook’s head. It was John Wilkinson’s voice, repeating the words the old archer had spoken to Hook in the cathedral, but in Hook’s mind it was a saint who talked to him. It was Crispinian, the saint to whom he had addressed most of his prayers, and he was convinced that the martyr spoke to him, for he could see the two saints in his mind’s eye. They wore their white robes and Crispinian carried his wicker tray of apples and pears, and he looked sadly at Hook, and Hook understood that heaven had given him a chance to make amends. The nun in the room below had cried to Christ’s mother, and the Virgin must have spoken to the saints of Soissons who now spoke to Hook, but Hook was frightened. He was hearing voices again. He did not know it, but he was kneeling. God was speaking to him through Saint Crispinian.
And Hook was terrified.
The man in the room below threw down his helmet. He unbuckled his sword belt and tossed it aside, then he growled something at the girl before hauling his mail coat and its covering surcoat over his head. Hook recognised the badge on the surcoat as Sir Roger Stour’s three hawks on a green field. What was that badge doing here? It was the victorious besiegers who were raping and ransacking the city, not the defeated garrison. “Now,” Saint Crispinian said.
Hook did not move.
“Now!” Saint Crispin snarled in Hook’s head. Saint Crispin was not as friendly as Crispinian and Hook shuddered when the saint snapped the word. The man, Hook was not sure whether it was Sir Roger himself or one of his men at arms, was struggling with the heavy mail coat that was half over his head and constricting his arms.
“For God’s sake!” Crispinian appealed to Hook.
“Do it, boy,” Saint Crispin said harshly.
“Save your soul, Nicholas,” Crispinian said gently.