And Hook saved his soul.
He dropped through the hole in the attic floor. He forgot his sword, instead drawing the thick-bladed knife that he had once used to eviscerate deer carcasses. He fell just behind the man who could not see because his mail coat was over his head, but he heard Hook’s arrival and he turned just as Hook’s blade ripped across his belly. Nicholas Hook gutted the man. The strength of an archer’s right arm was in the cut and the blade went deep and the guts slithered out like eels tumbling from a slit sack as the man gave a strangulated cry that was muffled by the heavy coat that shrouded his head, and he cried again as the knife gave a second cut, upwards this time as Hook pushed his knife hand deep into the man’s ruined belly to drive the blade up under the rib cage to find and puncture the rapists’s heart.
The man dropped back onto the bed and was dead before he hit the pallet.
And Hook, blood wet to his elbow, stared down at his victim.
He realised later that the down-filled pallet had saved his life for it soaked up the blood which otherwise would have dripped through the floorboards to alarm the men beneath. There were two of them, both wearing Sir Roger’s livery, but Hook, standing in fear over his victim, noticed that the dead man’s surcoat was made of much finer cloth than was usual. He moved away from the hatch in the floor. The two men were ransacking a store cupboard and seemed oblivious of the death that had just occurred above their heads.
The dead man’s mail coat was tight-linked and polished, studded with the buckles that had anchored his plate armour. Hook crouched and tugged the coat clear of the man’s head and saw that he had killed Sir Roger Stour. Sir Roger, ostensibly a Burgundian ally, had been left alive to rape and steal, which surely meant that Sir Roger had been secretly on the side of the French. Hook tried to comprehend that betrayal, while the naked girl stared at him with eyes and mouth wide open. She appeared scared and Hook feared she was about to scream and so he put a finger to his lips, but she shook her head and suddenly began to make small desperate noises, half moans, half gasps, and Hook frowned, then understood that silence was more suspicious than the noise of her distress. He nodded at her, then cut away a blood-drenched purse attached to Sir Roger’s belt. He also pulled Sir Roger’s surcoat clear of the mail coat and tossed it with the purse into the attic then reached up and gripped one of the beams. He pulled himself into the roofspace, then stretched his right arm for the girl.
She gave him her hand and he pulled her up as easily as he hauled back a bowstring. It took less effort. He gestured at the surcoat and purse and she scooped them up, then followed him along the attic. He pushed through the flimsy wattle screen that divided the roof space, treading carefully as the light diminished. He went to very end, three houses down from where he had killed Sir Roger, and he gestured at the girl again, motioning her to crouch by the gable wall, and then, working slowly so as to make as little noise as possible, he pulled down the roof thatch.
It took maybe an hour. He not only dragged down the thatch, but forced some pegged rafters off the ridge timber, and when he had finished he reckoned it looked as though the roof had collapsed and he and the girl crept under the straw and timbers and huddled there. He had made a hiding place.
And all he could do was wait. The girl waited with him and sometimes she spoke, but Hook had learned little French during his stay in Soissons. He hushed her, and after a while she leaned against him and fell asleep, though sometimes she would whimper and Hook awkwardly tried to soothe her. She was wearing Sir Roger’s surcoat, still damp with his blood. Hook untied the purse’s strings and saw coins, gold and silver, the price, he suspected, of betrayal.
Dawn was smoky grey. Sir Roger’s gutted corpse was found before the sun came up and there was a great hue and cry and Hook heard the men ransacking the row of houses beneath him, but his hiding place was cunningly made and no one thought to look in the tangle of straw and timber. The girl woke then and Hook laid a finger on her lips and she shivered as she clung to him. Hook’s fear was still there, but it had settled into a resignation, and somehow the company of the girl gave him a hope that had not been in his soul the night before. Or perhaps, he thought, the twin saints of Soissons were protecting him and he made the sign of the cross and sent a prayer of gratitude to Crispin and Crispinian. They were silent now, but he had done what they had told him to do. He had done what he had failed to do in London and so hope flickered inside him. It was a feeble hope, small as a candle’s flame in a high wind, but it was there.
The city had become quieter as the dawn approached, but as the sun rose over the cathedral the noise began again. There were screams and moans and cries. Hook could see down into the small square in front of the church of Saint Antoine le Petit. The two girls who had been tied to the barrels were gone, though the men at arms were still there. An elderly nun lay dead, her head lying in a pool of black blood. A man at arms rode through the square, a naked girl draped belly down on the saddle in front of him. He slapped her rump as he rode, and the watching men laughed.
Hook waited. He needed to piss badly, but dared not move, so he wet his breeches and the girl smelt it and grimaced, but had to pee herself a moment later. She began to cry softly and Hook held her close until her tears stopped. She murmured to him, and he murmured back, and neither understood the other, but both were comforted.
Then the sound of more hooves made Hook twist back to peer down into the square to see that a score of horsemen had arrived in front of the church. One man carried a banner of golden lilies on a blue field. The horsemen were in armour, though none wore a helmet, and they were followed by armoured men at arms who came on foot.
Then Hook saw the surcoat which showed three hawks on a green field and he realised that one of the mounted men must be an Englishman who had been in Sir Roger’s service, and it was that man who spurred his horse to the church and, leaning from the saddle, pounded a shortened lance on the door. He shouted something, though Hook was too far away to hear, but it must have been words of reassurance because, a moment later, the church door opened and Sergeant Smithson peered out.
The two men talked, then Smithson went back into the church, and there was a long pause. Hook waited, wondering what was happening, then the church door swung open again and the English archers filed warily into the sunlight. It seemed that Sir Roger had kept his word and Hook, watching from the ravaged gable, wondered if there was any chance of joining the bowmen who now gathered in front of the Englishman’s horse. Sir Roger must have agreed that the archers would be spared, for the French appeared to be welcoming them. Smithson’s men piled their bows, arrow-bags and swords by the church door, and then, one by one, knelt to a horseman whose stallion was gaudy with the golden lilies on their blue cloth. The rider wore a gold coronet and bright polished armour and he raised a hand in what appeared to be a kindly benediction towards the suppliant archers. Only John Wilkinson hung back close to the church.
If I can reach the street, Hook thought, then I can run to join my countrymen. “No,” Saint Crispinian whispered in Hook’s head, startling him. The girl was clutching him.
“No?” Hook whispered aloud.
“No,” Saint Crispinian said again, very firmly.
The girl asked Hook something and he hushed her. “Wasn’t talking to you, lass,” he whispered.
The blue and gold horseman held his mailed fist high for a few heartbeats, then abruptly dropped his hand.
And the massacre began.
The men at arms drew swords and attacked the kneeling archers. The first of the bowmen died swiftly, because they were unprepared, but others drew their short knives and fought back, but the Frenchmen were in plate armour and they carried the longer blades and they came at the archers from every side. Sir Roger’s man-at-arms watched. John Wilkinson snatched up a sword from the pile by the church door, but a man-at-arms ran him through with a shortened lance, and a second Frenchman cut down through his neck so that Wilkinson’s blood sprayed high on the door’s stone archway that was carved with angels and fishes. Some archers were taken alive, bludgeoned back to the ground and guarded there by the grinning men at arms.
The man in the golden coronet turned and rode away, followed by his standard bearer, his squire, his page and a dozen followers. The Englishman wearing the badge of the three hawks rode with them, turning his back on the surviving archers who called out for mercy. But there was no mercy.
The French had long memories of defeat and hated the men who drew the long war bow. At Crecy the French had outnumbered the English and trapped them, and the French had charged across the low valley to rid the world of the impudent invaders, and it had been the archers who had defeated them by filling the sky with goose-fledged death and so cut down noble knights with their wicked long-nosed arrows. Then, at Poitiers, the archers had ripped apart the chivalry of France and at that day’s end the King of France was a prisoner of the English, and all those insults still rankled, and so there was no mercy.
Hook and the girl listened. There were thirty or forty archers still alive and the French chopped off two fingers of each man’s right hand so they could never again draw a bow. And maybe, Hook thought, the revenge would end there, but it had only begun.
A tall man, mounted on a high horse, watched the archers’ deaths. The man had long black hair that fell below his shoulders and Hook, who had the eyesight of a hawk, could see the man’s handsome, sun-darkened face. Over his armour he wore a bright surcoat which showed a golden sun from which rays snaked and shot, and on the bright sun was an eagle’s head. The girl did not see the man. She had her face buried in Hook’s arms. She could hear the screams and she whimpered, but she would not watch.
But Hook watched. He reckoned the tall man who wore the eagle and the sun could have stopped the torture and murder, but he did nothing. He just sat in his saddle and watched as the French stripped the surviving archers naked, then took their eyes with the points of long knives. The men-at-arms taunted the newly-blinded archers and scoured out their sockets with sharp blades. One Frenchman pretended to eat an eyeball, and the others laughed. The long-haired man did not laugh, he just observed, and his face showed nothing as the blinded men were laid flat on the cobbles to be castrated. Their screams filled the city, that was already filled with screaming. The handsome man on the handsome warhorse left the square and the archers were left to bleed to death, sightless under a summer sky. Death took a long time, and Hook shivered though the air was warm. Saint Crispinian was silent.
All day the sack of the city continued. The cathedral and the parish churches and the nunnery and the priories were all plundered. Women and children were raped again and again, and their menfolk were murdered and God turned his face away from Soissons. The Sire de Bournonville was executed, and he was fortunate, for he died without being tortured first. The castle, supposedly a refuge, had fallen without a fight as the French, permitted into the town by the treachery of Sir Roger, found its gate open and its portcullis raised. The Burgundians died, and only Sir Roger’s men, complicit in their dead leader’s betrayal, had been allowed to live as the city was put to the sword. The citizens had resented their Burgundian garrison and had never abandoned their loyalty to the King of France, but now, in a welter of blood, rape and theft, the French rewarded that loyalty with massacre.
“Je suis Melisande,” the girl said over and over, and Hook did not understand at first, but at last realised she was saying her name.
“Oui,” she said.
“Nicholas,” she repeated. They spoke in whispers, they waited, they listened to the sound of a city screaming, they smelt the ale and the blood.
“I don’t know how we get out of this place,” Hook said to Melisande who did not understand what he said. She nodded anyway, then fell asleep under the straw with her head on his shoulder and Hook closed his eyes and prayed to Crispinian. Help us out of the city, he begged the saint, and help me get home. Except, he thought with sudden despair, an outlaw has no home.
“You will reach home,” Saint Crispinian said to him.
Hook paused, wondering how a saint could speak to him. Had he imagined the voice? Yet it seemed real, real as the screams that had marked the death of archers. Then he wondered how he could escape the city because the French would surely have sentries on all the gates.
“Then use the breach,” Saint Crispinian suggested gently.
“We’ll go out through the breach,” Hook said to Melisande, but she was sleeping.
As night fell Hook watched pigs, evidently released from their sties behind the city’s houses, feasting on the dead archers. Soissons was quieter now, the victors’ appetites slaked on bodies and ale. The moon rose, but God sent high clouds that first misted the silver, then hid it, and in the darkness Hook and Melisande made their way downstairs and out into the reeking street. It was the middle of the night and men snored in broken houses. No one guarded the breach. Melisande, swathed in Sir Roger’s bloody surcoat, held Hook’s hand as they crossed the wall’s rubble, and then as they walked uphill past the abandoned besieger’s camp and so into the higher woods where no blood stank and no corpses lay.
Soissons was dead.
But Hook and Melisande lived.