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At the Point of a Quarrel

 

At the Point of a Quarrel

The Specter of Agincourt

Paul Telegdi

Dedicated to my family for their enthusiasm and encouragement

Written October 2014 – October 2015

Copyright © 2015, Paul Telegdi

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever

Although historical events were used as a backdrop, the story itself is fiction in its entirety, not a carefully researched document. Often history was bent to the needs of the story.

Published by Paul Telegdi on Shakespir

To enjoy other books by Paul Telegdi please visit www.seeWordFactory.com

Dreamcast 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (paranormal)

The Call at 3:18 am (paranormal)

14-, 15-, 16-, 17- and 18 Stones (prehistoric)

Seize the Day (Roman)

Strike the Red Hammer (Norman)

The Locksmith’s Dilemma (medieval)

Where Arrows Fly (medieval)

Dark Fires (medieval)

Learning Berserk (Viking)

Unlearning Berserk (Viking)

Chance Encounters (a life in progress)

On the Razor’s Edge (prison novel)

Remembering PT-927 (WWII)

The Lady Bug (WWII)

Foreword

The 13th and 14th centuries spanned some of the most turbulent times in Western European history, defined by the protracted war between the English and the French. The issue at the heart of the conflict was the competing claims for the French throne. The English held to rights through matriarchal ties, but the French law didn’t recognize claims through the female line. This set the English House of Plantagenet against the French House of Valois.

For years many wars were fought over this inheritance, which today we call the Hundred Years’ War. Some scholars calculate this conflict as spanning from 1337 to 1453, in excess of a hundred years. It is unclear to me what the English and the French called the wars at the time. I suspect they saw them as individual campaigns of Kings who fought in them over successive generations.

It’s even less clear how the common folk saw this conflict. Obviously they tried to survive the troubles of the moment. I set myself the task of looking at this time from the bottom up, concerned with the everyday. To do this I needed to find characters not tied down by property or strong roots to a place, free to be cast adrift by the currents of history. My protagonists, Rogé and Clod, serve my purpose admirably.

So welcome to the Wars; I wish you good reading. See if you could have survived the times. I nearly didn’t, ever despairing over the task of editing.

Chapter 1

Squinting in the disturbingly bright light of the midday sun, Rogé still kept his eyes on the six pigs he was in charge of. Nearby, with her snout digging into the black earth, the lead sow grubbed for roots. She grunted irritably, as was her habit, never satisfied. Beside her the other older sow was even less happy, her worn teeth not up to anything tough. The piglets kept near, only the male trying to forage; the females stuck close to their mother hoping for the sow to give them tit, complaining half-heartedly when she didn’t.

Relaxing, Rogé leaned back into the thick matt of grass, enjoying for once not having to toil at a harder task the Squire usually assigned. Above him the broad crown of the hornbeam gave shade, yet the air was hot and stifling, with no wind to bring relief. A large fly buzzed his face and lazily he swiped at it to drive it off.

It was a fine, early October day. With the grass showing a fresh spurt, the pigs should have been happy, but not the sow. Having found a patch of sweet clover, she squealed, drawing a quick look from Rogé. Lower on the slope his friend Clod was minding his group of five pigs as they tracked through the copse of oak and beech mixed with a few birches. The two herds had to be kept apart as the sows, Bibi and Dona, didn’t get along. The last time Bibi tore off most of Dona’s left ear, and they nearly lost her from the festering wound. Saint Hubert be praised, the worst hadn’t happened, but the mishap still earned them a beating with the Squire’s wide, studded belt that left angry marks on Rogé’s backside which hurt to this day.

Chewing on a stalk of rye grass, Clod came over and let himself down beside Rogé.

“Good day to do little. Sure beats having to clean out the stalls or split firewood for winter under this hot sun,” Clod said, stretching out his back. “I might just take a nap. Keep your eye on my lot and when I wake up, I’ll do the same for you.”

“Whoa, not so fast! If the sows get into another fight the Squire will have both our hides.”

“What’s eating you? The sows are yards apart. If they get too close, throw a few stones at them.”

“No, definitely not. I won’t risk another beating just so you can snooze.”

“All right, all right, have it your way. I watch, you watch and neither of us gets a nap.”

Rogé’s throat was parched; from his knapsack he fished out a flask and took a sip of fetid water. Clod reached over, grabbed the flask and finished it in one gulp. “Warm as horse piss,” he said, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his soiled shirt.

“You know the rules, you finished it, so you go and get some fresh water from the brook,” Rogé said gleefully as Clod made a displeased face.

Rogé and Clod had grown up in the same parish orphanage after both their families died in the third wave of the plague that killed nearly a third of the population, regardless if rich or poor, young or old, pious or not. Rogé couldn’t remember any of his family or even his own name. For no reason someone had called him Rouge and it stuck, but over the years it evolved into Rogé. Same for his friend: Claude became Clod. They were bunkmates, sharing the same pallet with four others. When they were eight they were sold into servitude to Squire Marcel who drove them hard to get the most out of them. The farm was big enough to keep the boys busy with chores from sunup to sundown without letup, in exchange for some paltry food that was never enough, and the straw in the haymow full of manure smells wafting up from below. It was slavery, but the times were hard: there were wars all around, perennial marauders crisscrossing the land, robbers in the forest, sky high prices in the markets, and the harvest had failed three years in a row. It was lucky to have any shelter at all and not be forced to wander on the open road, begging for scraps and leftovers. It was a rare day when they were set to drive the pigs into the woods or the geese into the high meadow. Light work for a whole day, better even than any church holiday when they had to pray and fast through the day.

“I tell you Rosa has a nice pair of… tits,” Clod said dreamily.

Rogé laughed. “For a second, I thought you were going to say nice pair of eyes.”

“Who cares about eyes when there is so much of her to go around? Haven’t you noticed how nicely she’s filled out? All in the right places too.”

“Sure I noticed… that Andre glowers cross eyed at anyone who looks too long at her. Keep it up and you’ll earn the hard point of his boots for sure.”

“Ahh what? Andre is a halfwit.”

“Maybe, but a strong halfwit.”

“Anyway, Rosa’s worth a kick or two. I’ve a good mind to pinch her bottom. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.”

“Speaking of water, you better go and get some. Soon we’ll be driving the herd away from the brook.”

But Clod wasn’t yet ready to give up daydreaming. They didn’t often have the opportunity to lounge around indolently like this. “I won’t be a swineherder for long. When I come of age, I’ll join a monastery and enjoy an easy life. To hell with all this work! Some days I can’t even straighten my back after a day in the fields.”

“That’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The friars work hard day in and day out, and the rest of the time they’re on their knees praying. I don’t see you happy doing that.”

“You think I’m stupid??! I won’t join the Franciscans, Benedictines or any of the begging monks with their eternal vows of poverty. I will join the White Monks.”

“The Cistercians?”

“Sure. They know how to live and not short themselves on food or drink. It’s also been said they don’t eschew women either… not afraid of the temptation of Eve.”

“You didn’t hear that from the abbot.”

“No, from the fuller’s girls who are not averse to picking up a few coins or a bauble by being accommodating to the White Robes. Everyone knows they have tons of silver and gold.”

“They earn that through shrewd business deals. You need to learn to read, write and count. They won’t take just anybody. Not with so many in the countryside looking for shelter. I think you’ll find their doors closed to the likes of you.”

“I will find a way. A mouse gets through the thickest walls and so shall I. Think of it. How would you like to eat blood sausage, pigeon pie for supper and wash it down with Belgian beer or some wine from the Rhone Valley?” The suggested menu sounded alluring and they lapsed into silence as their stomachs complained about being empty.

“Don’t you want more than this?” Clod asked.

“Sure, but where can one go? Not into the army, that’s plain butchery. See how Ambrose came back, legs and an arm missing. If it wasn’t for his parents he would surely be dead of starvation. The man can’t work, can’t even dress himself. What’s left? Run away to a town? Become an apprentice? Work your fingers to the bone in some atelier, breathing in the stinking air and washing in foul town water? At least in the country you get plenty of fresh air and sunshine.”

“And nothing else…” Clod muttered sourly. Then he brightened. “I’ll pinch Rosa’s bottom tonight, just you wait and see.”

“I’ll die of old age before I get to see half of what you promise.”

“Want to bet? The loser has to clean out the horse stalls for a fortnight.” They shook on it, the bet was on.

The pigs got too close to each other and both youths threw rocks and pebbles at them to keep them apart. “Get going you stupid beasts or I’ll make bacon of you now…” Clod chucked a piece of branch, hitting Bibi broadside. The sow turned and was set to charge, but thought better of exerting herself in the heat. Instead, she nipped at the old sow who complained weakly.

Suddenly a flock of birds passed overhead catching their attention. What had disturbed them so? More were coming out of the west, of all sorts.

“Do you hear that?” Rogé asked and cocked his head to listen better.

“Hear what?” Clod didn’t look alarmed.

Soon, they felt it in the ground. Hoofbeats. Many of them. Apprehensive, they turned toward the growing sounds and flattened themselves in the tall grass.

Off a ways, across the valley, a group of riders rode out from under the trees.

“A hunting party?” Clod asked, bending the grass stalks out of the way to see better.

“Could be. I remember last year when a group chased after a boar. They rode right through our rye, trampling down the crop, paying no mind to the damage. Squire was mad as a roused hornet. He blamed us for it.”

“Yeah. I remember the beating. I couldn’t sit down for a week.”

More riders arrived and spread out on the valley floor, a hundred first, then many hundreds.

“That’s no hunting party, that’s a whole army.” Clod drew air through his nose nervously.

There were colorful banners about, but the youths unschooled in heraldry could make no sense of them.

“Are they French?” Clod asked and Rogé shrugged. “Spanish? Or Belgians?”

“Who knows? I don’t recognize their colors.”

Riders kept emerging from the forest road, milling around on the flat land below. These were professional soldiers, dressed in plate armor and mail, with lances in hand and swords and battle axes by their sides. Banners streamed above them, and shouts resounded through the ranks. When a trumpet sounded, the formation shifted to face west.

“Sweet Jesus, save us. They’re setting up for battle,” Rogé whispered, even at the distance, afraid to be heard.

“You must be wrong. I hope you are,” Clod said, his heart in his throat. “Who’s fighting whom?”

“Dunno, but more’s coming,” Rogé said, pointing to a fresh wave of birds rising into the air. Soon dense ranks of infantry appeared, pikes and archers, banners leading them. Accompanied by the beat of drums, the new arrivals took up formation in the middle. They were followed by a short baggage train. All together, there had to be nearly two thousand or more, trying to maintain a dense, solid mass.

A trumpet blared and again the whole formation shifted, facing more to the north. The horses were nervously prancing about, their riders holding them on short reins, convincing Rogé that whatever was going to happen was imminent. Leaders were riding out front, haranguing their soldiers, ordering their lines. It was dazzling to see the glint of steel along the ranks and shining plate armor.

“Shit, the pigs!” Rogé awoke to his responsibility.

“Screw the pigs! Show yourself and they’ll hunt us down as spies.”

“But we can’t just let them wander off. Master Marcel will kill us if any of them are hurt!” The pigs were drifting away, finding a soggy hollow that promised some relief from the heat. Eagerly they wallowed in the sludge, raising up a cloud of insects and a protesting chorus of frogs.

Rogé crabbed for them but Clod grabbed a foot and held him back. “Don’t be crazy! They’re fine where they are. We’ll collect them after this is done… whatever this is.”

Reluctantly Rogé hunkered down beside his friend. Even with an army in sight, he was strangely aware of the increased noise of insects that were disturbed by the passage of the army below. In the air the birds were whirling, not knowing where to land in the confusion caused by the incursion of so many men.

A fresh burst of trumpets called their attention to the plain below. There seemed no reason for it. The lines of soldiers shifted and a forest of pikes rose in the air.

“What is it?” Clod asked nervously.

“Dunno. But something for sure.” Rogé’s eyes were riveted on a small group of riders who entered the field from the opposing side. Maybe twenty in all. “Returning scouts?” The twenty joined the rest, reporting to a tight group of leaders. Soon, subalterns were going up and down the line, issuing new orders. But on the whole the army remained where it was.

With his mouth open, Rogé stared at the bright colors of the banners, the flash of steel shot with a hint of silver and gold chase, at the warhorses, draped with padded cloth and metal barding. “Destriers,” he mumbled to himself, remembering that he had seen them one time in a tournament at Lossier, huge beasts, 16 hands tall for sure. They cost a fortune, the Squire had said, worth a house and land, and expensive to keep. It was a glimpse into a life he would never share in.

“What are they waiting for?” Clod grumbled.

“For the enemy most likely,” Rogé replied, his eyes riveted on the pageantry below.

For a long while nothing happened; the horses became interested in the grass and the tight formation loosened. The two boys lay in the grass, their eyes drinking in the riches below.

“Look at that,” Clod whispered. “That horse is covered with armor. From head to foot. Even with cheek plates.”

“That’s because he’s worth more than the rider on it.”

“You’re jesting…”

“No. Remember at the tournament last year? The Squire delivered two wagonloads of the best hay to feed one of those horses. I even cleaned the stall and got to touch one.” Rogé’s voice held a hint of awe.

“I didn’t go, remember? I had to stay home and do the chores all by myself. Nearly broke my back while you amused yourself at Lossier.” The injustice still rankled him, but then he brightened. “But I got to fondle Anna… and she let me.”

“The milk maid?”

“No, no, the washerwoman, you know the one with the lazy eye.”

Something stirred on the opposite side of the valley. Light horsemen came into view but on sighting the troops across they held up and waited. Soon a mass of footmen arrived, taking up a position opposite the deployed army. Unnecessarily the trumpets blew warnings: everyone could see that the opponents had arrived.

“The enemy?” Rogé asked. “But who is our enemy? The blues or the reds?” The new arrivals had reddish surcoats facing a solid line of mostly blues. There were too many colors and banners to make any sense of this.

“Don’t know, but my bet is on the blue.”

“Why them?”

“I like the color blue. Red is too brazen.” Clod shrugged his shoulders.

“Really?” Rogé was busy counting numbers, trying to ascertain who had superiority. The sides looked about even, though the reds were still trickling out of the woods.

The lines faced each other, bunching up with infantry in the middle, bristling with pikes and cavalry to the flanks. For a while the trumpets blared out a challenge that was answered with return calls, joined by a rattle of drums. Each side tried to outdo the other. Soldiers struck their shields to add to the noise. The horses pranced and shied in the growing racket.

“What are they waiting for?” Clod asked in a half-voice. The sounds slowly subsided and nothing else followed. The lines stood, waiting for the order that would launch the battle. It was lasting so long that Rogé was starting to feel drowsy from his motionlessness.

Below not much was happening. Small groups of riders from both sides were trying to get around each other and they sometimes clashed, but the rest waited, for God only knows what.

Abruptly a bunch of horsemen came over the hill at a canter and rode close to where the boys were hiding. The ground shook as they flashed by, scattering the pigs that ran off squealing in all directions. Only Bibi faced the onrush of hooves and set herself to charge. A lance pierced her through before she could gain any momentum.

“Bibi…!” Rogé half rose, but Clod pulled him down.

“Stay down if you don’t want a lance up your ass!”

“But our pigs…” Rogé protested.

“Not ours anymore,” Clod said. “They never were. In any case, not worth risking our lives for.”

“We can’t go home without them… Squire Marcel will kill us for sure.”

“Then we shall not go back,” Clod declared. “It wasn’t really our home anyway.”

“But… where’ll we go?”

“Who knows? But not back.” Another troop of cavalry rode by and Rogé saw one of the piglets get trampled under the hooves. “Hell’s bells, now we’re really in for it.”

Something was happening below too. Trumpets sounded and the forest of pikes clattered as if stirred by a strong wind. The section leaders were up front giving final directions to the troops. Then with a mighty shout the blues launched themselves at the reds. Like hounds released they surged forward, the pikes lowering as they got close. The whole of the line charged, the centre forming into a point like a spear. The air was suddenly filled with arrows going both ways, to swoop down and hit some unfortunate whose luck had run out. With a terrific clash the sides collided. Steel met steel, a phalanx of pikes trying desperately to fend off the onrush. But there was no stopping the momentum and the receiving line reeled back to absorb the attack. The first shouts of pain reached the two youths, and Rogé shuddered at the agony in the distant cries. The clash of weapons increased as both sides were now fighting hand to hand. Rogé was trembling from head to foot. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” he mumbled blindly, not aware of doing so.

The sides strained to push the other off position. It became one struggling, confused mass, each trying to find room to wield a weapon, and survive in the mêlée. People disappeared underfoot to join the growing mass of bodies beneath. Those still on top fought on, not an ounce of chivalry left in the frantic effort to survive. There was no escape. Forward at all cost, through the enemy.

The reds were winning the centre but were being crushed on the right. A solid mass of cavalry got behind the pikes and were massacring the crossbowmen. The long pikes tried to swing around but it was impossible in the press. More and more the right flank was forced to fold into the middle. As the line broke, groups of reds broke away and fled for the nearest woods. Spurred on by their success the blues redoubled their efforts, breaking through the center. On both sides the pikemen dropped their unwieldy poles and fought on with swords and axes. Cries of rage, pain and fear outdid the blaring of horns and trumpets. Desperately each man fought on, his fate determined by the pitiless arithmetic of death. Isolated from his comrades, a fighter fell before the enemy that outnumbered him.

Around their wagons the reds made a determined stand and repeatedly drove off the blues’ attacks with pike and halberds and volleys of archery. A horse screamed in agony, its chest pierced by a lance. Beside it a riderless stallion in plate armor fought on, biting and kicking whatever came in front of him, shouldering any opposition aside. Rogé had to wonder if the animal knew which side he was on? But it didn’t matter. Blinded by sweat, filled with blood lust and fear, a friend could kill one just as easy as any of the enemy. Strike first, ask questions later, was the law of survival. But a survival into what? Ahead was more of the enemy.

A quarrel landed near them, the head buried deep in the grass.

“Saints preserve us, they’re shooting at us!” Clod exclaimed, ready to run for the woods.

“No, they’re not,” Rogé exclaimed just as forcefully. “It’s a glancing shot off armor.” At least he hoped so.

Rogé wiped sweat from his eyes to watch the carnage below. Back and forth the battle surged, often disjointed, with the trumpets calling out orders only adding to the mayhem. Both sides were visibly tiring as strength was sapped by the heat of early afternoon. What idiot staged a battle in such impossible heat? People were gasping for air, but there was nothing left but to kill or be killed and there was plenty of both being done. In places the fighting came to a standstill, obstructed by piles of bodies that littered the field everywhere. It was impossible to move in the centre that had been compressed into a tight, tight ball. Only the wings had some movement. The cavalry rode down the footmen, but often the horses also went under, their riders swarmed by vengeful foes.

Rogé was breathless from the vista of the battle. He had never seen anything like it, and his eyes and mind tried to make sense of it, but all he found was confusion. There were no sides left anymore; the combatants were fully mixed, fighting where they stood. Some remnant formed a tight circle around a banner and defended themselves, sometimes to the last man. Clashing of arms, cries of triumph and pain mixed into a roar that swallowed all else. The earth was soaked with blood, slippery with gore, all turned into a stinking muck. Bare steel flashed in the sunlight, pummeling armor, bursting through mail and boiled leather, cleaving shields, cutting into flesh and bone. Another body piece fell to the ground to be trodden underfoot. If this wasn’t hell, then it had to be close to it.

Rogé ran his tongue over his parched lips. “They must be dying of thirst down there. Well they are dying…” he thought, wishing fervently that Clod would have gotten their water earlier.

“We’re winning. The blues are winning!” Clod exulted, rising to see better, forgetting where he was.

He was right. The reds had caved in the middle and were desperate to get away in a panicked flight. Only the left wing was able to disengage and maintain some order in its withdrawal. They managed to cover the headlong retreat of the rest of their army. Close upon their heels the blues followed, massacring whoever was left or fell behind. Somehow the tight press dissolved, as suddenly there was time and room to breathe. Often an exhausted man threw up what little he had in his stomach, perhaps not believing that he was still alive. Like an outbound rip tide, the fighting receded, as quickly as it had erupted. The red rearguard kept the blues from gobbling up the whole of their army.

Up the valley the struggle went on, raising a curtain of dust that marked its passage. The sounds of conflict faded, leaving the battlefield to the crows and blackbirds that were suddenly everywhere, nearly as loud as the battle had been. There were a few half-dead figures staggering about below, but the plain was empty except for the litter of bodies.

Rogé stood up uncertainly. “Here little piggies… here…” There was no sign of them anywhere. Rogé swore at himself for not keeping them in sight throughout the battle.

“Leave them. You know we can’t go home.” Clod grabbed him by an arm and pulled.

“But where do we go now?”

“First off, I want to look at the battlefield. It occurs to me that there might be rich pickings among the fallen. Rings, coins, even silver and the like.” Clod was salivating in his excitement. He had never owned anything in his whole life and now he was presented with a full field to harvest. There had to be something valuable down there. He strode off in great expectation of booty. Rogé, not knowing what else to do, followed rather aimlessly.

A few steps off Rogé found one of the piglets dead, not a mark on her pink body. Remembering the charge of horses past here, Rogé thought that the little thing probably died of fright. There was no sign of any of the others.

Clod and Rogé pressed on through the tall grass, picking their way down the slope. All along they heard small noises in the bushes and the undergrowth from small creatures trying to find their way in their disturbed world. As they got nearer to the battlefield the grass was trampled flat on the ground, not a stalk left standing upright. In places the earth was torn up by the desperate fighting. Ahead loomed the center of the storm, bodies scattered everywhere in a wide circle. The stench was indescribable, worse than anything Rogé had ever experienced before. He had to swallow often to keep his stomach down.

Rogé came across the first corpse in a blue surcoat with the head missing, just bloody strands hanging from the stub of the neck. Beside him was a broken sword and a shield cut in two. A hailstorm of crossbow bolts were sticking out of the ground as if rooted there, making an obscene garden of death.

A little farther, more of the soil was ripped open as men had fought over every inch of it. Bodies were everywhere, in heaps and tangles, enemies lying on top of each other, finally at rest. The wounds were horrendous; the corpses were often unrecognizable as human, held together by blood soaked tatters of clothing they wore. They died where they fell and the battle went on, over them. In the midst of this, the stink was overpowering and Rogé could barely take a breath without gagging.

At every step clouds of insects were disturbed in their feast. Any wound, an open chest, the entrails hanging out, was covered by a dark swarm, competing with the crows in the harvest. Above, vultures appeared in numbers, making wide circles over the battlefield, spiraling down. The cawing of the birds was deafening, the sound drilling into the brain.

Clod uttered a yelp of pleased surprise as he pounced on a hand sticking out of a tangle of corpses. On one finger flashed a gold ring with a red stone. He had to pry the treasure loose with a knife that glinted with silver chase.

“Where did you get that?” Rogé asked, pointing at the knife.

“Picked it up. Go. Find something of value.”

“But it’s not ours,” Rogé protested, his mind reeling with confusion and horror. Distorted corpses, frozen in final agony, were everywhere, often two, three deep.

“Then whose is it? These guys won’t need it anymore.” Clod picked up a bright helmet and stuck it on his head. He looked like someone else under the iron bands and bronze nose guard.

Rogé stumbled on, trying to ignore the corpses, the injuries, the missing body parts. He didn’t want to think about what he was seeing. In a daze he looked for something useable. It didn’t take long before he found a pair of deerskin boots that he liked and, swallowing his qualms, he tugged them off the previous owner. When they fit, he discarded his crude peasant shoes. He also came across a handsome jacket, but it was stiff with dried blood and stank to high heaven so he let it go. Soon after he found another in better condition and a tooled belt and leggings. Two steps on, he saw a quality leather glove, bent to pick it up, but threw it away in disgust, finding a hand still in it. He stepped on something squishy and against his better judgment he looked, seeing a naked eyeball on the bare ground. Good God, where was the rest of him?

Rogé avoided another pile of bodies, dismembered and maimed where death had left them, and looked elsewhere. A plush hat tempted him near a corpse that was cut open from stem to stern, the yellow gut spilling out of him with a swarm of flies worrying the fetid mess. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He hurried on, as fast as the bodies let him. He stepped around a horse, prone on its side, and to his surprise found the legs still twitching. In this sea of dead, the horse was still alive, in spite of four arrows sticking in his chest and side. He moved to the head, to discover blood bubbles bursting from the nose and foam dripping from the lips. His eyes were filled with pain and the breath rattled in his throat. Rogé looked around for a weapon to put an end to his misery. He plucked a double-edged knife from the chest of a nearby corpse and took it back to the horse. Hardening himself, he stabbed the animal in the heart and watched the final bubble burst from the nostrils. Rogé felt sicker, his stomach tense as a drum. He went back to the body he got the knife from as if to give it back, then realized the stupidity of it. The man was long dead; he had need only for a decent burial. More than likely he’d be thrown into a hastily dug common grave and be lucky if a priest prayed over him and the hundreds of others sharing the pit.

Rogé stared at the knife made of quality German steel, there was no doubt about it, and undecided, he stuck it in his belt. A little further he found a leather sheath that fit it. He also picked up a hand axe and a leather knapsack. He discovered a small bag hanging around a neck with some coins in it. He did not want to touch the bloodied head with a gaping wound that exposed a row of yellow teeth and tongue, so he ripped the purse loose.

Rogé heard an indistinct moan and traced it to a body under several others. There was someone alive there, but the eyes were crazy with pain. “Please kill me… now…please…for the love of God, kill me…” As if sleepwalking Rogé pulled the knife and stabbed the dying man in the throat. The eyes rolled to the back and in a gush of blood, the man was still. Rogé wiped the knife on someone’s mantle. It had been harder with the horse.

Rogé picked his way through more bodies, trying not to step on anybody. The corpses were no longer human, twisted into odd postures by the agony of death. Rogé still couldn’t believe what he saw. He retched but had nothing in his stomach to throw up. Up ahead a horse was standing, head down, front legs splayed, blood dripping from its mouth. Poking out of its chest was a broken length of a pike. It was slowly bleeding to death. The head dropped lower, just inches from the ground. Nauseated, Rogé turned away to find someone crawling painfully over the bodies. Again he turned his back, not having the stomach for another mercy killing.

To the right Clod yelled in triumph and waved Rogé over. He had found a box full of cheeses, sausages, smoked meats, hard bread, apples and dried prunes. There were also bottles of wine. Rogé, his nervous stomach notwithstanding, broke the bread and bit hungrily into a sausage. They had had no food since the sour yogurt and watery gruel for breakfast. They opened a bottle and passed it back and forth, guzzling it. Soon, they opened another, to finally slake their thirst. In no time the wine climbed into their heads and they giggled, forgetting the dead so near and the mutilation all around them. A blackbird landed a few feet to the side and complained loudly about their presence. Clod picked up a helmet and threw it at the bird, chasing it away. Above them a huge flock collected, circling down to a field of plenty.

“What did you find?” Clod asked, his face aglow with greed.

“A knife, some boots, an axe…”

“What about gold and silver? Jewels? Anything that we could sell on the market.” When Rogé shook his head, Clod looked disapprovingly at him. “Get busy, this is a heaven sent opportunity, make good use of it. Soon enough the grave robbers will come to strip the dead of everything. Look at this.” Clod uncovered his bundle that held his harvest and Rogé saw the glint of bright metal, silver, gold, jeweled broaches, and buckles. “I pried this from a broken sword. I think it’s a ruby. Ruby is red, right?” He held his prize up to the light, glorying in its sparkle. Rogé nodded uncertainly: what did he know of rubies?

“Her lips were ruby red… her eyes shone sunlight bright…” Rogé quoted a tavern song, his only reference.

His gaze found a good-sized mastiff skirting the battlefield: it was probably a war-dog looking for his fallen master. Some figures emerged from the woods whom Rogé recognized as a few of the locals who came to join the pickings. The priest was with them, making the sign of the cross over the many fallen.

“The Devil take them, here come the vultures,” Clod hissed. “Better hurry and take what we can while we can. We won’t be alone much longer.”

“What if Squire Marcel shows up?” Rogé asked uncertainly.

“I will stick this fine Spanish blade right into his guts. I am done working for him. The bastard was a miser, and he would happily have worked us to death. Well, no longer.”

“But where can we go?”

“Anywhere—away from here. That’s why we need anything we can find now. So hurry!” Clod stood up and stepped among the fallen, searching pockets and beneath clothes, not disgusted by the gore.

First Rogé stuffed his new knapsack with the rest of the food and wine, then he headed the other way, careful not to tread on any of the bodies. He found some coins, mostly copper and brass, and a few silver. He also collected a silver necklace, a couple of bracelets, an old fashioned Torc neck ring made of brass, and a silver gorget. He broke off a silver piece from a helmet, and pried shiny medals from a shield. He found an exquisitely precise steel gauntlet that had to be worth good money but couldn’t find its pair anywhere though he spent some time looking for it. Regretfully he let the unmatched gauntlet drop. It was strange; the more he searched the less he saw the dead and the maimed. He saw something flash, and pulled a corpse with one arm out of his way to get to the gold and silver buckle that was on the body beneath. He cut the buckle free of the belt and hardly even glanced at the man’s face. Whoever he was, he was dead… on his way to heaven or hell.

Instinctively Rogé and Clod worked away from the locals. Soon they had more than they could carry comfortably and any new find meant that something had to be discarded to make room for the new. To his surprise Rogé couldn’t smell anymore in spite of the all-pervasive stink around him. He came too near a vulture pecking at a face. The bird shrieked angrily and flapped its wings threateningly, but in the end flew away. Why fight when the picking was so good?

Discarded armor lay scattered everywhere in the field. Rogé came across a sword, but found it heavy and awkward in his hand. It didn’t suit him and though it was probably worth a lot, he gave it up as he already had more than enough to carry. A mace, a decorated helmet with a gaudy plume, a war hammer were left the same way.

Uncertain in his new boots, Rogé was tiptoeing around a cluster of bodies when a broken pike tripped him and he fell. Horrified, he found himself wedged between the dead, his hand touching something slimy. He recoiled and jumped to his feet, tripping over something new. It was the burnished wood of a crossbow. Its owner lay collapsed half over it. It was a very fine bow, Rogé saw at first glance and on impulse he picked it up. It felt good in his hands and without thinking much about it, he decided to keep it. A good crossbow was worth a lot of money. And this was a composite made by a real master, stronger, more accurate than the common sort. Worth a small cottage with a garden at least. He took time to extricate from under the body the cocking lever used to span the bow and the quiver even if it was empty. In a sack beside the archer, he found some bolt tips, tar, beeswax and extra whipcord string. He had seen similar bows used at the annual fair in archery competitions, so he understood the principle, even if he had no experience with it. As he walked he collected the bolts that were all around, sticking into the ground. Those that had found a body he left well enough alone.

A group of blue riders appeared in the east. It was unclear whether these were new or returning from the chase. They dismounted and stayed well clear of the stench of the battlefield.

“It’s time to go,” Clod said, hefting his burden onto his shoulder. He started toward the forest, thinking to disappear among the trees. Rogé followed, the stock of the crossbow slick in his hands.

Deep in the woods Clod stopped, setting his load on the ground. “This looks as good a place as any. We’ll spend the night here.” Rogé just nodded and set down his pack. They collected some wood and soon had a modest fire going. From his knapsack Rogé passed around some food, keeping the bottles of wine hidden. If Clod were to get a scent of it, he would probably drink himself into a quick stupor. He was not one to be moderate.

After eating Clod got around to sorting his haul. “We’re rich, I tell you. This alone is worth a cow.” Something bright sparkled in his hand. He wrapped and tied things up to make a handier pack. He looked at Rogé’s scant pickings.

“That’s all you got? And why in God’s name did you pick up a crossbow?”

“Because… because it was the finest thing I laid my hands on. Look at the workmanship. This is a compound bow, made of strips of ash or yew, horn and sinew. A good bow takes years to make.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“While you were chasing girls around the fair, I was listening to the archers talk. I didn’t realize until now how much I had learned. But this is truly a quality weapon.” Rogé patted the wood possessively.

“How much is it worth?”

“Maybe ten cows or a trained war horse.” Clod whistled, suddenly interested.

“Will you sell it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re not going to become an archer? Now, really?”

“I’ve got to become somebody now that I’m not a swineherder or a farmhand anymore. What’re we going to do?”

“Well I think if we sell what we’ve amassed, maybe we can set ourselves up in something.”

“But in what?”

“I don’t know, but it ain’t going to be farming—I’ve had a belly full of that.” Clod peered into the darkening sky, searching through the emerging stars as if looking for his future among them. “Maybe we can buy some horses and a wagon and get into transport. There’s good money in that. Or buy a small vineyard, and sell and drink our own wine. Wouldn’t that be great? Sure beats working for someone else, eating their stale bread.”

They talked and dreamed about possibilities. With what they had collected both suddenly felt immensely rich, the future not so bleak. As the fire burned down to the last embers, they gradually grew tired and settled down among the roots of an oak. “This has been a hell of a day. Who knew this morning…?” Clod muttered drowsily and was soon asleep. Rogé found it harder, his hand searching out the silky feel of polished hardwood. He was no longer sure he could give it up. Aside from the shirt and pants he wore daily, what he now carried were the first real things he had ever owned. He felt responsible for them. He itemized each thing, a few coins of no great value, some trinkets, a good hunting knife, a short axe, a new jacket and deer-skin boots, but the best thing was a crossbow with its accessories. Remembering what he saw on the archery course, he went through the motions in its use. How to hook the lever into position, pull back on it to span the bow, place the bolt into the channel, lift it up, aim and pull the trigger. Seemed simple enough. Now that he had such a deadly instrument, should he become an archer? He had to become something. Clod was right, who knew this morning?

Rogé woke with a start, disoriented because he wasn’t in his usual place in the straw. It took a moment for yesterday’s events to dawn on him. He reached out a hand to feel the objects by him. “It’s true. It wasn’t a dream…” He straightened and saw Clod curled up beside the smoking remains of the fire.

Rogé fished out some bread and cheese from the rucksack and chewed on them. Afterwards he took his flask to the brook and filled it with water, taking a long drink then filling it again and tightening the stopper. When he got back under the oak, Clod was stirring too.

“For a moment I was expecting Squire Marcel to come for us to go milk the cows, water the animals, clean out the barn… Isn’t it nice that we don’t have to do that anymore?” Clod asked, then yawned and stretched, scratching under his clothes. He got up, favoring his back where a root had dug into him, and went into the bushes to relieve himself. It was plain he was in good humor at the prospect of not having to do what he had been required to do for as long as he could remember. It was a strange new feeling to be free… which begged the question of what was to come now?

Rogé was experimenting with the crossbow as he had last night in his thoughts. It was more awkward to use the lever than he expected, the motions unfamiliar. It was proving not so easy; the process required strength and timing to do it smoothly, span the bow, set the bolt and aim it. He squeezed the trigger and the string released and snapped forward, sending the bolt faster than he could track it. To his surprise he missed the tree he was aiming for just steps away. He did it again, being more deliberate and careful, squeezing the trigger softly. This time the bolt struck just off the aiming point, but the bolt shattered on impact, leaving the tip deeply embedded in the tree trunk. The bow had power, there was no doubt about that.

Time and again, Rogé practiced, drawing the bow, setting the bolt but not shooting it for fear of losing another bolt. He had 18 left in the quiver, not all exactly the same weight or length. He had plucked them from the ground as if pulling carrots in the garden, which was why each was slightly different.

When the motions became more familiar, he did shoot a bolt, aiming for something soft, a turf of grass or a piece of open ground free of stones. He was nowhere near the target, but each try got him closer. Then he went and collected all the bolts, finding one broken, and another one not at all; though he looked for it a long time, he couldn’t find it. Although the first shots were a disappointment, he was pleased with the eventual improvement. He wiped off each bolt and placed it back into the quiver. He applied some beeswax to the string, just as he had seen real archers do.

Clod regarded him attentively. “You might be right. Maybe we should join up with the army. There are many mercenaries selling themselves for sold and a share in the plunder after a victory. It’s easy to get rich, picking up after a battle, or pillaging a town that’s surrendered.”

“And it’s also easy to get killed. Have you already forgotten what we saw yesterday? A slaughterhouse… a real bone yard.”

“Sure but that was happening to someone else. I wouldn’t be so easy to kill.”

“Really? What skills do you have to recommend you?”

Clod stood up, awkwardly drew the sword he had found, and assumed what he thought was a fighting stance. He took a few practice swings, then grimaced as the momentum of the sword hurt his wrist. “Don’t you worry I’ll learn… just give me a little time.” He swung the sword more cautiously.

Rogé found a couple of sword-length branches on the ground, whittled them to shape and gave one to Clod. “Now let’s see what you can do with this.”

The two youths faced each other, swinging the sticks, trying to land a blow. The wooden weapons clattered against each other and the contest soon became quite earnest. It was obvious that Clod was stronger, but Rogé more agile. By the end of this short session, for every blow Clod landed, and they hurt, Rogé was able to land two, often stabbing point first. Panting, they paused to take a drink.

“I can see it’s not as easy as it looks,” Clod said, drawing the real sword and taking swings, applying what he had learned with the stick. They practiced again with the wood, rested then Rogé tried a few more shots with the crossbow. He was again pleased with his improvement as he was coming closer to the target at increased distances. But he could see that real expertise would require a lot more practice. Still, the weapon in his hand felt empowering—for the first time in his life he felt added to, with something more than just himself. He found this a strange feeling to get used to.

Around midday they shared food and talked about the future.

“The way I see it, working for a living is exhausting,” Clod speculated. “But the army life has to be easier. I mean battles don’t happen every day. There’s plenty of rest days in-between. That appeals to me. I’ve worked hard all my life and deserve some ease.”

Rogé was of a different opinion. “And why should an army or anyone take you? What do you know? What can you do? Being in the army is more than herding cattle or picking peas in the garden. You have to have some ability for it.”

“True enough, but consider: every soldier has to start somewhere, soldiers are made, not born. You just need the desire to become a soldier, the rest is training and practice. Anyone can do that, even you or I.” Rogé had to concede that his friend had a telling point.

“Then is that what we’re going to do? Join the military? What happened to joining a monastery?”

“That was before I had a sword. Besides, I have notoriously weak knees that don’t want to bend and kneel hours at a time praying. And the ladies love a soldier in shining armor and colorful uniform, do they not?” Rogé could see that his friend had already decided on the army so he didn’t question it any further.

“In that case we better practice some and improve our worth.”

They fought with sticks and staffs, pounding on each other. They only paused when Rogé got a cut on his cheek from a blow that got through his guard.

“You’re dead,” Clod gloated. “If that were in a real battle, you’d be on the ground breathing your last.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But it proves a point. You can be good, but if you’re lax for a minute, it can cost you your life. That’s a sobering thought.”

Next they had to decide whom to fight for. There was no lack of possibilities. The French were fighting the English. The English the Spanish. The Spanish the Flemish and the Belgians. Not to mention the princes and the barons who had perennial conflicts with each other.

“The way I see it, we should find somebody with a proven reputation. A captain or a leader who doesn’t sacrifice his soldiers too readily. Who takes care of his men,” Rogé mused aloud.

“And how are we going to find that out?”

“Where else—in a tavern or a beer hall. Anywhere soldiers sit down and gather. They like to complain and gossip freely. All we have to do is to listen.”

“That sounds doable.” Clod jumped on the suggestion: he was fond of ale, even the weak ale the Squire’s kitchen served.

Later they lounged around the fire, each busy. Clod was shining up a brass object, admiring it. Rogé was checking the bolts, concerned that he had only fourteen left. He had lost one, and three had broken in practice. He’d have to be more careful from now on, he decided. He took a piece of his old shirt and used it to clean the bow and the bolts. He tried to recall the words they used on the archery range for the different parts. The stock was often also called a tiller, the bow a prod, and the trigger a tickler to allow the retaining nut to turn to release the bow string. Rogé carefully examined his crossbow, finding the parts, reasoning out their purpose and how they worked.

Once you drew the crossbow and set the bolt, the device could be held ready to use anytime; all the shooter had to do was aim and release the bolt at leisure. With the longbow that all had to be accomplished in one smooth motion, not holding on too long. Crossbow was a wonderful invention. It allowed even a relative newcomer to be effective whereas it took a lifetime of practice to be good with a longbow. The chief drawback of course was that a crossbow was slow to draw and set. A longbow could shoot easily six to eight arrows a minute, the crossbow, at best, maybe three.

Most crossbows were drawn by setting the bowstring into a hook attached to the belt, then with a foot pushing down the stirrup at the head of the bow, to pull the string back to bend the bow arms. It was simple, and relatively quick for a crossbow.

For stronger bows a mechanical cocking device was required. In Rogé’s case this was something called a Goat Foot lever, shortened to gafa—why they called it that, Rogé had no idea, as the two piece hinged metal had no resemblance to any foot he had ever seen. You hooked it onto a wrist pin behind the trigger and pulled the bowstring back with relatively little effort, to store great power in the spanned bow. It required coordination rather than strength so even a youth could master it easily. The chief disadvantage was that it was another piece of equipment to add to a belt. The bow could still be drawn without the lever, using the foot method, but it was harder and more awkward.

Of course there were stronger bows still, with complicated windlasses to draw them, but they were unwieldy and slow, and therefore used mostly in siege work, or so Rogé had heard.

The chief advantage of the crossbow was its ease of aim and its hitting power, able to penetrate mail and even plate armor with the square head of the bolt.

“You know,” Clod said looking up. “Maybe we should go after the blues, you know, join up with a winner.”

“Not without knowing who they are and who they serve.”

“What does it matter who? There are mercenaries everywhere, loyal to no cause but silver. If I have to serve a new master then let it be gold. Go on a campaign and become rich.” Of course, Clod was the more outspoken of the two and was quick to make up his mind, whereas Rogé was thoughtful, considering all options before deciding on a course.

“Every soldier I ever saw had holes in his boots and patches on his hose, more poor than rich.”

“That’s because they spend their sold on whores, and what they don’t gamble away, they drink up.”

“And that’s what you want to be? A woman chaser, gambling drunk?”

“Not when you put it like that. Each thing in its own time, relishing the pleasures of each.”

Rogé got back to practicing with the crossbow, drawing, setting the bolt and shooting. He was elated when he hit the target at a reasonable distance eight out of twenty tries. He called it quits, however, when he broke another bolt.

Rogé had a long drink after which Clod and he practiced with heavier wooden sticks which really hurt when they landed. The idea was that sword play was a serious business which they had better learn quickly—and the pain might hurry the process.

“I don’t know why I’m doing this, I have no sword,” Rogé complained, after he received a smart blow, first to his thigh, then from the backswing on the opposite arm.

“We’ll get you one the first chance we get. You don’t look like enough of a soldier without one.”

However when Rogé landed a flurry of blows Clod had second thoughts. “Maybe we should give a horse and transport wagon another chance before we embark on anything this dangerous.”

“Listen to the canary suddenly singing a different tune. What happened to the tons of gold and silver?”

“I never said tons…” Clod protested.

When evening came they made a discreet fire. “I guess we better find the nearest village and buy more food. Perhaps head north to Bridgewater and find out what’s afoot,” Clod suggested as he chewed on the last of the smoked meat. “I guess I’d rather go with a local levee, so I don’t have to learn a new language.”

“I think mercenaries come from everywhere and speak every language known to man,” Rogé said.

“How do you know?”

“Heard them swearing in the village when Captain Black passed through with his troop last year, remember?”

“Yeah. They cussed up and down the street until Father Wilhelm complained to the Captain, then they still swore but not so loudly. I saw one chase after Matron Bussy, which got him in trouble, as Guildsecond Bussy wouldn’t stand for having his wife pestered.” Clod laughed at the memory.

When the fire collapsed, they bedded down, both satisfied that they had done a lot to increase their skills—they had the bruises to prove it. Rogé surprised himself in that after only a day away, he felt less a part of the Squire’s household and farm. He didn’t know what the future held, but for the first time in his life, he seemed to have a choice.

Chapter 2

After waking, they had a quick meal of the last of the cheese, then washed it down with water.

“We really have to buy more supplies,” Clod said. “It’s lucky we found some coins.”

They were gathering up their stuff when looking up, Rogé found five men quite close, staring at him. A burly man, who seemed to be their leader, leered at the two youths.

“Well lookie here, a pair of vultures like us… grave robbers… stealing from the dead. Too bad we got here so late, the good things have been picked over already. We’ve been following this army for two weeks already, but they have horses… Lucky us to run across you two and free you of your burdens.” The jocular tone changed suddenly. “If you know what’s good for you, you better hand over the spoils.” The five men moved closer, cutting off any escape.

Clod took a step back; Rogé froze. They exchanged quick looks, the odds were so against them.

“So, what will it be, lads? Your pickings for your life.” Again the man took a step forward, crowding Rogé. When he took another step, Rogé snatched a bolt from his quiver and stabbed him deep in the chest. The man looked surprised and staggered a half step back, his hands groping for the shaft… but he had no strength left to pull it free. He dropped to his knees and fell flat on his face, driving the shaft even deeper.

Clod whipped out his knife and jabbed the man nearest to him. With two of their numbers down the remaining three hesitated. Calmly Rogé picked up the crossbow, spanned it, set a bolt and waved it in their faces. The three started running in different directions. Rogé aimed and pressed the trigger. His target yelped and fell to his knees. Desperately he reached back but ran out of time and life… and sacked forward. The remaining two disappeared in the thick of trees.

Clod was smiling, wiping his knife. “Well I guess we’re ready for the army. We’ve killed.”

Rogé felt unreal, dizzy with the quickness of the action. He was disoriented: he would never have thought of killing two days ago, but having seen the battle, all the corpses, unlocked something inside he never suspected he was capable of. He had killed two more men… on top of the mercy killings. Blood was on his conscience… Could he really join the army and make a living of killing? He wasn’t so sure anymore.

Clod stepped to the fallen and went through their pockets, finding only a few brass coins. Drawing the leader’s sword, a three quarter length bastard blade, judging it good enough, Clod passed it to Rogé who took it numbly.

“Good shot, by the way. I think we’ll be right at home in the army,” Clod declared with inflated confidence. Rogé didn’t feel the triumph his friend was enjoying. They gathered their belongings and started off, leaving the dead where they had fallen. After the field of bodies yesterday, three more would hardly cause anyone concern.

They rejoined the road and took the north fork. Rogé kept his bow spanned, ready to shoot if necessary. That was the great advantage of the weapon, its patience and readiness to shoot anytime, unlike the longbow that held itself only for a scant second before having to be released.

Topping a rise, they could look back down on the battlefield and see the locals trying to bury the multitude of bodies that still littered the field. Even at this distance the stench on the breeze was terrible; Rogé wondered how the people could stand it, even breathing through scented cloths that covered their mouths and noses. But someone had to do it, especially as Father Bernard was making them do their Christian duty.

It was strange not to see any live soldiers around. As they walked, here and there they saw other bodies where the pursuing blues had overtaken and slaughtered the fleeing reds. There was a whole cluster of them that hadn’t made it across a gravel edged stream. Clod clambered down the bank and searched the bodies, finding an odd item or two. He called to Rogé to help, but he had no stomach for more dead.

“I don’t think they are French or English. Maybe Flemish allied with the English,” Clod said, sorting the coins.

“How can you tell?”

“From the coins. A mixed lot, but mostly Dutch and Belgian.”

“Yes, money has no loyalty or parentage,” Rogé mused. “I don’t understand the devices they show. There’s nothing familiar.”

“Devices?”

“Crests to show where they belong… who they serve. Our Earl Bouchard has the crouching lion… but not with the crow in the quarter panel.”

“What’re you talking about? You’re babbling like a runaway brook making no sense.”

“The designs on their tunics… on their banners, you know, you see them often enough move past on the main road.”

“Who pays attention to that? You doff your cap and bend a knee regardless of de…vices.”

“All you see is the shine of things…” Rogé said. “Well, in the army you’ll have to pay attention to such details.”

“In the army, I will.”

They continued on the road, not meeting anybody. In times of war, people hid like rabbits in their burrows, waiting for the danger to pass.

It was late afternoon when they arrived at Bridgewater. The place was shut up tight, the streets empty, doors and shutters closed. Obviously the army had moved through and scared the population indoors. You can’t trust a marauding army, they rob or pilfer friend and foe alike.

Clod and Rogé stood on the central square looking at the closed shops.

“Maybe we better try the inn,” Clod said, frowning at the empty alleyways with only a single dog in view.

“What makes you think they’d be happy to see us in the present circumstances?”

“Because they love money.” Clod struck the purse on his belt.

They walked until they found a shield that declared the place an inn and knocked loudly on the door. They had to do so three times before a spy-hole opened, a rough voice demanding what they wanted.

“Food and bed,” Clod declared as civilly as he could. “We have money…” Even so the door opened only reluctantly. Inside a nervous-looking man with hardly any hair waved them in, telling them to hurry.

“The English moved through town two days ago and burned the butcher and the tanner down. Massacred the Town Watch, but God be thanked they left the rest of us alone. Still, raiders have been passing through the last days, taking anything that wasn’t tied down… This is not a good time to be travelling. Where are you going? What do you do?” He looked suspiciously at the crossbow on Rogé’s back.

“We’re looking for the French army,” Rogé said, taking a risk. “If the English are here then the French have to be somewhere near.”

“You’d think. But they’re near Chaumont, the last I heard.”

“Where’s that?” Clod asked; he jingled his purse, the key that had opened the door.

“A half day to the north-west.”

“And the reds. Who were the reds who lost the skirmish to the south?”

“A mix. Belgians, Scots and free bands of German Landsknechts in the service of the French. They got themselves mauled good.”

“Chewed up, I’d say, and spat out. Maybe a third of them survived, if…” Clod contributed. They walked into the dayroom that was half full already with travelers waiting out the storm. Many wary looks were cast at the new arrivals. There was a choked atmosphere to the room, which Rogé could smell easily. He felt strange; these were men of substance, with skills and money; suddenly he felt his own pedigree, a castoff orphan with farm dirt under his fingernails, even less than a serf. Clod blustered his way through the inspection. They found a seat at a half-filled table, sat down and ordered ale and food.

“We have lamb stew with brown bread. We serve only dark ale but have local wines if you like.”

“The ale will do,” Clod replied, placing his pack on the floor between his feet. The innkeeper hurried to the kitchen and soon a girl came bringing two tankards which she placed in front of the new arrivals. Clod took a long swallow, then wiped his mouth and let out a satisfied burp. He turned to the tablemate and introduced himself. “Clod from Hirstdale and my friend Rogé trying to go north.”

“Bernard from Clairmont on the coast. I’m trying to get home.” He sounded reluctant to talk. Not so the man on his left.

“I’m also going north, but keep being blocked by troops moving about.” A thin moustache framed his upper lip but did little to hide his crooked teeth.

“What’s happening?” Clod asked.

“Just as before. The English King has invaded, again claiming the right to the French throne.”

“I thought they negotiated that. Didn’t King Henry give up the claim if the French would recognize his right to Aquitaine?” the first man asked.

“The negotiations broke down and the English landed to force the issue. They’ve been marching around since August and besieged the port of Harfleur. The way it’s told, the siege took longer than they expected and lasted into October. Now, the season’s almost done,” the second man stated with confidence.

“What season?” Clod asked.

“The campaign season. Before the cold and wet of winter shuts it all down. The English are raiding and probing south, but no major battle is expected.”

“You seem to know a lot about all this,” Rogé observed.

“It’s my business to keep informed. I’m an Alderman in my town and we have to know where things stand. It would be a disaster to bend a knee to the wrong side.”

“And which side is that?”

“The losing side, of course… then we’d have to face the wrath of the winner and be plucked and shorn by them.” A tough choice that sounded like a roll of the dice.

Food arrived and Clod and Rogé got busy eating the stew. It was rich, compared to what they were used to on the farm. Rogé ate his, then wiped the bowl with the dark bread, eating every bit of it. Things felt better with something in the stomach and dark ale to wash it down with.

“They serve a decent meal here, the Saints be thanked. Not like in some of the places I’ve been. They give you boiled bone and call it meat, and charge you for it,” the man beside them said.

For bedding, there was straw in the loft or any corner of the dayroom. Clod and Rogé elected for the loft and found the straw there soft and fresh enough.

“A day that started so badly didn’t end so bad,” Clod said, making a nest in the straw.

“But I worry. We’re about to join the army when Kings are marching against each other. What have mice to say when the lions roar?”

“You worry too much.”

The sound of a flute and people singing came to them from the dayroom.

“Even with the danger people seem happy enough…”

“Sure, with enough ale in them… they would dance in the Devil’s front hall.”

At breakfast, Rogé heard more of the history and politics of the day. “This has been going on for over sixty years. Wars, negotiations, claims and counterclaims, more wars, more negotiations,” the Alderman said, looking bleary eyed from drinking the night before.

“But if the campaign season is over, won’t the English go home for the winter?”

“Doubtful. Henry had a hard time convincing the Grand Council back in London to sanction this expensive adventure; they’d be unlikely to allow it again if he goes back. It’s a wonder he’s here at all. He landed with only twelve thousand men. The French can raise an army three times that size. If there’s going to be a battle it’ll be a massacre. The French are chomping at the bits to let loose.”

“The English won the other day.”

“Yes, against inferior allies of the French. But the Grand Army that’s forming is the cream of French nobility, knights, trained men-at-arms and archers—not the rabble the English come with. They bring longbowmen, thinking to repeat their success at Crécy back in ‘46 and Poitiers in ‘56. But, believe me, the French have learned that lesson. Besides King Henry is not Edward the Black Prince. He comes with base commoners, hoping to best a professional army. We have Swiss pikes and Genoese crossbowmen, the best in the world and many free companies. Hard to see how Henry will get out alive from this bear trap.” The Alderman carefully sipped his ale to make his headache go away. In spite of it he was talkative; like any successful politician he fought his battles with his speeches.

Finally, left on their own, Clod turned to Rogé. “I guess you’re convinced now, we’ll join the French, no?”

“Seems like the best course from all we’ve heard. Though there’s still the question of whether the politician really knows what he’s talking about. I’d rather hear a military man tell me the true state of affairs.”

“I don’t know, he sounded very convincing.”

“Yes, he did. But then that’s his job, changing people’s minds to his way of thinking.”

“You worry too much.”

“No. I don’t worry enough,” Rogé refuted. “You certainly don’t.”

They set off north-east, looking for the French reputed to be that way. “Chaumant, did he say? Or was it Chaumont?”

“Chaumont is what I remember.”

They walked quite a distance, passing through some villages that showed signs that an army had moved through. In one the church was burned down and the sacristy pilfered. What else they took was still being assessed. The inhabitants weren’t glad to see two youths with weapons arriving.

“We come in peace and pass through in peace,” Rogé declared loudly and often.

There were more people on the road now, who banded together to give themselves a sense of security. Unlike in the villages, these people were glad to have two young armed men join them.

For a stretch they walked behind an ox cart loaded with barrels, hanging onto the tailgate, letting the animals pull them along. They took a barge across a river, but refused to pay the toll on a bridge that crossed a paltry stream.

“You think I’m stupid?” Clod yelled at the toll-man as he splashed through the shallow water, not even getting his leggings wet above his calves.

Late afternoon they came upon a troop and at the sight of them, paused uncertainly. “Do you think they’re French?” Clod asked with rare anxiety coloring his voice.

“I think so. Look at the fleur-de-lis on the banner,” Rogé said, but he still worried.

“Well whoever they are, French or English, we’ll join them. I’m tired of walking.”

“Then you should join the cavalry not the foot soldiers,” Rogé advised.

They pulled even with the troop and were promptly challenged. “Who are you two and what’s your business?” a redhead with a large mustache asked.

“We are loyal Frenchman come to join the army to fight the bastard English,” Clod declared with bravado.

“As it so happens, I’m a bastard English myself,” mustache replied with a sneer.

“Uh, I misspoke,” Clod temporized. “Here to fight the bastard French.”

“Well now you’ve upset them.” Mustache pointed behind him. “They’re the bastard French.”

“Then … who’re you?” Rogé stammered, taking a step back.

“Relax, Son. We’re neither English nor French. We’re a free company of soldiers, today in service of the French, but tomorrow, who knows, maybe fighting for the English. It’s all up to the Captain.”

“Captain Bonaire?”

“No, Captain Bellecourt and before you decide he’s French, no, he’s Swiss.”

“How can we join?” Clod asked hopefully.

“I guess you talk to me and I decide if I can use you or not,” mustache said, looking them over. “That’s a fine looking bow you have there, Son. Can you use it?”

“Well enough, Sir.”

“Call me Sergeant.” He shifted his gaze to Clod. “And what can you do?”

“I’m with him.”

“In protection of an archer? Not a bad idea. Archers are notoriously bad in close combat,” Sergeant said. “My name’s Angus and before you ask I’m Scot and love to fight the English anytime and anywhere.” He walked around them, giving them a close inspection. “I guess you’ll do, if the Captain agrees. We can always use an archer and one who protects him.” He took another turn around them, then rattled off, “But before you decide for good, you better know that you do exactly as the Captain tells you, nothing more and nothing less. You’ll follow orders or hang. We’re a free company of soldiers but also a close-knit band of brothers; we protect each other at all times. You do not steal your brother’s property, share fairly in all booty, divide loot according to rank and experience. Good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished. You can complain, but don’t let an officer hear it. And you do not fight each other—ever. Save your anger for the enemy, remembering always that today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally. If I’ve forgotten anything, I’ll be sure to let you know.” He scowled at them. “Are you in or are you out?”

Rogé would have liked more time to consider, but the situation didn’t allow it. “In, Sir,” both replied.

“Good. If the Captain approves, you’ll be sworn in and heaven help you if you ever break your oaths.”

“Wouldn’t think of it, Sir,” Rogé hurried to say.

“Good. See the man by the kettle? He’ll get you some food and show you a place to sleep. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” With that, Angus let them go.

“Do you think we made the right choice?” Clod asked in a whisper, afterwards.

“For better or worse…” Rogé whispered back. “Mind you, horse transport sounds very good right about now.” He laughed then turned serious. “Remember, you’ve promised to protect me. That’s what you signed on for.” Clod just grumbled, lying down, pulling the blanket over himself and the fading daylight notwithstanding, promptly fell asleep.

Nobody bothered them until morning. They were given some warm gruel flavored with something sharp, a slice of cheese and the usual weak ale everybody drank. A big man came over and introduced himself as Gunter.

“New hopefuls, eh?” Gunter asked, looking them over. “A trifle young but I guess you’ll grow into it. We lost a few men on the last posting so more than likely the Captain will take you on. I’m half Swiss and half German. Been with this outfit three years now and regretted it every day since. Soldiering is a hard life, on the go every day, rain or shine in snow or ice, blindly following our Captain. As troops go we have a good reputation and have distinguished ourselves in a dozen battles. The pay’s good if you can keep it and not spend it on loose women or gamble it away as most of us do and always owe something to somebody. You’ll find yourself half in debt and half holding somebody’s debt. That way you protect everybody to safeguard your investment. Does that make any sense to you?”

“Perfect sense,” Clod assured him.

“Good then. We’re likely to get along.”

A little later Sergeant Angus collected them, led them to the only tent on the compound and introduced them to Captain Bellecourt, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a stiff military bearing. He looked them over carefully, peering into their eyes. “Somewhat young, don’t you find?” The Captain turned to the Sergeant. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m not sure of anything, but two birds in the hand are better than…”

“Two birds in the bush,” the Captain finished for him. “Good. Swear them in at Roll Call and we’ll see. But boot them out at the first sign of something going afoul. I didn’t build this troop to weaken it.” He turned to the new recruits. “Understood?”

“Yes Sir, Captain, every word.”

“Good, because I’ll hold you to every word, so don’t take this on lightly. We’re strong and effective because we’ve proven it. When you join us, you join the Bonecrushers, a name that has been written in blood in history books. You can leave anytime for I want no one who’s unwilling, but if you disobey, you hang. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly, Sir.”

The Captain waved them off, and the Sergeant led them back to their places. “In a half-hour there’s Roll Call, you’ll swear and be one of us. May God have mercy on your souls.” With that, Sergeant Angus walked away and Rogé noticed a slight limp.

“Have you counted all the dire warnings we’ve gotten? Are we making the right decision?” For once, it was Clod who sounded worried.

“We’ll see.”

At Roll Call they were introduced and made to repeat the oath. “I will be worthy of the Bonecrushers. I will work, sweat blood and be brave. By myself I’m nothing, a single link in the chainmail to make the troop whole and complete. And I will be strong, unbreakable, and defend one and all of my brothers-in-arms. May God strike me dead if I fail in my duty and let the Devil collect my bones for his fires if I break my oath as long as I serve.”

Clod and Rogé repeated the first sentence then were joined by the four hundred that made up the troop who all repeated the oath to the finish.

When the Captain nodded approvingly, Sergeant Angus directly addressed the new recruits. “To show that you’re starting a new life in which you are a new person…” he looked at Rogé, “I christen you Rogé Strongbow…” then turning to Clod… “and you I shall call Clod Thundercloud from now on. As long as you’re with us those are the names you’ll answer to.” After that the troop was dismissed and the formation broke up.

Throughout the day, one by one or in small groups, the rest of the troop came over and introduced themselves. Rogé’s head was spinning trying to retain all the names.

“Don’t worry Son, it’ll gel in time,” a grizzled veteran consoled. Rogé had already forgotten his name.

When they were on their own again Clod grumbled, “Why Thundercloud? Do I look that dark to you? What the hell does it mean anyway?”

“To make us aware that we’re now different from what we were before the oath. We’re now one of the Bonecrushers. Anyway, I never knew my real name I was christened with. I was Rouge, then Rogé. Strongbow will fit me fine. Just like changing coats according to the weather. And you better get used to Thundercloud if you want to stay on here.”

“From Claude… to Clod… to Thundercloud… What next? Pissy-pot?”

“Shut up! You wanted this, now live with it,” Rogé returned unsympathetically.

Later, Gunther came around; Rogé suspected that the man had been assigned to lead them into proper Bonecrusher conduct. As first Gunther inspected their equipment.

“You both will get new clothes, linen undergarments, padding quilted into doublets, a mail shirt and a tunic in the troop’s color with the insignia of the triple wolf. That is also on our banner and you will always find Bonecrushers under it.” Next he looked over Clod’s sword. “Good enough, but you could find better in our collection.” Looking at Rogé, he continued, “You need something better, maybe a three quarter bastard sword. See Eldred, our armorer. I’m sure he can fit you out with a good one. Ask for helmets and for you,” Gunther looked Clod, “A shield and maybe a halberd. We already have enough pikes.” His eye returned to Rogé. “I don’t know much about crossbows, but we have some Genoese among us and they know everything there is to know about them. Ask for Giacomo.”

All three went to the baggage wagons, and soon Clod and Rogé were dressed like the rest. The armorer then gave them weapons and helmets, grumbling the whole time. “They’re sending me younger every day and I have nothing to fit them. You better wear a leather cap underneath to fill out those helmets.”

Rogé felt awkward in the new getup, finding the helmet heavy on his head. Clod was swinging the halberd trying to get used to its feel.

Later Rogé searched out Giacomo who whistled when he saw Rogé’s bow. “A masterpiece that is. Where did you get it?” Rogé had to admit that he had gleaned it from a battlefield. “Swiss made, be my guess, perhaps in Bern, it’s in their style.” Then he checked the bolts, throwing them away. “You need something heavier for your stronger bow.” He went to another wagon and came back with a handful of bolts. “Go try these. We have a range set up to the side… but try not to kill anybody.”

Excited, Rogé found the range, a bit of open ground with hay bales at various distances. No one was around as Rogé spanned the crossbow with the cocking lever as smoothly as if he had been doing it for years. He set a bolt and aimed at the closest bale. He came up short, but the heading was right on. The second shot was closer and the third even nicked the bale. Still it took ten shots to score two consecutive hits. He went on to the next farther off and shot 14 times before he got it. The next was at maybe sixty strides and he couldn’t hit it at all. Chastened by the results, he went back to the nearest and shot until he could hit it reliably. He tried the next in turn again and after a few ranging shots, he hit three times out of five. He was cocking the bow when someone came to observe him. Wanting to do well, of course, Rogé missed. And the next shot as well.

“Try not hitting it,” a voice called jokingly.

“What???”

“Aim for everything else.”

Vexed Rogé bit his lip, but calmed his breathing. He hit the bale, off center, but it was a hit. The other sauntered over, cocked his weapon and released, hitting a bale two rows farther on. Taking a second bolt he shot at the last row beyond, hitting the target. “And that’s how it’s done.” He lowered his weapon, a friendly grin on his face. “My name is Fabio. I introduced myself already but I doubt if you could’ve remembered it.” They nodded to each other. “Guido the head archer sent me over to range you in.”

“And how did I do?” Rogé asked.

“Like a beginner, but showed some promise.”

“How so?”

“Each shot improved on the last. You already know how to adjust and that’s a big step. You won’t believe how many can’t grasp that simple fact. It also tells me you have good eyes. You’ve got to see what you’re aiming at.” He took Rogé’s bow and looked at over. “You’re lucky to have such a fine piece.” He gave it back. “An expert archer can hit four times farther than the distance we have here.”

“Four times?” Rogé’s eyes flew down the range, trying to find that distance.

“Don’t worry. In time you’ll hit things at least three times the distance.”

“What about four times?”

“We only have three experts in the company.” They walked back to the bivouac.

“How are things among the Crushers?” Rogé asked.

“As compared to what?” Fabio shrugged. “We’re free-lancers, men-at-arms, weapons for sale and except for the Captain none of us is of noble birth. We’re tough and want to be tougher. Among mercenaries, reputation is what counts the most and sets the price a client’s willing to pay for services. We’re better than most but not as well known as the Avengers, but then who is? On the other hand because we don’t cost as much, clients who want to save money hire us instead of someone more expensive.”

They arrived to one side of the camp where the archers congregated. “That’s Guido.” Fabio pointed out a short, barrel-chested man, who seemed to have no neck at all. “He can hit a half-penny at sixty paces and believe me, only very few men can do that. Beside him is Luca, second in command of the forty archers; with you that makes forty one.”

“Can he also hit a half-penny…?”

“No. Not even close. He doesn’t have the eye. But he’s the smartest of us all, and gives great counsel. If you ever have a problem, take it to him.” A young man with long brown hair sauntered over. “And this is Nico, someone to avoid as much as you can,” Fabio said winking. “In case you’re wondering we’re all Genoese and it’s a wonder the Captain accepted you at all. Probably because of the fine quality of your bow… so you better learn to live up to it.”

“Is it true you got a personal bodyguard to protect you?” Nico asked.

“So I was told by… by Sergeant Angus.”

“I guess that makes it official… but it’s the first time,” Nico grumbled.

“Not really,” Fabio countered. “We archers sometimes get people to hold a pavis for us…”

“Pavis? What’s that?” Rogé asked.

“A full length wooden shield. Something to shelter behind as you reload. We sometimes hire peasants to hold and move the shields for us. The pikemen think it’s beneath them,” Fabio said.

Searching for Clod, Rogé found him among some pikemen who were showing him how to use the halberd correctly. He watched as Clod used the spear point for stabbing or swung the axe blade to mow down the enemy. Then how to move smoothly and quickly from one position to another. They gave Clod such a good workout that he was sweating when they finally let him go.

“As bad as pitching hay all day at haying time,” Clod complained as he took a long drink from his canteen. “How did you do?”

“As you’d expect, proved myself an amateur.”

“That we are… but not for long, I promise.”

In the full heat of the afternoon most just lolled around, talking and trading stories. Clod slept while Rogé listened.

“The French are gathering a huge army together. Knights, mounted men-at-arms, archers and even artillery. They’re stripping the castles of ballistas and trebuchets. This time they want to destroy the English to the last man. Finally they want to put an end to sixty years of losing.”

“Lot of numbers, but few are real professionals. Except for the odd knight who fights in tournaments to earn a living, most knights today are honorary third sons of the nobility. They play at fighting and practice chivalry by conquering ladies’ hearts at Court,” someone in the group said.

“That’s right. Not many mercenaries among them. The Wolves and the Storm are the only two I’ve heard of. I know the Captain has offered our services, but hasn’t been accepted yet. I’m surprised that we came all this way maybe for nothing. We should’ve gone east to Saxony; they’re fighting with one of their neighbors.”

“Nah. The Swiss have that already and they won’t let us muscle in on one of their clients.”

“We’re as good as the Swiss.”

“Maybe, maybe not. But the Swiss have a reputation that goes back a hundred years, whereas who knows about the Crushers?”

“I don’t know. This won’t be the end. This has gone on sixty years and one battle won’t end it. We may get a chance after all. When the battle becomes imminent, the Grand Marshall of the Realm will panic and hire every mercenary he can find at twice the asking price…”

“You wish… When did we ever get twice the price?”

“Well, if it’s an open battle, we’ll take as many prisoners as we can and ransom them afterwards. So people, be careful who you kill, every noble we capture means a fat sack of gold.”

“It’ll be even better if we have to besiege a town or better still a city and sack it afterwards. That’s where the real loot is…”

“If you like sitting idle under the walls, hoping they run out of food before you do. And sieges tend to last into the winter, with the onset of nasty weather. I hate sitting, sleeping, pissing in the cold mud.”

Rogé’s head was buzzing with all that he had heard. This was such a change from talking about the weather, the state of crops or whether the pig has put on enough weight to be slaughtered come November. He felt as if the whole world had fallen on him. These people were talking about kings, claims of kingdoms, politics and war. God had a small place around the camp fire, hardly mentioned at all, and if, His name was often taken in vain. But Rogé expected that would likely change on the eve of a battle. Then even the most hardened mercenary would discover the need for divine help in the coming confrontation. Thinking of that he decided to pray, but in this new context, he found it strangely difficult.

Chapter 3

Two days later they marched north amidst rumors that that they had received a contract— though it was not confirmed. Whatever Captain Bellecourt was negotiating, he wasn’t saying. It was noted that riders came and went with messages back and forth.

The good thing was that the Abbey of St. James the Pious opened its doors to the four hundred or so members of the Bonecrushers. Only the baggage train remained outside, near the thresher barns. The abbot was so afraid of English marauders that the presence of so many mercenaries didn’t much bother him. As it turned out the discipline held and the abbot had little to complain about.

The food was better and a little of the abbey’s cellar made it into Crusher hands. It was generally agreed that the wine was the best they’d had for a long time. Then for those who cared about it, the bath house was available to anyone who wanted to wash up. The only drawback of the arrangement was the periodic call to prayer and the quiet that was expected. Still both sides got what they wanted. The Crushers got relative comfort and the monks a sense of security.

In the midst of such enforced idleness it was reported that the English army was on the move, having taken the harbor of Harfleur after a month long siege, suffering losses due to the stubborn defense and a sickness that further depleted their army. As the English were following the coast, it was thought that Henry was trying to reach his main strongpoint in Calais to restock and recuperate. The French, who were still gathering in Rouen, moved to cut off the route by blocking the crossing in the Somme estuary that Henry would have to use. It was going to be a foot race to decide who would get there first.

At the abbey, the Crushers were enjoying its comforts. Their only concern was that everything was happening without them. The French and English were trying to outmaneuver each other and sooner or later this would come to a battle.

Throughout the days, Rogé was practicing and achieving remarkable progress—even Fabio said so. At a medium distance he hit the target eight out of ten tries and at the next distance scored six out of ten. He was starting to feel like an archer when Nico claimed he was already better than a quarter of the archers in the troop, something which Rogé found hard to believe.

“Anyway, we’re asked to lay down a volley at a mass of men and not necessarily look for a specific target. Sure—if you can kill or wound a leader or a standard bearer so much the better but it’s not really expected. Our role is to rain down death on the enemy, kill as many as we can and take the heart out of them,” Fabio explained.

“Yeah, if you lose spirit and intent, you lose the battle,” Nico added.

Rogé set himself to aim for the farthest target, a close weave of straw with red to mark the centre. Rogé took his time, relaxing his breath. He wanted to prove to his companions how good he really was. His finger tightened around the trigger and the string snapped crisply, sending the quarrel on its way. They watched the flight, the bolt finding the centre. Fabio whistled in tribute; Nico slapped Rogé’s shoulder, saying, “You must have the eye of an eagle to be so precise.”

“Not just the eye, also a great sense of distance,” Fabio added. It made Rogé wonder what the others were able to see, realizing that he took his acuity for granted.

At the supper table Rogé was near enough to the leaders to overhear some of their discussions.

“The trouble with the French is that they have too many nobles and sons of prestigious families so it’s nearly impossible for the Constable of France and his co-commander the Marshall to prevail against them. The way it stands, ten nobles have ten different opinions and don’t want to listen to the professional soldiers. The King is sick and can’t take the field to assert a central authority and d’Abret the Constable and Marshall Boucicaut can’t keep the nobles in line. Everyone knows better. Hard to impossible to follow through on decisions.” Captain Bellecourt wiped his chin, his expression showing deep concern. “It’s clear that they have numerical superiority, but without clear leadership…” he shrugged. “We all know how that can end.”

His second, Lieutenant Tolbert, wanted to hear better news. “If the last reports can be believed, the English army is plagued by dysentery and tired from the long siege. Henry’s forcing them on a long march to reach Calais. They’re also short of provisions and a long way from help and supplies. He has few knights and men-at-arms in heavy armor and fewer are mounted. Don’t see how they can withstand a general charge. The French heavy cavalry will mow them down.”

“It’s true that they’re mostly English and Welsh longbowmen with just a few other arms. I think something like six to one in favor of the archers. But in a prepared defensive position that’s a deadly mix; we shouldn’t underestimate them like we did at Crécy and Poitiers,” Captain Bellecourt said.

“That’s the trouble. The French remember Crécy and Poitiers all too well. It hamstrings them and makes them afraid to commit. If it were up to me I would have attacked Henry after the siege of Harfleur when he was most depleted and certainly before he can reach Calais. I think it was a mistake to let it drag out this long,” Lieutenant Pointier, who was French and felt his national pride wounded, declared more loudly than he intended.

“I think we have to prevent the English from establishing a defense by catching them on the move before they can dig in. History shows that victory favors the defense. In the last ten battles, the attacker lost seven times out of ten. Those are daunting odds even for a gambling man,” Lieutenant Tolbert declared.

“What does it matter if this or that? We sit here guzzling the good Abbot’s wine like suckling pigs at a sow’s tits,” Lieutenant Pointier pointed out the obvious.

“I guess I can tell you now: we’ll move day after tomorrow to join the French somewhere near Neufchâtel. I made a secret deal with d’Abret to keep this quiet until he can scare the Royal Treasurer into spending the money to hire us. I’m happy to say that the down payment is on its way,” Captain Bellecourt divulged. The leaders broke into enthusiastic applause at this welcome news. Finally!

Like wildfire the news swept the hall. The Crushers were to join this war!

Later on, in the dormitory assigned to them, the mercenaries discussed the implications. Rogé was a part of that, though he kept quiet and listened.

“I don’t know what this war is all about and don’t even know if I should care,” a skinny pikeman said; he was famous for skewering Count so-and-so’s bodyguard in some previous battle and taking the Count prisoner for ransom.

“The reasons are quite simple really. Henry wants his rights to Aquitaine ratified and uses his claim to the French throne to leverage it. According to English tradition he has an entitlement, but not according to French law which doesn’t recognize any claim through the mother’s line…”

“That explains nothing—”

“Because you’re dense as a log…”

“Who’re you calling a log you loud-mouthed dog…?” For a moment it looked as if it would come to blows.

“Save it for the English,” Sergeant Angus intervened.

“Where’ve you been all night?” Clod demanded when Rogé met up with him.

“Listening to soldiers talking—”

“Never mind that, come with me.” He grabbed Rogé and dragged him out of the dormitories to the threshing barn where the baggage train was parked.

“What’re we doing here?” Rogé asked repeatedly.

“I discovered that we have a following. We have women along.”

“Sure, some laundresses and cooking help.”

“Those are laundresses by day… but comfort women by night,” Clod declared triumphantly.

“What do you mean by comfort women?” Rogé asked, not understanding.

“Remember Rosie at the Golden Hind back home?”

“Yes, she worked at the inn, so what?”

“For some small gift, she would share the comfort of her bed at night…”

“You mean we have prostitutes along?”

“Not exactly. They get to pick who they like and who they don’t.”

“And they like you???”

“And my silver.” Clod jingled the purse on his belt.

They arrived at the house on wheels. Before Rogé could stop him, Clod whistled sharply. The window of the house opened and a female looked out.

“Oh, it’s you Clod… and you brought someone with you. How nice.”

“This is my friend Rogé and he badly needs instruction in the ways of pleasure…”

“No, I don’t!”

“Yes he does. He’s just a little shy…”

“No, I’m not!”

“Come on in… we won’t bite… quite the contrary… we can show you a real good time…”

“I am not interested in a good time.”

“Every archer is interested in a good time. It’s so tiresome to shoot arrows all day, you deserve a rest…” A second face joined the first in the window, and a second hand beckoned invitingly.

“Ladies, I’m sorry but I’m really not interested,” Rogé persisted.

“Damn you Clod, you got us up for nothing!”

“Sorry Florence, how could I know my friend would be so reluctant to taste pleasure that I so treasure? But what can you do with virgins? In their ignorance they just don’t know. But seeing as you are up and I’m up, well… we can console each other…” Before more words could be wasted, the door opened and Clod disappeared inside.

“Well, that was… nothing,” Rogé muttered and as he turned to go, he heard a giggle from the shadows. “Who’s that? Show yourself!”

A shadow moved into the pale moonlight. A girl—a slip of a girl.

“Are you laughing at me?”

“A giggle is not a laugh.”

“Then why were you giggling?”

“What else could I do when a virgin runs so scared that even two sirens can’t catch him?”

“I’m no… never mind, little girl. Go back to your bed.”

“I can’t. Your friend’s in it.”

“Are you… a comfort woman?”

“First off I’m not a woman and no one called me comfort before.”

“Aha, then you’re a virgin too…”

“I’m Avril, that’s who I am. I was born to a camp follower and know nothing else. If it pleases you to call me something else then you only please yourself, not me.”

“I can see you have a tongue on you.”

“And you have none?”

Rogé didn’t know how to answer, since he had so little experience talking to women. The ladies on the farm were no help, because they were tired and the Squire had beaten all the joy out of them. That sadly also included his own daughter.

“I guess I’m more of an ear. I listen before I speak.” They heard giggles from the wagon, and the contraption started shaking and groaning.

“Well then listen to your friend enjoying the pleasure you’re missing,” Avril taunted.

“Oh hell…” Outmatched, Rogé walked away, followed a good way by her giggles.

The next day was a day of packing, though there wasn’t much to pack as the troop traveled light. The only concessions were the two supply wagons, the cook cart with a stove and the apparently sanctioned “comfort” wagon.

All the same Angus was yelling. “Look to your weapons boys. We’ll be needing them soon. And if anyone knows English, teach the others.”

“Teach them what, Sergeant?”

“Teach them to say, ‘If you surrender, we won’t kill you, but ransom you.’ Understand?” Angus raised his voice even more. “If you see an English archer, kill him for he’s worth nothing, but a knight or a lord, take him alive, he’s worth good money.”

“What if he won’t let himself be taken?”

“Hit him over the head, knock him out, but leave the rest of him intact. We have to deliver a whole animal if we want to get paid. The better he looks, the more we can ask for him.”

Rogé got himself an extra quiver of bolts. An archer without ammunition was likely a dead man. He had tried his hand at swordplay, but they easily disarmed him with clever tricks and he decided that if it came to defending himself he would rely on his knife and his short axe. Every archer got a wooden stake to plant in the ground, sharp end angled toward the enemy, to stop the cavalry riding through them. All told there were forty crossbowmen, about twenty longbows, over two hundred pikemen and the rest mounted men-at-arms. The latter fought on foot or astride the horse depending on the type of battle. All week they had rehearsed various formations on the abbey’s hay field, ruining next year’s crop, and Rogé learned all the signals by heart.

“All right men. Get a good night’s sleep, for tomorrow we’re marching and who knows when we’ll find such cozy accommodations,” Sergeant Angus advised, first in French then Italian as the Genoese refused to speak or listen to French, even if most could.

Rogé settled down, but couldn’t sleep and had to listen to Clod’s snoring. He was entering a new phase of his life, out one door into another, wondering what waited for him.

Chapter 4

On October 11th of the year 1415, over four hundred Bonecrushers marched north and a day later joined up with the French rearguard. For two days they quick-marched to the Somme, crossed, and blocked the vital crossing, trapping Henry on the wrong side of the river.

That night, the mood was one of elation. Captain Bellecourt invited the French neighbors to share supper, with three knights accepting the invitation and a monk besides. They ate, but the conversation didn’t really start until wine was served. Rogé carved the roast beef and listened to the table talk.

“This time we got Henry by the balls and the Constable will squeeze’em until they pop. We’ve kept him from Calais. The English will go hungry on the wrong side of the river, and when they get weak, we’ll ride them down,” the Knight Augustine boasted, sloshing his wine vehemently.

“That’s right. This time, we play the tune. Henry’s not Edward the Black Prince, everyone knows that,” another guest declared. “Besides, the English are nothing more than riffraff, hardly a nobleman among them. It boggles the mind they even dare take the field against us. We’re thrice, four times their number. And of superior quality and mettle.”

“I don’t mean to sound disparaging, but that ragtag army you speak of and dismiss so lightly took Harfleur. A no mean feat, that was,” Captain Bellecourt mentioned calmly in the face of the French bravado.

“That’s right,” his second, Telford chipped in. “And they still have their archers… reputed to be the best. The English have practiced for generations to be ready for this battle…”

“Bah! Today’s armor is better and thicker than in our fathers’ day, and no longbow can penetrate it. Believe me, there’ll be no repetition of Crécy here.”

“The way I hear, the English have strengthened their bows and brought two shiploads of arrows with them.”

“Marshall Boucicaut ordered that any English archer we don’t kill, we hack off two of his fingers so he can never draw a bow again. But most of the rank prefer just to kill them.”

“Very prudent of the Marshall,” Captain Bellecourt remarked dryly.

“We have the numbers, it’s true, but my trust is in the quality of our men. The flower of France is here, all eager to redress their fathers’ shame. We’ll send the English dogs running, don’t you fear, or bury them here.” The knights clicked their tankards together in high spirits. All this time the monk said nothing until Lieutenant Telford asked him directly.

“Well, Brother, have you no words to add?”

“I’m a peaceable man of the cloth not a warrior. I’m here to record events as they happen, not to make them. The generals and all the military men tell me we have the upper hand and that is what I’ve written. What happens tomorrow, tomorrow will decide without me.”

“Wise words Brother.” Captain Bellecourt tapped him on the shoulder. “The stew’s not done until the carrots have risen to the surface.”

“What does that mean?” one of the French knights demanded. With the dinner over Rogé left to dig Clod out of the comfort wagon.

“For God sake, you’re spending all our coins,” Rogé remonstrated with his friend.

“That’s what money’s for. Who knows if tomorrow I might die? I prefer Cupid’s arrows to the English’s and who can blame me…”

“You’re randy as a sailor just home from a long voyage.”

They wrapped themselves in their cloaks and found a place to lie down near enough to the fire to fight off the October night’s chill.

The morning broke with a heavy overcast that nearly covered a blood red sun. People thought this was an omen that a bloodbath was coming; most held it presaged an English rout. The French were sure of it, feeling confident in themselves.

Like many, Clod and Rogé went to the riverbank to overlook the crossing. There was nothing to see but a peaceful countryside kept apart by the width of the river, though the scouts had returned to voice that the English would be there that day.

“Do we know who were the blues and what happened to them?” Clod said, spitting into the water.

“I asked. The best answer I got was that they were an English contingent sent from Calais to secure this crossing. For some reason, after they got here, they went raiding south and exterminated the reds. I haven’t seen a red banner or surcoats anywhere, did you?”

“Nah, there are too many colors and banners to keep track of. But the battle seemed too large to me to be fought by just a contingent.”

“That’s because it was the first battle we’ve ever seen. We had no sense of numbers. Imagine this whole host going against all of the English. You’ll get a better idea.”

“I see what you mean.” Clod looked up the river, where the water had not been disturbed. “I think I’ll try my hand at fishing. It would be good to have something fresh to eat.”

“And I think I’ll cut and wash my hair,” Rogé said.

“Not me. It’s my hair that keeps my helmet on. We really should get better padding.” Clod sauntered back to camp to find something to fish with.

Rogé went south, taking care not to slip on the sometimes steep bank. Rounding some shrubbery, he found a naked woman kneeling in the water taking a bath. On second look, it was not a woman but a girl and to his shock he recognized Avril. His jaw dropped.

The girl noticed him about the same time, but did not bother to cover herself, continuing to wash with a piece of cloth. Rogé saw that her body was slim, with an outline of bones here and there. He had seen naked women before, shriveled up old women, with bushes that covered half their nether regions. Avril had only a soft fuzz through which Rogé caught the contour of the cleft. It just didn’t look right without a penis.

“Shut your mouth Rogé Strongbow, before your tongue falls out,” she called to him, giggling.

Confused, he retreated out of view to the other side of the greenery, and started untangling his hair. “What’re you doing here? Don’t you know a battle’s coming? No place for a girl,” he said, rubbing his scalp.

“This’ll be my eighth battle. I’m guessing this is your first. Don’t worry, I know how to take care of myself. You best look after yourself.”

“Have you been with the Crushers long?”

“For about seven years. Before that with the Swiss Bern Bears—until their Captain died and the company disbanded.”

“What do you think of our Captain?”

“A good mix, I’d say. He’s cautious when he needs to be, but bold when called for. He doesn’t risk his men needlessly.”

“That’s good to know.” Rogé heard her climb out of the water and go for her clothes. She came around the bush only in her underskirt and was drying her hair. She had hardly any breasts, but she wasn’t shy about them. “How old are you anyway?” he asked, thinking she couldn’t be more than twelve. It surprised him when she answered, “Almost fifteen.” She tittered, grabbed her clothes and ran off. Rogé was further surprised to find his manhood hard against his pants. “She’s only a child,” he told himself, further confused.

Back in camp, Sergeant Angus inspected the men, finding small faults that needed correcting.

“An army that looks good, feels good and has pride to add to its skill always does better than one with no self-esteem. Let the opponent be sloppy and act like unruly rabble. We practice because we’re professionals and know what to do. We have trust in our leaders and they have trust in us, knowing we won’t let them down…” He went on, trying to build fire in their souls. When they were finally dismissed, the archers collected around Giacomo who also had a few words to add. “I’m told we’re likely to have some rain the next days, so cover your weapons with waxed cloth, don’t let your bowstrings get wet.”

“Are we going to have a battle soon, Sir?” an archer asked.

“Soon enough, but not today. The English will be arriving, perhaps this afternoon. They’ll try to cross the Somme, but not here, we’re too well positioned. Henry will try crossing further south and it’s our task not to let him. If we can keep him from getting to Calais this war’s as good as won. They’re short of supplies and the scouts report they’re already eating their horses.”

“They say that before every battle,” a veteran murmured so only those near could hear. “They want us to think that the dice are loaded in our favor. Was it at Viceroy? Or at Torillo?”

“Those were skirmishes, small things.”

“Yeah, small enough to lose—”

“That was a strategic retreat, not a defeat…”

Clod disappeared again and Rogé found the Sergeant by a fire, sharpening his knife. It was a wicked, eleven inch blade of cold steel. Angus threw a sideways glance at Rogé and said conversationally, “In a battle the press sometimes becomes so impossible that there’s no room to swing a weapon. That’s when a knife comes in handy. This blade has saved my life more times than I can remember.” He flicked the edge, nodded satisfied and slipped the knife back into its sheath.

“Sir, they say that the pavises that were promised haven’t arrived. How are we to protect ourselves?”

“First, we might get them yet. Luca’s beating the bushes for them. Second, we’ve fought and won without them. Pavises are most effective in sieges, where the enemy’s always looking down at you and has the advantage of walls and height. On the open ground the pavises are heavy and cumbersome, hard to set up in a new position quickly.”

“How about the battle itself? How risky is it?”

“War is war, hard to foresee everything. You could be in the heart of a battle and survive, or get killed on the periphery by a stray arrow. I’ve been wounded seven times, yet here I am. More I can’t tell, it’s luck, it’s fate or divine intervention. Who knows these things?” He looked around at the camp, at soldiers striding around purposefully. “Make yourself small and don’t take any unnecessary risks.” Make yourself small? Sure, when the arrows are falling. How do you do that?

“They say we outnumber the English at least three to one. Surely that’s enough to gain a victory.”

“Winning isn’t always about numbers. It’s more about resolve and endurance. Husband your strength, make sure it lasts the whole battle.”

“But surely the numbers… so one sided, guarantee us a victory.”

“I’ve seen a large army run in panic, presenting their backs to the enemy. I’ve witnessed the slaughter that followed.” Angus spit a mouthful of wine into the fire and watched the liquid turn into steam. “What I don’t like about this is that the French are so eager to prove themselves. They feel it’s their destiny and want to make a reputation, cover themselves in glory and go home bragging about their mighty deeds in battle. It’s a surprise even for the Constable to see such numbers flock to King Charles’ sacred war banner. It’s a shame that he himself isn’t here to keep the unruly nobles in line.” He spat into the fire again and listened to the angry hiss.

Rogé wandered through camp, looking for his friend. He didn’t find him at the comfort wagon, though he saw the women washing linen in a tub, Avril hanging them up on a line. The women waved to him to come on over, trying to entice him with smiles and flashes of bare thigh. Avril just looked, her eyes big, but she never broke the rhythm of her work.

Clod wasn’t at the feeding station either. And certainly not on the practice field. There was an excited crowd of soldiers yelling, gesticulating, gambling with dice. In the middle was Clod, his face red and eyes sparkling as he rolled the dice and won.

“Rogé, look, I’m winning!” He threw again and lost, then three more times and had to surrender all his winnings. “Damn it to hell, Rogé, you jinxed me. I was doing quite well before you showed up.”

He didn’t have long to feel downcast because the news flashed around that the scouts were back, the English right behind them. Everyone rushed to the river bank and saw a troop of horses galloping through the water, no more than knee deep. The water changed color from all the mud they stirred up.

“What’s the news? Where are the English?” everyone wanted to know.

“Right behind. You can already see their dust.”

“ How many?”

“9,000, 12,000 men, mostly archers. They have a few mounted with them.”

“Should we get our weapons ready?”

“Nah, they won’t do anything today. There’s only three hours of daylight left, they’re not fools to start something in the dark.”

A group of horsemen appeared and paused to look across the river at the French assembled on the other shore. The French put up a loud roar, jeering the enemy. “You missed the boat!” someone yelled beside Rogé.

More horses arrived, then a forest of banners. “There’s Henry, the English king!” There couldn’t be any doubt. He wore the royal colors and insignia, and a gold crown fringed his helmet. He was surrounded by the shining armor of his bodyguards. The group stayed on top of the rise, while the rest of the army flowed around him and spread out along the bank, careful to stay out of the reach of arrows.

“Who’s that beside the King?” someone asked among the onlookers.

“The Duke of York, the King’s brother.”

“Good, he’ll fetch a good ransom.”

The French were deployed on the east side of the river, the English on the west. The two armies glowered at each other. The French were making gestures for the English to come on over but of course the English refrained.

“Will it come to a battle today?” Rogé asked Giacomo. He couldn’t understand that the two armies were setting up so close to each other without coming to blows.

“Not likely. The terrain doesn’t favor them. They’ll try to get around us and cross further south. They can’t go north because of the sea and the muddy estuary. There isn’t any question, if they want to reach Calais they have to cross somewhere. Yep, the Constable has Henry by the short and curlies and you can bet that he won’t let go.”

A Frenchman next to them broke into the conversation. “I don’t know why we’re waiting. With one charge of our heavy cavalry we trample them into the mud. This time the English dogs won’t get their way.”

“King Henry has the reputation of being a good general,” Giacomo said.

“Good general? He had the chance to comfortably sail from Harfleur to Calais but instead he made his army march across land… sick and tired as they are. We couldn’t have touched him on the sea, now he’s at our mercy. Either he gives us a battle and then we destroy him or he and his men will starve. You call that good?”

“The English think they can come and do as they wish just because they won a few battles in the past. Today we’re stronger than we ever were and set on revenge. Every able bodied man in France wants to be here to teach the English a lesson they’ll never forget. Every knight in the army wants the honor of a place in the front line,” another Frenchman said.

Rogé drifted off, wondering how the two armies could stand face to face, regarding each other with curiosity, knowing that soon they would be fighting one another. He found Clod watching a wrestling match. Two pikemen grappled with each other as a crowd cheered them on. Rogé pulled Clod out of the spectators. “We should practice our sword play. When the battle comes we need to be ready.”

“And you think a day of practice will make us more ready?” Clod asked sarcastically.

“Maybe not, but it’s better than just to sit here and wait.”

They walked into the woods and on a sandbar in the creek found enough clear space for their practice with wooden sticks. Things were lax until Clod landed a blow on Rogé’s knee and Rogé retaliated with a counterblow to the upper arm. From then on the practice became more earnest, each receiving their share of blows. Gasping for breath they paused, cupping some water from the stream and drinking it.

“You know, if I can land some blows on you, think what an English yeoman could do to you. Chop you up like carrots for the stew,” Rogé pointed out.

“I’m better with the halberd.”

“And I with the crossbow, but if it comes to infighting we’ll need our swords.”

They were interrupted by feminine laughter. It was Florence and Avril, with baskets of linen to wash. They settled by the water and started soaking and rubbing the cloth between their fists. As far as Clod was concerned it was the end of practice so he walked over to them.

“Good day to you ladies.” He made a gallant bow. “I trust our practice hasn’t frightened you.”

“Oh young Sir, we were terrified. Two gentlemen fighting with sticks puts the fear of God in me. What next, hitting with a mace made of cane?” Florence asked with a straight face. Avril giggled, something she seemed addicted to, Rogé decided.

“No cause to make fun of manly practice. It’s an important part of a soldier’s life,” Clod retorted with mock severity.

Avril looked from one to the other. “We’ve been around too and know a thing or two.” She pointed at Clod. “You, Sir, are way too slow to recover and guard after you strike, giving your opponent much too much time to launch a counterblow.” She then looked at Rogé. “And you. You don’t protect your knees and legs well enough. That’s where an experienced fighter would attack you. A man who can’t move is dead already.”

“How do you know so much?” Rogé asked.

“I’ve been around soldiers all my life, I know their strengths and weaknesses at a glance.”

“Sure and you can also tell how the battle will go.”

“Maybe.”

“Tell us then, miss general,” Clod provoked her. Avril’s face turned serious.

“The English are tougher than the French think and their King has tight control of them. The French leaders bicker and want to go different ways. If they can’t settle their differences, they lose initiative. You have to be single-minded in a battle if you want to win.”

“Oh so you’re predicting an English victory?” Clod asked.

“Not necessarily, but I’m giving them a better chance than the French are expecting. The French are starting to believe their own boasts and are dangerously overconfident.” Privately, Rogé thought so too, but it surprised him to hear her lay it out so succinctly. Still, he didn’t say it, thinking himself much too new to the art of war to have an opinion. Besides he was a worrier, who tended to argue both sides and see merit in each. He sat down on a rock and enjoyed the weak sunshine on his face. His legs hurt from Clod’s blows and he had to give Avril credit for spotting his weakness. He regarded her speculatively. She’s fifteen, tough, but how tough? She has a nice face and tries to hide behind her giggles. Or do all girls her age do that?

She looked back at him, her eyes narrowing. He had the impression that she didn’t like to be looked at so closely. She hides in silly girl routines. Why? Next he tried to decide if she was beautiful. He had seen her naked, lanky and bony, not how he imagined a girl to be. Yet why was he growing hard just thinking about her?

Florence slapped the linen shirt against a rock driving the water out. “Come,” she called to the youths, “make yourselves useful.” She showed them how to wring out the cloth and the four of them made short work of the pile of wet clothes. Piling the damp wash in the basket, they walked back to camp. Clod tried to get his arm around Florence and kiss her but she would have none of it. Behind them, Rogé felt embarrassed, aware that Avril beside him was giggling again. For some reason he didn’t dare to look at her.

Back under the banner, Sergeant Angus yelled at them, “Where have you two been? The Captain addressed the troop and you missed it.”

“Well, what did he say?” Clod asked.

“The usual. Things he says before every battle. That we’re brothers and need to protect each other. That we have to husband our strength for the whole of the battle, not use ourselves up in the beginning and leave nothing for later. That we’re the best trained, well led, and if we keep our resolve we’ll do well…” The Sergeant ran out of words. “Of course he says it much better than me.”

Later on, Rogé sat by one of the many fires, sharpening his knife and short axe. Clod was sitting beside him, rubbing his sword with an oily cloth. All around people were looking to their weapons. A large German, Kurt Salinger, held his sword in front of him as a crucifix and was praying to it. Finishing, he kissed the haft and slid the sword into its scabbard. Beside him a pikeman was sharpening the point of his poniard and beyond him a man-at-arms was retying the leather tongs holding the pauldrons down which protected his shoulders. Beside him a Spaniard was explaining every cut and chip in his shield. “This was made by an arrow at Limes, and this cut’s from a double-handed sword that nearly cleaved the shield in half, but I got him in the end. A quick poniard thrust into a chink in his armor. He bled out in half the time you can say bless you…”

Rogé found the whole scene unreal. Turning to Clod he said, “Two weeks ago I was worried that Squire Marcel was going to beat me half to death and now on the eve of a battle I’m wondering if I’m going to survive tomorrow.”

“No use worrying yourself over things you can’t do much about. Try enjoying yourself while you’re alive. If I regret anything it’s not pinching Rosa’s bottom while I had the chance.”

“Is that all you can think about at a time like this?”

“Sure. Or should I bemoan the fact like you that I haven’t lived at all?” He put his sword away and took a drink from a flask.

“I lived. Sure I lived—”

“Remembering the pain and every hurt but not the pleasure of the moment. It amazes me how satisfied you are with so little—”

This was not what Rogé wanted to think about on the eve of a battle, and frowning he turned his face away.

The opposing armies sat on their sides of the river eyeing each other. The French had built a tent city and enjoyed a modicum of comfort the English lacked. There were four oxen turning over fires, each surrounded by a crowd pushing to get some of the roasting meat. A red-faced man, his face sweaty from the heat, carved off slices and passed them around. Ale was served; when a few soldiers got quite drunk, three got hung by the thumbs from a tree as punishment as well as a deterrent to others.

The mood in camp was jubilant. Finally they had treed the English lion; all that remained was to humiliate him and do what their fathers had not been able to do for over sixty years. Revenge was going to be oh so very sweet.

Some of the pikemen were singing ribald songs and Rogé blushed when he figured out the words. On the threshold of a battle this was male territory, rough and dirty, ready to die, ready to win.

A little later, crossing the main trail that cut through the camp, Rogé was nearly run down by a giant of a war horse all dressed in plate armor and mail. The stallion had a helmet that limited his vision and he didn’t see Rogé until the last instant. He shied and reared, nearly unseating his rider. With difficulty the knight brought the horse under control; the animal exhaled great volumes of vapor and his iron shod hooves danced in the dirt. The knight snapped his visor up and swore at Rogé. “You gutter rat, watch where you’re going!”

“Why don’t you?” Rogé fired back, keeping well away from the nervous horse. He recognized a baronial crest on the surcoat that covered the shining armor, but he didn’t know if it was the baron himself or one of his knights. The man and horse moved on, the crowd opening up for them.

Rogé, getting a good look at the armor of the horse and man, wondered if his bolts could really penetrate the thickness of the steel. It must be holy terror to have a whole line of heavy cavalry riding at you. It didn’t seem that anything could resist their charge.

“The conceited dog,” someone beside Rogé hissed. “I spent my time cleaning, polishing and oiling all that armor, so my Lord will look good on the battlefield. Does he care? Not a whit. He only notices if something isn’t shining.”

Rogé nodded in sympathy. He wore light mail and a leather vest with the Bonecrusher tunic over it. Compared to the knight he was just a feather blown about by the winds of war. Then he saw how it took three men to help the knight dismount and was glad he wasn’t burdened by all that weight.

Still, he thought of the charge of heavy cavalry, sounding like an approaching earthquake, the shaking and the rumbling in the ground, the screaming of the horses, their flashing hooves trained to trample the enemy to bits, a forest of lances to the fore… It must be a terrifying sight to freeze one’s blood and turn knees to water. War horses were expensive, hence they were amply protected. It was a good thing the English had so few knights among them.

It was said that Count Valdrome had brought ten war dogs, also in armor, with a sharp horn affixed to their foreheads for goring. They could tear a man apart in less than a minute. Their handlers were protected by heavy leather padding, as the snarling pack wasn’t to be trusted. Rogé saw one tear a chunk of beef to shred and gobble it down, snarling all the while.

A group of men, naked to the waist, were engaged in mock combat, striking each other with willow switches that left angry red lines on the exposed skin. Some had many such marks and it soon became clear who was the winner. When one group was finished, another group took its place, to test their mettle. A little pain, a little blood was a good foretaste of the battle.

A few steps farther, two men sat on logs, their feet dangling beneath them, just off the ground. They were pounding each other with wet cloths until one or both fell off. This occasioned considerable betting.

Rogé then watched horses being led to the river and watered. On the other side the English were doing the same, yelling insults and cursing each other. A host of rude gestures were traded freely.

Around the roasting oxen Rogé made sure he got two generous cuts, which he ate from his helmet then drank ale from it.

“Hey Rogé,” Nico hailed him. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Sure. But this all seems more like a fair to me than getting ready for battle.”

“Why not? Enjoy today. We might all die tomorrow.”

“Surely not all.”

“We hope not all, but with war it’s hard to tell. Numbers count of course, but sometimes one brave act of a hero can turn the tide of battle and change defeat into victory. In the end, when both sides are exhausted and death would be a welcome thing, it’s the spirit that counts.”

“The French seem very confident.”

“Too confident. They think they have the battle won already.”

“What do you think?”

“What’s there to think? What will happen will happen. I shoot my missiles and when they’re gone then it’s hand-to-hand, kill or be killed. I try to stay alive. I leave the strategy to higher ups. Who knows? I tell you though, it’s better to be dead than maimed then go begging for the rest of your life.” Rogé remembered a veteran back home who had lost both legs in the Spanish war; he could have been a knight for all anybody knew. He pushed himself around on a crude cart, begging from door to door. No community tolerated him more than a couple of months. Yes, death was preferable to that. The thought depressed him.

Before evening the river rose three feet and the water turned brown with washed down sediment. “It’s been raining inland for days swelling the creeks that feed the Somme. The good thing is that the higher levels will make it more difficult for the English to cross the river.” Sergeant Angus was thinking out loud.

“Is that really good? I mean we’re looking for a battle aren’t we? The sooner the better is what I hear all over the camp,” Rogé said.

“It’s never good to march and fight in the rain. The ground gets slippery, the footing unsure. And being cold and damp in October is not enjoyable.”

Rogé made sure that his crossbow was under wraps, protected from the drizzle that came and went.

On both sides of the river soldiers were trying to water their horses, but most animals refused because of the mud. Nobody tried on either side to shoot an arrow. This was the live-and-let-live phase of campaigning. The hostilities would come soon enough.

“English, we kill you and chop you into little pieces. Even your poor Mama won’t recognize you.”

“Screw you, Frenchie. I’ll shoot an arrow up your ass, sideways. Just be kind enough to pull down your britches.”

To Rogé it all felt so unreal. He was trying to find Clod, but Clod wasn’t to be found anywhere. He scowled at the people moving about restlessly.

“Rogé, you don’t seem very happy.” Rogé recognized Avril’s voice, and turning he saw her there, dressed as a boy, with a sardonic grin on her face.

“What are you now, a page?”

“No. But when things get this rowdy I don’t want to be mistaken for a comfort woman.”

“Who would want you? You’re not even half a bite.” As her eyes flared he regretted saying so. To make amends he offered her a lump of crystallized honey. She put it in her mouth and seemed mollified.

“Come, I have something to show you,” she said taking his hand.

“What?”

“It’s better if you see it for yourself,” Avril said and pulled on him with surprising strength. Letting himself be led, Rogé followed; they left the camp and headed up the hill. As the ground was slippery, Rogé had to brace her at times and give her a boost over the rough spots. It seemed that she was determined to drag him to the very top.

They were both out of breath when they reached the promontory that overlooked the ford and both camps. From this high up, it looked like two anthills, tiny men scurrying about busy with something. It didn’t seem possible that they all had something sensible to do. On the other side there were few tents, just circles of bodies settling down around the fires.

“Seems rather peaceful, doesn’t it?” Rogé asked.

“Disturb it and it riles up the whole wasp nest.”

Rogé also got a good sense of the numbers; clearly the French outnumbered the English, three or four to one. How did the English think they could ever win?

The sun slipped below the horizon and darkness enveloped the land. Brooding clouds obscured the moon and the stars. Only the campfires of both camps were visible pinpoints of light in the blackness. A light drizzle came down, cold and damp.

“I guess we better stay up here and not risk breaking a leg in the dark,” Rogé said. He found a bit of shelter against an overhang of rocks and they moved into it. He covered Avril with his cloak to share body heat. It was a new experience for Rogé, being so close to a girl, feeling her breath on his neck. Soon he had feelings he didn’t know what to do with. She’s fifteen, he reminded himself. But she must trust me, and his heart gave a leap. She fell asleep quite quickly, but he had a much harder time.

Twice during the night he woke, finding the rain falling. It was a heavier downpour, but they were reasonably out of it under the bit of overhang. But every once in a while an errant gust of wind blew the rain into his face making him shiver. He folded his arms around Avril to protect and keep her warm.

He was dreaming of the battle, seeing a line of armored knights on their destriers charging his position. The ground shook from the heavy pounding of the hooves, filling him with dread. It seemed nothing could stop that line. The closer they got the more the earth shook. He opened his eyes to find Avril shaking him.

“Rogé, get up! The English are gone.”

“What??!”

“They snuck away sometime during the night.”

Rogé bounced to his feet and went to the edge, peering across to the other side of the river in the strengthening light. Everything looked normal. The cooking fires were burning and horses were being watered. People were moving about.

“You’re wrong. They’re just getting up.”

“No they’re not. That’s the same group of horses they bring to the river. And don’t you find that the fires are a bit too bright and hot for breakfast? They want us to think they’re still there.”

Rogé shook his head, no, that was impossible, a whole army up and gone? Leaving their tents behind?

“Count the people moving about, no more than a hundred. The whole thing’s a charade.”

It still didn’t seem possible. “But the King’s tent is still there…”

“But look, the banners are gone, just a few left here and there.” It was true! Most banners were gone. An army wasn’t an army without banners. The English had absconded!

“Come! We must warn the camp.” He ran, dodging roots and branches, sliding on the slippery soil. He and Avril half tumbled, half scrambled down the hill and ran for the camp. A sleepy sentry tried to stop them, but Rogé yelled at him, “The English are gone!”

Rogé ran through the camp, yelling, creating confusion in his wake. He reached Captain Bellecourt’s tent and nearly fell in. Bellecourt was up, his sword half drawn.

“What is it?”

“The English, Sir. They’re gone!”

“What??! Are you sure?” He reached for his clothes and yelled for his adjutant. Half dressed, he grabbed Rogé and drew him to where they could see the English camp. “The banners are gone,” the Captain said, spun on his heel and ran to the center of the camp.

The sentries before the tent crossed their halberds to deny them access. “The Constable is still sleeping.”

“Well, wake him up then! The English are gone! They slipped away during the night.” The sentry looked confused but still barred the way. “Come back when the Lord Constable is awake…”

Bellecourt drew his sword. “If you don’t let me in, I swear I’ll skewer you on the spot…”

“What’s going on?” The Lord Constable of France stood in his gown with the sword of office (named Joyeuse) in his hand.

“Sir, the English have absconded during the night.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes Sir, all the banners are gone.”

“Where did they go?”

Bellecourt turned to Rogé, who answered, “Toward the south, Sir. Muddy tracks point that way.”

For a moment the Constable screwed up his face, then issued orders. “Blow the alarm. Get the men up. Find me my squire, my adjutant and the Marshall, please.” He turned to go into his tent, but before entering he turned again. “Bring Captain Valtaire to me—now!”

The trumpets blew the alarm, and the whole camp erupted into confused action. “What’s happening? Are the English attacking?”

“No, the English are gone!”

“Gone? Where?”

The Constable reappeared, and greeted the man hurrying to him. “Ah, Valtaire. How many light horses do you have?”

“Eight hundred, Your Lordship.”

“Take them and head south. At all cost you must prevent Henry from crossing. The slippery bastard has slithered out of our grasp and is trying to cross the river south of us.” Valtaire hurried off. “Get the army up and moving!”

The Marshall heard the last exchange as he hurried up. “What if this is a ruse to draw us off the ford here, and he intends to double back…?”

“True. Henry’s a sly fox. Leave Sir Bois here with his Burgundians to protect this crossing, but the rest has to move south now!” He turned toward his servant and yelled, “Get my armor.”

“The good one or the ceremonial one?” the squire asked.

“For the battle, you fool. This isn’t a parade.”

“Yes, Your Worship.” The servant ran to collect the armor. The Captain and Rogé left the tent.

“Good work, Rogé,” Captain Bellecourt praised as they hurried back to the Bonecrushers.

“Actually it wasn’t me, but Avril, one of the laundresses…” He looked for Avril, but didn’t see her anywhere.

Bellecourt walked into his tent and called for his squire to help him with his armor. The two Lieutenants arrived to receive their orders.

In spite of the hurry, it wasn’t until the afternoon that the army broke out of camp and moved south along the river. With the overnight rains the roads were treacherous, and so many horses and so many feet turned the road into a sucking bog. People and horses slipped, and boots grew heavy with the mud cleaving to them.

“Good damn it all,” Clod complained. “Why can’t wars be fought in nice weather?” He stumbled along, trying to free his feet of the clinging weight. He didn’t look good.

“Did you get any sleep last night?” Rogé asked him.

“Sure, after I passed out from guzzling ale all evening. It’s rare when the army’s so generous…”

“I guess they were celebrating cornering the English lion. The trouble is that the lion slipped away while we were sleeping it off.”

“How much of a head start do they have?”

“Probably seven or eight hours. Would have been longer if Avril hadn’t noticed them gone at first light. The Constable sent the light cavalry to intercept them and keep them from crossing.”

“Do you think they’ll be in time?”

“I don’t know. Depends how fast the English are, I suppose.”

A rider rode along the line of march shouting, “Come on, move your sorry asses. We can’t let those bastard English dogs escape our clutches. Faster, faster!”

The Bonecrushers moved along well enough, but some of the forward units had to pull off the road to take a breather. Of course, they got a good ribbing from the rest. “What’s the matter boys? The pace too fast for you? Just imagine a whore waiting on the other end with her legs spread, just for you…”

Nico matched steps with Rogé. “Is it true you gave the alarm this morning?”

“Yes, Avril and I saw them from the hill, the English pretending to be still there.”

“Huh. Very inconsiderate of the English to challenge us to a foot race.”

“Do you think we can catch up with them?”

“I would like to say yes, but they have a good jump on us.”

“Do we know how many they are?”

“Not sure. I heard 9,000 and 12,000.”

“Then how many are we?”

“Also not sure. More are arriving hourly, but maybe 16,000 to 18,000, perhaps as many as 22,000. Numbers are thrown around rather freely. I don’t think that even the Constable knows for sure. I also heard more than double that. We’re spread three miles on this march.”

“Do you think that’s enough for us to win with?”

“You sure have a lot of questions,” Nico said, shaking his head. “But battles are not won by numbers alone. Courage, spirit and bravery of the troops are at least as important. Then leadership. Who makes fewer errors of judgment. The thing is to stay alive and return to fight another day. Captain Bellecourt is an experienced leader, you can trust him.”

Hour after hour they kept up the punishing pace. More of the older foot soldiers dropped out, to wait by the road. Mounted men rode up and down the column pleading, cajoling the men to hurry, in the end plain swearing at them. “Come on you sons of bitches, we can’t let the English whoresons escape!”

Even the big war horses were having trouble, their heavy weight sinking into the mud, their feet encumbered with clods sticking to them. Time after time the procession passed a knight by the side, the squire cleaning the hooves from the clinging muck.

Rogé was glad he was lightly dressed, not loaded down with heavy armor like the men-at-arms. He had only the crossbow and two quivers full of bolts to carry. Clod, however, wasn’t feeling so well. He complained of a headache and a queasy stomach. He swore at every step, wishing all English the fires of hell. It became tiresome and finally Rogé swore at him. “Shut up you drunken fool! It’s your own damn fault for drinking so much before an important day.”

“How often do they give us barrelsful of free ale? Of course I drank. Couldn’t miss the opportunity…”

“Then be miserable silently!”

Once Rogé caught sight of Avril by the side of the road. On seeing him, she smiled and waved and Rogé waved back.

“You’re sweet on her!!!” Clod pounced on him.

“What if I am?” Rogé retorted, feeling irritated that his friend had something to tease him about—but Clod didn’t.

“She’s young, but she’ll grow into it. I’m honestly glad that you’ve finally shown some interest. I was beginning to think that you preferred boys. It was getting to be uncomfortable to be around you… but it’s good now, very good. Did you ahhh…”

“No I didn’t ahhh anything. She’s just a child.”

“Never mind, call her little sister… that’ll be understood.” The chance revelation seemed to have braced Clod because he complained much less from then on.

The shadows had grown long, when they came upon a remnant of the light cavalry. Captain Valtaire had to report his failure to stop the crossing. “We ran into them crossing the river by Péronne. Half of them were already across and there was little I could do, but I tried. Left 450 there of my horsemen, shot full of arrows.”

The Constable listened to the news with a dark face. He ordered a stop to the headlong rush, called for his maps and summoned the leaders to his tent, which had been hurriedly erected. The army waited, everyone very glad of the respite. However, quite a few were sour that the lion had escaped the trap.

It didn’t take long before new orders were issued and a new direction set. They backtracked to the nearest crossroad and again raced for the Calais road to cut it off. The men swore at the English, promising to do unnatural things to them. It was near midnight when they reached the Calais road, finding it empty and undisturbed, with no sign of an army having moved through. They turned south aiming for a spot where the map had showed a narrow defile hemmed in on both sides by woods. Halfway to morning they finally arrived to plug the north end of the road. The soldiers fell asleep, practically where they stood.

The next day found them looking at a freshly plowed field with thick woods to either side. The road passed through the very center of the defile. The advantage of the position was that the English couldn’t get around them because of the dense woods on both sides. The leaders considered this ideal, forcing the English to come at them head on.

The French settled into their camp, pleased with themselves; they had trapped the English rabble again. The ground was soggy with weeks of intermittent rain, but the fires provided some comfort from the October chill. Hot food was served and the mood improved rapidly. They felt smug, enjoying comforts the English lacked.

“I tell you the English must be nearly dead,” a pikeman declared. “They’ve been marching solidly for over a week on very little food. The Light Horse confirms that some of the yeomen go barefoot, having worn out their boots. We hear of sickness among them further weakening them. They know we have them trapped and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’ll be easy cutting through them, like a hot knife through soft cheese.”

“Where are we?” Rogé asked, not having any sense of the long stretches of countryside he had been marching across.

“South of us is Maisoncelles, to the east is Tramecourt and to the west a village called Agincourt. We’re about 30 miles south of Calais where, you can bet, the English wish they were. It’s our job to stop them, to exterminate them like the rats they are,” Nico said.

“How do you know all this?” Clod the skeptic asked.

“I saw the map. Every village, every town clearly marked.”

Sergeant Angus joined them at the fire. “Well lads, looks like we won’t have too long to wait. I’d like to see Henry’s face when he finds us here, sitting on his neck.”

“Why should he give us battle? With his reduced numbers and the condition of his men, he can’t risk it,” someone said.

“He can’t risk not giving us a battle. We receive reinforcements daily and grow stronger every hour, whereas he grows weaker by the minute. In a week we needn’t battle them at all. Like a rotten fruit his army would fall into our laps. Yeah, I think he has no choice but to try to fight his way through us.”

In the late afternoon the English arrived and camped on the south end near Maisoncelles. A few mounted scouts wandered into no man’s land, but tried to go no further. Both camps attempted to find some comfort around their fires. Heavy clouds built overhead and the sky remained brooding. It looked as if any moment the rain would fall again in earnest. As it was, a periodic drizzle fell like heavy dew on a summer night. Everything was wet, cold and clammy.

Nestled among the Bonecrushers, Rogé was sitting around a large fire, listening to the French celebrating a few steps over. He had eaten and was taking sips from a winesack being passed from hand to hand. He felt full and at ease, the warmth of the fire embracing him. For once Clod was beside him staring dreamily into the flames. “I wonder if he’s thinking of Squire Marcel?” Rogé thought, then scoffed, “Why should he? Why am I?” Maybe because this was so very far from the farm that now seemed to be years back. In reality hardly over a couple of weeks ago. In such a short time all the rules had changed, yet he felt more alive than ever. He couldn’t understand that he was so ready to kill. Then he had a sobering thought: someone on the other side was just as eager to kill him.

On the left, a group of French foot soldiers stretched a blanket, rolled a man into the middle, and pulling in unison, threw him higher and higher to the cheers of the rest. The man sailed up and came down only to fly up again. On the last throw he did not land straight so the next toss sent him right into the fire. Although he landed in the hot coals, he was so quick to exit it that only the wide sleeves of his shirt caught fire, quickly extinguished by beer thrown at him. He laughed and had more wine. Things settled down a little after that.

One of the Crushers, who was Italian though not Genoese, shook his head puzzled. “I’ve never seen soldiers so eager to do battle. Why’s that?”

“History, my Son,” Sergeant Angus said. “Their fathers lost two important battles at Crécy and Poitiers to the English and they’re looking to avenge those defeats. They have the numbers, and they look ready to do just that.”

“I’ve kept hearing about Crécy and Poitiers all week but I don’t know what and where the fuck they were.”

“Let Gunther tell you. His father was in both,” Sergeant Angus suggested.

“His father. Really? In both?” All eyes turned on Gunther.

“It’s true. Those were the early days of free companions in the northern part of Europe, although they were already well known in Italy. My father, Guswald, joined a company from Augsburg, the Wolfmen, who were hired by the Comte de Penoir. That was back in 1346 and my father was a young man without hair on his chin, like our very own Rogé here. He was new to fighting and new to everything. He said he was so green that he hadn’t kissed a girl yet. (Someone called out, “Just like Rogé again.”) Back then it was Edward III, the great-grandfather of the Henry he faced, with about 14,000 men confronting about 20,000 French under Philip VI the King of France in those days. As we are today, the English had their longbows, about 7000 strong, and the French relied on their Genoese crossbowmen, numbering nearly 6000 with other foot archers besides. The English prepared their defenses at Crécy not all that far from here, and waited at their leisure for the French to arrive. They dug pits, planted stakes, and scattered caltrops to maim the attacking horses. The French arrived and unrested, straightaway attacked the well prepared position. The crossbowmen fired their bolts but were no match against the English and Welsh longbows in speed and range. They were killed and retreated in confusion. The French men-at-arms cut them down as base cowards.” Gunther took a swig from the winesack and passed it on. “To make a long story short, the French knights and men-at-arms charged repeatedly but many fell to arrows and they couldn’t break the English knights and men-at-arms fighting on foot in well prepared redoubts. The English archers caused huge losses among the French. Philip himself was injured and around midnight he and his army quit the field.”

“That doesn’t seem so bad,” someone said.

“But it was. The French lost heavily in the many thousands, whereas the English lost barely any, only in the hundreds. Edward, the Black Prince, learned his warcraft and earned his knight’s spur in that battle. The defeat demoralized the French and Philip was forced to sue for peace. Also it was the first time that the English used Ribaldis, an early type of cannon, shooting stone or grapeshot.”

“A waste of time that is. Slow to load and dangerous to the user. Lot of noise and smoke, but only good for frightening the horses,” someone called out.

“So that was Crécy; what about Poitiers?”

“Poitiers in 1356 was different. For one thing it was in the south, out of Aquitaine. Edward the Black Prince raided and burned towns and villages extracting tribute as he pleased. Near the Loire Valley the King of France, Jean II with his sons and nobles, fielded an army to stop him. When negotiations failed there was nothing to do but battle. The English feinted a retreat and lured the French into a trap. Once again it was longbow against the crossbow, with the same results. The knights were better armed so the archers took out their horses. Charge after charge failed to break the English line and again the French suffered a humiliating defeat, and Jean II and his youngest son were taken prisoner. It cost nearly two million crowns to buy them free which the French still owe today and is one of the reasons why Henry is here today. He wants the money.”

“What about your father, he was there too, wasn’t he?”

“He was. In between he had gotten married and me, my brother and two sisters were born between the campaigns. He was wiser by then, knew how to keep his head down. Still he was wounded at Poitiers, got an arrow in his thigh and another in his shoulder. He could never use that arm afterward. He also never went to war again. For the remainder of his life, it rankled him that the English had won again. When he came home, he drank and beat me and my brother. I became a mercenary like him, but my brother became a monk, praying daily for forgiveness of my father’s and my sins.”

“So if the French lost both those battles decisively, what makes them think they can win today?”

“They’ve spent nearly forty years finding excuses why they lost, then denying the facts and convincing themselves it was all due to English trickery.”

“As a professional soldier, what do you think?” asked a German, to whom the history was new.

“Oh that’s simple. The English were better led. Better generalship and better discipline. They had more commoners among the ranks who stubbornly held their ground, knowing nobody was going to ransom them. The French were high-strung and played at soldiering.”

“What about longbow against the crossbow?”

“We all know that the longbow shoots faster and has the longer range, but it’s difficult to learn to use. The crossbow’s slow but easy to aim and even a novice can learn to use it quite easily. (“Like our Rogé.”) We captured English archers and found their arms and shoulders misshaped by the heavy pull of the longbow. I’m glad I’m not an archer.”

“And I…” Perrault interjected. “I’m glad that I’m not a mounted man-at-arms. If we learned anything it’s that the English target the horses. Then I would have to deal with a wounded beast, and kick myself free of the stirrups before I got buried under a falling animal.”

“Not so. Today’s horses are better armored than ever before, in quality steel, much better than what they had back then. I tell you an arrow will slide off the plates of steel.”

“Steel doesn’t win battles,” Sergeant Angus said, casting the dregs of the wine in the bottom of his cup into the fire. “Courage and determination does. I trust the Bonecrushers, for haven’t we stood together in battle through numerous victories and the adversity of defeat? I pray to God my courage doesn’t fail me and if death should come, let it be quick. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Just then it started to rain in earnest and scattered the fireside chat in all directions.

“Damned! Wouldn’t you know it, we have to do battle in the rain. Bet you Henry wishes that he could have taken us on across the Somme.”

After finding an extra tarp, Rogé and Clod crawled under it. “I just got over a cold. This’ll start it up again.”

“Go next to the fire and get some warmth,” Rogé advised.

“If I could find standing room I’d be hot on one side, cold on the other, with rain running down my neck and back. No thanks. But on days like this I really wish we hadn’t left the farm.”

“Really? I wasn’t aware you were so fond of it.”

“I wasn’t. But me and Marissa had an understanding and knew how to keep each other warm. On a miserable night like this…”

“You randy dog. Porking the milk maid. You never told me.”

“I didn’t tell you a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Beatrice was sweet on you. One look from you would’ve melted her.”

“What? She was as near an idiot as I’ve ever met. Couldn’t put a sentence together…She bleated like a goat sometimes.”

“Who cares what she sounded like… she had a hot twat ready for you!”

Suddenly, when there was scratching on the tarp, Rogé lifted it to look outside into the rain. There was Avril shivering. Without a word Rogé reached out and pulled her under the wrap.

“Th…h…an…k you…u,” she stuttered, her lips already blue. Rogé pulled her close and covered both of them with his cloak. For a good while she trembled in his arms, warming up only slowly. Clod turned his back on them to give them some privacy. Rogé smelled her wet hair, feelings of want rising in him but he pushed them away. He grew hard, but this time it didn’t surprise him so much.

Rain fell all night, sometime drumming so hard on the tarp that the water came right through. Things got wet, but still it was better under the tarp than outside it.

By first light the rain had stopped but the sky looked moody with a low ceiling of clouds, any moment ready to start up again. Fires were hard to light and people crowded around them, steam coming off their clothes. A number of soldiers were coughing from deep within their chests.

“You lovebirds stay put. I’ll see if I can find us something hot to drink.”

“Hey, no lovebirds…” Rogé called after him.

“Really?” Avril asked archly, having fully recovered her mildly sarcastic tone.

Clod returned with his helmet full of warm soup. “It’s a little thin, but warm.” He passed the helmet to Avril who sipped gratefully. She passed it to Rogé who finished it.

“The next batch will be ready in half an hour.”

“What’re the English doing?”

“Probably the same as us, trying to get dried out and warm. People think there won’t be a battle today with the ground so soggy. It’s a real mud bath. Be careful that you don’t fall when you step out.”

“Well boys, I have to go. Thank you for your hospitality.” Avril ducked under the tarp, but looked back. “And if there’s a battle… don’t get killed.” The sardonic twinkle was back in her eyes.

“Did you do anything?” Clod asked.

“No, she’s not that kind of a girl!”

“What kind is that? She likes you, that’s obvious but you do nothing about it.”

“Sure, she might like me, but more importantly, she trusts me. That has value to me.”

“We only have so many chances in life. We’re facing a battle today… or tomorrow and you could die a virgin. Have you thought of that?”

“I think of a lot of things but dying’s not one of them.”

“I just don’t understand you at all…” Clod shook his head.

A trumpet sounded, the call passed along from one unit to the next. “What is it?” not a few asked. “They’re calling us to formations.”

Rogé joined the Crusher archers. “Have you kept your bowstrings dry?” Giacomo asked, going down the line. He paused before Clod standing among the archers with his halberd. He gave his head a shake but walked on.

One by one the units marched off to take up their assigned positions. There was a lot of swearing as with each passing the path grew softer and muddier. By the time it was the Crushers’ turn, they sank ankle deep into cold mud. “The devil take the weather…to have it rain all night, right before a battle.”

The Crushers ended up on the right flank of the second battle, as a line was called, with the Dukes of Barand Alençon, Count Nevers in command. It was an awe inspiring sight to see the battle line extend from the east to the west woods, with banners fluttering above the men.

Deployed in the first battle were mixed groups of mounted knights, men-at-arms on foot and several complements of archers. The center was led by Constable D’Albret himself, Marshall Boucicault and the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon ranged left and right. Cavalry under Count Vendome protected the wings. The nobles were massed in the front, just as they had wanted.

“What’s going on? Can you see anything?” an archer near Rogé asked.

“How can we see anything when half our army is blocking the view?” someone else complained.

About fifty yards behind them stood the third line, led by the Counts Dammartin and Fauconberg. The mood was sour, resentful that they had been relegated to third position. It was unlikely they would see any action after the first two lines had demolished the English.

Everyone waited for the command to start the battle, but no such command was given. The soldiers stood on one foot then on the other, wondering why the battle hadn’t started.

“The Constable must be waiting for local levies and reinforcements to join us,” Sergeant Angus said, striding along the ranks. “He’s expecting 6,000 more men to arrive within the next hours.”

Thus they stood, shifting their weight from leg to leg. A strange hush fell over the deployed army filled only by the jingling of horse gear. The trumpets, however, were silent. “What’s the Constable waiting for? We’ve got men enough to sweep the English away easily.”

Rogé put his crossbow down and turned to Clod. “Here, give me a boost. Lift me up so I can have a look.”

Clod cradled his hands, and Rogé stepped up, swung his leg over and sat on his friend’s shoulders. A pikeman gave Rogé his long pike for support and shakily Rogé stood on Clod’s shoulders. Clod complained, but several others also offered themselves until Rogé was able to divide his weight among them.

“What do you see, Rogé?”

“The English are lined up about two-three bowshots away behind a fence of sharpened stakes. I see the King’s banner right in the middle. The men-at-arms are standing around dismounted. They’re all looking at us.”

“What else?”

“The open ground between us is a sea of mud. The ploughs turned over the soil good and last night’s rain has turned it into a bog. Don’t want to go into that.”

“Anything else?” Sergeant Angus demanded from below.

“There seems to be some parley happening. I see the parley flags flying and a group of men talking on horseback between the armies.”

“That’s probably the Constable playing for more time for the expected reinforcements to arrive,” Angus interpreted.

“Nah. More likely he’s offering Henry terms of surrender,” a man with a warhammer stated confidently.

“Sweet Jesus, a horse is sunk halfway up to his knees in mud. It’ll be rough going to cross the open ground. At least we’re to the side not in the heavily used middle,” Rogé reported. Following his example, other close-by units also hoisted one of their members high onto a shield to see what they could see.

“What about the English? What’re they doing now?”

Rogé looked, finding the whole line on their knees. “I think they’re… praying.”

“Let them pray for their souls, they’ll need it to get into heaven. They sure as hell won’t get out of this.”

Rogé shifted to other shoulders and tottered unsteadily above. Holding onto two pikes he steadied himself and scanned the view again. Nothing had changed. The English were still praying, the parley was still talking and the French stood as if rooted to the spot.

“Can you see the Constable?”

“No. Only his banner. Who has the griffin holding a sword?”

“Count Reddes from Burgundy.”

“I thought the French and Burgundians were nearly at each others’ throats.”

“This faction made up to repel the English. They will, no doubt, return to harassing each other after this is over.”

They waited and waited, but nothing happened. Bored, Rogé got down stiffly. He tried to explain the battlefield in more detail. “The place is bordered by thick woods on either side. The field in-between is level, with nowhere for the water to drain but sink into the soil and soften it. The open field is like an hourglass with us on the northern open end and the English on the southern end of it. Between us is a constriction that narrows down to about half of the valley.”

“Good so,” Sergeant Angus declared loudly so everyone could hear. “This means that if the English have to come at us they’ll be forced to narrow their front and attack piecemeal. This time our good Marshall has in mind to lure the English to attack us.”

“Why should they? They’re seated there as comfy as we are here at our end.”

“Because, you dolt, they’re hungry and desperate. They grow weaker with each hour, while we can hold ourselves here forever. It’s clear that Henry can’t go around us and has to come through us or die. What do you think he’ll choose to do?”

“Piss on that and all the talk. This time the Royal French bear’s got the English mongrel cur squeezed into a trap the lowborn bastards can’t escape,” a man-at-arms with a heavy mustache exclaimed.

“You’re French, no?”

“From Lyon, what of it?”

All around soldiers were grumbling. The morning was cold and wet and if they weren’t going to fight, then they wished to be back in camp around the fires, getting warm and drinking hot, mulled wine.

“How long must we wait? Half the morning’s gone.”

“I think the Constable’s waiting for the English to come at him. He doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes made at Crécy and attack a well-prepared position. He can afford to wait, but the English can’t.”

A sudden stir went through the first battle. Rogé got Clod to hold and lift him high. Others jumped to help, raising a shield for him to stand on. He looked and saw the whole English line move forward. “The English are coming!” The words stirred up excitement among the troops. “The English are coming!” they passed the news along.

“Good, we’ll attack them when they’re most vulnerable, out from behind their defenses. At Poitiers they dug pits and threw up earthworks reinforced with sharpened staves to stop our cavalry. Henry won’t have time for that now. He must be desperate…” Lieutenant Tolbert interpreted the situation. But still the French did not move. They saw the English stop halfway and form a line at the narrowest part, hammering in their stakes.

“God Almighty, why aren’t we attacking? We’re missing our best chance!”

“Ease up. The Constable knows what he’s doing,” someone tried to calm the anxieties.

Rogé wasn’t sure. The English were just a long bowshot away. The French still held to their line. What could the Marshall be thinking?

“For God’s sake, what’s happening?” someone asked from below.

“Nothing’s happening. We’re looking at the English and they’re looking right back. We’ll stand here until it turns dark, then we’ll go and have some food, sleep and do this again tomorrow,” Rogé said, at the same time wondering if he could be wrong.

“All hell’s fire on them! Waiting around is tiresome. I have a good mind to go by myself and get this dance started,” a broad shouldered pikeman said. His companions grumbled their assent.

“Don’t be in such a hurry, the battle will come soon enough and then you’ll be wishing you were somewhere else,” a giant of a man, known for his strength and good nature, rumbled deep from his chest.

“I don’t need a battle to wish myself at the Great Horned Toad, lifting a tankard of good Dutch ale to my lips and Bertha warming my lap,” the pikeman said to the ribald laughter of his fellows.

“That was eight months ago on the other side of the border, you lunkhead.”

“Wishing knows no borders,” the pikeman asserted.

Rogé got tired of balancing on the shield and asked to be put down. They set him on his feet and Clod passed him a skin of wine. He took a deep swallow, glad to wet his dry mouth.

A man-at-arms in full armor with his visor up trotted by on his great warhorse, the large hooves throwing up clods of mud, spattering those around.

“Damn him to hell! What’s his hurry? No one else is moving, so where does he have to go?”

“Maybe he has to take a shit,” someone suggested.

“Not so. Once you’re in full armor, you shit and piss inside it.”

“Are you joking?”

“I’m not. It takes almost an hour to strap him into it. There’re hundreds of buckles, belts and laces to hold the armor together. Once he’s in, he’s in for good.”

When a trumpet sounded on the English side, everyone picked up their heads. “What’s happening? Can you see anything?” The Crushers in the second battle line couldn’t see, the view obstructed by the formations in front. But it came back, from mouth to mouth, “The English are moving!” Where, no one said.

Then suddenly, English arrows filled the air and like a hailstorm, fell on the front formation of the French. A horse screamed; that line wavered briefly, and after taking a second flight of arrows, in one accord it surged forward, unclear if ordered or not. Horsemen to the fore, pike and archers following. They sloshed across the soggy ground, the front ahead of them increasingly narrowing, hemmed in by the woods on either side. Suddenly arrows came from both flanking woods, infiltrated by English archers. Someone should have foreseen that! The arrows rained down, but the mass of French moved forward, slower and slower as men and horses floundered in the churned up soil. The charge became an awkward creep forward. Relentlessly the barrage of arrows continued. Men fell, an arrow through a chink in the armor. The less well-protected horses fell, and wounded animals threw their riders and turned from battle to run down those behind. The charge slowed down to a crawl, giving English archers time to fire arrow after arrow into the compact mass without even bothering to aim. They sent a barrage of high elevation shots, forcing the knights and men-at-arms to look down to avoid taking an arrow through the visor slit. More and more the French were compacted by the narrowing valley and the eager push from behind. The Constable’s banner went down and no one knew if he was alive or dead.

The archers in the first line of the French were largely ineffective, trapped as they were knee-deep in mud, their bowstrings wet from the constant drizzle that was still falling intermittently. As the arrows continued to fall among them, men went down and those behind stepped on or over them. Woe to anyone who fell; the tide of men rolled over them and hundreds drowned, pressed face down into the mud.

The pressure from behind was unremitting, compressing the front even more into the constriction the English occupied. Slowly the French reached the enemy line and fought a desperate battle along the hedge of stakes. The few horses that reached that far couldn’t penetrate the dense forest of sharpened stakes angled toward them. The English line faltered as it had no room to go anywhere. The yeomen, who had fired off all their missiles, cast away their bows, drew swords, knives and axes and jumped into the mass of French, stabbing at them. By now the French were exhausted from having struggled through the sea of mud, their heavy armor making then sink deeper into the muck; they were easy pickings for the more agile and unencumbered English wearing rough homespun tunic with hardly any armor.

Even from behind things didn’t look good for the French. Afraid to lose their chance at glory, they sounded their trumpets, launching the second battle to come to the aid of the first. The line lurched forward, but soon found itself slowed to a crawl by the mud that was by now nearly knee deep. In the first few steps Rogé slipped and nearly dropped his bow; he lost one of his boots to the sucking mud. He stumbled forward.

“Keep together!” Captain Bellecourt yelled, astride his pale horse. A flight of arrows came from the fringe of trees to the right and the Crushers suffered their first losses. Rogé stepped on an armored corpse trampled into the mud, and nearly fell himself, but was saved by Clod who reached over a hand to steady him. Together they staggered forward. More arrows fell, and two struck Captain Bellecourt’s horse; the Captain barely had time to clear himself of the falling beast. By now, hardly an animal could be seen. The English were aiming for the horses, intending to cause great confusion, Rogé realized through the haze of battle.

Rogé lost his other boot when he stumbled, but the press kept him upright. He was yelling to release his fears and those around him were yelling too. He lifted a leg out of the bloody mud, not knowing if the blood was his. But there was no time to pause; those behind pushed forward and the whole line staggered ahead.

From up front came the sounds of a desperate struggle, the clash of steel, swearing, the anguished cry of the dying and the wounded, incessant trumpets still calling attack, attack, attack! There was no turning back. Those in the back pushed the front whether the front wanted it or not. In fact the press up front was so intense that soldiers did not even have a chance to swing their weapons. They stood compressed, feet trapped in mud, no room left to fight and maneuver. The English had a much easier time picking them off one by one at will. It quickly turned into a slaughter.

The greater numbers of the French now worked against them. They were too many who could not fight because of the impasse. The second battle caught up with the first, making the crowding even worse. “Forward!” the trumpets blared. “Forward!” into death.

Rogé was stuck, just trying to keep himself from falling; he had only fired his bow two times, his fellow archers no better. The pikemen couldn’t bring their pikes to bear because of the God-awful congestion up ahead. Still those in the back pushed and those in front died, unable to defend themselves. The butchery continued. Then Rogé was in the midst of the logjam, trying to find some elbow room. He could scarcely breathe, much less arm his bow and shoot. Clod beside him had lost his halberd and only had his knife out. Rogé slung his bow over his back and drew his knife as well. But he couldn’t do anything, hemmed in as he was by fellow Crushers. Bonecrushers, he thought, well this was it for real.

Arrows were still striking but not as many now. Rogé saw a pikeman shot through the throat, a gush of blood spurting from his mouth, stifling his last cry. In three heartbeats he was dead, but the mass kept him upright, moving slowly along with the rest. He saw Nico get hit by a rock in the face that broke every tooth in his mouth causing him to spit blood and bits and pieces of his ivory. He heard Captain Bellecourt bellow orders, but couldn’t see him. He was so thirsty that he was ready to drink the bloodied mud beneath him. Clod’s eyes looked crazily wide, the look of a snared animal. We’re all trapped in this crush!

Rogé was suffocating. He could not feel his naked feet in the cold mud. A pikeman’s steel elbow pad was digging painfully into his side and he had to push back hard with all his strength to escape it. At times it felt that his ribcage would cave in. For a while, he was locked face to face with a man, both helpless to turn away from each other’s gasping breath. Like boats on a sluggish river they slowly drifted apart. With one hand Rogé hung onto Clod, to keep them together.

Someone was praying, another sobbing, calling for his wife or mother, on all the Saints. Some had given up, their eyes dull with helplessness, just waiting for death to take them. Locked eye to eye with one of the archers he recognized, Rogé pissed on him as there was nothing else he could do. He felt the humiliation flame in his face, but the man was more worried about everything else. When like a wave a sudden push from the side rolled through the crowd, the archer screamed; both his arms were broken. The slaughter up front continued, little by little coming closer to them. The pressure from the back held them still, unable to do anything but await their fate, inexorably pushing them toward the English breakwater.

Rogé was indescribably thirsty. His mouth felt dry as an ash pit, and every breath and every swallow was a torture as his mouth had gummed together. He tried to clear his throat but it was excruciatingly painful. He struggled to breathe. Someone died beside him, and Rogé didn’t recognize the face, contorted by the last agonies. An inch at a time, the dead man slid down, out of the press. Rogé had to step on him or fall himself. He stubbed his toes on something but barely felt it in the cold mud.

From the unremitting pressure his arms became numb and useless; unnoticed the knife slid out of his nerveless fingers. He stumbled, and if it weren’t for the press he would have fallen and been trampled underfoot. He wanted to yell, but couldn’t find enough breath; all he could manage was a groan. Everything around him felt like a nightmare, unreal, happening to someone else. By his elbow Clod was panting, trying to push back. Thousands stumbled on, unable to help themselves.

Sheep to the slaughter, was the only way to describe what Rogé saw and felt. In two short hours it was clear that the battle had been decisively lost. Rogé was stuck inside a tight cluster but hadn’t seen or faced any of the enemy. He was pinned, waiting helplessly for the English to get to him. Arrows were still falling, killing or wounding people, but there was nothing Rogé could do to defend himself. He had his thin helmet and light mail, no guarantee against an arrow or even an axe edge. The sounds of dying came from the front mixed with the cursing of the English. At will they were killing the trapped French, stabbing with knives and poniards through the gaps in the armor. Then the pressure eased somewhat as those in the back, realizing that the battle had been lost, turned and fled, crabbing back across the muddy field.

God, I hope the third line doesn’t descend on us, Rogé thought. He turned to Clod and said, “It’s time to go, there’s nothing to be done here.” The two of them elbowed their way toward the back, squeezing through the press. They weren’t the only ones; Rogé saw Lieutenant Pointier threatening one of his own men with the sword if he didn’t move out of his way.

Over the three lines of men in front, Rogé could see the mudfield littered with countless dead and struggling, fleeing men. He wanted to run himself, but had to fight for every inch. Clod was beside him, his wider body creating space for them both. They were knee-deep in the mud, their feet weighing a ton.

Then something hit Rogé on the helmet and he saw a burst of stars then the darkness of midnight.

Chapter 5

Slowly Rogé became aware of the pain in his head that throbbed like a drum with every beat of his heart. Next, that his hands were tied behind his back. His face was in the grass, his nose smelling the moist earth. His eyes were glued shut, and he struggled to open them. Without his hands he could do little to clear them. With great difficulty he managed a crack and regretted as the harsh light flooded in. He groaned.

“I thought you were dead,” Clod’s voice came from somewhere near.

Rogé groaned again, his throat feeling raw from the dryness. “What happened?” he croaked.

“You got hit on the head with a sling-stone and got knocked out. I held you up for hours until the English pried us apart and took us prisoners.”

“Prisoners…?” His voice didn’t want to work.

“Yes about 6,000 of us who got stuck in the mud. Want to hear something strange? I didn’t fight a single enemy—not one.”

“Then we lost the battle?” It was less of a question than a statement.

“What do you think?” came back sarcastically. “Here we sit, those who got near the English, some tied some not. They moved us to the side at least, out of the deep mud.”

Rogé forced his eyes open further and tried to lift his head. All around him were men, some standing, some sitting or lying on the ground. They were near the east wood away from the churned up center of the field of mud. From his prone position he saw only two mounted men-at-arms with lances guarding the lot. He groaned as his headache spiked.

“You hurt bad?”

“Bad enough,” Rogé managed. “Water…is there any water?”

“Someone was around, passing out some, but didn’t come our way. What I’d give for a pitcher of ale…”

“Shut up…” Rogé croaked, unreasonably angry at Clod. “What … happened to the third line? Were they also captured?”

“No. They never engaged. Henry sent them a herald to warn them that if they didn’t quit the field he would massacre them all without mercy.”

“No quarter? And they left?”

“Apparently.”

“The cowards! To leave us in the lurch…” Rogé struggled to sit up so he could better see the crowd of prisoners around him. Where he and Clod were sitting was near the periphery, maybe only eleven yards from the fringe of the east wood. On this side there were only four longbowmen on guard anywhere near.

“What’s going to happen next?” Rogé got the words out, past his parched throat.

“According to the laws of chivalry they’ll try to get us ransomed…”

“You fool! Who’d ransom us?”

“But they can’t just kill us.”

“Maybe not this many… but what if they cut off half your fingers so you can never again wield a weapon…like we threatened to do to the English?” Clod was silently mulling it over.

“But what can we do, we’re tied up…” There was an edge of desperation in Clod’s voice. Rogé flexed his hands, trying to slip his bindings, but they were tight and he hissed in pain as they cut into his flesh. Gritting his teeth he persisted until blood seeped from the clutch of rope.

“Do you have anything sharp on you?” Rogé whispered to Clod.

“Like what?”

“Something, anything to cut our bindings.”

“No. They took everything we had, threw all the weapons on a great pile in the middle of the field…”

Rogé looked at the man closest to them, but he was half naked and tied too. No one near looked promising, just a crowd of downcast men, many hanging their heads, one outright crying in shame.

A disturbance stirred through the prisoners on Rogé’s right. A young woman came with a bucket of water, dolling out a ladleful. “More…please,” many begged, but she moved on. It was impossible to serve thousands with one bucket.

Clod started praying that she would come their way, and miraculously, she did.

“Water?” asked a soft voice as she held the ladle to Rogé’s lips.

“Yes, yes, yes…” Rogé swallowed two mouthfuls before the ladle disappeared. “More…” His eyes looked for her eyes, to beg for mercy… and to his shock he recognized Avril.

“Av…ril,” he stammered, not daring to believe his eyes.

“Shh,” she whispered, and slipped a small knife into his tied hands. Next she went to Clod who only saw the water she held out. He gulped it down frantically and looked for more, but she moved on. Soon out of water, she had to go for a refill in the woods. Rogé watched her all the way, but she only looked back at him once.

Rogé had difficulty with the knife, cutting himself more than the rope. Finally he jammed the handle into the soil and moved his hands back and forth, sawing at the rope. It took some time before he was free. He nearly yelped at the burning pain when his circulation returned to his fingers. After he blinked the tears from his eyes, he moved his hands carefully, working life into them. Cautiously he edged behind Clod and sawed at his friend’s rope. Clod looked surprised but asked no questions. Soon he was free and groaning from the burst of pain.

“What now?” Clod whispered.

“Work our way to the woods,” Rogé whispered back. “But wait for me to start.”

Within minutes, Avril reappeared with a fresh bucket and briefly looked their way. Rogé nodded to let her know that they were free, then slowly, cautiously, like a caterpillar he wormed his way toward the woods, Clod following. Rogé took his time, moving little, hiding in the restless motion of the prisoners. Then there was only a short stretch of open ground to cross before the woods.

Just then Avril stumbled and spilled the water, occasioning a great outcry and drawing all eyes onto her. Instantly, Rogé and Clod slithered over the remaining distance to disappear into the undergrowth. Bent double they ran, careful not to make any noise. They had to go to the ground once when an English yeoman loomed up in front, looking for privacy. He dropped his breeches and underpants, flashed a bare ass, and squatting, took a dump. They waited impatiently as the man groaned his way through the ritual of easing himself, then taking a handful of grass and leaves, wiping himself. Relieved, he pulled up his clothes, tied up his britches and went back to his station. They waited a minute more then set off, looking for the stream where Avril had said she would meet them.

Finally they were by the stream and after drinking themselves full and gasping afterwards, found a hiding place behind some rocks.

“Why did we have to risk this?” Clod asked, shaking his head. “The law of chivalry protects prisoners…”

“You think? We’re not worth enough to ransom and there’re more prisoners than guards. I think they’d be tempted to cull those numbers, don’t you think?”

Clod was still unconvinced. “All right, what next? Why’re we waiting here?”

“You really didn’t see the water-girl? It was Avril. She slipped me the knife, and when we needed it, she created the distraction so we could escape. She’ll meet us here.”

“When?”

“Soon as she can…”

“Avril? Are you sure? She looked like a simple country girl doing her Christian service…”

“Sometimes, you see only what you want to see.”

Suddenly they heard some commotion from the prisoners. Faint cries of pain reached them, shrieks, begging for mercy. “Sweet Jesus, what’s th…at?” Clod stammered.

“That’s the law of chivalry in action.”

“Why are they doing that?” Rogé didn’t bother to answer. They waited breathlessly, listening to the noise of the prisoners being massacred. Why? In heaven’s name, why? All, or just some?

A twig snapped, Rogé pulled out the ridiculously small knife and Clod picked up a stone.

“It’s all right.” Rogé straightened. “It’s Avril.” She let herself down the bank and waved to them to hurry. The three moved along an animal track, getting deeper into the woods. Rogé watched his feet to avoid being tripped by a root or slipping on the wet ground. He hissed when he stepped on sharp pebbles, bruising his bare feet. Branches in their way tore at them, and often they had to climb over fallen trees. By a moss-covered outcrop they stopped briefly to catch their breath.

“What’s going on?” Rogé asked. “Why the killing?”

“It’s because French reinforcements had just arrived, attacked and captured the English baggage train. King Henry was afraid that the prisoners would rise up to join their countrymen, so he ordered the killings. The knights refused and so did the men-at-arms, unwilling to give up all that ransom money, so in the end the Welsh longbowmen had to do the King’s bidding.”

“They kil..led everyone?” Clod stammered.

“Perhaps not all, but many.” More she didn’t know.

“Then you… saved our lives.” Clod finally made the connection. “Thank you, Avril. As long as I live, I shall praise and thank you in my prayers.” Rogé squeezed her hand gratefully.

“I think we’d better run. It’s not healthy to be anywhere near here. There are English cavalry hunting Frenchmen and demoralized French taking out their anger on anybody they run into,” Avril said, her eyes sparkling with purpose. “Strip off anything military. Henceforth, we’re peasants, escaping the ravages of war.”

Rogé shed his tunic and light mail, keeping only his cloak and throwing the rest under the bushes. Clod was doing the same, left only with linen undergarments, leather pants, an undershirt and a short cape.

They set off again, keeping to the often disappearing track heading mostly east. In places trees were down blocking their way and thick bushes forced a detour around them. When they reached the opposite edge of the woods, they paused at the last trees and looked for anything moving out in the open. Nothing did so they cautiously advanced into the field, along the edge of the plowed ground. Coming upon a crossroad, they decided to turn south, away from anything English. Within a short distance they came upon some bodies where French and English outriders had clashed. The slain from both sides had been left where they fell. Clod opportunistically went through the pockets, finding a few coins. He also found a castoff halberd but Rogé thought it was too military.

“I could’ve found it on the battlefield…”

“Yes, you could have. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place… finding things on the battlefield. Remember?” He found calfskin boots on a fallen rider and eagerly he took them off and slipped into them. To his great relief, the inner wear fit his feet well enough.

“What I remember is that we lost the swine herd and didn’t want to face the Squire’s wrath. Do you remember that?” Clod finally settled on a farmer’s scythe, straightened for battle. Any army was followed by a few peasants with their homemade weapons, hoping to improve their state.

Among the fallen Rogé found a short axe that looked like a farm tool, not a weapon; he stuck it in his belt. Avril collected a water bag and several knapsacks, one with some food in it. They moved on.

“Swe…et Jesus,” Rogé stammered as he looked back. In the air beyond the trees they had crossed, there was a dark cloud of carrion birds circling over the abandoned battlefield. How many thousands died? To what purpose?

Clod was shaking his head. “I just don’t understand it. We had the numbers, we should have won…”

“This time the numbers worked against us,” Rogé countered. “We jammed up the field, couldn’t maneuver, couldn’t fight, in the end we couldn’t even move. We would have done better with half the numbers. I wonder if the Constable survived? He was in the first row.”

“He died. I heard that from the other prisoners, and many illustrious names besides. I wonder how many Englishmen died?”

“Not that many. Maybe a few hundred, certainly not a thousand,” Avril said.

“How do you know?” Rogé asked out of curiosity. “Do you speak English?”

“And Spanish, German and Italian. Anywhere the Crushers fought over the past eight years.”

“Girl, you’re a true wonder,” Rogé said, meaning it and she blushed with pleasure. They set off again, three abreast, talking as they went.

“I wonder if Bellecourt survived,” Rogé asked.

“No. I saw a longbowman send an arrow straight into his face. The Captain didn’t even blink. I think he preferred death to the humiliation of defeat and capture.”

“He was one of a kind. How about the Lieutenants and Sergeant Angus?”

“Angus died swearing, a halberd split his helmet and head. Pointiers was captured, but who knows now? Why did Henry do that, ordering helpless men to be executed?”

“I guess he didn’t have much choice. Not with the French attacking him from the rear; he didn’t know how many, and he didn’t want to have his army tied down guarding prisoners. I think it was a hard choice, giving up on all that ransom money.”

“He had to threaten his men-at-arms with hanging if they refused, and in the end it was the Welsh yeomen who did the job,” Avril volunteered.

“Did you actually see it?” Clod asked, shuddering at the idea.

“The start of it. I was still passing out water when the killing started. I got the hell out of there.”

“But how did you find us? How did you dare go among the prisoners?”

“It was the only way I could think of looking for you,” Avril said, her voice breaking as tears filled her eyes. “Over the years I’ve lost too many friends. I gave up making new friends. It wasn’t worth the sorrow that so often followed.”

“But you like Rogé, why?” Clod asked, and Rogé’s heart skipped a beat as he waited for her answer.

“I know I’m young, yet most soldiers still saw me as a woman to serve their needs, but not Rogé. He saw me as me…” she paused, trying to find the reason and the words. “Few have ever done that before. Not since my mother died, God bless her soul.”

“When did she die?”

“She died as she lived. She was on the battlefield, looking for her fallen beau, when scavengers grabbed and raped her, fucked her to death. She… she bled … right there beside her dead beau…” Avril sobbed. Rogé put an arm around her, and she buried her face on his chest.

“Shh—shh. You had a hard life. Maybe God or the saints will ease the rest of it…”

“Sometimes I pray to Mary the mother of Christ, but… but I don’t think she hears me. Not the saints or the angels either. Is that a sin?” Avril asked, her face tear streaked.

“I don’t know what sin is anymore,” Rogé said with great seriousness. “The preaching says don’t kill, yet we do. Don’t steal, and still we do. In fact we’re guilty of everything we’re not supposed to do. I fear heaven and standing in God’s judgment court answering for all my wrongdoing.”

“That’s why I try to find joy and pleasure in this life… instead of the next.” Even in this time of crisis Clod felt validated in his hedonistic ways.

They walked on, not seeing anybody. East of them a line of woods obscured the view, to the south were gently rolling hills. The land seemed empty, the fields uncultivated. They crossed a brook, pausing only to refill their water containers.

“October 25th,” Clod said rinsing out his mouth. “I’ll never forget this day as long as I live.”

“It’s Saint Crispin’s Day, the English make a big day of it,” Rogé said.

“Who was this Crispin anyway?” Clod asked.

“Who the hell knows? The Catholic calendar is full of such days. It’s a holiday for the workingmen, assuring them a day of rest and festivities. If it weren’t for these saints the poor sods would have to work an extra day. In any case, Saint Crispin was good to the English by giving them victory.”

“No saint did that; we did that ourselves. We bunched up and made it easy for the English. But what did you expect? Our King is a lunatic, who thinks he’s made of glass. The Dukes, his brothers rule the kingdom and pilfer the Royal Treasury.”

“I’m surprised that you know so much,” Rogé said.

“Yeah well, between cups of ale in the tavern a lot of information gets passed around.”

“Sure. Goes through your ears like wind in the trees… but some of the information at least stayed this time…”

“More stayed than you know,” Clod retorted moodily.

As night was closing in, they found a clear space in the woods where they felt reasonably safe. They made a small fire and huddled around it, sharing what little food they had, chewing slowly to make it last. Clod sighed. “You know, today, having escaped death, I think back kindly on Squire Marcel and our life on the farm. It would be nice to be snug in the hay, full of some hot pottage with maybe some ham in it. Instead, here we sit, cold, with no roof over our heads, and don’t even know where to go tomorrow.”

“Where the trail takes us. Something will come of it,” Rogé tried to reassure his friend. “You know, I’ve had no chance to thank you for saving my life. Let me do so now. You’re a true brother to me, my only family.”

“Saved your life? When did I do that?”

“When the stone knocked me out, you held me up for hours and didn’t let me drown in the mud underfoot as so many did. That had to be very difficult.”

“Difficult, no, but tiring. While we’re being thankful, I’d like to thank Avril for saving us. We would surely have died had you not rescued us.”

“True, a thousand thanks Avril. You were so brave to go among the enemy to give us the one chance to escape.”

Avril flushed with pleasure. “Being a slip of a girl has its advantages. I’m not woman enough to excite interest of the wrong kind, and non-threatening enough to be let past by the enemy.”

“Well, it’s a brave thing you did,” Rogé said. “Especially for a fifteen year old.”

“Believe it or not, I’m sixteen today, on Saint Crisp’s day.”

“No!” Rogé was astounded. “Now I’ll have a second reason for remembering October 25th as Avril’s Day.”

Clod started laughing for no reason, so hard that he couldn’t even take a breath.

“What’s got into you?” Rogé asked, hitting Clod on the back to ease him.

“That’s…that’s the first…time… I ever heard April… come in October…” And he rolled on the ground in his hilarity. It was so infectious that in the end both Rogé and Avril had to join in, until they all grew weak.

“That was good.” Clod wiped the tears from his eyes. “I needed that to get all the death out of my head.”

The sky was dark above them, heavy with the threat of more rain. They settled as close to the fire as they dared. Avril snuggled into Rogé’s embrace, pressing herself into him. He started stiffening, and felt irritated that this thing kept happening. She’s fifteen, he reminded himself, no, sixteen, and he grew stiffer still. When he finally fell into a deep sleep, horrible images of the battlefield kept haunting him. Two times he awoke with a scream caught in his throat and sweat cooling on his face in the chill of night.

Chapter 6

The three refugees woke the next morning, stiff and cold. Clod groaned as he tried to straighten his body.

Rogé made a move to get up, but Avril held him back. “Not yet please.” And she tried to curl into his warmth. The poor girl had no bulk to conserve heat in her core, Rogé thought. Clod roused himself, stirred the fire to life and collected more branches from under the trees.

They didn’t have any food left, but Clod gathered handfuls of acorns from under the oaks and roasted some in the ash fringe of the fire. It was just enough to start them on their journey.

The countryside stayed gently rolling with the forest to the east but a clear valley on the right. There were no signs of any habitation and the road often disappeared in the growth of grass.

“Where are we?” Clod asked, favoring his right leg. “Seems like a wilderness somehow. Where are we going to find some food?”

“Maybe I could set some snares,” Rogé suggested.

“Then what? Wait until something blunders into them? Maybe we can do it over night and hope for something in the morning. For now, we’d better look for some farm or village to buy something.”

They continued on, more aware of the isolation of their surroundings.

“I don’t know if I would want to live here,” Avril said unexpectedly.

“Why not?”

“No doubt there are some lawless elements in the woods around here.” That seemed more than likely. Rogé reached for the short axe, keeping it near at hand.

Then topping a gentle rise, they spotted a cottage just off the road. At first sight, it didn’t look right. A garden grew to the right, but there was no smoke rising from the smoke hole in the thatch, and no movement of people anywhere. As they got nearer, a mangy dog ran towards them, barking loudly.

They turned into the yard and saw the body of a male, half in, half out of the door. Dried blood covered his homespun shirt over a gaping wound. Inside the place was in shambles, with items scattered on the floor. On the bed they found the woman whom Rogé hastily covered with rough spun cloth. He was grim and silent as he searched for some food.

“We’d better hurry, they could still be near,” Clod said.

“These people have been dead a couple days. Killed by marauders most likely, or soldiers sent to forage,” Rogé guessed. The place was stripped of all things useable, but Clod discovered some meat in the smoke house. “And smoked cheese,” he yelled triumphantly.

In the garden they found a young boy with an arrow in his back.

“French or English?” Clod asked, staring at the feathered shaft sticking out of the boy.

“From its length, English, I’d guess.”

Avril stepped around them and pulled a few small carrots, radishes and green onions from the garden plot. She seemed so untouched by the tragedy that Rogé commented on it.

She was taken aback by his concern, screwing up her face as she thought of an explanation. “I’ve seen so many bodies on the battlefield that I don’t really see them anymore. It’s the smell that bothers me the most. You know that certain smell… when you know someone’s died… and the decay’s set in.” She shuddered.

Rogé found a shovel and started to dig by the pear tree.

“Are you crazy, what are you doing?” Clod demanded. “We’ve no time for that.”

“It bothers me that we’ve left many friends lying unburied on the battlefield. I won’t let this family be desecrated by wild creatures.” Stubbornly, he toiled on. Clod had no choice but to help get it done faster. Avril found some homespun in which they wrapped the bodies tightly, and lowered them into the hole. One hole for the entire family. They piled the earth on top and Rogé trampled it down. He made a cross with two pieces of wood and set it at the head of the grave.

“Done now?”

“Not quite,” Rogé said, and called for Avril. She came running, suddenly transformed into a boy as she had donned the young boy’s clothes that she had found hanging in the house. They fit her well.

“What is it?”

“We need to pray,” Rogé said. He bowed his head, and the three of them stood around the freshly dug grave. “Father Almighty, we return this man, his wife and their son to the dirt they came from. We commend them to your mercy and care, hoping for a better afterlife than the life they had here…” Rogé fell silent, thinking of his family. Had anyone said anything over them?

“Amen,” Clod said, breaking the somber mood.

They grabbed their packs and moved on.

“You know when I first saw them dead on the ground it didn’t touch me,” Clod mused aloud. “But when we buried them, it made me real sad. I don’t know who they were. Nobody smart, otherwise they’d have lived somewhere closer to people, not so exposed. I don’t know, it keeps feeling sad. Why’s that?”

“Because you’ve got feelings, even if you pretend that you don’t,” Avril answered him quietly. After that, no one spoke for a while. The road just about disappeared, choked by grasses, weeds and clusters of bushes. Obviously it was rarely used. Most roads had ruts made by carts and wagons. Here there were no imprints to follow, just a faint trail.

Rogé was thinking that it was good that Avril was disguised. Perhaps so they could pass along unnoticed. When she caught him looking at her, she stuck her tongue out, strangely surprising him. Was this the same girl who had risked her life to rescue them? She was a mixture of young and old that had nothing to do with her age. She knew too much about what she shouldn’t, yet in other ways she hadn’t quite grown up. Because she had never been allowed to be just a child.

“Well we had a short military service… not even a month,” Clod said. “And instead of getting rich, we lost what we started with.”

“At least I don’t have to be Strongbow anymore. It didn’t sound right to me. I thought people were calling for someone else.”

“Funny thing. I don’t think anybody called me Thundercloud to my face.”

“That’s because Clod suits you so well,” Rogé said, chuckling.

They came upon a crossroad that showed more use. In fact a wagon had recently gone along it, the tracks clear in the soft spots of the road.

“Which way?” Clod asked, looking right and left.

“Let’s follow the wagon; it has to be going someplace,” Rogé reasoned.

“Or away from it.” Clod shook his head, undecided. “So which way?”

“Right, the way the horses went.” So they turned right, taking pains to stay out of the ruts. In places, the ruts fell from one wet pothole into another. Didn’t look to be a comfortable ride. An hour later it seemed that they were gaining on the cart. Rounding a corner, they saw the cart nearly on its side, one wheel deep in a pothole. Two large farm horses were grazing by the side, while three men tried to leverage the cart out of the hole. The men turned out to be monks who did more praying than lifting.

“Kind Sirs,” the lead monk said, turning his eyes on the new arrivals. “You’re answers to our fervent prayers, the Saints be praised. It would be a great help if you would add your youthful strength to our efforts. I fear the Saints are too busy today to lighten our load.”

“Perhaps, Father,” Clod said in mock piety, “the Saints have sent us in their stead.”

“Bless you, my Son. Your help’ll be more than welcome.”

Clod and Rogé grabbed the wheel and tried to lift it out, but it remained mired in the sucking muck. They tried again, but hardly even budged it. The three monks were older and of little real help.

“Well Father, it seems the Saints better come and help us after all,” Clod said, still playing the pious.

“I think if we hitch the horses again, and you pray for their strength, my friend and I might be able to lift it,” Rogé suggested. They tried it, and for an instant it looked as if with everyone straining, it would work. But on the verge of freedom the cart fell back in, lodging itself perhaps even deeper.

Clod was gasping from his exertion and Rogé, bent over, was holding his guts.

“Father it seems we need a stronger Saint,” Clod offered. He looked around, spat on his hand and made ready to try again.

“Hold it! We don’t want to wrench a bone out of a socket. Go under the trees and see if you can find a stout branch to use,” Rogé suggested. Clod nodded and strode into the grass toward the woods. Avril handed Rogé the drinking bag from which he took a long pull.

“I’m Prior Dominus, from the monastery of Saint Martin just a half day from here. We’re most anxious to return. I’ve never seen the roads this deserted. We haven’t seen a soul all morning.”

“There’s a war on, Father. The English chasing the French.”

“Then it’s true that the French lost again! The Saints preserve us, what’s happening to this country? The Devil’s curse…” The prior struck his hands together in a gesture of exasperation.

Clod returned with a fair sized branch which Rogé shoved under the cart and they made ready again. The horses pulled, the Brothers pulled the horses, and Clod strained and lifted, while Avril and Rogé put their weight on the branch. Ever so slowly the cart lifted out of the sucking mud, and with a last ditch effort from everyone, rolled clear.

“Well done!” The prior was jubilant. “I had fears we would have to spend the night out here in the open because the Devil refused to let go of the wheel.” He climbed aboard with the two monks. “Thank you, young gentlemen. I wish I had something to reward you with, but if you care to drop in at the Abbey of Saint Martin, we’ll be very pleased to have you as our guests.”

“Thank you, Prior; it comes to mind that my brothers and I could use a rest.”

“Well then, come along. Would you like to come up?” the prior asked indicating the wagon.

“I think we should walk and spare your horses.” He didn’t regret the decision as he watched the cart stumble in the ruts, rocking from side to side. The fields to the sides were littered with boulders and overgrown with bushes, quite impassable.

They plodded along steadily but didn’t seem to make any headway.

“Father, it seems mighty odd to have the land so deserted hereabouts. It looks fertile enough to support farms and villages,” Rogé said to fill the distance.

“It’s the wars, my Son. The English and the French have fought along here so often, raiding and pillaging, that they’ve killed the whole district. No one wants to settle here. It’s been so for over sixty years. Don’t like coming this way ourselves, but the river’s just as bad, swollen with rainwater, even the rivermen are reluctant to use it.”

As the sun settled below the horizon, the light was fading fast around them yet they were still on the road, miles from anywhere.

“I was afraid of this,” the Prior said, squinting around in the deepening gloom. “We lost so much time being stuck in the mud that we’re still hours from our destination. I guess we have to make camp somewhere.” He looked around at the fringe of woods apprehensively.

“Father, we’d best get well clear of the road. There’re armed bands around… and they aren’t very Christian,” Clod said, coming to the fore.

“We could try behind those trees. There, at least, we’d be out of sight,” Rogé added.

“Yes, bless you, my Son. We should not tempt the Devil to make a meal of us.”

With some difficulty they crossed a broken field to hide among the trees. After unhitching and settling the horses, they sat down to a sparse meal of stale bread and hard cheese with the few vegetables that Avril had gotten from the despoiled farm.

“You were truly heaven sent to help us,” the Prior declared. It was strange that the other monks remained mostly silent, just muttering prayers.

“Father if you don’t mind me asking, what persuasion are you?” Rogé asked.

“We’re not of any one persuasion… Our beliefs are a patchwork and we receive help from many of the orders. Not nearly enough, but better than being on our own. Unfortunately, we’re not a rich monastery; we have no powerful patrons or a populous congregation to help us. This trip was to petition the Bishop of Arras for some assistance to see us through the coming winter.”

“And did the Bishop help?” Clod asked, reminding Rogé that Clod had been interested in joining a monastery. Now that the military had failed, he was recalculating his future.

“Not much. He was full of good advice and promises, but a little short on actual help.” From that Clod understood that maybe a few brass were given, but not any silver.

Avril had been quiet all this time, not to give away her identity. The Prior eventually took notice and asked, “Is your young companion mute?”

“No Father, just a bit peculiar after a horse kicked him in the head. He rarely talks, and when he does, his voice sounds like the creaking of a rusted hinge,” Clod improvised. Avril flashed him an unpleasant look.

Then the Prior and the other brothers launched into a season of prayer before settling themselves for the night.

The dawn had a true late autumn chill, so it took a while for the travelers to brave the unpromising weather. Being older, the monks had an even harder time rousing themselves, groaning as they stretched out their bodies. They gathered around a small fire Clod had started, to catch some of the heat.

“Are we going to stay with them?” Avril whispered to Rogé.

“Until something better turns up,” Rogé whispered back.

They ate a sparse breakfast and after, the monks sank into their prayers.

“Damn,” Clod muttered in an aside as he and Rogé led the horses to water at a nearby brook. “We should be on our way.” When they rejoined the rest the monks were still at it, clicking through their rosaries.

Rogé and Clod harnessed the horses to the wagon. “I don’t mean to disrupt your devotions, Father, but we should get on our way. In times of war, it’s not safe to linger.”

“You’re right, my Son.” The Prior motioned the group to the wagon, and stiffly the monks clambered on board. Clod led the horses through the trees and the open field to reach the road. Then they again bounced around in the ruts. Avril, Clod and Rogé were glad to follow on foot.

The road, such as it was, meandered back and forth, skirting one obstacle to face another. It seemed they hardly made any progress at all. The country remained wild, the fields which had once been open and cultivated now overgrown by bushes and a spattering of saplings. Here and there a pile of stones marked where a cottage had once stood.

Then rounding a corner of woods, they suddenly found themselves facing a band of six men around a camp fire. They didn’t look welcoming, but it was too late to turn away. A big, bearded man stepped onto the road and grabbed the halter of the lead horse. The other men ambled over, fingering their weapons. Maybe they were low-grade soldiers, or maybe just common ruffians.

“Well what do we have here? A clutch of monks and a trio of half-formed brats.” He smiled evilly, showing the gaps in his yellow teeth. “Could we trouble you for your valuables?”

“We’re but poor monks, Sirs, who go begging,” the Prior said in a very un-Prior-like voice. “Have you gentlemen something to spare for humble servants of the Church?”

“For servants who serve only themselves? I don’t think so. You’d best cough up some coins, if you know what’s good for you,” the leader added still in a falsely civil tone. But the man beside him fidgeted and broke in harshly, “Why waste time? Cut them down and throw their bodies in the ditch. If they have anything we’ll find it!”

“Not so fast, Frank. Everything has a proper form. First you ask, then take the coins and only then you kill them—”

The bearded leader wasn’t expecting Rogé’s axe as it smashed his head into a bloody mess. The one next to him got it on the backswing before he had time to get half his sword out. The next nearest got to taste Clod’s scythe, deep into the belly and up. His companion fared no better with Avril’s knife in his neck: a pulse of blood gushing from him with every heartbeat.

The two remaining ruffians froze, realizing belatedly that the odds against them had changed. Clod stepped forward, brandishing his scythe. The two turned and ran, but Rogé threw the axe striking the last one before he could reach safety. He fell, but tried to crawl away. Clod finished him with one stroke, then with mouth curled with distaste, he cleaned the scythe on the fallen man’s shirt. The other got away, running as fast as his legs could carry him.

“The Saints be praised!” the Prior volunteered. “Archangel Michael himself must have sent you for our protection. Bless you my Son, bless you all…” The others burbled something unintelligible, crossing themselves continuously, their eyes wide with shock.

“Archangel Michael had nothing to do with it,” Clod muttered, as he expertly searched the fallen and harvested the collectibles. Avril rummaged around the camp, gathering up anything useful. Rogé took the leader’s sword and tested the edge, finding the workmanship tolerable. He made a sour face.

“What’s the matter with you?” Clod asked, jingling some coins in his hand.

“It reminds me of the misfortune that came with the last weapons we found like this.”

“You just don’t know how to appreciate what fate has gifted you,” Clod said reprovingly.

“Fate had nothing to do with it! These brigands were so cocksure that they could take us that we completely surprised them with our quickness, that’s all. Had we been any slower, we’d be lying in the dust and heading into afterlife.”

“Don’t argue. Let’s get the hell out of here,” Avril said in a husky whisper.

They finally started off again and after passing the last body by the road, the monks burst into songs of rejoicing. Even Clod had to admit that the monks sang well, even the Prior… no doubt the fruit of much practicing.

It was late afternoon when they reached the Monastery of St. Martin, a not very imposing complex. At least it had stout walls and a sturdy gate to give it some protection. At the sight of them the gate swung open and a clutch of monks surrounded the cart, loudly expressing their anxieties.

“When you didn’t arrive yesterday, we all worried and prayed, thinking that you may have fallen prey to some misfortune. The news is rife with ugly rumors of death and slaughter and we expected the worst. We prayed all night for your protection and the Almighty be praised, He heard us and delivered you from all dangers.”

“Yes He did by sending these three young persons to defend us from the attacks of the Devil.” Everyone crossed themselves hastily. The gate was made secure behind them with double crossbars then the procession moved to the center of the compound. The grandest structure was the church itself, built of dressed stone and shining with glass in the windows. The outbuildings were of common field stones, mortared together. In one corner was a kitchen garden and a small orchard. Against the far wall was a stable, with a pair of farm horses and four cows behind a wicker fence.

In the hubbub of their arrival it was hardly noticed that the bell in the tower was ringing continuously.

“Tell that old fool not to kill himself working the rope. Stop him before he pulls the whole tower on top of himself,” the Prior ordered, reasserting his authority. Someone ran off, and shortly the bell fell silent.

Later, Prior Dominus greeted his three guests in his study, seated behind a massive oak desk covered with rolls of parchment and the monastery’s accounts. To his left was a wide window that looked out on the main quadrangle. He had changed into a more comfortable tunic overlaid with a grey scapular made of finer cloth than what he had worn on the road. In his familiar surroundings he appeared to have recovered his full self-assurance.

“It is with gratitude that we acknowledge the debt that my brothers and I owe for your timely intercession. There is no question that the malefactors would have robbed us and left us dead by the road. Please accept our most heartfelt thanks and whatever else we can offer you.” Hurrying to put a limit on the implied generosity, he added, “Of course we’re only a small order, with little outside support, but whatever we have we will gladly share with you.”

“Thank you, Holy Father,” Rogé replied. “We’ve been swept about by the tides of history and would welcome a time of peace and rest. Your monastery might be the best place for us to recover and to ask forgiveness for the sins we were forced into by the war. We’ve killed when necessary and the shed blood is a grievous burden on our souls. With your permission we would like to stay a while.”

“So shall it be. Stay as long as you like,” the Prior offered, no doubt thinking that his gratitude was bought reasonably cheaply. “I must say that because we’re small, we all have to work. It would be impolitic to have guests who do nothing, and might become a cause of dissent or envy. Perhaps you could be assigned small, minute tasks to help out.”

“Certainly, as your Holiness desires,” Rogé answered.

“Good, good.” The Prior got up and walked the three to the door. “You’ll find us pious folks, glorying in the simplicity of Christian life as set out by the Apostles and the Saints who followed.”

Later, in the cell they were assigned, Rogé discussed the arrangement. “We’re guests, but we have to make ourselves useful by some good works. That seems reasonable under the circumstances.”

“I didn’t like the sound of that. Since when is work any good? It soon turns into toil that saps strength and joy from the living.”

“It’s good when done in the service of God!” Rogé snapped. “I seem to remember that not too long ago someone wanted to join a monastery.”

“Yes, but I made it quite clear that it would not be the begging monks. These here are just a hair above the Black Friars looking for handouts on the road. Wasn’t the good Prior himself just at the Bishop of Arras with his hand out? If that isn’t begging, then I don’t know what is.”

“It’s still better than laboring endlessly on a meager farm. You said so yourself.”

“I said a lot of things back then, but since I’ve seen the world I know better.”

“Well we’re staying for a time. You may do as you please.”

“Sure, I’ll stay a while. At least until things settle down on the outside,” Clod said morosely. He looked at Avril who was busy fixing the broken laces of her boot. “What do you think?”

“What should I think? One female among sixty-eight monks?”

“They don’t know that. They think you’re a boy,” Rogé objected.

“But I know and it makes a difference to me!”

“That’s not strictly speaking true,” Clod said. “There’s a laundress who lives in a small cottage built against the wall.” Just like him to unearth such details.

“How do you know that? We’ve been here less than a day.” Rogé found himself protesting again.

“I have a nose for such things,” Clod said, smirking, his mood visibly improving.

It took a while for the three young people to adjust to the rhythm of the monastery. The day was divided into distinct segments, starting and ending by the peal of a bell. There was time for work, eat, rest, and study: all periods included a season of prayers. With dusk they went to bed to wake at the crack of dawn. The monks owned a change of habit, an extra pair of shoes, bed clothes and nothing else. Of course there was a small library and those who could read were allowed time there. Clod professed great hunger for learning and pretended to read, to get out of less desirable chores. It worked until it was noted that he was “reading” upside down. For penance he was required to clean the latrines and the adjoining dung pit. He was ready to leave the next day, but couldn’t get the other two to join him.

Avril was assigned to milk the cows in the morning and clean out their stalls. By a strange coincidence Rogé and Clod were given the task of herding the swine to a hillside pasture.

“If that doesn’t beat all. I should’ve stayed with the Squire,” Clod grumbled. He was already out of sorts as Mathilda the laundress wasn’t returning his interest. “Get this, she’s lusting after Avro,” the name they used for Avril. “She’s in love with ‘his’ smooth, unmarked face. There’s truly no justice in the world.”

But Avro had other problems as well. Seems as if at least three other monks took an interest in “him.”

“Why did they become celibate if they can’t curb their lusts?” she asked.

Rogé didn’t mind the work and the quiet life of the monastery. If things went well, perhaps they could spend the whole winter in this safe haven. He especially liked spending time in the small library where Brother Theodor introduced him to the secret of the alphabet. He spent many hours copying letters on a chalkboard. He couldn’t really read or write yet, but his letters were well formed, and soon Brother Theodor gave him a parchment, quill and ink to copy an entire text.

“But I don’t understand it,” Rogé protested as he squinted at the closeness of the lettering.

“That’s not the problem. Sometimes understanding leads to the temptation to correct the text and before you know it the copier wanders bit by bit from the original. No, no. We copy exactly, even existing errors. It’s therefore an advantage when you do not know, but replicate only what’s there.”

Rogé enjoyed the task and got fair at it before long. “Good, good,” Brother Theodor praised him when he compared the copy. There were only a few random flecks of ink that had escaped his quill, but the Brother showed him how to scrape them off. The biggest problem Rogé found was with stylistic scripts. Certain monasteries had developed their own way of writing, adding extra flourishes to letters, decorating them a certain way, sometimes leaving him confused. The angular Gothic style he found most difficult; Rogé had to ask if the letter was an a or an e, for instance.

Clod eventually found a task that suited him: brewing. The monks made their own beer from local cereals, and Clod came back from the work smelling of hops and often half-drunk. “You have to prove the quality by tasting it,” he would claim, trying not to slur his words after he was reprimanded by a superior.

Avro got to know the cows and they her. She enjoyed spending time with them, calling each by name. The animals rumbled with pleasure as she brushed them to a shine. She found the stall warm even on the coldest of days, if somewhat smelly. She also enjoyed churning butter or making soft cheese. Often in the kitchen helping with the cooking, she was highly pleased with what she learned. “On a campaign you rarely get to cook anything besides the basics. Sourdough bread to go with a roast of any meat on hand. It didn’t pay to ask what the meat was, more than likely a horse that broke a leg or dropped dead from exhaustion.” The monks cooked simple fare based on an abundance of lentils and barley, with dried and pickled vegetables from the small garden. Twice a week they added some meat, but most often it was fish, pulled fresh from the nearby river.

The mealtimes in the refectory were quiet affairs. The Brothers ate at a measured pace, chewing their food methodically, listening to the lector reading from the Bible in Latin. The food was quite palatable, liberally seasoned with salt and pungent herbs. The portions were adequate, so they were never hungry as in many previous years. The beer wasn’t skimped on either; there was always a jug at a hand-reach on the table.

“It’s not a bad life,” Clod admitted, “if somewhat boring. The brothers are a quiet lot, rarely talking beyond the task at hand.”

“Most have taken vows of silence,” Rogé explained. “To better concentrate on their inner lives. If they talk, they talk with angels in heaven and pray to Saints.”

“Surely you don’t believe that hogwash,” Clod objected.

“They believe and that’s the point.”

The three of them were outside by the dormitories, exchanging a few quiet words. Avro had become quite silent and had little to say, and if so, it was to complain about the laundress and the one particular monk, Petros, who was the treasurer and the moneyman of the priory.

“Mathilda is always trying to steal kisses from me anytime I’m near her. I’ve got to get my laundry, but she won’t let go and I have to wrestle it from her. Sometimes I feel like boxing her on the ears to set her straight.”

“Why don’t you pinch her bottom?” Clod asked, chuckling; of course he would like to do just that, but when he tried, she slapped him with a wet, soapy cassock right across the face. “She would squeal but doubtless like it.”

“Sure, and then what? Tell me that.” Then her frown deepened. “Petros cornered me in the lavatorium while I was brushing my teeth. Before I knew it, he grabbed my crotch and didn’t feel what he expected. Ever since, he’s been ogling me, wondering what I am. A succubus or incubus perhaps, sent to torment his sleep.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t think that,” Rogé said. But the conversation made him think of the brothers’ inner lives. In the library he asked Brother Theodor. “What were you before the priory?”

“I was a nobody, an abused servant boy at the mercy of my master’s drunken moods. He enjoyed beating me. After years of mistreatment I ran away and sought shelter at an abbey. The abbot however was related to my master, and he was going to return me… so I ran farther and eventually ended up here.”

“And you like it here?”

“It’s not about like or not like. No one hurts me here and I’ve grown hugely in my faith. Enough so that I’m able to forgive my tormentors.”

“But don’t you miss the outside?”

“What’s there to miss? My experience showed me only hurt. Here I pray and feel approved of. I sing in the choir and I’m filled with joy. I never felt that on the outside.” Still, Rogé couldn’t understand the brother settling for such a predictable life.

“But here, every day’s the same, nothing changes. Don’t you get bored?”

“That’s what prayer’s for. It shuts out temptations and bad thoughts. I love the manuscripts, the codexes, the history in the letters. Where do I find all that on the outside? No, no. Here things are peaceful, predictably safe, whereas outside is a dog eat dog world. In here we have nothing, no envy, maybe a rare strife that’s soon smoothed over. If you want more, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.”

Rogé had to admit there were certain advantages to living in such seclusion. The future was taken for granted, free of the anxieties that beset the rest of the world. The next time he saw real joy in the Brother’s face was as he opened the heavily latched armoire and took out the illuminated codex, The Life of Saint Martin. He unclasped the lock and with great reverence opened the book.

“These’re the pages of the life of the Bishop of Tours in the late three hundreds, before he was made a saint. He’s venerated for his humbleness of life and spirit in spite of his high state, and for his compassion to plead the cause of the persecuted. He was much sought after, yet kings and Emperors refused to grant him audience, knowing full well that he would plead for the lives of their prisoners.” Brother Theodor turned the page revealing a dried sprig of lilac which gave a pleasant scent to the finely worked vellum. “He was not assigned a See in Tours—the people there elected him Bishop for his great piety and holiness.” He pointed to a detailed capital letter, cleverly illustrating an episode in the saint’s life. “Look, there he lives in a simple hut instead of the palace due to him.” He turned the page again. “This is our greatest treasure. A copy of Sulpicius Severus, the biographer. Unfortunately this is not a true copy but bastardized by a religious sect who wanted to make more of him than who and what he was. Still, it’s the best we have.”

Rogé admired the fine scripting, the colorful ornamentation and the occasional glint of gold that gave it the designation “illuminated.” Brother Theodor never allowed Rogé to touch the book, but still the young man felt sanctified every time he had a look at it.

From Brother Theodor Rogé also learned about mixing colors needed for the writing and copying. There were jars of carmine red; ground insects mixed with salts; vermilion and rust to give shades of red; saffron and turmeric yellows from plants; verdigris greens made by boiling copper plate in vinegar; woad and indigo blue from fusions of plants; lead white and others. Rogé wasn’t allowed any gold or silver leaf, which were Brother Barnabas’ exclusive prerogatives.

After a month working in the quiet of the library Rogé learned to read the Latin words even though he couldn’t understand them. Still, that didn’t stop him. Sometimes he asked for meaning from the other scribe, but was frowned at for interrupting the other’s work.

So after a manner, each of the three friends found something to occupy them, and even Clod expressed a certain satisfaction in the activities he was assigned. None was as demanding as the work on the farm he remembered.

One day Rogé was assigned the task of cleaning the small guest house that offered accommodations to passing travelers within the safety of the priory walls. Of course only reputable people were allowed in—not daring to host wolves among the sheep—for a small honorarium. Most recently a small merchant train had moved through, littering the place with bedding straw. He swept the floor, pushed the table to the right and cleaned out the fireplace. In one corner he found a broken saddle and was told to store it in the attic where all such discarded items found a home. Rummaging among the dust covered objects, Rogé to his great surprise found a crossbow next to a quiverful of bolts. It appeared to be a hunting weapon, not anything military. It had a simple foot stirrup to span it. Rogé couldn’t think why such a thing ended up there. Later when he asked, he was told that sometimes people died there; perhaps it came from one of them.

Rogé cleaned and oiled the weapon and changed the bow string. For the most part the bolts were all right; only one shaft showed that some vermin had nibbled on it. He couldn’t help wondering about the fate of the fine crossbow he had lost at Agincourt. When he bragged about his find to Clod, he too searched through the attic and found a spear used for hunting boars. He brandished the weapon as if it were a 20 foot pike. Not to be outdone, Avro also poked around upstairs and found a poniard with a touch of rust. She polished it until the metal shone good as new. After that windfall they felt a little better prepared for the future.

Winter passed in relative comfort. In the cell, a heavy leather curtain over the small window kept out the worst of the weather and on colder nights, a handful of heated bricks made the bed warm enough. There was a fire burning in the refectory, two in fact at either end of the hall, drawing crowds of monks to them. The trouble was that there wasn’t any talk to help pass the time. Of course there were plenty of opportunities for prayers and willy-nilly Rogé and even Clod found themselves muttering along, even though they didn’t understand the Latin.

Then the weather changed, followed by frequent rains right into April. It wasn’t until early May that the ground dried up sufficiently to work the garden and the surrounding fields. The monks turned enthusiastically to these tasks, knowing that their future wellbeing depended on the good work of the present. They set to plowing and breaking sod, harrowing and planting wheat, rye, oats and barley. In the garden rows of onions, carrots, peppers and herbs were seeded and in a separate plot, a variety of beans, peas, lentils and turnips. For a while both Rogé and Clod were busy drawing water from the well and watering the garden. Being smaller of frame, Avro was given the lighter task of weeding.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the earth smelled of fresh growth and the foliage burst into full green. The animals romped eagerly through the fields. The six beehives of the priory buzzed with new energy, swarms attending to the bloom in the orchard and the fields.

All in all the signs were good, promising an abundance of harvest. In fact the only trouble was that with the improving weather the drums took up the beat, and rumors of war were spread from mouth to mouth by the travelers passing by. The English and the French were at it again. Over the winter the diplomats had failed to hammer out an understanding and it again came to a test of arms. The French were anxious to avenge their losses and to finally drive the English from the Continent. On the other side, the English were equally determined to enforce their claims. It looked like war was again unavoidable.

Mid-May, peasant carts and many on foot were heading south, trying to escape what was reported as an army moving about pillaging for supplies, not caring who they took from. Prior Dominus had the gates reinforced, and a watch rotation set.

Rogé took out the crossbow and practiced with it in the back garden, using a tight weave of straw as a target. He was glad to find, after he got used to the weapon, that he hadn’t lost his aim. More often than not he was right on the mark. He also made more bolts with hardwood from the forest and forged quarrel heads in the small smithy used for shoeing the horses.

Clod also exercised with his spear, and often the two of them would try swordplay using wooden sticks. On the whole the monks frowned on such warlike pursuits but the Prior, regardless of how he felt, encouraged it, no doubt still remembering the skirmish on the road. In fact, he made overtures to recruit them as novices into the order.

“Not a chance,” Clod objected when they were among themselves. “Soon as things settle a bit, we should hit the road.”

“And go where?”

“Who cares? But this I know, I don’t want to be a farmer or a monk. It’s time to try something else.”

“What do you think?” Rogé turned to Avro who was trying to mend his shoes.

“I don’t know. I was raised on the battlefield. Never been in one place this long. I get itchy feet, ready to do some marching.”

“You want us to join the army again?” Rogé asked.

“Hey, that’s another thing I don’t want. I’m done with soldiering. It’s too easy to get killed.” Clod hurried to veer away from the direction the conversation was taking.

That afternoon they went hunting along the stream that cut through the valley and was the main water source for the monastery. Rogé had the crossbow ready in his hands and Clod his spear. They were hoping for deer, but settled for rabbit when they discovered a colony dug into a hillside. From behind some bushes they waited until one of the creatures stuck out its head and Rogé got it with a well-placed shot. As this was on priory land they were within their rights; otherwise it would be considered poaching, against the law. In the end Rogé bagged six, but Clod was unhappy as he hadn’t had the chance to use his spear.

The cook, however, was happy, promising to make rabbit in red wine sauce. The supper was exceptional, small portions of the promised rabbit seasoned with fennel.

By mid June, things seemed to have calmed down a bit, with news reaching them of skirmishes further north. There were no great armies but mercenary, free companies that crisscrossed the land. God be praised, none came near the priory. It was generally known that Henry was again preparing for war, trying to field a larger, overwhelming army to snatch the crown of France for himself. Yet as one hand was set on war, with the other he was busy with diplomacy. Two-faced, the French called him.

In the meantime, a combined naval force of French and Genoese besieged poor Harfleur, things heating up again. The conflict spilled into the countryside with armed bands roaming about, exacting tribute from towns and villages or failing that, razing them.

The Priory of Saint Martin didn’t seem to be in the direct path of marauding troops, but heard plenty of horror stories about atrocities from the refugees fleeing to safety in the south.

“Maybe we should go south too,” Clod suggested, chewing on a stalk of grass as they sat on the back steps of the church while inside, the monks were singing with great fervor to hold off any looming misfortune. “If I stay much longer I’ll turn into a monk. I can recite the entire liturgy by heart without understanding a word of it. And sing too…”

“You have a very nice voice,” Avro said, weaving some grass into a nest.

“What is with your eye?” Rogé asked, only then noticing the black bruise that Clod was trying to hide from them.

“I got punched.”

“By a monk??!” Avro asked.

“No, by Mathilda after I pinched her bottom.” He gingerly touched the bruise, wincing as he did. “But it was worth it. Her derriere was soft but firm, if you know what I mean.” He winked broadly.

“What do you have for asses that you must always be pinching them? I remember you were lusting after Rosa’s ass. Don’t you have any imagination?”

“Sure I do, and plenty of it, but it all starts with a pinch… then a kiss…”

“I don’t get it. An ass is just an ass…” Avro shrugged his shoulders.

“You know, sometimes I swear I forget that you’re just a skinny girl, no more than a plucked chicken—”

“Who’s skinny??” Avro demanded.

“Well, no one is going to call you voluptuous.”

“Is that what you really want? Tons of fat?”

“A little meat would be nice. Something soft to plow into. You’re a tough bit of femininity.”

“Hey, there’s no need to be insulting,” Rogé mixed in.

“But it’s true. There isn’t an ounce of tenderness in her. If I were to pinch her, she would stick me with her poniard…” And on cue, she flashed him the pointed piece of metal.

“You better believe it,” she hissed.

“See… see…” Clod pointed at her. “She was raised on a bed of nettles, that’s why she’s so prickly…”

“Maybe she isn’t as soft as you’d like, but she’s full of courage, and she’s amply proven it.” That put an end to the argument. Avro finished the nest and fixed it among the branches of the plum tree, muttering, “Perhaps a finch will make a home in it.”

The monks trooped out of the church sweeping the three young persons to the refectory for lunch. It was hard bread and harder cheese with a bit of onion left over from the previous year. There was also sour yogurt in wooden bowls.

“What I would give for smoked ham or a blood sausage,” Clod said under his breath. “Even bacon rind would be welcome.”

“Me? I’d like fresh bread or muffins with honey-almond glaze.” The juices pooled in his mouth. “Or cream-filled pastries.”

“When did you ever have that?” Clod demanded, also salivating.

“Never, but one can dream, no?”

Suddenly the bell in the outside tower rang, not rhythmically but panic stricken. Everyone rushed outside and climbed the wall to see what was going on. To the north a thick rope of smoke rose into the air.

“Oh my God, who’s that?” the Prior asked, his face going pale.

“The village Clairbourne or the farms west of it,” someone replied in a terse voice. All eyes stayed glued on the column of smoke.

“It’s not very dark,” Clod observed.

“What does that mean?” the Prior demanded turning to him.

“That it’s straw or thatch burning, not aged timbers, which would be much darker.”

When nothing else happened for an hour, one-by-one the crowd dispersed. Rogé went to the library: he always found the quiet there reassuring.

It wasn’t much later that the bell rang again, even more urgently than before. Again the crowd collected on the wall, everyone peering north anxiously. More to the east but definitely closer, a second column of smoke rose into the sky.

“The Tillamain’s place,” Brother Ambrose said and he should know as he was born a half a step from there. Tillamain sold oats and rye to the Priory to make monk’s bread. “Where are we going to get those grains now?”

Rogé’s fine ears picked up the Prior instructing Brother Petros, the treasurer, to bury the money casket right away in the place already agreed upon. Petros hurried off and Rogé didn’t see him until supper.

After blessing the food, the Prior announced a special mass to invoke Heaven’s protection and to ease their neighbors’ pain and losses. Dutifully, after a hurried meal, the monks trooped into the church that was stripped of its few treasures. The larger brass crucifix and the chalice were gone as well as the two solid silver candlesticks that customarily graced the altar. In their place two candle stumps smoked in clay holders. The embroidered table cloth was conspicuous by its absence. It took a little longer to notice that the alabaster font for the Holy Water had also disappeared. The only things left were the six windows that had a bit of color in them. But if the church was drab, the fervor of the congregation was not. They sang and prayed near ecstasy.

After the service Rogé again climbed the wall to see the progress of the fires. In the deepening gloom of the evening he noticed nothing, not even a glimmer. Returning to their cell, Rogé stared anxiously at his companions.

“We should make plans,” he said.

“What’s there to make? We should just leave,” Clod countered. “Right now. Right this minute.” He could barely contain his impatience.

“Not in the dark. We could easily run right into the people we most want to avoid.” Even Clod had to agree with the wisdom of that statement. “Avril, early tomorrow morning you raid the pantry and collect as much food as you can carry. Nothing fancy, things that travel well, cheeses, smoked meats and hardtack. Clod, you get us some skins of beer to take along. I’ll bundle our clothes and blankets with the food and beer, and throw it over the back wall.” He chewed his lips for half-a-minute as he thought it through. “Clod after you’ve finished, you smuggle the bundle to the old sheep fold in the far field and hide it there. So if we have to flee we have something to flee with.”

“Why don’t we just go first thing in the morning?” Clod asked, feeling danger breathing down his neck.

“That’d be like a man who wants to escape the fire but rashly runs into the heart of it.”

“Huh?” But he stopped fretting; he had no desire to burn.

Next morning they did as planned. Clod came back from his assigned task and nodded that it was done.

At breakfast, the monks were tense, uncharacteristically whispering anxiously among themselves. The reader was distracted by his worries and twice missed his place in the text. Rogé grubbed about in his thoughts, trying to find something he had overlooked.

Later among his own companions he was thinking aloud. “The wall’s thick enough and the gate stout enough… unless they come in numbers and force the entryway… the only way in or out.” He was again chewing on his lips. “Clod, above the workshop you’ll find a coil of good hemp rope. Take that and hide it behind the dove cot by the back wall. The rope’s long enough to reach the ground. That way if we’re blocked up front we have a back door if we need it.”

“Good. Now that finally makes some sense.” Clod was all for it.

All during the day nothing else happened. The surrounding fields and woods looked the same as ever at this time of the year. There was no fresh smoke, not anywhere on the horizon. One carriage moved by on the road, the driver lashing his horses to move them along, not even pausing to give any word of what he was fleeing from. However, his speed spoke more than his words would have.

“Why are we not leaving?” Clod demanded at first opportunity.

“Because… I promised Brother Theodor to finish copying the last document I’m working on. After that we can leave.”

“Piss on the document! Let’s leave today.” Clod was quite adamant.

“Leave if you must, but you leave alone. I owe Brother Theodor a lot for teaching me to write and read.”

“But it makes no sense—”

“It makes sense to me!” Rogé snapped. “Besides until I know which way we should go, I won’t move an inch.”

Clod grumbled but stayed.

The rising light of the next day revealed nothing suspicious. Again the countryside looked deceptively peaceful with the sunflowers turning their faces to the rising sun. By midday the tension of the monks eased noticeably and they were quietly congratulating themselves that their piety must have averted the peril visited on their neighbors. Still, the Prior ordered the lintel posts of the gate to be painted with blood to further invoke heavenly protection. “To signal the Angel of Death to pass over,” the Prior mumbled. Of course they had to make do with goat blood, which was considered more efficacious than thin chicken blood.

It was mid-afternoon when the bell summoned them to the wall again. This time there was no mistaking the troop of about twenty riders coming into view on the north road. The twenty soon grew into sixty, and there could be no doubt that they were aiming for the Priory.

“Double bar the gate!” the Prior commanded tersely: a useless order, as the gates had been double barred for days. Rogé had the crossbow, held out of sight below the parapet. The riders turned into the lane and were quickly at the gate. A horseman, in plate armor and heavy mail, rode to the fore and demanded imperiously, “Open the gate! Instantly! Or we’ll burn the place down around your heads.” The horse pranced under him and he tightened the reins.

“Good Sir, we’re poor monks under the protection of Heaven. We claim sanctuary God promised us—”

“Stop your blithering, old man, and throw open your gate. It will not go well with you.” The man raised his visor and a full beard spilled out. I’ll ask you only once more.” The rest of the troop gathered around him, the horses stirring about nervously.

“Dear Sir, you are French, we’re French, you ought to be protecting us from the enemies of our country and King—”

“What care I for your nationality, you old fool. I want food, drink and your money…”

“And we will roast your feet until you tell us where you buried it…” another of the riders spoke up, in his hand a vicious looking mace.

“And maybe skin the rest of you…” They all laughed.

“But Sirs, we’re poor servants of Christ, we forgo all earthly pleasures and the trappings of wealth. We have no money, no treasures—”

“All the worse for you!” the leader roared and moved aside. A crossbow twanged and a quarrel pierced the Prior’s chest, going through his frail body. The old man tottered back and toppled off the wall to hit the ground with a sickening crunch. There was a stunned, horrified silence then all hell broke loose. The monks ran off in every direction as the horsemen below dismounted and with axes attacked the gate. It was only a matter of time before they would burst through.

Rogé lifted his crossbow, already drawn, set his bolt and released. The bolt struck the leader through his open visor, through the left eye into his brain. He toppled over the rump of his horse, but one foot got caught in the stirrup and the frightened horse galloped off, dragging the clanking corpse behind him, the noise spurring it on to even greater speed. With a practiced motion, Rogé drew, set his bolt and shot, hitting the second in command in the armpit. He too fell, blood spewing from his mouth. Rogé drew again, and hit the crossbow man who was aiming at him. His bolt was first and the archer fell under the hooves.

“Come on,” Clod urged. “There’s too many of them for just the two of us.” He dragged Rogé to the ladder and they clambered down. Crossing the quadrangle Rogé caught sight of Brother Theodor, clutching to his breast the beloved Life of Saint Martin. “Go, find Avril,” Rogé yelled at Clod, while he intercepted Brother Theodor. The man was wide-eyed, terror-struck, and running he did not know where. “This way Brother,” Rogé yelled, grabbing hold of the brother’s scapular and dragging him along. By the dovecote they met Clod and Avril. Clod was on the top of the ladder, the rope already deployed. He went over first, then Avril. Rogé helped the Brother up the ladder and took the book, while the Brother clambered down the rope.

Looking back Rogé saw the gate splintering but for the moment still holding the attackers out. Rogé whistled sharply to a nearby monk and waved him over. Then he, too, went over the top with one hand slowing himself on the rope, the other hanging desperately onto the book. Below, he thrust the book into the brother’s eager hands, then the four of them ran for the woods. Behind them a monk was escaping down the rope and behind him another.

They were about half way to the woods when three riders came around the Priori wall, hollering, lances on the ready. Rogé spun around then shot, aiming for the nearest horse. The poor animal went down, pitching the rider hard onto the ground, breaking many bones. Rogé reloaded, and shot again at the rider nearly on top of him. He ducked as the rider flew by him, where Avril finished him off with a quick thrust of her poniard between the links of the mail, the very task the dagger was designed for. The last rider impaled himself on Clod’s spear, breaking it in pieces.

“Can we go now?” Clod asked with a pained expression on his face, “or must we fight them all?”

“Go, damn you, go!” And they ran, Brother Theodor keeping pace with them. Reaching the woods they took a short breather, then followed the path that eventually led to the old sheep fold. They stopped there briefly to collect the hidden bundle and distributed the load among the four of them. As soon as they could, they moved on. On a bit of open ground Rogé looked back to see smoke rising into the sky. Rogé wondered how many of the brothers had escaped the blood bath. Beside him, Brother Theodor mumbled his prayers.

Much later, with many leagues already behind them, the smoke looked thinner above the trees. It didn’t seem real that the place they had learned to know was now a bit of smoking ruins. The Saints had not helped the Priory, not even Saint Martin. Of course there were numerous monasteries named after him, and no doubt, kept him busy with all their cares.

When it got too dark to travel, they left the path and found a place to make camp for the night. They ate sparingly then settled down quickly. They listened as Brother Theodor recited a prayer of thanksgiving for their escape. For once Clod’s Amen sounded sincere.

Chapter 7

Still tired from the rigors of the previous day, they were slow to rise the next morning. Brother Theodor was the first to wake, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He looked askance at Avril snuggled up to Rogé, with his hands protectively over her.

“It’s all right, Brother,” Clod informed him between yawns. “Avro is really a girl whose real name’s Avril.”

The Brother looked even more scandalized, but Clod just laughed. He then climbed a tree and took a closer look at the countryside around them. He clambered down and found that in the meantime Rogé had made a small fire where they warmed some of the meat. They ate a meager meal in solemn concentration, knowing the food had to be stretched.

“So now what?” Clod asked, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

“I guess we go south,” Rogé said. “Seems safer that way. What did you see?”

“Nothing behind us. Just a thin wisp of smoke in the distance from the Priory, but nothing anywhere else. To the south more trees and hills, the road weaving through them. No houses in sight.”

“There’s the village of Brunenvu and a good way beyond the town of Arne on the river,” Brother Theodor said. “But there’s not another monastery till we reach the Oisel. There is, however, a nunnery at Haramonde that might put us up for a night or two.”

“A nunnery? I thought men weren’t allowed in there,” Clod said, surprised.

“Not inside, but they have an adjoining guest house for church officers to stay when they travel through the region. I’m a full fledged brother, fleeing a catastrophe and you’re novices assigned to me.”

“That could work,” Rogé mused. “I don’t know how much I can trust the locals not to fleece us.”

“Then it’s decided, no?” Clod asked. “From a monastery to a nunnery, from brotherhood to sisterhood.” He shook his head, but one could tell the thought intrigued him.

“Now, you’re not thinking of something unseemly?” Rogé asked suspiciously.

“Of course not,” Clod replied in an injured tone.

Soon after, they resumed their way south. The road was no worse than before, but it felt as if they were going uphill. Last night they had been buoyed by the elation of their escape, but today they were dejected by the memory of the carnage they had left behind.

Dragging his feet, Rogé recalled the Prior falling back off the wall and the quarrel that went through him. At least he got the archer, even though the other had a better crossbow that shot farther but was slower to draw. Rogé could thank the difference of an eyeblink. “The Prior was a good man,” he said sadly.

“They were all good men,” Brother Theodore snapped back.

“Not Rene,” Avril muttered.

“Why?” Rogé asked, stopping suddenly.

“Somehow the bastard found out I was a girl and kept pestering me for… well you know… a roll in the hay. He threatened to unmask me—”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Clod demanded. “I would’ve cut his dirty prick off!”

“And get us thrown out?” Avril retorted. “No, this way was better.” Then she became somber. “Besides, he’s probably dead by now.” They were all silent for a spell.

Over the next hill they came to a crossroad, marked by a wooden timber cross with a crude effigy of Christ nailed to it. The only color was a bit of red to mark his wounds. There was a bouquet of dried flowers at the base, falling apart. Brother Theodor stopped for a short prayer.

In the next valley they found the village of Brunenvu full of refugees and as expected, the prices were atrocious. They bought bread and yogurt and ate sitting on the low stone wall that surrounded the churchyard. They waited as Brother Theodore went inside.

“Is he coming with us?” Clod asked.

“Sure. Maybe he can get us into the nunnery and maybe not,” Rogé replied. A beggar approached, limping on a wooden leg, in his hand a clay cup with two coins in it that he rattled. “Sorry friend,” Rogé shook his head regretfully. “We have no coin to spare…” He noticed how the village was overrun with beggars. Why? Of course, beggars were the first to flee any trouble because they had no property to hold them. The small square was jammed with farm wagons, loaded with people and their possessions. Typically, the family cow was tied to the back. All these people were looking for safety.

Brother Theodor joined up with them. “The French and Genoese Navy were defeated by the English led by the brother of the King Henry, and the French land army besieging Harfleur was repulsed. People are worried that the English will sweep south to consolidate their victory.”

“Then it’s time for us to move too,” Rogé said and they joined the flow heading south. The road had a bit of gravel and the wagons made easier progress, but still Rogé and companions made better time by walking beside the road. A small girl sitting on the back of a wagon regarded them curiously then she stuck out her tongue at them. Avril couldn’t resist, and stuck out her tongue right back. A hen in a wicker basket complained loudly, setting the family dog barking.

By a bridge, a handful of soldiers overlooked the crowd funneling through, and stopped a few, turning them away. Led by Brother Theodore, clicking his rosary, the companions got through. The Brother was in his early fifties but had no trouble keeping up with the pace. He had a small bundle on his back: a blanket and wrapped in it, The Book. He was talking, mostly to himself. “I joined the monastery to escape the troubles of the world. But what if that trouble comes knocking at the door and burns down the place? Is there no safety anywhere where the cloth and the cross can protect a person?”

“What will you do, Brother?” Rogé asked.

“Don’t know. Reason tells me to find a place in an abbey or such, but I’m tired of being on my knees all the time as they hurt from years of doing so… and besides, one can pray just as well standing up.”

“Will you leave the order then?”

It took over a dozen steps before the Brother answered. “I can be pious inside or outside the Church. Or maybe turn into a hermit and live alone in the woods somewhere…”

It took until mid next morning before they reached the road that led off to the convent. “Sisters of Mercy in Honor of Saint Eusebia. The cousin of Prior Dominus is Mother Superior there. If nothing else, we bring news of the Prior’s death to her,” Brother Theodor said sadly.

“This road is barely used,” Clod said in an undertone to Rogé. “Can’t be much of a nunnery…”

“Brother, why’s this place so secluded?” Rogé asked.

“Because of the original land grant. There was a sizable village there but it got destroyed in the Burgundian wars. There are only a few farms left, the rest got grown over.”

From the next rise they got a glimpse of the land ahead. In the middle of a wide valley, with a scattering of farms by it, the convent consisted of a walled compound, surrounding three larger buildings. “There are maybe forty to fifty sisters there. A priest comes once or twice a month to conduct mass for them in the chapel.”

“And no men?” Clod asked.

“None, aside from the priest and maybe a Bishop passing by.”

It took them two more hours to reach the iron-studded gate. Brother Theodor used the heavy knocker to announce their arrival. It took two soundings before the small spy-widow opened and a female voice demanded their business. Brother Theodor explained, then had to explain again to the Mother Superior when she was summoned to the gate.

“You may use the guest house outside our walls; it’s empty right now. Victuals will be passed to you through the service hole. Please keep the place tidy and cause no damage. God bless you and keep you safe,” Mother Superior said, closing the shuttered window.

“It’s odd,” Clod said. “All I saw of her were her lips and a bit of yellow teeth.”

“The sisters guard their looks from prying eyes,” Brother Theodor explained.

“Who’s prying?” Clod muttered.

Nestled onto the west wall they found the guest house, an adjoining stable and a small yard for draft animals. Inside were three rooms, but only the middle one had a fireplace. There was a long table and a bench, and a pile of straw along the wall facing away from the fireplace.

“It’ll be nice to sleep on something softer than hard ground,” Clod said, putting down his bundle and straightening his back. Rogé sat on the bench and eased his legs. Avril took off her cap and shook out her hair, then combed out the tangles. Brother Theodor looked on uneasily.

About chest high was a small shuttered window in the common wall with the convent. There was a brief knock, and the door opened just long enough for a loaf of bread and some pottage with the smell of meat in it to be reached in. Two pitchers of beer also followed, then the door was straightway shut.

Avril got some bowls off the mantelpiece and served out a dollop to each. They settled around the table and concentrated on eating. It wasn’t long before the food was gone.

“Not bad,” Clod said in surprise, then he tasted the beer. “Not bad at all. What do you suppose they used to flavor it?”

“Who knows? Anise perhaps, certainly coriander and a bit of angelica,” Avril said licking a swipe from the bowl off her finger.

“How do you know? Were you ever a cook?” Clod challenged.

“Not I, my mother. She could make a meal out of boiled shoe leather. She taught me a few things.” A dreamy expression crossed her face whenever she talked of her mother.

Later the communication door opened, this time closely shuttered, and Brother Theodor was summoned for a talk. He sat by the hole and talked quietly with someone on the inside, keeping his voice low and confidential. The rest heard nothing.

“That was Mother Superior asking about her cousin and the general mayhem further up north. I told her most everything and that it was unlikely the disturbance would reach here. She was saddened by the news about her cousin, of course, but much reassured that trouble was not coming her way. She bid us stay as long as we like,” Brother Theodor reported.

“How long do we want to stay?” Clod asked, his face a puzzle.

“Long enough to get our legs back,” Rogé said. “What about you, Brother?”

“As I walked, I had a long time to think on it. Perhaps it’s time to leave the Orders and start something new with my life.”

“Can you do that?” Clod asked. “What about your oath?”

“One can serve God anywhere.” That seemed to close the topic for him and confirm his decision.

Two days later, Rogé got Clod to help him gather firewood in the forest. They returned with handfuls of mushrooms and stacks of wood on their backs. They chopped the wood to length for the fireplace and piled it against the gate for the nuns. Clod objected mildly when Rogé dragged him off for a second load and more vehemently for the third.

“It’s a way of paying back the nuns for their kindness, don’t you think? I find that the food is better than we have any right to expect.” Clod nodded grudgingly.

A farmer delivered a load of hay which Rogé and Clod helped to pitch into the mow above the barn on the inside. Rogé got a closer look at the nuns in their black habits with rosaries hanging from a rope belt, their faces shadowed by the coif and the black veil tight around the head. Most were older, just shuffling along.

Having saved a little hay for themselves to refresh their bedding, it was a delight to sink into the crisp stalks still smelling of summer sun. When a bell rang inside the nunnery, Brother Theodor crossed himself and prayed silently, yet his lips moved. A bell rang again, and he got off his knees.

“Why are they ringing the bell throughout the day so often?” Clod asked.

“As set out in the Book of Hours. Each day is divided into eight segments: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline. Each begins and ends with prayers. All activity stops for these periods of devotion.”

“The same every day?” Clod asked, making a face.

“Yes,” Brother Theodor replied. “There’s great comfort in the sameness. The prayers set you right with God.”

“Seems boring to me,” Clod dismissed disparagingly. The Brother didn’t take the trouble to respond, as he extinguished the one candle on the mantelpiece. They all settled themselves into the fresh hay, Avril curved around Rogé’s back. A cricket chirping outside kept Rogé from falling asleep, wondering how the insects had the energy to keep up their concert after jumping around all day. Winter is coming, sing while you can…

Rogé woke into the darkness of night with Avril shaking him. He was sweaty and hot, and couldn’t get his breath. “Wake up! You’re having a nightmare,” she whispered urgently. He surfaced a bit more and tried to remember what had troubled him. As the memory flooded him, he wished he hadn’t bothered. “What was it?” Avril asked but he just shook his head and tried to settle his breathing. Avril got up, went to the table and brought back the pitcher of beer for him to drink.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, wiping the sweat from his eyes.

“What was it?” she asked again. “You were thrashing around so.”

“I don’t know. It made little sense. I was… drowning in mud… couldn’t move… the mud was nearly at my mouth.”

“Were you ever in danger of drowning?”

“Never.” He still was finding it difficult to settle his breathing. “It was so real… I was seeing myself drown. Clod was there… but I couldn’t help him.” Again he wiped his face. “I don’t understand, I don’t usually remember my dreams…”

“Dreams have a source in life. Something that has happened before.”

“I told you I was never in danger of drowning, not in water and certainly not in mud,” he hissed back, irritated.

“But there was mud at Agincourt and the very real danger of drowning in it,” Avril said, stroking his cheeks.

“True… very true.” It was a relief to find the cause of his nightmare: it eased its terror. If Clod hadn’t held him up after the stone had knocked him out, he would indeed have drowned in mud. Then he wondered why the dream hadn’t told him that directly instead of coming in at the back door. Why the mystery? When the morning sun burst through the window, he still hadn’t solved the puzzle. People got up and with a sigh he let go of it.

Early morning, Brother Theodor went to the neighboring farms looking for leather to fix his shoes that had grown holes in them. Rogé and Avril gathered bushels full of apples and left them at the convent door. When they returned they found Clod at the hole talking to somebody. Guiltily he closed the door, but when pressed he admitted sheepishly that he had been talking with a young novice inside.

“That’s not allowed!” Rogé said accusingly.

“What could I do? It was she who wanted to talk.” Clod shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

“Who’s she?”

“Clothilde. She’s a young girl, maybe sixteen, who refused an old codger her family wanted to marry her off to. So they stuck her in this convent. She’s a prisoner here and hates every minute of it.”

“And she’s pretty no doubt?” Rogé asked sarcastically.

“Yes, from what little I could see of her through the hole. And has a very pleasant voice. But she’s desperate. She doesn’t want to become a nun, she doesn’t want to serve and become dried up and old like them.” There was a strange mixture of pathos and sympathy in Clod’s tone.

“Well you leave it well enough alone. We’re guests here and it’s none of our business.”

“Yes, yes… But one can still feel for her…”

The next day Father Benito, the travelling priest came to hold mass for the nuns. He stayed the night in the guest house and took Father Theodor’s confession. On leaving the next day, the priest blessed them. “May God go with you on your journey.” Brother Theodore accompanied him a good way, not returning until late afternoon.

Rogé and Avril spent the day picking beans and plucking carrots for the nuns. They left two bushels at the convent door. Returning to the guest house they found Clod in the straw pretending to be asleep. The setup smelled fishy to Rogé and he said so. “You’ve been talking with that girl again!”

“What if I have? Her family dumped her in here and turned their backs on her. She’s been here seven months and they haven’t come to visit once. Not even her sister, who was forced to marry the old man Clothilde was supposed to. It breaks my heart to hear her anguish.”

“You’d better not let it break too much,” Rogé warned him.

The next day, Brother Theodor completed his transformation, donning civilian clothes and trimming his hair. He looked totally different. He also assumed a less humble posture and his gait gained more purpose.

“Why Brother, now you look less like a saint and more like a normal person,” Rogé commented.

“That’s not funny.” He frowned. “And henceforth just call me Marcel. The name I had before the Orders.”

It was decided that they would leave the next day. That night Marcel, pretending to be Brother Theodor, thanked Mother Superior for the hospitality and passed over about eight coppers to her in gratitude.

After breakfast they started off, feeling refreshed by their long rest. Clod seemed especially frisky, laughing and skipping along. Maybe he had been into the beer, Rogé surmised and kept a close eye on him.

In a turn of the road they left the sight of the convent and the farms behind them. Woods encroached on their right.

“Hold up a minute. Nature calls,” Clod said and strode for the woods.

“Damn it, we hardly got started,” Rogé muttered. Shortly Clod reappeared, holding onto a girl in peasant dress. Rogé’s mouth dropped and Bro… Marcel took in a hasty breath.

“This is Cloe,” Clod announced, drawing the girl from behind him. She was young and very pretty, with a full mouth, sensitive eyes and a crop of short auburn hair. Rogé was still speechless.

“Close your mouth,” Avril said to Rogé. “I’m Avril, and these are Marcel and Rogé.”

They started walking with Clod and Cloe behind, whispering and giggling alternately.

Marcel was perturbed and didn’t know what to make of the situation. Was it an abduction or a rescue? Rogé had some trouble too, but the further they got from the convent, the more reconciled he became to events. Besides it was too late to take the girl back. But one thought did occur to him. “Are we going toward where her family lives?”

“No, away from it, the saints be thanked.” She did have a very fine voice, Rogé noted.

It took them three days to reach Arne but they had to pay two coppers to take the ferry across the river. The place was of fair size, maybe a hundred and fifty houses, two churches and an attempt at a town wall, only partially completed. There were guards at the gate, but more for decoration, as they challenged nobody except beggars whom they chased off.

The five companions walked through the gate, wondering what waited for them on the inside. They were greeted by a small square hemmed in by houses. Anywhere one looked the streets were crowded with people, doing whatever the day demanded of them. One barely knew where to look and what to attend to, so much was happening at once. On all sides were shouts and conversations; the loud clatter of a fully-loaded horse wagon going by; the bleating of a herd of sheep and goats; the clamor of a trussed up chicken hanging off a farmer’s back, no doubt destined for the market. A woman was sitting at the curb plucking a duck and throwing the feathers under the feet of the passersby; a housewife in a window was talking with her neighbor right over the cat sunning itself on the sill. A pail of dirty water splashed down from the second floor. There was garbage everywhere smelling of rot; there was nowhere clear to step onto but the squashy layer of trash and offal that grew deeper by the day. Cloe gagged and had to pinch her nose shut. Rogé and Clod had never seen the like.

“This way.” Brother… Marcel beckoned and the rest followed obediently. They turned into a side street where the congestion was less. Both sides were lined with shops: a tanner, a cobbler, a baker and a meat shop. The delicious aroma of freshly baked bread lingered in the air, making them think of their hunger. Rogé followed Marcel blindly, but nearly lost him when a beefy man with a stomach hanging over his belt blocked the way with his push cart.

They were looking for an inn they could afford. They passed two inviting places, but there were colored designs set into the windows and a carved entry, obviously beyond their means. Around the next corner they found a more modest place, the shield advertising it as an inn. When they trooped inside, the innkeeper greeted them in a surly tone. They rented a room on the second floor; the space was a little tight for the five of them, but it was clean, and boasted of a small window that provided decent ventilation above the smell of the street. Most importantly, it came with a key so they wouldn’t have to guard their few possessions day and night.

They pooled their remaining money and found they had enough for two weeks’ rent, if they didn’t splurge on food or drinks.

“I guess we’ll have to find work,” Rogé hazarded.

“Doing what?” Clod asked. “Doesn’t look as there’s much need for swine herders.”

“I was thinking of trying one of the trades.”

“You can’t live on an apprentice’s pay.”

“Well what do you suggest?”

“Dunno… We can try the haulers; they’re always in need of some muscle to manhandle their loads.”

“And the pay’s any better?” Rogé asked. Clod just shrugged and made a sour face.

The girls said they would try the laundry; both could do washing and ironing. Or maybe work in a kitchen, peeling and chopping vegetables. Cloe admitted that she was good with the needle.

The only person who hadn’t spoken yet was Marcel. He was rubbing his chin trying to make up his mind. Abruptly he stood up with a curt, “I’ll be back,” and left the room.

Later, Rogé and Clod went out to explore the town and look for opportunities. At first they followed the wall until its end. About a fourth of the circumference still needed to be completed. They turned toward the middle and promptly got lost among the narrow lanes that seemed to have no order. They came to a burned out spot, where three houses were destroyed and their neighbors damaged.

“I guess with houses so close, fire’s a great danger,” Rogé observed as they looked at the rubble, wondering what was lost. Through the gap where the houses had been, Rogé spotted the church spire that gave him a bearing. On the next stretch they came across a renovation. Workers were laying new bricks between the oak frames, plastering over them.

“Excuse me Sir, could you use some help?” Rogé asked the master bricklayer. The man took a quick look to size them up, but in the end just shook his head.

“I already have my brother’s son, my sister’s boy and a couple of cousins. As you can see I’ve too much help already. If they weren’t family I’d have had to let them go long ago. Sorry.”

“Do you know if anybody else is looking for help?” Rogé puffed up his chest to look more robust.

“Sorry again. With the influx of people from the north in such uncertain times, there’re three men for every job.”

Back at the inn they found Marcel sitting on his pack sipping from a bottle of wine.

“Can we afford that?” Clod asked.

“Don’t worry. I’ve solved all our problems,” Marcel said, waving the bottle in the air. “We’ll open a letter shop, to write letters for people, copy proclamations and whatever else needs to be published.”

“How’re we going to do that? I don’t know my ass from a-b-c,” Clod said.

“That’s all right. You can make parchments. That’s not too hard. The girls can mix colors, trim the pages and bind books. I can write and Rogé can copy. There’s only one scribe in town and he’s getting old and careless with his quill. There’s a lot of work left for the five of us.”

“But doesn’t it take money to start a new business?” Clod asked.

Rogé had a sudden thought. “You went and did it, didn’t you? You sold it!”

“Sold what?” Clod asked, looking from Marcel to Rogé and back.

“The Life of Saint Martin, that’s what.”

“Yes I sold it. And got a very good price for it. Much more than I expected for a bastard copy. We’ve enough to start a business and live comfortably if we’re frugal.”

“And you’re willing to share it with us?” Rogé asked.

“You saved my life back at the Priory. I certainly owe you something. The way I see it we’re partners with equal shares.” He passed the bottle around so all could toast their new enterprise.

That night it took a while to arrange themselves for sleeping in the tight floor space. As usual, Avril snuggled up with Rogé and seeing this, Cloe chose Clod, who couldn’t have been any happier. Marcel looked disapproving but said nothing.

In the morning in the back yard water trough, while washing up, Clod was frisky as a young colt. He splashed Rogé playfully, but Rogé was in no mood for it.

“What’s got into you?” Rogé asked irritated, toweling himself off.

“Into me, nothing. But last night Cloe let me pinch her bottom.” Clod’s eyes were sparkling as if he had won at arm wrestling. Rogé looked at him balefully.

“Careful what you do, my friend. Cloe is an overprotected flower, an innocent.”

“I know it. But an accidental feel is just an accidental feel. All innocent.” But his eyes weren’t. Clod dried himself and pulled on his shirt. “The trouble is, I woke four times last night with a stiffy and didn’t know what to do with it. How do you deal with it? I mean you and Avril.”

“I don’t. I just sweat it out. Avril’s mother was a camp follower. God only knows what Avril learned from her. She probably thinks all men are dirty, rutting pigs. I’m determined to prove to her that I’m not—even if it kills me.”

“Very noble of you, I’m sure. But Cloe’s curious. She presses into me, enjoying the closeness.”

“Women are like that, hugging and such, but get near their honey pot and they turn into tigresses protecting their virtue.”

“And what makes you such an expert? I’ve got ten times the experience you have.”

“All I’m saying is be careful, don’t do something you both could regret.”

“Yes, Papa Rogé.” And Clod splashed him again.

It took nearly two weeks to set up the new business. The first task was to rent a small shop on street level, then furniture, tools and supplies. Clean it, brighten the interior with whitewash and organize the operation. The back room was used to store animal skins for parchments, charcoal, lamp soot and indigo to mix into ink, and boxes of ingredients to blend the various colors. The middle room was where most of the work was done. On one side Clod stretched the skins, soaked them in lime juice, scraped them to proper thickness, and dried and pressed them into sheets. The girls trimmed them to size, ruled in the light guidelines and polished the pages as required. They also glued finished pages into blocks and made book covers with boiled leather.

Nearest the window Marcel outlined the letters then Rogé filled them in with solid black. After a short time Rogé was left to copy some of the text that Marcel had written with chalk on a slate pad, and then do all the inking. It was careful if tedious work, especially as Rogé didn’t understand the script.

In the front room that opened to the street, Marcel met the customers and sold their services. Often it was just a letter which he wrote himself to their dictation, folded as required and sealed with the wax imprint of the shop. He also sold paper, ink and quills. The most popular items were accounting ledgers that the bigger businesses and shops used in town.

Of course the first weeks were very quiet with only a few customers. The freshly painted panel that hung above the door showed a roll of parchment crossed by the familiar quill, a sign hardly to be misunderstood. During that time Marcel wrote six pieces of business correspondence to neighboring towns, several private letters full of family gossip and a legal petition addressed to the Town Council, having to do with unfair taxation. A few came to buy writing supplies, quite capable of writing their own letters.

In time some of the guilds made use of the shop’s services, dictating long missives to brother guilds in the free cities. But business really picked up when the Town Council ordered copies of ordinances to be posted throughout the city. Soon they all had enough to keep busy.

Even Clod didn’t mind the work, preparing various skins and smiling at the girls working across from him. In spite of their very different backgrounds, the girls got along well. It was rather strange as Avril had seen too much and Cloe too little—yet they often whispered and giggled together about God only knows what.

For his part, Rogé found his work needed painstaking attention to detail and careful execution. However, in a short time he was able to turn out scripts at a reasonable speed. And since the scripts were mostly in French, after a while he was able to sound out the words which, with a little practice, considerably improved his reading. With the parchment spread on his tilted table, he sketched in the letter on the guide lines and filled it out with black. With a soft cloth he blotted the finished work and sprinkled aromatic fine powder over the sheet. Marcel looked it over, but would reject it if it wasn’t to his satisfaction.

Sometimes Marcel would ornament the margins, or more often design an attractive capital letter that started the script. On rare occasions he would even apply some color. For deluxe documents, a small dab of gold flake would be added. Of course it all depended on the price the customer was willing to pay.

Most requests were routine and terse, to conduct some business perhaps, but a few proved to be quite odd. For instance a jilted wife had copies printed that a certain lady on the Rue Forelle should stop seducing her husband. Ten copies, with names, to be posted on bulletin boards across the town. The matter was discussed widely in the taverns and was the source of much amusement, especially when the lady in question posted signs in return, cataloguing the shortcomings of the wife.

Marcel also pulled together twelve prayers and published them in a small book form. Same with a collection of poetry. Both sold well among the town’s ladies.

In time the work piled up, with back orders for political pamphlets, advertisements of products and services and of course letters of intent and information. Wedding bans and announcements became a staple. With money coming in hand over fist, they calculated that, at this rate, the original investment would be repaid within two short years.

It had to be admitted that this success was due mostly to Marcel’s efforts in promoting the shop at every opportunity and to the fine compositions he was capable of. Indeed, it became a matter of prestige among the more affluent to have things penned by him.

In three months the business was doing so well that Clod was thinking of marrying Cloe. There was no question that the girl was in love with him and he with her, proof of which was that he never touched her improperly—except for a few accidental touches now and then.

“It’s a big step, my friend,” Rogé said solemnly. “You have to be sure.”

“I am sure. Cloe’s pretty, smart, clever with her hands and fun to be with. What else could a man ask for?” He had on a smile that could swallow the moon.

“I guess nothing.” His friend’s enthusiasm set Rogé to thinking about Avril and himself. They were making good money and there was no reason to doubt that it wouldn’t continue. There was enough to support a wife and in due time a small household. He had been alone most his life; was he ready for such a responsibility? And what about Avril? What did she think and want? What did she see in her future? He knew that Avril loved her mother and missed her terribly, but he didn’t see how that could help him. She trusted him, sure, but only because he had kept his hands off her. When he couldn’t solve the puzzle, the failure left him uncertain and confused.

A couple of days later, Clod went to the local priest but ran into unexpected trouble. He and Cloe had no records, no families to refer back to, no history with the local Church or town whatsoever. Not even friends to vouch for them.

“She could be a runaway,” Father Caracalla pointed out, coming uncomfortably close to the truth. “You could be a rascal marrying just to seduce her then cast her aside.”

“No Father, we’re in love and want to make things proper.”

“Yes, of course you do. But I, as the priest of this congregation, need character references, something or someone to stand up for the two of you. You say you are both orphans, have no friends in town, in fact no one who knows you. How am I to marry you if I know nothing of you? Maybe wait a couple of years, then try again.” But waiting was the last thing that Clod wanted to do, fearing that by then Cloe might change her mind or worse, find someone more suitable.

With his friend embarking on a new path, Rogé was inspired to clarify his own future. However, when he talked with Avril about settling down and marrying, he got a mixed response.

“To stay here and make paper forever? I know it’s peaceful and comfortable… but oh so boring. I like danger. The excitement and the not knowing what can happen next… the blood pounding and every fiber of my body alive…”

“If you’re talking about being part of a military campaign, you and I both know it can be just as boring and more often than not, very, very miserable.”

“True. And I’ve done it often enough; still it’s what I know best. But think of it, the mind is so alive and searching to overcome obstacles.” She looked around the shop at the stacks of sheets, the smell of animal skins curing, the taste of ink and color in her mouth. “Here, in the safety of the shop, I feel… I feel myself drying up, shrinking down to nothing.” At her words, Rogé’s face dropped. “Don’t be hurt. I like you. I really, really like you. You’re my father, brother, sister and friend rolled into one. I trust you with my whole heart… with my life, knowing you’d fight for me, as I would for you. To death even.” She swallowed hard past a suddenly swollen throat. But Rogé was only conscious of what he hadn’t heard, the magic words I love you and want to spend my life with you. Perhaps he had no right to expect it: she had been through so much that soured her life. He was saddened; he was ready to settle down, why wasn’t she?

Rogé took his disappointment to the nearest tavern and ordered a whole pitcher of ale just for himself, with every intention of drowning his sorrows, as the saying went.

Though it was only early afternoon, the tap room was more than half full of craftsmen, shop keepers, merchants, traders, drivers and even a few rivermen off the barges, all enjoying their drinks and the talk that went with it.

At the nearest table by Rogé, a candle maker was holding forth loudly about politics. “The Burgundians have crawled into bed with the English, both wanting a piece of France. I wonder though, who’s the whore in this exchange? Who pays what to whom?” He took a deep draught of his ale, before continuing. “What bothers me most is that Arne is caught in a vise: to the north the English are sharpening their arrows, to the east the Burgundians are honing their swords. And somewhere near are the French, skulking about, afraid to commit to a battle. We, the town, are right in their path. And all around us free companies of mercenaries are roving about, pillaging without shame. German, Swiss and Italians hiring themselves out but they have no loyalty to any man. What’s to stop them from coming at us? And we have only half a wall.” His companion just nodded, probably used to just listening. “I don’t know what’s wrong with us French. We have the best army, the best weapons, best of everything, yet those uncouth English yeomen get the best of us. How do you figure? Look at the defeat our navy suffered at Halfleur this summer, not to mention at Agincourt last year when half the nobility of France bled to death in ignoble defeat. At the most crucial time of testing, they turned their backs and fled—”

Rogé, who had already drunk three ales, suddenly had had enough. “Were you there? Did you face the English and Welsh arrows? I was… so I know what I’m talking about. We lost not because we were cowards or fought without valor… we lost because of a failure of leadership. The Grand Constable threw the victory away… he let us drown in mud. That’s what really happened!” He was much too loud and the whole room turned to listen.

But no one took him on, choosing instead to talk about the coming harvest, the prices of things, and the most recent gossip in town. Come evening, Rogé had difficulty finding his way home. It seemed like he had walked the whole town twice before he finally found the right door. Avril was already asleep, but when he settled in beside her, she turned away from his breath reeking of ale.

Over the next days, Clod could not settle with Father Caracalla. He tried the other church in town, but got no further there either. It seemed that without a verifiable history no one wanted to marry them. It was suggested that they should return to the orphanage they came from and get married through their sponsorship.

“The hell with them all! We’re married because I say we are,” Clod finally decided.

“But not in the eyes of Heaven,” Cloe objected.

“Then how are we to marry?” Clod despaired.

“Maybe we can ask Marcel… I mean Brother Theodor, he’s… was a monk, that’s almost as good as a priest,” Rogé suggested.

“Good idea.” Clod grasped at any straw.

But Marcel didn’t want to do that. “I gave all that up. Besides I don’t have the authority.”

“We don’t need a real ceremony, just something to let Heaven know that we’re promised to each other.”

“I suppose I could ask for a blessing for your good intentions… but the rest is up to Heaven.”

“Good enough,” Clod rejoiced.

Eager to conclude the ceremony and get to the consummation part, Clod got things ready in a hurry. He borrowed a brass cross from the landlord, brought two candles to make it more festive, and organized a colorful cloth to cover the table. The exchange of vows was simple but heartfelt and the blessing to the point. Then a kiss and they were at least halfway married.

To celebrate they all had a meal at a better inn, paid for by Clod. Everyone toasted the new couple then Clod and Cloe were off to have some privacy. Marcel, Rogé and Avril walked the town’s ring road and had some ale at the corner tavern. It was late when they got back to their room and found the couple sleeping, Clod snoring louder than ever.

The next morning Rogé woke to giggles, recognizing Cloe’s voice and Clod’s whispering. From the sounds, Rogé surmised that the night went well for the newlyweds. He should have been happy for his friend, but was downcast that Avril and he couldn’t come to terms. He felt ill used by fate, thinking that he could not remember ever being truly happy. Not once.

Rogé had a silent breakfast, sunk into himself, ignoring the gaiety shared by the others. Surprisingly even Marcel seemed to take a part in it. Avril tried to cajole him out of his somber mood, without success.

The whole day was like that. Rogé couldn’t concentrate on the work and twice he had to discard an almost completed page.

“What’s wrong with you?” Marcel asked when he spotted the errors. “We can’t afford to waste time and parchment.” But he made Rogé do it over again. “The clients don’t want errors for the money they pay. And think of our reputation… we need to be perfect.” Chastised, Rogé tried harder and produced clean copies.

That night Marcel counted out the content of the money box, totaling a respectable sum. One pile he set aside for expenses, the rest he divided among the five of them. Clod and Cloe knew what they wanted, a place of their own, and by the next day they had it, just around the corner by the tin smith. The rest of the money they spent feathering their new nest, making it comfortable.

Rogé counted his share, not knowing what to start with it. Avril brought herself some clothes and a decent pair of shoes—nothing extravagant, something well made and practical. Rogé brought himself a moss-green woolen tunic… but found no joy in it. He threw himself into work, becoming more fastidious and precise in his penmanship. As his quill moved over the page, his lips followed along, letter by letter. To his surprise he found himself understanding more and more of what he was writing. There even came a time when he picked up a book and started reading it. Mumbling, finger painstakingly following the script, he got through the first page, then the second, but had to stop midway through the third, his head aching from the prolonged concentration… but he got the gist of it. After resting he tried again, finding it easier. Still it took weeks before he could read with any fluency. What surprised him was all the words he didn’t know and had to ask Marcel what they meant.

Rogé was much encouraged by his progress… without really intending to he had stumbled onto the world of books. It fascinated him how ideas were fixed onto the page and communicated. Whenever he could, he read whatever came within reach.

“Don’t read that,” Marcel said, taking away the book Rogé was reading.

“Why not?” Rogé asked.

“Because it’s not the truth,” Marcel said sternly. “Just because it’s written, doesn’t make it true. There are a lot of perversions out there. There are as many bad as good books on the market, perhaps even more.”

“Why would someone put in all that effort and expense to write a false book?”

“There are a lot of reasons. Most are out of ignorance, but some to intentionally mislead people.”

“But the book I was reading was well formulated and had a sense of logic—”

“Those are the worst. They impress and sometimes the language is quite beautiful. But beware, there’re many painted whores to entice the unwary. They look good but inside they’re rotten or even evil.”

After such dire warnings, Rogé read more carefully, concerned not only with the words but with the ideas they communicated. In time he was able to tease apart not only what was said, but what was implied. Being more discerning gave him a new sense of mastery. Paradoxically, the more he thought he learned, the less sure he was of what he knew. Books were… doorways to questions… rarely ever to answers, at least not to a whole answer.

“Why do we read then?” Rogé asked Marcel. “If all we do is confuse ourselves? One writer contradicts what someone else has written.”

“True, such is often the case. But it’s up to the reader to sift through and separate the truth from error. Some claim the truth, but do they deliver it?”

“The Church makes the claim. The Pope is infallible, every word out of his mouth is nothing but the truth. Yet people rail against it… in word and deed…”

“You will find… that the Church… being the guardian of the ultimate truth, the Word of God, has at times lost a part of it. Or taken one part and magnified it above the others…” Marcel fell silent, obviously conflicted over what he believed and what he had learned. Twenty-two years a monk leaves a mark on a man.

The upshot of all this newfound activity was that over time, Rogé’s mood improved. They were making good money, even if the countryside around them was still in turmoil. Roving bands of men harassed the villages and outlying farms, taking whatever wasn’t nailed down. Then news came that just upriver, Quadmoil Manor was ransacked, burned to the ground and half of its occupants murdered. The nearness of this outrage was horrible news to the town. Overnight panic set in as people were sure that they would be next. The Council met in emergency session and new proclamations followed.

Rogé was penning a new pamphlet from the Council warning residents to be careful as it was rumored that foreign spies had wormed themselves into the town’s confidence. Anybody who wasn’t locally born was to be watched and suspected. The Town Watch was put on full alert and men were being hired to fill out the ranks.

It didn’t take long before Rogé felt its effects in the many suspicious glances he encountered on the street. Arne was too small to get lost in: most everybody knew everybody else going back generations. Subsequently, anyone not born in the town stood out.

Things got quickly worse when a prosperous farm was attacked, and high walls notwithstanding, was robbed then burned and those who had not hidden were butchered. That was within sight of the town walls, not three miles away. Those who could, packed their possessions and headed for safety somewhere south. The rest buried their valuables, and filled with anxiety, tried to weather the coming storm.

One evening Rogé was in The Feathered Swan, the tavern he often frequented after work. He sat in the darkest corner, waiting for his ale, but the serving wench was dragging her feet and waited on him sourly. Rogé felt like a stranger among strangers, and wedged himself into the corner a little tighter. The tavern filled quickly as people sought to lessen their fears with pints of ale. And they talked, loudly, trying to balance between fear and hope.

“Have you noticed? There’s not one beggar left in town. Not one at the town gates, not in the church yard. Nobody’s asking for alms,” the tailor, a thin, haggard man, said. “When was the last time you saw that? I tell you, it’s when the pestilence was among us.”

“Rats leaving a doomed ship,” the butcher added. “My brother’s a sailor and he says watch out when the vermin are deserting. They have a special sense of impending danger.”

“Nonsense. The wretches have nothing to hold them here,” a cloth merchant said. “If it wasn’t for my shop I’d be long gone by now, too.”

“And all your treasures with you,” the brewer muttered into his ale, but was overheard.

“What treasures?” the merchant protested: in times like these it was not good to be known as rich.

“Most of the trouble’s caused by mercenaries and free companies. There’s no real war on, though it feels like it, and no one pays them hire… so they pick over the countryside for what they want. Arne is too big a town for them to swallow,” the baker said, trying to shout down the rest.

“Keep saying that until they are hammering down your door, wanting your money, wife and daughter. Where’ll you be then? Hiding in the outhouse?” the butcher demanded, his face red from ale. “We should hire more Watch, that’s what we should do…”

It soon came to blows and the barkeep had to intervene, dragging each by an ear and throwing the baker and the butcher out onto the street.

That same evening Clod and Cloe came to stay at the print shop for as long as the crisis lasted.

“I don’t know what to be more afraid of, the mercenaries or the town folk. Do you know, the hat maker spat after me on the street? Just a week ago the bastard couldn’t do enough for me when I bought my new hat from him. And they refused to serve me at the Raging Bull, after all the money I’ve spent there.”

“It’ll pass,” Marcel said. “Right now everyone’s so nervous about armed men taking advantage that the lords of the land are looking north and east, not guarding their own nests.”

“You don’t think then that we should maybe pack ourselves up and look for somewhere else to continue?” Clod asked, pulling nervously at his cheek.

“And leave the shop and a thriving business? Just how easy do you think it is to start up something successful? If you leave, you leave with only what you have in your pocket—so I’m not budging an inch,” Marcel said.

“And neither am I,” Rogé declared. “We’ve got too much invested here. For better or worse, we’re stuck.”

“Isn’t anybody going to ask me what I want?” Avril suddenly demanded, surprising them.

“Well what do you want?” Clod fired back.

“I’m not necessarily decided for staying, but Rogé’s right, we’ve got to get our money out too. Which means we have no choice but to stay.” As it turned out, those were the last words on the subject.

Given how events were unfolding, it wasn’t much of a surprise when next morning Rogé worked on a placard for the Town Council announcing a call up of the Militia. “All able bodied men are required to turn out forthwith at Planche’s Field, with weapons and equipment, in defense of the town…”

“That’s it!” Rogé called to Clod. “We’ll join the militia. Me with the crossbow, you with the halberd. They can’t accuse us of being spies if we stand in their ranks, now can they?”

“They can and will,” Clod muttered, but aloud he just said, “But I suppose it would be to our credit…”

After finishing the posters, Rogé got his crossbow out and checked it over. He oiled the piece and put it back into its waterproof sack. Clod joined him, with a butcher knife in his belt, a 10 foot poleaxe and an odd looking helmet on his head. Seeing him, Rogé burst into laughter. “That’s not a helmet, that’s a chamber pot!” Rogé grew weak from laughing so hard.

“It is not! I paid eight sous at the armorer.”

“Well, he cheated you then.”

Planche’s Field was full of men dressed in whatever military garb they possessed and wielding weapons touched by rust and neglect. The town grinder was busy trying to put an edge onto the implements.

The butcher of the night before had turned into a Sergeant-at-arms, with steel pauldrons over his shoulders and plate armor on his chest. He took one look at Clod and made a face. He showed more interest in Rogé’s crossbow. “A fine weapon. Can you use it?”

“Well enough,” Rogé said, lifting it into firing position, sighting along the stock.

“Good, we need some expertise. All we have so far are some perennial drunks and a bunch of rowdy apprentices. Heaven help us if the mercenaries really come at us. Take the left flank with the bowmen.”

Rogé joined the group and for a time, they eyed each other, guessing at each other’s proficiency. Another archer came over and examined Rogé’s bow.

“Have you fought anywhere?” the bearded archer asked.

“At Agincourt,” Rogé said quietly, remembering sadly all the companions lost in the battle.

“Really? I fought at Harfleur. The English had us trapped for most of the summer. Food ran short. In the end we ate horses and when they were gone, we ate dogs and cats. Then rats.” He made a face and spat in distaste to the side. “My name is Arnaud. I’m a master stonemason in town.”

“Rogé. Scribe.” They shook hands.

In a field they all took turns firing at bales of hay at a distance. Rogé hit four out of four and so did Arnaud.

“This is nothing. At Harfleur a decent crossbowman could hit a fly at forty paces.”

“I was happy if I could hit a fat Englishman at any distance,” Rogé quipped, drawing forth a smile from the other. The rest of the archers were, at best, mediocre. The head-archer, a local named Percival, swore himself hoarse at each shot that missed.

“Hold the goddamn bow firmly! It’s not your wife’s arse you’re squeezing there.”

On the other side of the field Clod wasn’t doing much better. He sweated as a mix of pikemen tried to switch front from one side to the other. People got into a tangle, unable to turn in unison, crossing shafts, knocking them out of each other’s hands.

“No! No!” the Sergeant screamed into the confusion. “Lift your shaft first… then turn… and then level your weapon against the enemy.”

It didn’t help that it was a hot afternoon and soon people stank under their boiled leather vests and mail. When given the chance they rushed the well trying to get a drink of water.

When at long last they were dismissed, they dragged themselves tiredly back into town, looking like rabble rather than a capable military force. But that was not what the Lieutenant reported back to the Council. “218 capable men all told. 27 mounted and 42 archers. There are about 35 more too old to be of much use.”

“Any veterans?” the Mayor asked.

“A few, Your Honor, who fought against the English and the Germans in years past.”

“Seek them out. Give them commands. We need people with experience.”

Thus at the next practice Rogé was given eight archers to command. Arnaud, another ten. They set up a shooting range and practiced, Rogé giving advice to men who had at the most fired a quarrel at a squirrel or a rabbit… and more than likely missed.

In the meantime Marcel was busy in the shop, penning and publishing ordinances from the Council. Most had to do with the crisis situation in which the town found itself. It tried to prepare its defenses. New fire regulations were enacted and made known: every household was required to have containers filled with water ready to fight fires. Ditches were dug and the incomplete wall was to be finished temporarily with a wooded palisade. Firewood, hay and fodder for the animals were to be stockpiled… and so on.

The mood at the Feathered Swan was mixed. Some found the preparation and military display reassuring, but the more knowledgeable found them inadequate.

“I wish to hell the Crown would settle with the English so we can attend to these marauders instead,” Silas the tanner complained.

“When was the last time that the Royal Court in Paris did anything useful? The King’s mad and those around him are interested mostly in enriching themselves by dipping into the Royal Treasury.”

Rogé wasn’t interested in getting involved in a political discussion. He and Clod were drinking their ale, trying to ease the strain of military exercises that had taken most of the day.

“Feathered Swan… what an odd name…” Clod stared into his mug, trying to decide if he should order another.

“The way I hear, it was supposed to be the Peacock, but the sign painter screwed up so it was easier to change the name than pay for a new plaque.” Rogé shrugged.

“You should see the sign at the Raging Bull. It breathes fire and has a full erection to boast of. I think that’s why the apprentices like it.” Clod signaled to the barmaid who refreshed his mug. “The ale’s good here, I grant you that.” He tipped the mug back and took a long pull.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the door and it soon got around that a village south of town had been pillaged. This was the first news of something happening to the south. Suddenly it felt as if the town was surrounded by hostile forces.

“I tell you once they finish with the easy pickings they’ll come after us,” the town crier declared in his official loud tone.

“Not unless they unite,” Rogé said, trying to calm things down. “The marauding troops distrust each other, and their leaders don’t get along.”

“They don’t have to like each other. All they need is to think of the loot that’s here,” the chief clerk of the richest merchant in town said. His master was of course long gone to safety.

“Let them come!” Clod said slamming the mug down on the table. He’d had one too many. “I got ten foot of pike to greet someone with.” A few of the younger ones cheered; after a week of practice they thought of themselves as soldiers.

Next morning their neighbor, the cloth merchant, packed his family and a few of his possessions in an ox drawn wagon and got ready to leave.

“But what about your shop?” the candle maker on the other side of him asked, aghast.

“What use is it to me if I’m dead?” The cloth merchant then urged the driver to move on. And he wasn’t the only one. At least six families left that day, among them the Mayor and one of the Councilors.

The Council issued new edicts that henceforth all grain and flour were to be rationed in case of a siege.

“A siege? Are they crazy?” Clod muttered. “This rat’s nest can’t stand up to a determined attack.”

“So then you want to leave?” Rogé asked, looking at Avril to see how she was reacting.

“No!” she said. “By now, the open road is more dangerous than staying here.”

She was proven right. Mid-afternoon a runner arrived saying that a caravan had been ambushed at the ferry crossing and no one was left alive. From then on the Watch and the Militia practiced with more determination.

That evening the Town Watch knocked at the door wanting to check if they had the required water reserves. Marcel showed them three barrels and five buckets full of water.

“See if you can fill something more,” the inspector said on leaving.

Next morning, Avril returned with only one loaf of bread. “They refused to sell me more.”

Clod sent Cloe. “After all we’re a different family.” She returned with a loaf but complained, “It cost me twice as much as yesterday and it’s light.”

“It’s the new regulation,” Marcel said, having penned the edit two days before.

“We’d better see if we can buy some supplies before the prices go through the roof,” Rogé said, reaching for his purse tucked into his belt. They put together a sum and sent out Clod to see what he could scrounge. He came back with links of sausages, a side of bacon and some rye.

“The damned dogs followed me all the way home,” Clod complained. “You won’t believe the prices they’re asking.” He gave the provisions to Cloe who stored them in the larder.

“It’ll be twice as much by tomorrow,” Marcel said. “I went through the famine in 1399 and it was the same. Some of the rich families today got their start back then, gouging their neighbors. That’s why the Fourniers are still known as “spongers,” of course, behind their backs.”

The Militia practiced with more focus and started to show some cohesion as a force. The archers had certainly improved, hitting their targets more often than not.

“It’s not important to hit a particular target,” Rogé instructed. “But be sure to strike into a mass. Let the bolt worry about what it finds, you just get it there.”

Arnaud spoke from a different script. “The town promises to pay a bounty if you bring down a mounted man, half that for a foot soldier.”

“How will they know? I mean who keeps track?” an archer with a mouthful of missing teeth asked.

“By counting your arrows sticking into the dead after the battle, you dolt. So make sure to have the fletcher mark your arrows or bolts with your sign.”

Rogé got himself three quiverfuls, each bolt circled red, black and red.

At home Avril and Cloe were wrapping bandages. “I can’t remember how many times I’ve done this before,” Avril said. “My mother taught me when I was six years old.”

“It’s the first time for me,” Cloe said in a small voice and she shuddered, thinking of blood and wounds.

“Don’t be afraid my dear,” Clod rushed to reassure her. “Me and Rogé have been through many hair-raising episodes and we’re still alive.” He was sharpening a battle axe he got from the town’s armory. Rogé restrung his crossbow with whipcord. He also had spare cord made of hemp and sinew. He oiled the bow, buffed it to a shine, and wiped the hinged cocking lever that made it possible to draw back the bow. He practiced drawing and setting the quarrel; ready, he lifted and sighted along the shaft at an imaginary enemy. More than once Avril squealed though his motions didn’t even come close to her.

That night Avril was restless, turning over frequently.

“What’s the matter with you?” Rogé demanded after she woke him the second time.

“Nothing’s the matter with me.”

“I know. You’re getting excited. Danger seems to stimulate you… I’ve noticed that over the past days.”

“It’s the danger of what could happen… the unpredictability, it makes one feel alive…” she tried to explain. Her eyes were wide, sparkling with excitement in the pale moonlight that reached in through the small window. Rogé thought that perhaps he could stimulate her excitement into full arousal. After all they had been close together for over a year! It took all his willpower to stop himself, but then he had an erection that stayed with him half the night.

On Sunday, Father Caracalla prayed long for the safety of the town. On the side altar, many candles had been lit to guarantee the protection of the saints. The good news was that the palisade had been completed and the town was now protected on all sides. In general, people drew great comfort from that achievement.

Outside on the main square, across from Christ hanging on the stone cross, a man was stooped over in the pillory, his neck and hands held by the hinged cross piece. The sign above him declared his sin and branded him a spy. A crowd railed at him and threw vegetables and even stones at him.

“Isn’t that Denis the drover, who drives our cattle to the market?” a man near Rogé asked.

“He’s no spy! Why is he in there?” another asked.

“He might be. The point is the Council wants to warn others who might be spies. So they picked on poor Denis to be the scapegoat,” said the clerk, who worked in the Magistrate’s office: he would know.

“By all the saints and all that’s holy,” Clod muttered. “That’s bloody unfair.”

“Men do stupid things when they’re afraid,” Marcel commented, with too much acceptance: it seemed nothing about the stupidity of men surprised him anymore.

Someone threw a stone, drawing blood from poor Denis’ forehead.

Good thing the wall was finished, as midday next Tuesday a group of about forty riders approached the town. As the church bells gave warning, the Town Watch and the Militia rushed onto the battlements. Rogé stood near the center above the gate, his crossbow already drawn and a bolt set. The riders arrived, forty-two well-armed men in suits of plate armor. The leader urged his horse forward and in a loud voice demanded that the town yield itself. His voice had a heavy Italian accent; no doubt the rest were also his countrymen.

“You better open your gate if you know what’s good for you! We’ve cracked harder nuts than you…” and he brayed at his imagined wit like a donkey in heat.

“The gates will stay closed!” The last remaining Councilor, Renaud answered. “You’ll find nothing here but death.” Brave words for a politician.

“Don’t waste my time! My men will bust down your gate, set your houses on fire, turn you inside out and oh yeah… rape your women. Have I left something out?” he asked his second. The horse skipped nervously under him.

Up on the wall the Head-Archer Percival spoke calmly. “Thirty sous to the man who hits the bastard.”

Instantly Rogé raised his weapon, shot and buried the bolt into the chest of the horse between chinks of its barding. The horse screamed once in pain and toppled to the side, pinning its rider beneath it.

“In the name of God… I said the man, not the horse!”

“The man’s in full German plate, where am I supposed to hit him?” Rogé drew a bolt with the armor piercing head. He shot but the bolt slid off the plate, only scratching it. A volley of arrows struck all around the fallen man, but none penetrated the armor plate. Several of the riders dismounted and tried to free their pinned leader. When one lifted an arm, Rogé fired, the bolt penetrating the light mail in the armpit. The man yelped and clutched at the bolt, but had no strength to pull it out; he collapsed and thrashed around a while.

Two more men rushed to help their captain. Rogé reloaded and fired a bolt through the eye slot of the Italian-designed bascinet that allowed a better view but an entry for a well-aimed missile. Another arrow found a third through the crotch where the mail was also light. He also went down, rolling on the ground and screaming, clutching himself. Behind a wall of shields others came and dragged their fallen comrades to safety away from bowshot. The only thing left was the dead horse in front of the gate. Seeing the enemy retreat, the town people rejoiced, breaking into cheers.

At a safe distance the troop collected and milled about a while before retreating up the road.

“Rogé!” Percival called out. “You’ve earned the thirty sous. Go to the Treasurer, he’ll pay you.”

“Umnn… the Treasurer’s gone. He was among the first to leave,” someone said.

“Well then … go to whoever has the key to the money vault.”

But it turned out that the vault was nearly empty. The Treasurer had taken most of the money with him… for safekeeping, it was said. So any reward would have to wait until the Treasurer and the town’s money was returned.

“A sweet deal,” Clod said when he heard about it. “If the town goes under, the Mayor and the Treasurer will find the money safe… in their pockets.”

Avril gave Rogé, the returning hero, a kiss and a passionate squeeze that got Rogé hard again.

In the middle of the night the riders returned, launching blazing firepots whipped from long poles and aimed at the houses inside the wall. Fortunately most of the houses were covered by tile or slate, and the fires were quickly put out.

Next the riders tried to set fire to the palisade, but there were plenty of water stockpiles to douse the flames. Four times they came and four times they had to leave unsatisfied.

The next day was quiet until the afternoon, when the riders launched two burning wagons filled with combustibles against the gate. Pitch soaked the wagons burned, but the gate was continuously wetted and kept from burning through. The riders left again, the leader shaking his fist toward the defenders. They hadn’t once come close enough for a bow shot. Throughout the rest of the day dark columns of smoke marked the track of the marauders venting their fury on exposed estates.

A constant watch was kept in the church tower. People were on edge, expecting any moment for something dire to fall upon them. No real work was done. The market stayed closed as the farmers and landowners of the district stayed away; what was there to sell anyway? People were hoarding what little they had left. The cows were kept in stalls, not driven to pasture; their lowing was heard all over town as the pent up beasts complained.

Also in the print shop the work had ceased. With the town without funds they had lost their best customer. Only Marcel labored over a manuscript. Rogé, for something to do, sharpened the tips of his bolts and made a few more. Clod and Cloe spent this time in the back room exploring each others’ taste for pleasure. Of them all, Avril seemed the happiest, singing as she baked some rye bread flavored with bacon bits and sautéed onions. She was humming marching songs, no doubt remembering some past campaign. The happier she seemed, the worse Rogé felt. He loved the girl, and she loved him back—but only as a brother. Clod was happy, why wouldn’t he be? Tired of his stifled mood, he went to the Feathered Swan after supper. The place was full; a few people waved at him, remembering how he had shot at the brigands at the gate. He settled down on the bench against the wall and drank morosely. He didn’t start looking around until he had finished his second drink. People were arguing about the state of the town.

“I tell you we’re as good as under siege. We daren’t go out the gates or have people come to us. No wares go out, no food comes in. How long can we hold out? They’re already rationing the hay for the animals. I was through this at Harfleur, and by God it wasn’t pleasant. We’ll soon be chewing on boot leather!” Rogé recognized Arnaud’s voice.

“What I can’t understand is, where is d’Villiers? The Viscount has administrative authority over the town, why doesn’t he do something?” the Guild Master of the town’s weavers complained.

“Why should he? He sits secure in his chateau twenty miles away, dallying with his mistress under the jaundiced eyes of his wife. He has more to fear from her than from the brigands,” the gaol’s turnkey fired back.

“But he’s responsible to the Crown for us. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“The Crown? Who’s the Crown? Certainly not Charles the VI. He thinks he’s made of glass and is afraid of breaking if someone coughs near him.”

“That’s not true. That’s only a malicious rumor spread by enemies of the Crown—”

“There’s no arguing that the King’s mad. The Mad King, who would have thought it? He was called The Beloved until he went crazy…”

“Mad or not mad doesn’t help us. We need something now!” the town crier said in his stentorian voice, unable to speak in normal tones. Did he also shout like that at home?

“We have…” an old man spoke up tentatively but subsided. He was an old veteran, with a wooden right leg. He lived by making brooms and nightly drinking the proceeds away.

“What do we have, old timer?” the cantor asked kindly.

“We have… a secret weapon…” the man stammered: he rarely spoke as nobody listened to a no-account drunkard.

“What weapon?” The cantor was determined to get a sane word out of him.

“Back in… fifty years ago it must have been… after losing to the English at Poitiers… I was just a boy back then…”

“Fifty years ago? Bah! The man can’t remember what day it is today. Go ahead and ask him, see if he knows!”

“I have an uncle like that. He can’t remember what happened this morning, but recalls everything that happened in the past. Let him speak,” the ale inspector said in the man’s defense.

“The defeated army of the Duke of Orleans passed through here and left… an artillery piece here, a thing that throws stones… after the wheels fell off the cart because of the weight. They stashed it someplace… here in town.”

“What artillery? There’s no artillery in town.”

“There might be,” the town clerk spoke up. “After all, our coat of arms shows a trebuchet over the town walls.”

“I thought that was a well sweep.”

“No, it’s a trebuchet, it’s in the annals. I remember reading something about it. Back in ‘56 or so. The Blanchard Family ran the town back then, through some hard years that followed.”

“If that’s true, where would they have put the thing? It must be quite large,” the cantor wanted to know, glad of a new topic.

“Only the threshing barn is big enough to hold anything that large…”

“Hey, Hugo! You been to the barn. Did you see a trebuchet there or something?” the basket weaver demanded, wiping ale from his lips.

“A trebuchet that throws stone balls? No, there’s none of that in there,” Hugo, a corpulent man answered from across the room.

“It’d be taken apart… in pieces…” the old veteran Julian said, his eyes watery with age.

“There could be something to it. There are some timbers in the loft…” Hugo tried to remember.

By now everybody in the taproom was part of the conversation. A trebuchet would be just the thing. Plate armor could withstand an arrow or a quarrel but not a hundred pound stone.

“Hugo, you check first thing tomorrow. I’ll let the Council know,” the town clerk declared self-importantly.

“The Council? That I not laugh. We’ve only one Councilor left, the rest hightailed it out of here at the first sign of trouble,” somebody in the back row said.

“Nonetheless the Council will decide,” the clerk insisted.

Early next day it was all over town that there was a mighty secret weapon stored in the barn loft; all that was needed was to reassemble the timbers.

By noon, the timbers had been laid out in the main square, and the whole town came to inspect them. There were many pieces, but no drawing to show how they fit together. The Council assigned the town’s six carpenters, four wheelwrights and the coopers to see what they could do with the pieces. With some apprentices from all the trades, the pieces were arranged and rearranged to try to solve where each piece belonged.

By evening it became clear that vital pieces were missing: the long whip pole that slung the stone, and the all-important hinge piece. Without those there was no use in bothering with the rest. In such uncertain times, they couldn’t go into the forest and cut themselves a piece of green wood.

Again the town clerk came to the rescue. Going through the records, he found an entry in ’64 that Brew Master Guiscard paid half a silver Crown for timber from the loft for his new house. That house now belonged to the glazier Guillame Bonnet, who, on answering a knock, found half the town assembled in front of his door. The Ale Inspector demanded to see the attic, the most likely place where timber of such length would have been used. Guillame resisted, but the crowd broke through and noisily trooped upstairs, past the wife, the children and sundry relatives.

It was dusty in the attic, filled with moldy straw for insulation and hanging cobwebs. The ale inspector sneezed, but pressed on, looking for the missing timbers. On first look nothing came to light and it didn’t look good for the second piece either. However it was the bell ringer Dubineau who first pointed out the crown beam that held up the whole roof as fitting the general description of the whip pole. On the spot the town requisitioned the beam, and in half an hour, over Master Guillame’s loud protests, the carpenters started disassembling the roof to extract the missing pieces. This took the rest of the day, but by nightfall, they were laid next to the rest on the ground in the square. Master Guillame bemoaned the loss of his roof and threatened to sue for damages in the Royal Law Court in Troyes. No one listened to him as all were caught up in the resurrection of this mighty weapon of war. Over the next three days, the construction grew to a towering height that nearly overreached the bell tower. The inhabitants marveled, gaining confidence with every piece added.

In the Feathered Swan the progress was minutely discussed.

“There’s no question that over sixty years, the wood has shrunk and the joints no longer fit as tightly as before and often have to be shimmed with wooden wedges to secure a solid connection. It remains to be seen if the ‘doctored’ junctions can handle the strain of throwing stones.”

After church on Sunday, the Priest came and sprinkled the construction with Holy Water and called down blessings upon it. Then there followed a discussion about what to start with it. Everyone clamored eagerly to see it in action. The whole town took part, pulling the trebuchet along to the small square that faced the gate that was the town’s most obviously weak point and most likely to be attacked. After much discussion by the “experts” the machine of death was carefully set up, aiming along the road leading into town.

The wooden box that held the counterweight was filled with stones and once full, the whip arm was winched laboriously back, pulled by a line of men who strained to elevate the weight high from cog to cog until the arm was lowered, just inches from the ground. This was accompanied by much groaning of the timbers and concerned, Rogé pulled Avril and Cloe back, out of the way. A stone weighing close to sixty pounds was placed into the sling making the machine ready to fire.

After walking around the well-positioned contraption the Captain of the Town Watch pronounced it ready to be test fired. Father Caracalla again uttered a benediction and after him Councilor Laurent added a few words. “We have the blessings of Heaven and the Angels, now we only need the skills of our artillerymen to throw a stone to destroy all our enemies.” Around the small square bets were being made if the stone would fly or bury itself in the ground.

Then as everyone held their breath, Laurent nodded, and the Sergeant-at-arms pulled the lanyard that released the counterweight. It ponderously dropped down, whipping the arm with the stone in its sling into the air. Halfway into its arc of travel, something went wrong, something snapped, something else gave way, and the tower started toppling to the right. People screamed, scattered or stood frozen to the spot, as the timber frame fell over. At the apex of its travel, the sling released the stone ball, which, owing to the low state of the whip post, flew along the ground, bouncing down the main street much like a bowling ball. Horrified the onlookers watched as the ball skipped on the cobblestones, crossed the main square and burst through the church doors, scattering the pews and the christening font, and still had enough momentum to put a hole into the main altar and rupture the back wall.

“Heaven help us…” a round woman beside Rogé begged, throwing crosses over herself. A wagoneer had pissed himself and a fishwife, chewing on the corner of a kerchief, was about to swallow it. Father Caracalla had spilled the Holy Water over himself and looked like a drowned rat. Slowly voices emerged from the chaos as people checked on each other. Miraculously no one had been hurt, but the trebuchet lay broken, the whip arm cutting through the corner of a building.

“Well that went well…” Clod muttered as he dusted himself off and pulled Cloe to her feet. People stumbled around in a daze. Rogé looked at the trebuchet, assessing the damage. One knee had given way, the right side the whole assembly collapsing on account of it. A few pieces had broken in the fall, but it didn’t look beyond repair. The Captain scratched his head, trying to decide what to do in the confusion. Still stunned, people drifted away, and Rogé and friends likewise went home.

Later in the Feathered Swan the event was discussed to death.

“I’m sure the pins weren’t driven in tight enough,” a bricklayer maintained.

“You can’t trust sixty year old wood—”

“My house was built by my grandfather sixty years ago and will stand for another sixty for sure—”

“That’s static wood, but this here was meant to move, suddenly loading and releasing stresses,” the Master Builder explained.

Later it was circulated that in the end, the ball couldn’t be found. It had disappeared…as if by magic. The fact was that the ball had indeed disappeared. This was followed by many crosses thrown followed by pinches of salt over the shoulders. The barmaid shuddered visibly at the news.

“What I can’t understand is how no one was hurt,” someone at the next table puzzled.

“It’s Providence protecting us…”

“Saint Antonius…”

“No it had to be Saint Stephen. After all he’s the patron saint of the town.”

“Then he should have protected the church better. Have you seen the inside? Half the pews are smashed to kindling and the altar itself has a hole in it.”

“I just don’t understand where the stone could have gone…”

Later it was claimed that the ball was definitely located in the tinsmith Esteban’s outhouse honey pit. Later it was claimed that the ball had arrived while Master Esteban was taking his ease in it. Whatever the truth, the story persisted and was made much of.

It took two days for the town to decide not to resurrect the war machine. The remains were disassembled and returned to the loft. It was never made clear if Master Guillame Bonnet ever got his kingpost back.

With the trebuchet given up on, the insecurity returned. An attack was felt to be imminent. Rogé stood guard, once during the day, twice during the night, his crossbow drawn and ready. It was nerve-racking in the dark, when every noise sounded hostile and every passing shadow was sure to be the enemy. But, the Saints be praised, nothing happened.

Four days after the mishap to the great relief of the town’s inhabitants, a group of about eighty riders appeared, Viscount d’Villier’s men. They had four prisoners with them which they handed over to the town. “You go and hang them according to the King’s justice,” the Captain said, getting rid of the prisoners.

“Why us? By law there has to be a trial. You, on the other hand, can claim martial law and hang them as marauders.”

“What’s the matter? The porridge too hot? Blow on it! Hang them! In times like these no one’s going to ask for any accounting.” As quickly as they had come the troop rode off north, leaving the four bound prisoners on the doorstep of the town. The Watch took them to jail and asked for instruction from the Council.

“What can I do alone? I have no authority. The Judge’s gone, the lawyers are gone.” Laurent turned to the clerk, ordering, “Look in the records and the town charter and see what we’re supposed to do.”

In the taverns the question of justice was soon settled with near unanimous results: hang them! “In time of war there’s no need for a trial.” Rogé sat and listened, remembering being a prisoner after Agincourt and how close he had come to being killed without any pretense of a trial.

However the next day a Court was convened presided over by Head Guildmaster Neville, flanked by Councilor Laurent and Father Caracalla. The room was full to overflowing but Rogé was lucky enough to find a place inside. The four prisoners were brought in, one Swiss with an ear missing, two Germans and an Italian. Only the Swiss could speak some French.

Neville opened the trial by declaring in a surprisingly crisp voice, “In the sight of God and the authority of the French Crown we open this hearing to determine the guilt or innocence of these prisoners accused of pillage and mayhem, but more so of indiscriminate killings. We have seen our own countryside devastated by these free companions. So let us proceed.” It wasn’t the usual legal language, but near enough. No one seemed to care if there were any irregularities.

“Have the prisoners been questioned?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” the clerk answered. “I made notes of their answers.” He waved a scroll.

“Proceed.”

“The prisoners admit to being part of a mercenary troop that trolled through the countryside to the south.” A disappointed murmur swept the room: these then weren’t the bastards who had attacked the town earlier. “They further admit to burning a number of farms, raiding some villages, and killing whomever they came across—”

“And they admit this by their free will?” Father Caracalla asked. The clerk threw a quick look at the Captain of the Watch, who nodded, and the clerk affirmed, “By their free will.”

Rogé didn’t believe it. No one believed it. The Swiss seemed to have taken the worst of it, his eyes nearly swollen shut by bruises that covered his cheeks. The other three could barely stand. But it stood clear in the record, by free will.

“And they throw themselves on the mercy of this court?”

The clerk threw a quick look at the Captain again before saying, “They do indeed.”

Pursing his lips and looking around the room as if seeking answers there, Neville finally spoke, “In normal times I might be more inclined to be compassionate, but in times of war, in light of the hurt and damage you four have caused, I find I have no choice but to sentence you to death by hanging for the crimes to which you have confessed.”

“I second the judgment.” Councilor Laurent leaned forward, his eyes intent on the prisoners who stared dully at the floor, seemingly insensitive to things around them. Their fate had been clear to them from the beginning.

Father Caracalla was more reluctant. “Whereas I’m mindful of the need for the King’s law to be properly administered, as the shepherd of the flock I must also consider God’s laws of mercy and compassion. And though I see guilt written on their faces, confirmed by their own admissions, I must ask for clemency for the young German lad there. He can’t be more than fifteen.”

“He doesn’t know how old he is.” The clerk tried to be helpful.

“My eyes tell me that he’s young, too young to die. I see the others as hardened criminals, beyond redemption, but this young man I would save and keep him imprisoned until he learns to mend his ways.”

The judges conferred in intense whispers, and in the end agreed with the Priest. Three were to die, and the young man was to be taken back to prison.

Neville then concluded the trial with the words, “With your eyes you have seen, and with your ears you have heard, both God and the King’s justice properly administered. We ask that you pray for these condemned to death, and pray for the young man spared that he might find his way back to righteousness and a lawful life. May God have mercy on their souls.” Neville nodded to the Captain, who motioned for his men to lead the prisoners to their fate.

Without much ceremony the three condemned men were led outside, where a makeshift gallows was waiting for them made from the timbers of the unfortunate trebuchet. With their arms tied behind their backs, the men were led beneath the cross beam and nooses were looped over their necks. Three of the Watch held each about two feet off the ground, before letting go and leaving the noose to take the condemned prisoners’ weight. Silently the crowd of townspeople watched as the men jerked and thrashed around on the end of the ropes.

A young woman stood beside Rogé holding her son’s hand. “What’s ha…happening?” the boy asked, anxiety filling his voice as he saw the men dance. “Mama, what are they doing?” he shook her hand, but her eyes were riveted on the men, her mouth drawn into a grim line. “What’s happening? Why are the men twisting so? What kind of game is this?” The woman didn’t answer; she held onto him, her eyes aghast. “Mama, you’re squeezing my hand too hard, it hurts!” The boy looked around at all the grim faces, his voice fearful. “Mama, what’s happening?”

For nearly a quarter hour the men jerked, as the nooses tightened around their necks by their own weight and struggles. Then one by one the jerking subsided and the bodies gently swayed at the end of their rope. “Mama, Mama, tell me what’s going on??!” the boy cried with terror in his voice.

The mother finally awoke from her own stupor. “They’ve gone to sleep. Don’t think about it…” And she dragged the child away. Rogé felt sick to his stomach. He knew that the men deserved death, for the death and hurt they had caused, but still… it was hard to see a man die, let alone three. Somewhere there were families who would never hear what had happened to their sons.

The Feathered Swan was elbow to elbow full so that Rogé had a hard time reaching the bar, and once he got his mug it was even harder to take it to safely to a wall-side table. In spite of the crowding the room was strangely quiet. Death was among them, and one had to think of one’s own demise.

“If I die…” an apprentice said in a whisper, “let it not be like that!”

“You think this was bad?” an old man in the corner asked. “In Rouen I saw a man impaled, slowly sliding down the pole. It lasted six hours before he died.”

“And you watched it all?” his neighbor asked.

“No. Only the first minutes. I threw up the rest of the time.”

“Then how do you know it lasted six hours?”

“I was told later. But you could hear him screaming, his voice fading to a moan… I puked my guts out. And for days my stomach was jumping like there was a creature inside it.”

That was followed by a fresh spate of silence, before someone started up again. “In Lucen I saw a witch being burned in the town square. In my mind that’s the worst way to go, being roasted while still alive…”

“That’s all you know. I was in Spain delivering 40 barrels of good French wine, and saw them burn 28 heretics in a single day. Most died from the smoke, before the flames even reached them…”

A wagoneer, who had regularly been to Rouen, claimed to have seen there the interrogation of a murderer in full sight of the public. “They strapped him to a wheel, and broke every bone in his body with an iron bar. He lasted nearly an hour, screaming that he was guilty and begging for death.”

“And you were sure he was guilty? Or was he just trying to shorten his agony?”

“Does it matter? In the end he was drawn and quartered right there in the square with everyone watching.”

“He’ll have his chance before the Throne of God to face his accusers again and argue for divine justice,” the grave digger said, and everyone acceded to him; after all, his profession was sending the dead on their way to heaven or hell.

“What I don’t understand is why the young lad was spared.”

“Didn’t you hear the Priest? Because of his tender age…”

“Bullshit! They did that to make the trial look good, as if they’d considered all the facts and found reasons for clemency. It’s all politics I tell you.”

“There was something wrong in facing the gallows in full view of the crucifix. I mean, to hang men to die in front of Christ.”

“Maybe to give them a last chance to make peace with their Maker.”

Rogé sipped his ale that didn’t sit well in his stomach. He didn’t know what to feel. In his head he heard the boy asking, “Mama, what’s happening?” He wasn’t too sure himself. When he left, people were back to talking, trying to rid themselves of what they had witnessed.

At home he found Avril shelling peas. “Did you see it?” he asked.

“No. I’ve seen too many people get killed already. I don’t need to see more.”

“Where’s everybody?”

“Marcel is praying for the executed. Clod and Cloe are in the back room. She can’t stop crying.”

“Yes, it was horrible,” Rogé muttered. He should have stayed away too.

By the next morning the bodies had disappeared and the gallows were dismantled. For the next days the town was subdued as people carried around their guilt associated with the execution. Talk helped but didn’t erase it. Father Caracalla found the confessions at least twice as long as usual because people, perhaps mindful of their own ends, wanted to divest themselves of all their sins. For the first time Rogé confessed his unseemly feelings for Avril. “Father, I just want to hold her in my arms, kiss her body, and do what men do to woman… I burn with wanting all the time. I can hardly look at her without getting stiff, that lasts so long that I feel sick and can hardly walk straight.”

“Is she a virgin?” came from the other side of the screen.

“I think so.”

“It’s a deadly sin to deflower an innocent girl outside of matrimony. You stand in the shadow of hell or at the very least, of purgatory.”

“I know Father. But I fear sometimes that I’ll lose my resolve and touch her improperly.”

“Resist, my Son. You have to resist all the temptation of the Devil. Pray. Day and night. Ask the Saints to help you in this trial of your faith and righteousness. Remember that it’s right and seemly to punish the desires of the flesh and live a spiritually clean life.”

“Yes, Father. I’ll try.”

“Son, in the name of God, I forgive your sin of wanting and lusting. Keep to the narrow path our Savior showed us.” Father Caracalla muttered some Latin and concluded with, “For penance I set ten Our Father’s, three times the names of at least fifteen Saints and… five sous.”

“Five sous!!” Rogé found the price of sinning high this time; usually he got off with just a sou.

“Absolution for sins of lust… especially toward an innocent… doesn’t come cheap, my Son.”

On the way home Rogé reevaluated the need to confess, at least not everything. Then he wondered just how innocent Avril really was. She didn’t talk of the past, almost never and he wondered if she even bothered to confess. They went to Church together on Sundays but he had never seen her near the confession booth.

Life continued, but not in its usual course. The countryside was still beset by dangers of marauding troops, and there was no commercial traffic on the road. Nothing went out or came in. Life was at a standstill. Only a fool would dare travel the unsafe roads. In town the shops and ateliers were shuttered, no business being done. The few shops that remained open had less and less merchandise to sell.

“If things go on like this, we’ll soon be feeling the pinch of hunger,” was the typical comment in the taverns: food first, safety second.

“Maybe we should try to sneak a barge down the river and buy wheat, rye, peas, barley and oats for our animals,” a shopkeeper suggested. He hadn’t seen a farmer for a fortnight, yet townspeople stuck their heads into the shop looking to buy something. What could he sell? In the cellar he had something extra, but that was for his family.

Rogé grew tired of the talk about the worries all around him. He was no closer to solving his big worry, Avril. She was pleasant, always nice to him, but that’s all. She was also nice to Clod and Cloe and Marcel, in fact to most anybody. Once or twice he even intercepted a glance from her, lingering on a young man on the street or in Church, and he felt the sharp pangs of jealousy. It was like a claw raking the linings of his stomach and he wanted to destroy the offending youth. He couldn’t understand how Clod was so happy with Cloe, when he was so miserable.

Often, sitting around the kitchen table, seeing Avril bustling about, he was tempted to speak to her of… his need, but bit it back and swallowed it, where it lay undigested in his stomach making him feel wretched. Then he would lie beside her all night, listening to her breathing and couldn’t understand that she didn’t notice. He concluded that she didn’t care.

It was more and more difficult not to touch her, but he had sworn at the shrine of Saint Anne that, come hell or high water, he wouldn’t. What was an oath to a saint worth? She was the saint of carpenters, grandparents, miners… and what else? What had she to do with the problems of the heart? He had sworn to her, because her shrine was tucked in a private part of the church. It was hard to confess, even silently, with other people around. The bigger question was, did the Saint even listen? The face on her statue looked compassionate, though the paint on her forehead was peeling.

More and more often he found himself in the Feathered Swan looking for solace in the mug he was served. After his marksmanship at the gate, he had become a celebrity of sorts, and people stopped by his table to greet him. He nodded briefly, not encouraging them to linger. After the third mug, he would feel wooden and could put his troubles away. He listened to the conversations around him.

“I don’t know why we have the German thief still in our jail, having to feed him, house and take care of him,” someone said.

“Take care? That I do not laugh. Horace, our good-natured jailer, takes good care of him all right—teaching him French with the cudgel. The boy’s black and blue from grammar, bruised and battered for his pronunciation.” The table companion chortled.

“I don’t hold with that! Hang him cleanly, sure…but don’t torture him!”

“Are you going soft on us? He’s killed, raped and pillaged. I’ve no sympathy for him. He deserves everything he gets!”

“Would you torture him yourself? You seem eager enough…” the tone between the two had become sharp and confrontational.

“Don’t rush to judgment, God will take care of all that,” a third said, trying to pacify the other two. “Let’s give thanks instead that the marauders haven’t come back to trouble us.”

“Have you noticed the shortages in town?” A fourth man also tried to divert the conversation. “This morning I tried to buy some bacon, but no one’s selling…”

“That’s why we shouldn’t waste any food on no-account prisoners,” the first started up again.

“Why? You begrudge him the thin gruel he gets? It’s made from leftovers of the leftovers, scrapings of the pot that even the dog wouldn’t touch…”

“Yes! Starve him, so he feels the pangs of hunger. How many farms did he burn down? How many lives did he take? And you worry about keeping him warm and cozy in our jail?”

“Warm and cozy? At this time of the year the dungeon has a foot of cold sludge-water in it. The reality is, the poor boy probably wishes to die as much as you want to kill him.”

“Then let’s grant him his wish… out of compassion.” The two were glaring at each other again, necessitating the barkeep to come over to calm things.

Rogé sipped on his ale, thinking about the prisoner too. The lad was maybe fifteen, a farm boy probably, grown tired of working the land. Being a mercenary likely sounded enticing to his callow soul. Wine, women, gold and booty, excitement like he could never find on a farm. So he learns to kill, hardens his heart to all the suffering he causes… yet anyone of us would do the same in similar circumstances. Rogé had to ask himself if he cared—not really. Only the memory of being captured and helpless gave him pause. As he had heard all around him, people would be happy to execute the youth as good riddance.

Rogé was quite inebriated when he stumbled through the door of the Quill Shop and home. Marcel was still up, bent over his pedestal, quill in hand as he worked on his book.

“How’s it going?” Rogé asked, slurring his words.

“Well enough.” Marcel said tersely: he wasn’t going to waste many words on a drunk.

“Are you still writing about… about the history of today?”

“Yes.”

“Why bother? Everybody knows what happened today. No need to write it.”

“True. But fifty years from now who’ll be alive to remember? I write so that the future might find out how we lived and fared.”

“Am I in it?” Rogé tried to peek at the book, but his eyes refused to focus.

“No, we’re not in it.” Marcel was starting to sound irritated. With a small knife he sharpened his quill before setting it to parchment. “Who wants to read about the likes of us? I write about the price of things, politics, the marauders, the news from the world and such…”

“Sounds more like gossip,” Rogé said as he lurched toward the back rooms.

“Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s history,” Marcel muttered as he returned to the ornate capital letter he had started on.

In their room Avril was snoring lightly and hardly moved as he got down beside her. Rogé felt bloated, not at all good. He could not find a position to ease the pressure on his guts. “Still better than being wet and cold in the dungeon…” The thought didn’t help ease him into sleep. “At least Little Rogé’s asleep, not wishing and clamoring…” he thought sardonically and then he fell asleep.

Next morning Rogé was still not feeling well, but Avril chased him out to see if he could find eggs anywhere in town. None of the shops was even open because the shelves were bare, larders empty. Rogé stopped by the communal well where about five were gathered to gossip.

“Eggs? Land sakes man, eggs are worth more than gold. My neighbor has about ten hens, but each day she wakes to one less. We’ve fallen on hard times and it likely will get even harder,” said a matron with a thick black kerchief covering her head.

“As long as the free companies are out there marauding we’ll get no supplies from the outside,” an old man threw in. He hardly looked strong enough to carry the water bucket home.

The bakery was the only thing open. Rogé bought half a loaf, the amount allowed under the strict rationing. On the way home, Rogé crossed the main square, surprised to find the young German prisoner in the pillory. A bunch of children were taunting him, throwing things or swiping at him with switches. Horace was there grinning, encouraging them.

“I was told to give him some fresh air and exercise,” Horace explained. “Here he can have all the fresh air he wants, and the exercise of ducking things.” And the big, round-bellied man laughed.

Avril and Cloe were chopping turnips for the stew. Avril wasn’t surprised that Rogé could find no eggs, but was glad to see the bread.

“Yesterday, I went to the baker late, and he was all sold out by then,” she said as she added the chopped vegetables to the pot. Peas and turnips, Rogé thought, again. “Any word if this siege will be over soon?”

“No, but the feeling’s that it can’t last into winter,” Rogé replied. “Where’s Clod?” he asked Cloe.

“Still sleeping,” she replied as she gave him a secret smile.

“He’s exhausting himself every night,” Rogé thought. “Whilst I drink myself into a stupor.” Didn’t seem quite right to him.

The autumn rains came with a vengeance, swelling the river and turning the roads into mud. It rained solid for a week and sprinkled every day after that. It was miserably cold and wet, but it cleared the surrounding districts of all mercenaries; they left for wherever they had come from. Much to the relief of most, farmers brought in what was left of their harvest. Of course, it wasn’t as much as in other years, but perhaps enough to last through the winter. The prices were higher and the selection leaner. The wagons arrived, the wheels jammed with mud and their animals exhausted from struggling over the nearly impassable roads. They also brought with them their tales of horror.

“Three of the farms near me were burned and my neighbors killed. My best friend was nailed to his doorjamb and tortured to disclose where he hid his valuables. After, they cut him open and left him to die with his guts hanging out. Who knows what happened to his wife and children? Taken. Perhaps to sell as slaves somewhere…”

“We hid in a bear cave in the forest, eating roots and bugs, but the Saints be thanked, we’ve all survived. We saw the smoke of burning farms all around us and when we got back the barn was burned down and the house ransacked. There was no sign of our animals. I don’t know how I’ll plow next year without my oxen…”

A middle-aged woman was wringing her hands. “My farm’s gone, my animals have all disappeared. My husband died defending the house and burned with it. My son was found dead in the orchard, with a pitchfork near him with blood on it. He must have killed one of them. For reprisal, they chopped down all the fruit trees. My favorite plum tree, I used to make jam with, was down on the ground, the apple trees and the pears…all gone. Now I have nobody. The only things left were a pewter plate and a brass candlestick that my man had buried by the well. How long can I live on that??”

“Father Caracalla or Father Benedict can help find you a place to stay among the parishioners. We also have the Sisters of Mercy giving aid to the dispossessed,” said a kindly woman trying to console the woman who had nothing left.

For days there was more rain. Going to the well, Rogé slipped in the calf deep mud, and Clod had to help him up.

“Does this remind you of Agincourt?” Clod asked.

“Everything reminds me of Agincourt,” Rogé answered irritably. “Not a day goes by without me thinking about it.”

On Sunday the priest thundered from the pulpit, calling down the condemnation of Heaven on all those who had despoiled the land. The church also took up a collection to help the needy and the dispossessed.

The next time they brought out the prisoner for some “fresh air,” an angry crowd collected and pelted him with rocks, as vegetables, even half-rotten, were hard to come by. The deluge of stones got so bad that Horace had to wade in and shield his charge from the fury of the crowd—not out of compassion or charity; he got half sou a day for the upkeep of the youth and didn’t want to risk losing such secure income.

The hapless youth rattled in the confines of the stocks, yelling back German curses at the crowd, perhaps only the anger keeping him alive. Sickened by the sight, Rogé stepped in to turn away the crowd and to chase off the young boys who took such delight in the tormenting.

“I don’t know what this world is coming to,” ended his narration back home. Avril hurriedly crossed herself and Cloe followed suit.

“I heard him cursing in German,” Avril said, her face turning white.

“I didn’t know you spoke German,” Clod said. “What did he say?”

“He cursed us all,” Avril shuddered. “May you all burn in hell for all eternity and more I can’t bring myself to say.” She shuddered again.

“I don’t think it’s right what we’re doing to him,” Rogé said.

“We’re not doing it. Horace is,” Clod said chewing on a rare dried apple he had scrounged the day before.

“But we’re tacitly condoning it,” Rogé objected.

Marcel, who had been listening only with half an ear, now said, “God will balance out things in his own good time. Those who profited in this world will pay for it in the next. Suffering is the key to Heaven.”

“Tell that to our prisoner,” Rogé grumbled.

“Jesus taught that we’ll always have the poor with us… add to that all the dispossessed, the unfortunate, the ill used. They’ll find their reward in Heaven, as will the perpetrators their punishment.” Silence followed as no one wanted to argue against the Good Book.

After raining off and on for three weeks, the weather changed and the wind awoke to dry up the drenched land. As the roads became passable, the fear of marauders awoke again, but the Saints be praised, nothing happened. In fact only a troop of the Viscount d’Villiers showed up, nearly sixty men. They were received with mixed feelings; some rejoiced, feeling more secure in their presence, while others muttered under their breaths, “Where were you when we really needed you?”

More concerning was the fact that the town’s Mayor and Treasurer couldn’t be found anywhere in spite of alarms sent far and wide. It was as if the earth had swallowed them; no one had any news of them. More frightening was the fact that the town’s money also disappeared with them. Initially there was some hope, but as the days passed without news, the hope turned to despair. What a calamity! With winter coming, the town had no funds to pay the functionaries, the Town Watch and Officers. There was a huge uproar, but nothing could be done about it.

At home Marcel complained, “For the foreseeable future the town is unable to pay for our services and for what it already owes us. We might as well pack our bags and try somewhere else.”

“But… but our investment?” Clod stammered; his and Cloe’s well-being was also at risk.

“Can’t be helped. There isn’t enough other business in town to sustain us. And we’ve already earned back about a quarter of what we invested. But it would be foolhardy to stay with such slim prospects. The town will need two, three years at least to get back on its feet. I’m not about to wait that long.”

“Where would we go?” Rogé asked. Paris? The city was dirty and overcrowded. The King himself lived in the suburbs away from the rot and stench.

“I’ve contacts in Lyon, perhaps there. I’ll write and we shall see,” Marcel decided.

The missing money was a great shock to the town and caused a fresh round of anxiety and anger, which was unleashed on the poor German when he was brought out to “air.” Rogé regarded the youth’s suffering with great misgivings. Perhaps it would have been kinder to have hung him as the others, he thought to himself. The Feathered Swan resounded with people’s resentment.

Rogé drank quietly by himself, thinking back on the day. Marcel had accepted one more assignment from the town. Twenty pamphlets to be circulated widely.

“Be it known that Mayor Luis Banal and Treasurer Charles Arceneau have absconded with the treasury of the Town of Arne in the district of Troyes. Any information resulting in their apprehension will earn a reward of 300 sous for either or a total of 500 sous for both. It is to be fervently hoped that the town’s money will also be recovered…”

A brief description of the men was appended, the town seal applied and the copies turned over to the Town Clerk. The pamphlets were to be distributed in neighboring districts and municipalities. Of the fourteen original Councilors, only six had returned to reclaim their positions. With the town’s money gone the rest were trying their luck elsewhere.

Marcel was able to sell their supplies and furniture and they packed up what was left. The only thing delaying their departure was finding a buyer for the shop. It had to be reckoned that, with the future of the town so grim, they wouldn’t get full value for the property. But they were set to go, having received a hopeful answer from Lyon.

Of course it was difficult to live without the comfort of furniture, sleeping on straw-filled mattresses on the floor and cooking with one pot. It was almost like camping with a roof over one’s head.

“We may have found a prospective buyer,” Marcel declared on his return from his favorite establishment the Ink and Quill, catering to the more educated of the town. Most often the talk was of books, and philosophy. “Pierre Gaudet who owns the mill outside the town has offered 900 sous and I said maybe, waiting for 1000.”

“But 1000, that’s half of what we paid for it,” Clod objected.

“I think we’ll be lucky to get 1000. The town’s full of empty properties of those who’ve left. I think it’s time to cut our losses and try elsewhere. Don’t forget, in the good times we earned quite well here.”

There seemed no way around it but to let the place go for less than what it was worth. They went to bed with the uncomfortable news sitting heavy in their stomachs. Rogé turned from one side to the other, not finding a comfortable position.

“It’s all right, you’ll see, everything will turn out well. No need to worry,” Avril whispered.

“How? Is that what you want?”

“I’m happy wherever I am, but I like change. It keeps one fresh and from getting old. What do you want?”

“More than this!” Rogé said almost angrily. Avril was quiet for a time, digesting what he hadn’t said.

“I take it, you mean us,” she finally said. When he didn’t answer, she continued, “You and I. You’re not happy with us?”

“Yes… and no,” he managed to say, finding it difficult to speak against the inhibitions he had built around his desires.

“What part yes and what part no?” She rose to her elbow to better see his face in the dim light.

“Yes in that you and I are close, mostly think the same, take pleasure in like things…”

“And the no?” she prompted when he didn’t go on.

“I want more,” he said with great difficulty. “The things that Clod and Cloe have, taking pleasure in each other, not having to silence what they feel…”

“You… you’ve been there for me… not demanding… and I appreciate that…” she had difficulty formulating her thoughts too. “But you must understand, to me the pleasure you speak of is dirty… something bought and sold… with false words and promises… often without any feelings.”

“There are plenty of feelings, I assure you. There’s love and tenderness, the physical often a token of the spiritual… Must one deny one to feel the other?” It was all mixed up in his mind.

“I love you, you know that. It’s just that… when you touch me, I don’t feel your hand, but that of the many bastards who’ve groped and fingered me ever since I was a child. I smell their sweaty bodies, the stench of their breath, the foulness of their mouth on my body, the lies they whisper… always pushing… always wanting more… You don’t understand that. You can’t understand that! ”

“I’ve been trying. Holding off. Denying myself thoughts and urges. Sure, I want to protect you. Take care of you. Be there for you. But … but I also want what others seem to take for granted. Why can’t I have what they have?”

“Perhaps… maybe you’ve earned a right to it. You’ve been true and constant and haven’t lied to me. But what you ask… and want is… disgusting to me. I’ve a horror of it.” In her pain, she was overtaken by hiccups and tears filled her eyes. “I try… I try… When we kiss, however lightly, I taste only bitterness and dread comes over me and I want to run away and hide… even from you… even though I know better…”

“But you let me hold you, even embrace you and lie at nights with you. How can that be?”

“Because…. Because that’s what my mother did. In her arms I always felt safe and protected. I still yearn for that. I still need the security of that.”

“But I’m not your mother… I’m a man—”

“Don’t you think I know that? I can feel you harden at night and in the morning and every time I want to run away… and find… find… find my mother.” She cried softly, hugging herself. Rogé, too, couldn’t speak, his throat closed off by his emotions. He lay there afraid to move, wanting to hold her, wanting to run from her…from the unsolvable problem she presented. He wanted so much for them, yet had to settle for so little. Desperately he sought a way around his frustration.

“What you feel,” he said very carefully, “you’ve learned. It’s what life taught you. But it was your bad luck that it was the wrong teaching. It wasn’t meant to be like that.” Carefully he listened to her breathing, was she even listening? “But what you’ve learned can be unlearned if you really apply yourself.”

“I want to. It’s just…”

“Yes, I know. We have to start with the love we have for each other. We both know that. And now I tell you straight out, I love you. I—love—you.” He waited and found her holding her breath. “Now you say it.”

“I… I can’t… Every time I think that, something shouts in my head ‘You’re lying!’ And bile rises in my throat and turns any kiss bitter.”

“All right then. Let’s start with ‘I like you’.”

“I… I like you. Of course, I like you. But why can’t I just say ‘I love you’?”

“You just said it,” he pointed out, elation surging through him.

“That was a question not a statement. It doesn’t count!” she said, on the verge of panic. But Rogé was happy. He knew that she was poisoned by her past, but they were talking, using a language that wasn’t hidden in looks and reproaches.

“For now, I’ll settle for a question,” he said finding himself somehow eased. “Now, can I hug you?”

“Yes, if you promise not to get hard,” she said lightly, matching his tone.

“That I can’t do. The little man has a mind of his own.” He put his arms around her and she snuggled into him. Soon, the little man complained.

Avril fell asleep in the comfort of his embrace. He, as always, had a much harder time of it, waking often to the least little noise. Once it was a mouse scampering along the wall. Another time it was a dog chasing a cat on the street. Each time he felt a surge of elation that the Rubicon had been crossed, he wasn’t just running in place… running from what? Toward what? Her fears? Her past? His desires?

At first he did not notice the light smell of smoke. When he did he thought it was the neighbor lighting an early morning fire. But when the smoke forced itself under the door, he noticed and jumped to his feet. “FIRE!” he yelled, reaching to shake Avril awake. Together they ran down and out the door with Clod and Cloe close behind them. Only in their nightclothes, they were soon shivering in the cold air. To Rogé the whole street seemed to be ablaze in both directions. What was happening?

“Where’s Marcel?” Rogé asked.

“He… he mu..st still be in…side,” Clod stuttered.

Desperately Rogé looked at the whole upper story aflame, smoke pouring out the windows. He jumped to the rain barrel at the corner and dunked his upper body in the water, then he pulled his night shirt over his head and charged back into the house followed by Avril’s screams of protest. The wooden stair was smoking from the heat, and Rogé could barely breathe. Upstairs the ceiling planks were alight, bleeding fire and smoke. Keeping low he rushed into Marcel’s room; half blind he found the bed and the inert body of Marcel. He grabbed him by the shift and pulled. As the smoke swirled around them, he coughed and had trouble finding the door. More by instinct than anything else he reached the stairs and bounced Marcel’s body down the steps. A sheet of flame surged along the ceiling and the smoke pressed down from above. A thick cloud obscured the exit, stopping him. Suddenly a figure jumped through the flames, and together they dove through the opening. Outside Rogé rolled on the ground to kill the fire in his night clothes. He coughed, trying to breathe.

Avril sloshed some water on him and the cold wetness felt good for half a moment, then he became aware of the cold. He stood up and bent over, still coughing. It seemed he would never get another lungful of breath. Avril doused him again and he shivered, feeling the full blast of cold.

“Enough!” he croaked. Looking around he found Clod, naked, clutching the remains of his burned clothes over his crotch. Near him Cloe was bent over Marcel. “Is he all right?” Cloe just shook her head.

Stunned, Rogé dropped down beside the inert body, and felt for the pulse. He couldn’t find it. Desperately he looked for the vein, hoping, willing for the feel of a beat. The flesh remained stiff and unresponsive. He put his ear near the lips, but could not hear or feel any breath.

“He’s dead,” Clod said, disbelief in his voice. Rogé looked up at him, not willing to believe it.

All around the houses were burning, the heat of flames chasing away the cold. There were other people up and down the street, those lucky enough to escape, but now, not knowing what to do.

Rogé got to his feet again, looking around. The four of them made a tight bunch in the middle of the street, both sides of which were burning fiercely. Rogé felt prickling on the skin of his face. “We’re being cooked here!” he thought. He grabbed Marcel and dragged him down the street. Clod grabbed the other side and they pulled the body along, Avril and Cloe following.

“Where are we going?” Clod asked; there was fire wherever they looked.

“To the church square. There’s space enough to stay clear of the flames.” Rogé redoubled his efforts, feeling sick that the corpse was being bounced along in the dirt. “Sorry, sorry…” he mumbled.

They reached the square already full of people. On the other side the houses hadn’t burned any; the fire only touched a part of the town. People looked mesmerized at the raging inferno, their eyes reflecting the flames. Someone came with an armful of clothes and handed them out to people in need. Clod was happy to hide his nakedness. Rogé got a woolen blanket which he wrapped tightly around himself. His fingers explored his cheek, shocked to find some blisters there. Between the heat of the flames and the chill of predawn he wasn’t sure what he felt. He dropped beside Marcel’s body and felt the side of the neck, hoping, but finding no pulse.

“What happened? What caused this?” Rogé asked a man he recognized as one of the Watch.

“Don’t know… but it’s highly suspicious. The fire spread too quickly.”

“My God! Are you saying arson??!”

“Not sure. But look at it, at least thirty houses gone up all at once.” A house near them suddenly collapsed sending out a cloud of soot. Rogé coughed again.

This was a terrible possibility. Who would do such a thing?

They spent the rest of the day in the church, near the side altar of Saint Anna. Marcel was laid out flat, his arms crossed over his chest as if praying. Further off, there were groups of other people seeking shelter in the church, the high-vaulted narrow nave full of clusters, burnt-out families huddled together.

“What do we do now?” Clod asked. The house was gone. Their things were gone. And Marcel was dead of smoke inhalation; the fire hadn’t touched him.

“Go to Lyon,” Rogé said. “This place must be cursed somehow.” He took a deep breath, his throat still itching to cough but he resisted: once he started he wasn’t sure he could stop.

“But we’ve got no money, nothing,” Clod protested.

“We started without anything, remember?” Rogé said, thinking back to the beginning that seemed so long ago. He was now a man!

A woman supported by relatives came by crying, “I lost my husband and my son. What am I to do now? God must hate me… to punish me so.”

“No, no, Lucille. God doesn’t hate you. It’s the Devil you have to blame. He brings hurt and destruction among us…” The group passed out of hearing, taking their grief farther into the church.

Rogé looked around again for something meaningful to do. His eyes lit on Marcel, the white face smudged with dirt from the fire.

“Get me some water,” Rogé instructed Clod.

“From where?” he asked. This wasn’t home, where he knew where everything was; this was a cold church and they had nothing—less than nothing for they had also lost their hope.

“I don’t know where. But get it! We need to clean him up.” He nodded toward Marcel. Reluctantly Clod ambled off. The girls were huddled on a stone bench along the wall sharing a blanket.

Clod returned, sloshing some water out of a shallow dish. “Here, it’s Holy Water from the font. That’s all I could find.”

“It’s all right, the dead won’t mind.” Wetting the corner of his blanket, Rogé wiped Marcel’s face. He felt like crying. He thought of him as father and brother, mentor, taking the best from those relationships. “You picked Lyon out for us and that’s where we’ll go. Good-bye my friend. We’ll remember you always.” The girls were crying softly. Marcel had always been kind, to them and to everybody. He was a good man, perhaps the last, Rogé thought, as with his fingers he combed out Marcel’s hair. “I hope you’re at peace and have found what you hoped for on the other side. Perhaps the host of Heaven welcomed you. We pray.”

Rogé straightened Marcel’s nightshirt, noting the burn holes sparks had caused. As he smoothed down the cloth his fingers felt a lump under the shirt. Opening it, he found a velvet bag hanging from Marcel’s neck. Rogé’s heart beat faster. Inside the bag were coins, gold, silver and brass!

“Look at this!” Rogé held up the small bag jubilantly.

“What is it?” Clod asked.

“Well what do you think?” Rogé shook the bag, evoking the unmistakable jingle of coins.

“How much?” Clod asked, coming right to the point.

“Nearly all we had. He had it around his neck, probably afraid to lose it.”

“God bless him a thousand times. He was truly a friend to the very end.” Suddenly the future looked brighter.

They had more than enough to buy travelling clothes and footwear, which they did right away. Then they arranged and paid for a proper Christian burial for Marcel. They ordered a marker for the grave but could only scratch “Marcel Probius” onto it and the date November 8, 1416: more they didn’t know.

The four then walked back to the remains of their house, finding it hard to see the place as nothing but smoking ruins were left of the whole street.

“Wish we could’ve sold it for 900, before it burned down,” Clod said, frowning at the mess.

“It was you, more than the rest of us who wanted more for it,” Rogé reminded him.

“All the same it would’ve been nice to have the money now.”

“We’ve enough left to start us off,” Rogé said, fingering the purse.

On the way back to the house where they had rented a room, they passed The Feathered Swan, which was on the unburned side of town.

“Let’s go in for a farewell drink,” Rogé suggested. They went in and took a place at a side table. The tavern was only half full but alive with opinions.

“It was arson, I say and I challenge anyone to say different.”

“Why does it have to be arson? The place is a tinderbox, the attics full of straw to hold in the heat; it wouldn’t take much more than a spark to set any place off. The night had enough of a breeze to set ablaze the next house and jump across the street.”

“You pigshit. The fire started upwind and went against it. In my book that proves arson.” A telling point, Rogé had to agree.

“But who could have done such an evil thing? Seventeen are dead and twenty burned, three badly and may yet die.”

“It hasn’t been a good year for the town. Thirty-five farms and houses in the district burned by marauders and nearly four hundred killed. The treasury stolen and now this. This town is cursed, for sure,” the thin tailor from the north quarter said with emphasis that belied his size.

He was challenged, of course. “Cursed, my ass. That’s an old wives’ tale they tell to frighten us. Everything has a reason, a cause. All you’ve got to do is unwind the whole ball of yarn to find it.” The beefy brew master looked around belligerently. “Besides, who would dare to curse us, the town?” Nobody answered him—except at Rogé’s table, Avril whispered, “The German.” But only Rogé heard her.

“I don’t much care who rules us, the French or the English, both are equally bad. Come what may, we have to pay taxes to somebody. The main thing is they don’t mix into the business of the town. We’re capable of governing ourselves…”

“Really? Where’s our Mayor and Treasurer and more importantly our money? Can’t say we took all that good care of it,” the barber added to the argument.

“I lent money to the town for the new well and the water tower. Now that’s all gone and I don’t have enough money to pay for next year’s wine,” the wine merchant complained. This was tragic people agreed, but more tragic if it had affected the supply of ale. After all who drank wine, but the well-to-do?

“I’m just glad that the marauders are gone. The rest will fix itself in time.”

“Yeah. I don’t care either if we belong to England or France as long as it’s not the Burgundians.”

“Why?”

Just then the door burst open and the town crier exploded into the room. “Horace is dead! He was found hanging in his own apartment. There were more than thirty stab wounds to his body.”

“What happened??!”

“In God’s name, who’d dare??!”

“All we know is that he’s been a dead awhile, all bled out, the body cold as stone. Everyone was so busy with the fire that no one noticed that he wasn’t there. Must’ve happened in the night.”

“But who, for Christ’s sake??!”

“Who knows? The thing is, the German’s gone.”

“What German?”

“The prisoner German, you imbecile! His cell was open, his chain unlocked and there’s not a hair of him to say where he is.”

“Escaped? What’s the Watch doing about it?”

“They’re scouring the countryside. If he’s out there they’ll find him.” That stood to reason. The Watch was mounted, led by tracking dogs, while the escapee was on foot: how far could he get?

Suddenly the whole night took on a new perspective, linking arson with the escaped prisoner. The youth had been tortured, certainly mad and crazy enough to do it.

Before nightfall the Watch returned, herding a bound prisoner. The German looked as if he had been worked over already, his face a mess of bruises. He was limping, but as he passed his eyes blazed with hate.

The square was filled with an instant crowd that flooded in from all sides, trapping the procession.

“In the name of the law stand aside and let us do our duty,” the Captain called out sternly. But the crowd was in no mood to obey. Men grabbed the prisoner, and pulled, cutting the leash that held him. The crowd surged and dragged the German to the base of the crucifix and tied him to it. They backed up a bit and the first stones began to fly, then a hailstorm of them. The German tried to turn his body out of the barrage, but wherever he turned, under the shadow of the cross, he was hit. More rocks were thrown, some not so well aimed.

“For the Mother of God, don’t hit Christ!” the priest pleaded with the mob. The Watch was pinned in the far end of the square unable to intervene even if they wanted to. George Pelletier the town’s smith strode to shield the fallen German.

“Hold it! Everyone stop! We’re going to have a trial right here and make it good and proper.” He turned to the prisoner hunkered down in his shadow and demanded loudly, “Did you set the fires?” The prisoner answered something unintelligible in German. “See, he admits it. That proves him guilty. For his sentence I suggest we burn him. Same as he burned our relatives and neighbors…”

The crowd roared its approval, blocking everything else out. Suddenly a chair was thrown into the open space, then one of the pews from the church.

“Please not the church, for God’s sake, spare His house,” the priest pleaded again.

A stool, a spinning wheel, some fire wood, a table and other sundry wooden items joined the growing pile. Two men straightened the prisoner and piled the wood around the foot of the cross.

“God have mercy!” the priest cried desperately. “Do not burn Christ!”

But there was no reasoning with the crowd. They piled the wood around the prisoner’s feet and someone poured some oil over the wood. A man appeared with a burning torch in his hand. He advanced to the pyre, set to light it.

Pelletier again intervened. “Hold it Horst. Let someone who’s without sin light the fire.” He searched through the crowd but no one stepped forward. “Is there no one among us who’s without sin?” No one replied. “No one?” Pelletier thundered.

“Yes. Here.” Agnes Bouvier, the clerk’s wife, led Christina Moreau by the hand. “She’s eight and without sin.” She led the child to the pyre and Pelletier gave her the torch. She stood around petrified, unsure of what was wanted of her. Pelletier reached down, grabbed her arm and forced it down, so the torch could light the stack of oil soaked wood. The fire jumped, flared up and the German started screaming. Agnes and Christina hastily backed away. The flame and smoke billowed up. The prisoner threw himself around desperately.

Suddenly Francis Petengill jumped to the fire and with the pitchfork pulled some of the burning wood away.

“What’re you doing?!!” Pelletier demanded dangerously, taking a threatening step toward Petengill.

“Can’t you see it? You’re burning him too fast! Roast him slow, let him feel it, like he did to my wife and mother.” He had the pitchfork up, ready to fight off anybody crazy enough to interfere with him.

Pelletier stepped back. “You’re right, brother. The law should not be rushed but allowed to take its course naturally.”

They all stood back and watched the agony of the young man tied to the stake. The fire now was more sedate and cruel, licking at his feet.

Rogé felt sick. He agreed that the German should die for his crimes whatever his age—but not like this! Perhaps had they treated him more kindly in the first place none of this would have happened. The fire nibbled at him, turning his flesh black. He had stopped cursing and was calling for his mother, begging for death.

Rogé grabbed Avril’s hand and dragged her out of the crowd. She was pale and trembling with revulsion. He led her back to the room they had rented and gave her a sip of spirits he had bought earlier in the day. After two sips some of the color returned to her cheeks.

“That was horrible,” she said, her lips trembling.

“Yes. But he deserved to be killed, like he killed Marcel.” He took a sip and felt stronger and colder, though the voice of agony was still very much in his ears.

Later, Clod returned with a pale Cloe. “I prayed and prayed,” she muttered. “For God to hurry up and take him. Near the end he called for his mother.” She started to cry while Avril held her.

They spent another restless night trying to block out the horrors of the day. Rogé didn’t fall asleep until halfway to morning and when he woke he felt wobbly and wooden. They had little to pack and left the house shortly.

Rogé stopped at the cemetery, searching out the fresh grave of Marcel. The headstone was in place, shining brightly in contrast to the aged stones all around. Of course there were other white stones for the victims of the fire. After they said their silent prayers, Rogé led them inside the church to light a candle for Marcel at the side altar of Saint Martin. Avril dropped a copper penny in the box and lit a second candle.

“For my mother, Amalie Hyacinth Rose,” she whispered. “Heaven be kind to you.” She wiped tears from her eyes, and Rogé embraced her as they left the church. “You didn’t know my mother. Maybe she was a little rough but she loved me like no one else. Nothing can equal a mother daughter bond… nothing.” She cried quietly.

Rogé paused on the square but saw little of yesterday’s events except the burned stain on the foot of the stone cross. Everything else had been cleared away to hide the guilt. Avril tugged at his arm, but he stared dumbfounded into Jesus’ face that now lacked a nose, an ear and half a cheek. The heat of the fire had done that, fracturing the stone. Truly this place was cursed. With that Rogé turned his face toward the river.

Chapter 8

The barge was drifting down the Saône at the placid pace of the river. The six crewmen used their long poles only to keep the vessel near midstream. The barge captain was at the tiller, chewing on some dried beef, his eyes on the sluggish current ahead. At this point, there was little danger of going wrong, but there was always a submerged log to look out for.

Rogé walked along the length of the barge to the tiller and asked, “Will we be there soon?”

“Lyon?” The captain spit into the water. “Not long now. Just around the second bend.”

The near side of the river was fairly flat but the left bank rose into a hillside covered with hardwood. Squeezed between the forest and the river, a road followed along on which Rogé could see groups of wagons heading south. There was no indication yet of the town, which after Paris was the second largest city in France.

He hadn’t liked Paris. The city was crowded with people and animals, their stench often unbearable. Sure, here and there were a few nicer sections, but for the most part the place was nearly uninhabitable to those not born to it. That is why he found it strange that over 200,000 people lived compressed within the city walls. Cloe could not breathe without a lilac scented handkerchief before her nose. They stayed only about a week and were very glad to quit it.

The trip so far had been uneventful although long and tiring. Also, at every turn someone tried to take advantage of them. As travelers they were overcharged for everything, food, lodging and transportation.

“You know, it would cost you almost double to go the other way,” said the captain unexpectedly breaking into Rogé’s thoughts. “On account of all the work poling against the current.”

Rogé just nodded, wondering if the man was telling him the truth. He was looking ahead at the approaching bend in expectation of catching sight of their destination. The water was a smooth muddy green, hardly a ripple in it. They made the turn, and soon after the land again leveled out. Ahead was still nothing but a patchwork of farms, one after another.

“The next bend, you said?” Rogé asked.

The captain nodded, looking at the younger man with a skeptical squint. The captain was clearly a southerner, of darker skin and darker hair that was speckled with silver. His face was overdrawn with wrinkles from years of squinting into the sun. “What’s your business in Lyon?”

For the purpose of this journey they had pretended that they were going to claim a small inheritance Clod had received from a distant relative.

“Anybody I’d know?”

The question caught Rogé by surprise, but he was quick to recover. “François Doubet. You know him?”

“Not right off. What does he do?”

“He’s… was a cloth merchant, ran a shop and did import and exports. More we don’t know.” Rogé deepened the cover story.

“There’re about a thousand, weaving and selling. Lyon is well known for the fine quality of its cloth. We sell north and south and to the east.”

“Why not west?” Rogé asked just to distract the man from asking more probing questions.

“Because the guilds in Toulouse claim that for their market. There are taxes and tariffs to block our access.”

“It’s like that in the rest of France. Everyone’s jealous of the people next door.”

“Toulouse is not exactly next door,” the captain muttered and took aim at a branch floating by, the spit missing it only by inches.

The land on the left rose again gently, the hillside full of cellars dug into it. “Wines. Half our business is transporting those. Beaujolais and wines from the Rhône valley.”

As they rounded the bend, the land ahead leveled out even more and houses crowded each other right down to the river.

“Lyon,” the captain announced with a flourish of his hand.

“Finally,” Rogé said and hurried back to his companions to let them know.

“About time,” Clod grumbled, getting up to have a look. Cloe was sleeping but Avril jumped up and ran to the wale. She was always excited by new things. How long will it last, before she wants to move on again?

Soon both sides were lined with buildings as the river squeezed through the gentle rise of hills. Unlike in Paris, the homes were often interrupted by groups of trees and some rock outcrops, giving the place an airy look.

The crew was now working their poles, getting them closer to the left bank. “Gently lads, try to keep it straight,” the captain yelled. Within reach of shore, one of the men planted his pole and jumped to let it ride him over to the quay. Another threw him a rope which he attached to one of the many mooring rings, securing the barge safely against the stone wharf.

“This is it, ladies and gentlemen, the end of the line. Lyon as promised.” The travelers collected their packs and made ready to disembark. “Do you have an address I can perhaps help you with?”

“No address, but he has a shop; how hard can that be to find?”

“Good luck then. There’re hundreds upon hundreds of shops, ateliers and work places. If you think of going north again, we leave in about a week. Until then you can find us at the Golden Dolphin.” The captain then turned to the task of sorting out his cargo.

“What did you tell him then?” Clod asked.

“Not the truth. That way you can keep ahead of their prying into our affairs, trying to take advantage of us in some way.”

“Well here we are in Lyon. What next?” Avril asked. They had been meandering along the quay, downstream. Beside them barges were loading or unloading, men sweating in the heat of midday. A dog came along, sniffing after them, puzzling at the strange smells they had brought. They paused briefly as six men unloaded a good sized bull that seemed less than happy about being hoisted into the air and dumped onto the quay. They came to a tavern calling itself the Golden Quill. They paused in front of it, trying to decide on the next step.

“Have you noticed how every second inn is named the Golden something?” Clod asked, no doubt thirsty from the long ride down the river.

“Gold sells, catches one’s eyes. If you had a choice between something gold and something silver where would you go?”

“Definitely silver. One would hope that the prices would be less steep.”

“So, where to next?” Avril asked, excited about not knowing.

“Well, we might as well start here,” Rogé decided, pushing through the door into the Golden Quill. Inside no one looked at them as they trooped in and found a table to the back. Taking his time the barkeep wandered over and they ordered ale, only then noting that everyone else was drinking wine.

In time a barmaid set the mugs of ale in front of them.

“Excuse me Mademoiselle, would you know Monsieur Antoine Hebert, who owns a book shop hereabouts?”

“Not anywhere near here. But there’re book shops near the old town, closer to the centre.” Then she gave more precise directions.

“I thought he was a bookmaker or binder of some sort,” Clod said lifting his mug and taking a long swallow.

“Marcel knew him a long time ago; I figure he might have a shop by now.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“Not exactly. Just that his friend was expecting him… better said, us, as we were also mentioned.”

“Nothing more, just that?”

“No, nothing. The fire interrupted everything and burned up the man’s address.”

“Seems a little strange to arrive at someone else’s doorstep with no more than that.”

“Well at least it gave us a direction. Would you have liked to stay in Paris?”

“That no! The place stank to the heavens. But maybe Rouen, which has better air and a good reputation.”

“Too close to the English. I had enough of them at Agincourt, didn’t you?”

“And here, are we not close to Aquitaine that’s also claimed by the English scavenging dogs?”

“Wherever we go, we’re in the shadow of some danger. At least we’ve got sun here and a milder climate.”

After many questions they had some difficulty finding the center of the old town. On the main street of the quarter, they found a shop selling books and inquired there about Antoine Hebert, possibly another bookstore owner.

“Hebert? I know a Hebert but he’s a mason who has nothing to do with books. There’s another Hebert but he’s a barber with a place in the Roman Square. He wouldn’t be the one you’re looking for?”

“Not likely. All we know for sure is that he has something to do with books.”

“Well there are book binders, parchment makers and those selling colors and ink. I know some of them but haven’t heard of any Hebert in the trade.”

They moved on and in the third bookshop they found a bespectacled owner to whom the name didn’t seem strange.

“Yes, I know of an Antoine Hebert, but he’s not a book seller, he’s a penman and he’s not in Lyon but in Vienne a bit down the river.”

“The Saône?” Rogé asked.

“No, the Saône joins the Rhône and gets swallowed by it. Vienne is a smallish town about ten leagues south.”

The friends conferred. “Did Marcel ever talk about any place other than Lyon?” Clod asked, chewing on his lips.

“I remember only Lyon,” Rogé said, furrowing his brows.

“I heard him say near Lyon,” Avril added.

“Are you sure?” Rogé asked, turning to look at her.

“No. At the time I was listening only with half an ear, but that’s what I remember.”

“Well, it’s the only lead we have, so I guess we have to track it down,” Rogé decided. “So tomorrow we go walk about ten leagues.”

“What’s a league?” Clod wanted to know.

“I’m not quite sure. Is it the Roman league or a French league? Traditionally a league is the distance a person can walk in about an hour.”

“So you want us to walk for ten hours? Why not take a boat? And who’s walking anyway to set the measure? A youth just bouncing along or an old man dragging his feet?”

“It’s not said, but I’m sure it would be a healthy man with a decent stride.”

“Is he tall or short? Makes a big difference, you know.”

“Well let’s assume he’s somewhere in-between, somewhat like us.”

“Then that makes it ten hours for sure. I ask again, why don’t we rent a boat and let the river do the walking for us? I’m sure it doesn’t care what a league is.”

“I thought you’d have noticed by now that we’re running short of coins. We should save some whenever we can.” So it was decided that they would be walking the next day.

Morning found them on the road heading south after crossing the joined rivers in a ferry. At first in the morning freshness they moved jauntily along, but they soon wilted as the sun got hotter. Luckily the road was lined with trees that kept them out of the direct sun. Still, midday rest came early, and they had a lunch of grapes, cheese and fresh bread bought from a farmer who had just finished his weekly baking. Afterwards they took a short nap to avoid the midday sun. It was much harder to start up again and Cloe was soon complaining that her shoes pinched. In the end she had to take them off, but then winced every time she trod upon a sharp pebble. Come evening, they were tired and far short of their destination. They moved off the road, and found themselves a bit of ruins in which to spend the night. They ate the rest of the bread with the remaining cheese. After a full day of walking, they quickly settled down, covering themselves with whatever they had.

“You’re happy, aren’t you?” Rogé asked Avril in a whisper.

“Yes, I think so. I don’t know how to describe it. All my life I was moving with the army or without the army, never stopping anywhere for long. It’s the moving about that felt like home to me. Waking up in a new place, wondering what the day would bring.” She pursed her lips. “Can you understand that?”

“I suppose I could, if you met with nice things along the way, but you didn’t. You saw death and injury or were molested yourself. You must have lost friends along the way.”

“I didn’t have any. I learned early not to care. People came and went, died or just disappeared with no news of them. I got used to it. I expected it. Only my mother was there… but she too died and left me.”

“You still miss her a lot.”

“Yes, of course.” Her face crinkled up. “And…no.”

“Well which is it? It can’t be both.”

“It was the way it was. Death came most every day. It was that way in the army. It was a rare day that nobody died. I learned to expect it, accept it and live with it.”

He thought hard. He had no family, no one to look back on. Clod was the only one he shared a history with. “You’ve learned too well, then.” He felt a headache starting he was thinking so hard. “Then you must think I’ll leave soon too. Maybe die… or disappear.”

“You almost did. Agincourt, remember?”

“Of course. That day will stay with me for the rest of my life. I can’t forget it, though sometimes I wish I could. It often haunts my sleep and I wake barely able to breathe.”

“Yes, I know. Sometimes I nudge you awake softly.”

“You didn’t answer me. Do you think I’ll leave?”

“I don’t know. I hope not. But I won’t let my mind think on that. If you go, you go. If you stay, you stay. I’ve little to say about it.”

“No! You’ve got a lot to say about it. Say you want me to stay and I promise never to leave you,” he said aloud, sitting up, aware that they were at another turning point in their relationship.

“What does it matter what I think? Or what I want? Things happen which I can’t control. If I allow myself to grow too heavy with wishing, I’ll drown in despair. You’re smart enough to know that.”

“Smart enough to know doesn’t make a life. Things happen, sure… but it’s not things that make us who we are, but the choices we make. Choose life over waiting for death. Choose trust, hope and happiness over just waiting for whatever happens next. Let yourself grow roots to give you an anchor in life.”

“It’s easy for you, you’re a man. You have choices that are denied to us women. We’re not recognized as persons in our own right; we’re defined by the men in our family… and I have no one. I’m a shadow between the here and there, never part of anything—”

“You are part of me! Can’t that be enough?”

“I don’t know. I’m confused. I want… I don’t want… to be dependent on anyone…” Avril was crying softly now. “You see that, don’t you? If I let you get close… then the walls might collapse and the whole world would roll over me.”

“You must open the gate and let me in. If we’re to have a chance, then you must unlock the prison you’ve made for yourself.”

“I made no prison!” she protested.

“Then what do you call it? You won’t let anyone in and you won’t come out. You constantly change the landscape around you to pretend that you’re free as a bird. But you’re not!” Rogé was breathing hard, in long gasps and so was she. And he was tired. Tired from the walk, to be sure, but the real burden of the day was in this conversation. They subsided after that and settled down, still trying to quiet themselves. At least we’re talking…

In the morning they woke to heavy dew and shivered in the fresh air. They had only two apples which the couples shared. Rogé looked at Avril trying to penetrate her reactions to the talk they’d had the previous night. She had on her calm face that gave nothing away. At least we talked…

With yesterday’s effort still lingering in their joints, it was hard to get started. It took well over an hour for all of them to find their strides. On their right the river meandered along; Rogé took some comfort that they were outpacing the flotsam bobbing along in it. He found himself beside Clod, the girls following behind.

“Hey, Rogé, I’m sorry for your troubles, I really am.”

“What troubles are those?” Rogé fired back.

“The misunderstanding between Avril and you…” Clod tailed off, not wanting to pry too deeply. “Couldn’t help but overhear part of it.”

“That’s all right. It’ll right itself. At least we’re talking.” But inside he wondered if he was making up a new excuse to cover the facts.

At the next hamlet of eight houses, they spent a couple of sous for some eggs and strawberries.

“Oh these are so tasty,” Cloe said, relishing the sweet tanginess of the fruit. Avril ate hers daintily, her face still reserved.

In the mid-afternoon they finally reached Vienne, a sizeable town on the edge of the river, built around a hill with a castle keep on top that dominated the district. No one stopped them as they entered the town proper and headed for the twin towers of the cathedral in the centre. They rested on the steps leading to the main portals, looking around. There were streets and alleyways going off in all directions, three, four storey houses jammed against each other with shops and businesses at street level. People were everywhere one looked. A group of nuns tried to squeeze through the crowd that collected around two dogs fighting. A pushcart loaded down with stacks of firewood was also trying to get through the congestion.

“So this is it,” Clod said, somehow making it a question about reaching their destination.

“Not until we find Master Hebert,” Rogé said, looking displeased at a hole in his left shoe.

“So where do we look?”

“We’ll ask at the first shop that has something to do with books.”

It did not take them long to find such an establishment.

“Hebert?” the proprietor asked. “Sure I know Antoine Hebert. His shop is just two streets over. He makes book covers and parchment rolls. Follow this street, turn right and count six houses and you’re there. Give him my regards when you see him.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Rogé said as they took their leave. “Well, this is encouraging.” They followed the directions and had no trouble locating the place. It was like any of the neighboring houses, three stories with a shop below. They knocked and entered, to be greeted by a young apprentice.

“The Master’s out, but if you care to wait he’ll be back shortly.” The room was spacious, illuminated by large windows to the front. The shelves contained hard leather covers for books, some decorated, others quite plain. A number had ornate brass latches that locked to keep the contents private. There were also leather tubes for rolls of parchment or velum, and courier batons to hold a message. Rogé examined one of the decorated covers, finding the details complex and exquisite. He chose a folio and attracted by the script, he read it. It seemed to be part of a book that dealt with horticulture, bee keeping and animal husbandry. He was looking for the next segment when the door opened and an elderly man entered. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Master Antoine Hebert; would that be you, Sir?”

“That would depend on who’s asking.” The man smiled, showing a gap in his front teeth.

“My name is Rogé, Sir, with my companions Claude, Clothilde and Avril.”

“With no last names?” The eyebrows arched.

“We… that is, some of us were bought up in an orphanage and don’t know our last names.”

“Again I ask what can I do for you?”

“I understand that Brother Theo… that is Marcel Probius wrote that we would be coming to visit, hoping to escape the troubles in the north.”

“And where is my good friend Marcel?” His eyes scanned the shop.

“I regret to say that Marcel died in a fire the night before our leave-taking. We had no other aim than to follow through on the plan we made prior to his death,” Rogé said, his voice at times wavering with sadness. Master Hebert took the news badly; he stumbled over to a bench against the wall and collapsed onto it. Rogé explained more fully the misfortune as the Master listened with tear-filled eyes. “As you can see, without him we didn’t know what to do. So we decided to offer ourselves, hoping to be of some use to you.” Then holding his breath he waited for the Master’s reaction.

“Well… well you can understand, this is quite sudden and very sad. He… Marcel wrote that he would be bringing some young people along and they would be welcome… but with him. I’m too upset now to make any decision and … and ask that you come back tomorrow.”

“Of course, Sir,” Rogé said, and led the troop out.

“Well that didn’t go so well. I thought this was all settled. What if he doesn’t want us after all?” Clod asked.

“Then we try something else,” Rogé said with determination. “We’re not children, we have skills and abilities.”

“And next to no money…” Clod added in a dour tone. The women didn’t seem to worry, leaving all this to the men to decide.

They found an inn and paid for a night. They had just enough money to buy their supper. Afterwards they went to bed, tired from the day and downcast by fresh worries.

Next morning Rogé went to Master Hebert’s atelier by himself. The old man received him kindly with an offer of wine mixed with lemon juice which they drank in the small garden in the back of the house.

“I read over Marcel’s last letter very carefully. He asked for shelter while he found accommodation for himself and you. He didn’t say much regarding you all, except to assure me most earnestly that you saved his life and he owed you greatly. Now, regarding me, I owe you nothing… but I’m inclined to be helpful on account of my friend Marcel. So I’ll offer you a room and food for a reasonable length of time.”

“And what would the Master consider reasonable?”

“That remains to be seen… when I get to know you better.”

So they had room and food for a time. They asked the Master’s help to orient them about the prospects in Vienne.

“They are not great, I’m afraid. Like you, many are coming from the north to escape the unpleasantness there. There’s also trouble on the Spanish border and with a few of the Italian princes. So you can see we’re surrounded by a host of troubles, and the town is full of refugees, all looking for room and work. I understand from Marcel that you were copying and publishing proclamations. Unfortunately because of the cathedral school in town we are full of scribes and men of letters. The book making business is also quite full and I have a little corner of it, making covers. I have one apprentice, which is more than enough for the amount of business I do nowadays. Much as I want to, I don’t have enough work to offer you. What else can you do?”

“Not much, outside of publishing. Clod and I were briefly in the army but apart from that, just general farm work which Clod swears he’ll never do again.”

“Well maybe you can join the Town Watch. They’re looking for good men, but are unsure of the pickings. Perhaps with my recommendation a place can be found for you. I’ll speak to my friend, I’m sure he’ll listen to me.”

“It’d be much appreciated, Sir.”

“The Watch??! Are you crazy or what? We hide from the Watch!” Clod protested when Rogé told him the news.

“It’d be the perfect solution. There’re no other jobs in town and the only reason the Watch is looking is because they fear the expanded population, but are afraid of taking just anybody. I mean how would they know the person wasn’t a criminal, wanted somewhere else? But with Master Hebert vouching for us, we’ve got an inside chance. Or would you like to go back to herding swine and hoeing the garden?”

“That? Most definitely not.”

That afternoon they moved into an outbuilding behind Master Hebert’s house. The place was small, but had a stout door and a window that didn’t let in too many drafts. It had a table and a bench, and straw piled up against the back wall.

At suppertime Master Hebert showed up to see how they were settling in. The apprentice brought some bread and a pot of a rich pea stew flavored with smoked ham. He also had plates and spoons to go with it.

“I spoke with my friend. Chalmier, who holds a Lieutenant’s rank with the Watch. He agreed to see you to decide if you fit their needs. Most times you’ll find him at the North Tower near the main gate.”

“Thank you Sir. We won’t disappoint you.”

Later, Avril said that after looking up and down the street, she thought she might get some work with a seamstress who had a sewing shop around the corner. And maybe Cloe could learn to iron there.

Reassured by these prospects they had an easier time falling asleep.

Chapter 9

After the church bells rang out ten o’clock, Rogé and Clod presented themselves at the North Tower. The guard out front didn’t want to let them in at first; Rogé had to say Lieutenant Chalmier’s name four times before the guard finally allowed them to pass. They found the Lieutenant at breakfast, polishing off a whole link of sausage, with boiled cabbage and white roots. Clod’s mouth watered, especially when a servant brought in some honey-glazed pastries.

“So Antoine told me about you two, said you served with the army, where?”

“It was brief, Sir. We were in the second line at Agincourt,” Rogé answered, determined to speak the truth.

“That’s hardly a recommendation, seeing how the battle was lost so ignominiously.”

“I wish I could say it was our fault so we could put it all behind us, but it wasn’t.”

“Well whose fault was it, if not the soldiers’ who fought in it?”

“It was French pride at fault, Sir.”

“French pride? We’re talking about French shame. How did you get pride out of that??!”

“The Marshall had a good plan and it should have worked, but the nobles couldn’t wait it out. Each of them wanted to be the first to gain fame and praise, so they rushed headlong into a position well-prepared by the English. The terrain got narrow, the ground turned into a sea of mud and the first line got stuck in it. The second line also couldn’t wait, rushed in and the press became so great that not one of us could move. Even the dead couldn’t fall down. The English came with axes and spears and killed us at will.” Rogé took a breath and let it out explosively. “The nobility of France was there, desperately wanting to correct the disasters of the past but succeeding only in confirming them.”

“That sounds true. A few went from here, rattling their weapons, boasting of what they would do to the English trash. Only a few returned, sneaking back with their tails between their legs.” The Lieutenant drummed on the table with his fingers. “It was said that the English longbow won the battle, is that true?”

“Not entirely. The arrows couldn’t penetrate the steel armor of the knights and men-at-arms, but the horses fell, and the heavily laden men couldn’t stand up before the rest charged over them. In more truth you could say that the mud won the battle. In the end the English and the Welsh archers put away their bows and came at us with axes and daggers, yet I never heard it claimed that axes or daggers won the day.”

“Well, in any case, Agincourt paints you as losers, not something we’re looking for.”

“It would be a shame, Sir,” Clod broke in for the first time. “Rogé here is quite a shot. Seen him hit the eye of a man at fifty paces.”

“Where was that?”

“At the Monastery of St. Martin…”

“Where’s that? There are dozens of Saint Martins near about. You can’t go a day without stumbling across one.”

“Maybe not, but the fact remains that Rogé is an excellent shot.”

“Well… if so that might get you in. Tell you what, show me that you can be accurate and I’ll recommend you to the Captain.”

“Unfortunately, Sir, my weapon was consumed by fire. Half the town burned down that day.”

“So you say. Where was that?”

“At Arne, on the Oisel.”

The Lieutenant narrowed his eyes, inspecting them even more closely. He stood up and said very deliberately, “The town armory has every kind of weapon. Go choose one and report back tomorrow and we shall see what we shall see.” With a lead pencil he wrote a few lines on a scrap of paper and handed it to Rogé. “This will get you the crossbow you want.”

“Thank you, Sir.” He and Clod left the tower and headed for the old quarter.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this… joining the Watch.” Clod shook his head trying to get used to the idea.

“Why not? We’re not criminals.”

“Yes, but we’ve also never been the law. Hell, rightly speaking, I’m not even a full grown man.”

“Then if you’re so set against it, why did you speak up for me?”

“Didn’t want us to lose the chance, I suppose.” Clod made a face to show how conflicted he was.

Back at the book cover shop, the women had news to report. They had found a laundress who took them on. It was hard work, sitting by the Rhône and working the laundry, rubbing soap into the material between clenched fists, hitting it against a smooth rock to drive the dirt out, then wringing it, lastly spreading it out on shore to dry. In their turn the men were less certain of what they had accomplished.

Before evening, Rogé and Clod went to the armory and presented the script. The old man there hardly glanced at it before he led them into a dusty warehouse. There were shelves and bins holding all kinds of things, only some of them recognizable as weapons. Everything they came upon showed signs of neglect. Finally, Rogé found about six crossbows in a pile but none of them were serviceable. He kept looking, his progress stirring up dust.

Clod found a pole axe he liked the feel of. The handle was solid, no part rotten or infested with worms. The metal head was a bit rusty but he used a pumice stone to clean it. He also got two short bastard swords, easy enough to handle. A couple of steps later he found two daggers to go with them. Then he tried on the helmets, but none quite fit his head.

In the meantime Rogé found another stack of crossbows in a little better shape and carefully sorted through them. All had something wrong with them. By cannibalizing three he managed to put together one he thought might work. What he ended up with wasn’t the most powerful, but would do for shorter ranges. Reasonably content they left, awkwardly carrying home all their acquisitions. They were stopped several times by the Watch to explain why they were carrying weapons so openly. But each time they accepted Rogé’s explanation.

At home, Rogé set about cleaning the crossbow. Meticulously he inspected the bow arms but found no separation or fractures in the laminated layers. There was a good spring in the wood. Unfortunately he had no lever to span it to its full extent, so drawing it by hand wouldn’t give him the full distance the bow was capable of. He oiled the parts and polished them until they gleamed. The bow string looked intact enough, but would it hold up under repeated strain? He had no money to buy something new, the same for the quarrels in the leather quiver. Inspecting each bolt, he only found three that were passable, and even they had been chewed on by mice. He buffed the wood and used tallow to rub into the string.

“Looks quite good to me,” Clod said as he watched. “Reminds me of the one you picked up on the battlefield, remember?”

“Of course, I remember. I often wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t gone down there…”

“The Squire would have killed us for coming home without the swine, that’s for sure. Instead here we are on a grand adventure.”

“You call this an adventure? No money, no property of our own, and one step from the gutter.”

“I have Cloe and you have Avril. Isn’t that enough?”

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s enough.”

Later, Master Hebert came to the back to see how they had fared. Rogé reported on the prospects they were hoping for.

“I’m glad Lieutenant Chalmier promised to help you. He’s a good fellow, who often sits with me in church. And it’ll be nice to have the Watch right in my house. With all the riffraff flooding the town, one wonders if one is safe on the streets anymore.”

“It’s not certain yet, Sir,” Rogé responded. “We’re yet to be tested tomorrow.”

“I’m sure you’ll do well. Marcel had great confidence in you.”

But it wasn’t so easy to put away the anxieties facing them and it took a considerable time for Rogé to fall asleep. To his surprise, however, he woke spry the next morning, raring to start. Clod was eager enough too. Time dragged until eleven bells when they arrived at the tower fully armed.

“I see you both found appropriate equipment,” Chalmier said, as he came out of the tower, buckling on his sword. “The bow looks almost new, and the pole axe reminds me of my early days with the Watch. So are you ready?”

“Yes, Sir,” both replied in unison.

Clod was to go first. He was asked to half a section of a tree trunk with one blow. The first one, dried up hardwood, was easy and the wood split crisply under the axe. The second had a knot in it and Clod managed only to split it about half way. The third log was quite green and though Clod swung with all his strength, he barely nicked it, the wood was so wet and tenacious.

Then it was Rogé’s turn. The Lieutenant gave him a straw hat and told him to stick it on the post across the yard. Rogé counted thirty-seven steps to the pole, normally an easy distance for him, but he hadn’t practiced with the bow, afraid of further damaging the bolts.

Taking his stand, he spanned the bow, fit his best bolt to it, stilled his breath, aimed and pulled the tickler. Like a flash, the bolt flew and struck about two palms from the hat. The second shot was even worse, missing by double the first.

“Hrump.” The Lieutenant cleared his throat. “Not quite what I expected after the claims you made yesterday.”

“Sorry, Sir,” Rogé said evenly. “I’ve not used this bow before, and the bolts are not in the best shape.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

Rogé pulled the last from the quiver and presented it to the officer. “If you look closely, Sir, the wood has been chewed by mice, upsetting its balance. The leather wanes have also shrunk and warped with time and neglect.”

“Hrump.” The Lieutenant turned to an archer standing nearby, observing the event, and yelled, “Emile, give this man three of your bolts and let’s see what he can do with them.”

The bolts were fairly new, maybe a little light but definitely better than those before. Rogé sighted and released, the bolt striking a finger width below the target.

“Hrump.” The second bolt struck a little high, but right in line with it.

Rogé fitted the next and lifted the crossbow to his shoulder. Quickly Clod made the sign of the cross, muttering a short prayer. The bolt this time nailed the hat right through the center. Clod let out an explosive breath.

“Well, Son, hardly a stalwart showing. Only managing one hit out of five. It’s not a result I can take back to my Captain. Sorry, Son, but it’s not good enough.”

“Sir…. Sir… give him another chance. He’s really good once he gets a measure of the bow…”

“Sorry, Son, but you had your chances.” The Lieutenant turned to go back to the tower.

“Sir, if I may be so bold,” Rogé said. The Lieutenant paused and turned, his eyes questioningly on him. Rogé reported on the sorry state of the town’s armory. “Metal is rusting away, the leather is shrinking and the wood turns brittle for want of some oil.”

“So?”

“Give us a few days for Clod and me to sort through it, throw away the garbage and save whatever we can.”

“Humm. Not a bad idea. I’ll mention it to my Captain and see what he thinks of it. Come back tomorrow.” Then he turned and strode off.

“Well that could have gone better,” Clod said, spitting to the side.

“Could also have gone worse. At least we put a bug in his ear and we’ll find out tomorrow what it will be.”

“You promised a lot of very dirty work, and for what? We don’t even know.”

“We have to start somewhere.”

Avril was disappointed when she heard of their failure, Cloe less so. “Maybe you can sell water to the houses and earn a bit of money that way,” she said brightly. It was a thought. Every house needed about six to eight buckets a day to cook and wash with, more if there were animals needing to be watered. Not everyone could make the trek to the well and back that many times, especially those further off from it. There were water carriers all over town, but there was room for more.

“If nothing comes up, we’ll certainly consider it. Thank you Cloe,” Rogé said.

“I like your idea better,” Avril said a little later when they were alone.

“Which idea is that?”

“About the armory. The throw-away wood you can sell for firewood and the iron stuff to the smiths, who can recover some of it.” It seemed there were no shortages of ideas.

The next day the Lieutenant told them that their proposal had been accepted. The Captain and he had made a quick tour of the armory and decided that it definitely needed some work. “So restore what you can, clean what you can and throw the rest away.”

So for the next two weeks they worked daily, from eight bells to five, bringing some order to the armory. A large pile accumulated that was to be discarded, the place was swept and cleaned from top to bottom and every item of use was organized into a meaningful order. Rogé also made a meticulous list, itemizing everything.

“This is too much like menial farm work,” Clod said as he lugged armfuls of stuff one way or another.

“I guess working at publishing spoiled you for everything else,” Rogé joked.

“At least that was relatively clean.”

After two weeks Rogé presented the clean armory to the Lieutenant, who was suitably impressed, especially with the itemized list.

“You have some talent at organization, that’s obvious.”

He looked through the discard piles and authorized their removal. They got 24 sous for the cleanup, 9 for the firewood and 19 for the scrap metal, the brass rivets and decorations fetching an especially good price. So all in all, it proved to be a profitable venture.

The women too were bringing in an income from laundering. Chloe was also earning extra money by spinning thread, something she had learned at the nunnery. There was enough to buy new shoes, badly needed all around and Rogé had some money left over to buy bolts and new strings for the bow. He also had the blacksmith forge him a proper cocking lever. At day’s end he often went to the park by the river to practice shooting at a tightly packed bale of straw. Soon he was back to his old form, the new bow performing surprisingly well.

Strangely Rogé didn’t consider himself in military terms, but the bow gave him a sense of worth like nothing else. Why? he wondered. Because each shot tells you if you’re good or bad; you don’t need anyone else telling you that. As he improved he became happier, which Avril commented on.

“I like you like this. You’re much more fun to be around.” In the evening they often walked together hand-in-hand around town, Avril noting all the changes and idiosyncrasies in what she saw. “Have you noticed that the well has a Latin inscription carved into the stonework? It’s hard to imagine that it was dug and lined so many years ago, yet it still serves us with clear water today.” Or, “Do you see how Mister Grieves, the greengrocer, is always making sheep eyes at Madame Tullie the neighbor’s wife? It’s easy to guess what goes on in his head.”

“And how does Madame Tullie feel about this?”

“She likes it, look how she preens for him, but she’ll never give in, knowing that if she does, he’ll lose interest.”

“Not all men are like that,” he said, thinking that maybe Avril was doing the same, to keep him interested. His mouth turned sour at the thought.

Sunday was some Saint’s day, celebrated town wide. He didn’t bother to find out who, the Church had more saints than true believers. After mass there was a procession led by the Bishop that made a circuit of the town. Bishop Boniface the Third was paraded around in his gilded chair with a canopy over him. In front of him a phalanx of priests with smoking censers dispensing holy smoke, behind him a choir of monks singing Alleluias. Following closely were nuns in their austere habits praying aloud and counting their rosaries. After that, all piousness went out of the celebration as the rank and file of the townsfolk gave themselves over to unfettered enjoyment. They sang (not so hallowed songs) and danced without inhibition as if the Devil was after them.

There were deer, boar and oxen turning on the spits in the main square, and the inns were represented with their barrels of ale. The baker made a pile selling his wares, especially the cinnamon flavored sweet breads. There were entertainers on the streets, acrobats, jugglers and puppeteers, all vying with one another. Behind the church, in the narrow cemetery a cockfight was in progress and a crowd was betting furiously.

The Watch was in evidence but didn’t interfere: this was a Saint’s day, so they let him have his day without butting in. Rogé, with his bow on his back and his quiver full, met Lieutenant Chalmier on Cathedral Square.

“Going hunting?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Not today. They’ve set up an archery butt down by the river. I mean to try my luck with the bow.”

“That needs more skill than luck.” But the Lieutenant seemed intrigued and declared he would come along.

In the long meadow by the river, where men-at-arms sometimes practiced their craft, were about a dozen men prepared to test themselves. The opinion was that Guillaume Terazzi would win hands down and the whole contest was about who would come second.

“He’s Genoese, you know, born with a bow in his hand. They train all their lives and are impossible to beat,” a neighboring archer said, rubbing his bow with a small golden crucifix to improve its aim.

The first rounds had started and the dozen contestants were soon whittled down to four with Rogé surviving the preliminary series. He felt good, the bow functioned well and he had no trouble finding his aim. Of course, Guillaume hadn’t shot yet, forgoing the first rounds. The next shot reduced the field to three, then just two. Luis Hillger from Lyon and Rogé from nowhere. The range was increased to eighty paces, the straw targets only a hand reach across. Painted in crimson in the very middle was the heart of the aiming point. Whoever came closest won the round.

Luis shot first, hitting just outside the painted area. Rogé stood on the firing line and squinted down the range looking for any movement in the foliage to spot any wind gusts. The day was perfect for shooting, warm, letting the bolts rise easily in the light air and there was little to no wind. Rogé lifted his crossbow, now spanned at maximum by the new cocking arm, set his bolt and settled his breathing. He adjusted the angle and gently pressed the trigger. With a whoosh the bolt bore through the air, striking into the paint near the center. The crowd cheered the hit.

On the next round, best out of three, Luis also met the paint, just below the center. Rogé shot, hitting just beside his opponent’s. Alternating, they shot the required number of bolts. The hits were so close that a measure had to be taken, after which the butt judge declared Rogé the winner. Now there was only one man left, and when Guillaume stepped to the line for the first time the crowd went wild with a riot of cheering for he was the past champion of this event and therefore allowed to skip the preliminaries. The target was now set at a hundred paces, looking very small in the distance. With a pretty bow and wave of his hand, Guillaume offered Rogé the first shot.

Outwardly calm, his concentration sharpened to a single point, Rogé aimed and shot. The bolt hit near dead center. A cheer erupted from the crowd at the unexpected accuracy of the shot. Maybe this would turn into a contest after all. Guillaume shot, coming a hair’s breadth closer to the center, and after measuring the judges decided to award him the shot. As the winner he shot next, hitting fairly in the middle. The crowd broke into a roar again and it took long minutes for the judges to settle them down. Rogé was very calm, his heart hardly beating, totally within himself. His eyes saw only the target and nothing to the sides. In one smooth motion he lifted the bow, aimed and fired, tracking it straight to target, hitting in the middle. Again there was a measurement and this time he was declared the winner. The crowd again went wild and refused to stop. More people came running to see what had caused such an uproar. The judges were yelling themselves hoarse trying to contain the spectators.

Finally it was quiet enough to continue, and Rogé stood to the line, set his bolt, aimed and fired, again finding the center of the paint. There was no holding back the crowd, who exploded into a wild madcap celebration. It took nearly half an hour to settle them enough to let Guillamo take his turn. The Genoese, taught by hundreds of such competitions, coolly raised his bow and fired, hitting in the center of the mark beside Rogé’s bolt. The judges went to inspect the hits, while the crowd held its breath. Of the three judges one decided for Rogé, the second for the Genoese, but the third declared it a draw. Both archers were neck on neck, dead even. The crowd didn’t know what to do in its excitement. Parts of the stands were overturned and there were fights throughout. The event Marshall had to finally call in the mounted men-at-arms to restore order at the point of a lance.

The judges, however, didn’t know what to do next. There was no room to set the target back any farther, and shooting again at the same distance wouldn’t please anybody. They took their difficulty to the Marshall, who was by the way the town’s high judge, to have him decide how to proceed. After a minute of thinking, the Marshall rose and walked the length of the butt, stopping by the pole that held the target. Taking a large gold ring from his thumb, he placed it on a nail on the post. Returning, he declared loudly, “Whoever can hit inside the ring shall be the winner and can keep the ring and the prize for being the best. The very best.” Was he jesting? A ring at a hundred paces? Impossible! No man, only an angel could do that.

Again pandemonium broke out, the noise painful to any ear except for the deaf, and again the lances had to ride into the crowd, browbeating them to order. By now the whole of the town had come, the news spreading like a flash fire, so there was hardly any place to stand in the congestion. The men-at-arms had to use their shield wall to contain the crowd.

A toss of the coin, a large gold Luis that sparkled as it spun in the air, decided the first shot for Guillamo. The Genoese waited for the crowd to hush before he raised his bow, sighted and pulled the trigger. To the roar of the crowd, the bolt streaked across the distance, to bury itself level with the ring but outside it by an inch. A good shot, but it proved how impossible that task was.

Next, Rogé stood at the line and measured the distance across with his eye.

“Wait! Wait!” a number in the crowd called urgently, as there were still hosts of bets to nail down. The prevailing odds were that the shot was impossible but because of the odds offered, it tempted many to bet on a hit. The noise subsided, but never quite disappeared. It didn’t matter, for Rogé heard nothing, saw nothing but the glint of gold at the far end. A thumb ring was bigger than a normal ring, but ridiculously small at this distance. Rogé was icily calm, talking to himself.

I’m back at Agincourt, ready to take the shot I never had the chance to take then. Here’s my chance to redeem that. There stands King Henry at a hundred paces, the crown on his helmet, protected by his bright plate armor and costly finery, only his eyes vulnerable, gloating, glinting inside the gold. He checked the unmoving leaves, lifted his crossbow, concentrated on the gold glint in the eye and he shot. The crowd held its breath, trying to track the speeding bolt that was like lightning, yet Rogé had time for a short prayer. Hit the eye, hit the eye, send the English rat home in a casket, and erase the shame of Agincourt.

From its apex the quarrel began its glide down, hit and buried itself, knocking the ring off the nail, to tumble along the shaft that now held it prisoner. He had hit dead center, inside the ring!

The crowd exploded into a gasp of surprise, many not believing their eyes. The Marshall and the judges ran to the post to ascertain that the ring had indeed been pierced. Judge number three broke into a dance, yelling, “A hit! A good hit! Well struck!” That made it official and the bettors turned to collect their bets so recently made.

The first to congratulate Rogé was Guillaume, every inch the professional that he was. “Win some, lose some,” he said, shaking Rogé’s hand. All Rogé could think of was that the King was dead and the shame had been erased.

From somewhere Clod appeared, his face screwed up in joy, shaking Rogé by the shoulders. “You did it! You actually did it. You lucky, lucky bastard. All the saints must have helped you to nail that ring to the post.”

Then, like a rogue wave, the entire crowd converged on Rogé nearly sweeping him off his feet. People congratulated him, cursed and blessed him, some just wanted to touch him and get a piece of his luck. Someone gave him a wine skin which he greedily guzzled, only now aware of how thirsty he was. He had felt nothing but the pull of the task, had seen nothing but the target in the distance. Even now after he had won, he wasn’t sure what he was feeling. He wasn’t elated, more like numb, as he was trapped in the press at Agincourt. This time you’ve won. This time you have shot and won.

It was later when Avril found him sitting on one of the tombstones in the cathedral cemetery, hiding from people.

“You did it. I don’t know how, but you did it. Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

He shook his head but didn’t answer. She looked at him puzzled, not understanding his daze. “Is something wrong? Are you hurt? It was quite a press… I couldn’t get near you.”

He shook his head again. “It was too late…”

“What was?”

“The shot that should have happened two years ago to take out the King’s eye. I saw him but couldn’t take the shot. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t lift my bow. I hit it today, but not then when it mattered.”

Seeing his pain, she dropped beside him and cradled his head to her bosom. “It wasn’t meant to be then. But today is yours… you’ve earned it.” She couldn’t understand why he was so trapped in the past, and was desperate to get him out of it. She took his hand and placed it on her breast, shushing him. The feel of her, offered for the first time, shocked him awake.

“You… you don’t need to do that. Really…”

Still for the rest of the day he walked around dazed, smiling mechanically as people called to him.

“Rogé, wait up!” Rogé turned to see Lieutenant Chalmier hailing him. “What a fine shot. One in a thousand.” He glad-handed Rogé who returned it woodenly. “The thing is, the Captain agrees that, no question, we should have you in the Watch. So come around and you’ll be sworn in.”

“I don’t come alone, Sir.”

“Oh you mean the other, Claude, was it not? Well bring him along. We have a place for him too.”

At home things were on their head. Clod was beside himself counting the money. “Here it is, a hundred for winning the shot, 37 that I won on side bets, and the Marshall’s ring has got to be worth 400, maybe 500, if a sou. I bet he never thought he would ever lose it. We’re rich, Rogé, my boy.”

Rogé told him that they had been accepted into the Watch. Clod’s face clouded over. “Are you sure about this? We don’t have to join, you know. We have enough money for now and you’re famous, just about anyone in town would be happy to give you a job.”

“They’re making me Head Archer with a rank of Sergeant-at-arms. I can’t turn down such an offer. But you don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.”

“I want to… there’s no question of that. We belong together. So if you go, I’ve got to go too. But now, with your well earned reputation we could do better.”

“Maybe. But this sets me on the upward path until we leave—”

“Who said anything about leaving? Cloe and me are just getting comfortable here.”

“Avril gets itchy to move if we stay too long in any one place.”

“There’s an easy answer to that… get her pregnant. Then she’d be looking for a warm nest to raise your child. Believe me it works all the time.”

“And how do you know this? How many women have you made pregnant?”

“None that I know of, the Saints be praised. But I hear such talk in the tavern and from the women gossiping in the market. Don’t you listen?”

“Rarely.”

“Well then trust me, I’ve heard it said scores of times.” But Rogé just shook his head.

That night in bed, Avril was tense waiting for him to do something for she had promised, implied it at least. But again he shook his head. “Not like this, I won’t. I’ll wait until you’re ready,” he whispered in her ear. “Even if it kills me,” he couldn’t resist adding.

“But I don’t want you to die or waste away with wanting…” she protested. But he hushed her down and to make a point turned his back on her. It took them a while to fall asleep in the uncomfortable silence between them.

Chapter 10

With the first twitter of the birds Rogé was up and outside. He washed himself thoroughly in the rain trough. He felt the peach fuzz on his face, but it wasn’t heavy enough to bother trying to shave it. With his fingers he combed through his hair until he smoothed out all the tangles. He was strangely elated, conscious that he had won and was considered somebody by the entire town. Also at the edge of his thoughts was the fact that Avril had shown an indication of willingness. He was glad that he hadn’t tested her sacrifice. Again he promised himself that he would wait… and maybe die an old man still waiting. But this morning he was too cheerful to be downcast about it.

Clod was slower to find the day. He yawned and stretched then had to relieve himself of all the ale and wine he had drunk the night before. They had breakfast of fresh bread the baker on the corner had left on their window sill, along with the richly seasoned sausage the butcher donated, and the nuts and dried fruit from the green grocer. A reputation was worth that much, making people want to buy their way close to it.

As the cathedral of Saint Jean rang out the eleventh hour, Rogé and Clod reported to the North Tower. This time they had no difficulty entering. The Lieutenant greeted them heartily and took them to a store room where they received tunics of black on the left side, red on the right. They shrugged into them and tightened their belts over the cloth. There was the city emblem emblazoned on the chest, a lion rampant surmounted by three fleurs-de-lis.

Next, he led them straight to the Captain, Lothar Krause, a veteran Swiss mercenary who had ended up in Vienne after the harsh campaigns of a decade ago. From the sweeping look he gave, Rogé surmised that the Captain was quick to make up his mind. He smiled and said, “Welcome to the Town Watch. For the most part Vienne is peaceful enough and we intend to keep it that way. Our population has grown so we need more men to ensure order.” He eyed Rogé and continued, “I saw the shoot yesterday and your superb final shot. I also inspected the armory and the fine work you two have wrought there.” Then they were dismissed.

“The Captain was in a fine mood this morning. It must be you, for he’s a serious man, you rarely get a smile from him,” the Lieutenant said. As he led the way to a small chapel where they repeated the oath of service, to protect the property and interest of the town… “in the sight of God and men. Amen.”

“That’s it. You’re now part of the Watch.” The Lieutenant gave them each a small gold coin as their sign on fee. Then he led them to the exercise yard where he introduced Rogé to the archers and Clod to another group.

“Well shot. Wonderful shot,” the archers greeted Rogé, crowding around him. They were eager to look at his weapon as if the skill was hidden in it. However, nowhere on the weapon was a maker’s name incised, so they had to conclude it was a serviceable piece but certainly not a masterpiece.

In turn Rogé had them present their weapons and he inspected them, offering recommendations for their care. Surprisingly he found many of the strings dried and even frayed. He suggested the liberal use of tallow or beeswax. A look at the bolts also confirmed lax care. The heads were often blunted and pitted with rust, the wood bone dry and the vanes often bent and frayed. He told them firmly that they would have to be more careful with their equipment in the future. “A bow doesn’t make you an archer, your aim does. However, how well you shoot will depend on your bow and the care you have bestowed on it.” They had a round of practice at twenty paces and half the bolts missed the mark. “Do not hurry the shot or jerk the trigger. First ease your breath, settle your sight and squeeze gently. Let the bolt do the rest.”

For lunch he met up with Clod who was sour. “They put me to guard the prison. What a pig sty. It’s bad with mold and shit. You can hear the rats running about. The prisoners piss wherever and rarely get a change of straw. The smell took my breath away. I tell you Rog, I don’t know if I can stand that for long. I tried to clean up some, but the others won’t lift a finger to help.”

“Prove that you can do your job well and maybe you’ll be assigned to something better.”

“It’ll have to be something much, much nicer,” Clod muttered. The food wasn’t bad. Barley with pork, seasoned with pepper and marjoram. The ale wasn’t bad either, not bitter like in the cheaper taverns.

Within days Rogé got to know the basic routines. The Watch was responsible for keeping order in town, maintaining regular patrols throughout all parts, providing security at the gates by sifting through who entered and of course mounting a watch in the towers and the walls to keep intruders from sneaking in. All in all, there were 80 men, one Captain, two Lieutenants and four Sergeants.

They also maintained a presence in the surrounding countryside to extend the town’s influence. One of the duties of the Watch was of course crowd control, but also most importantly to be on the lookout for fires. In any city of the day, crowded as it was, fire posed a great danger to the population. All it took was a spark from an unattended fire to start a conflagration that could easily burn half the town down. To fight any outbreak, there were cisterns throughout the city reserved for fire fighting. It was expected of all patrols to monitor them and make sure they were full.

Accompanied by a veteran, Rogé patrolled the city, trying to memorize the layout, to get to know the people who lived there and to talk to anyone about their concerns.

“You’ll find that mostly we don’t chase criminals,” Benito explained, “but stop fights and arguments, and cite people for unruly behavior, littering, or not picking up after themselves. We look for unkempt yards full of offal and garbage. Most often, we get drunks home and enforce the curfew. Of course there’s the King’s law, and the town also has its own ordinances that have to be enforced. But mostly we talk to people, our presence is often enough to calm a situation. Then again, things can blow up quickly and unexpectedly like a summer storm.”

Benito was Italian, who many years ago came to taste Rhône wine and liked it so much that he decided to stay. At the time the Watch was hiring foreigners, with no kin ties in town, to ensure their absolute loyalty to the force. “I’ve been doing this for the past fourteen years, and it’s not a bad job, but it’s hard to make and keep friends. I’m married now with two sons and have a small house on Potter Street.”

Rogé didn’t talk much, but then he didn’t have to as he was famous: everyone in town knew his name and bragged how well they knew him, when in fact very few did. Master Hebert for one. He was extremely pleased by the popularity of his guest and offered to cede more of the house to him and his companions. Rogé refused politely, saying they would be moving out in any case, as soon as they found a suitable place. He expressed his gratitude to the Master for his help and welcome. With the winnings and everybody working, having their own place seemed affordable.

Clod was less happy about his situation. He spent most of his time in the prison, watching the prisoners.

“There’re a few drunks, some beggars and three thieves who’ll be publicly flogged come Saturday. There’s a murderer awaiting trial and a pervert accused of having unnatural intercourse with animals. They say the Church wants to try him and the Bishop is inclined to stone him to death. Those are the people I work with day in and day out.”

“But what do you do?”

“I have keys to the locks and I open and close them as needed. Feeding time’s the worst. The prisoners are begging for more food, more drink, to see relatives or claiming to be sick. Bonnet, the other turnkey just swears at them and kicks them whenever he can. A scullion comes and dishes out the slop they call food and if he feels like it he’ll bring fresh water for them to drink. Our sows ate better food back on the farm.” He made a displeased face. “You’ve got it good, out in the open, while I’m breathing in the fetid air of the dungeon and worrying about catching lice.”

“Now, don’t dramatize, you’re not always in the stink below.”

“No, I admit it. Most times we’re dicing in the dayroom, trying to pass the time. You wouldn’t believe the stupid gossip I have to listen to with a couple of cretins repeating themselves, because they have no imagination to find something new to talk about.”

“I think in time it’ll get better. From what I see of most of the Watch, they need men like you with some talent and imagination. They’ll not waste you down there for long.”

“It can’t be soon enough for me.”

“Well if you’re really so dead set, then quit. Go find something else…”

“No, no. Me and Cloe can use the steady money. I want to buy a small place and set up for myself. Start a family.”

“Did I hear right? You, who screwed your way across northern France, are thinking of settling down and raising a family?”

“As far as screwing goes, I did so in the comfort wagon and only as long as my coins lasted. Cloe is a good woman and I’m determined to be good to her.”

“Very commendable, my friend. I wish you a surfeit of happiness.”

“What the hell does a surfeit mean… and where did you learn such a heavy word anyway?”

“Surfeit is glut, an overabundance. Marcel taught me a lot, to copy, to read and write, and opened my eyes to the wisdom of books.”

“Poor Marcel, he’d have loved it here with Master Hebert in a benign climate.”

The next day, Rogé with two others had to arrest an old woman accused of witchery. A pitiable creature, her hands trembling all the time, with a halfwit son who nearly got himself killed trying to shield her. They dragged her to the Town Hall where the Judge listened to the accusation but found it spurious and sent the woman home. The accuser, a sharp tongued neighbor, was charged with spiteful gossip and sentenced to a day in the pillory in the center of town. Luckily someone else was assigned to conduct the woman there and padlock her in.

Rogé took the scribbling from the hearing of this case to the Records and had a look at the vast archives below. The clerk, a man with watery eyes and thinning hair, frowned at the document, muttering that the writer had no grammar and didn’t know his prepositions. He opened a large book, found his place and made an entry for the event.

“Do you write everything down?”

“Everything the Council decides to say, everything that passes through the Court, and every time the Lord Mayor farts…” He looked a bit startled and tried to back away from it. “I didn’t mean that last. The Lord Mayor is an upstanding man, a credit to our town. What I should have said was that anything noteworthy gets written down.”

“That must need a lot of volumes.”

“Yes, about one a year. Then of course there’re the tax rolls, census and business records but they’re kept in separate books and overseen by three men to make sure there’s no cheating. They’re not so finicky with the events journal.”

“A fine book,” Rogers said fingering the velum, turning the pages back. His eye was caught by an entry and he asked, “Who is Madame Belussy?”

“That was earlier this year. The wife of a Church elder on the Bishop’s Council drove her husband’s mistress, the said Madame Belussy, out of town with charges of harlotry and being a succubus.”

“And was the charge true?”

“According to the records yes, but in all honesty the elder was to blame. He still dallies around today, but is more careful not to settle on one specific female. However it’s in the record, not exactly true, but not entirely false either. If you have power and influence you can slant history your way.”

“Then how do you know what’s really true?”

“You don’t, but you can guess at it by reading between the lines.” Marcel had said something like that: history is written by the powerful not by the powerless.

The clerk flipped back a page, and tracked through the entries. “Ah, here it is. On April 14 of 1417, Saint Lambert’s Day, Rogé won the archery contest by piercing a gold ring at one hundred paces with one shot of his crossbow. After, he accepted a commission as Sergeant of the Archers in the Town Watch.” The clerk tapped the page, looking pleased with himself. “The thing that puzzled me is that I couldn’t find a family name for you.”

“That’s because I have none. I was orphaned early and lost my name. Rightly speaking it’s likely that it isn’t even Rogé. That was stuck on me later.”

“Maybe you should assume one and get it into the parish records. In case you marry and have children to give a full name to.”

Rogé perused the page noting that the writing was less certain, and he noticed the clerk’s hand shake just a little. The man won’t hold his job for long, he decided; the ravages of old age were creeping up on him.

“Well, thank you, Sir. Most illuminating.”

That night, each carrying a lamp, Rogé, Boise and Martin did night patrol. It was strange to wander around the deserted streets in the weak glow of the lamps.

“Watch it,” Boise warned, “there’s a step ahead.” Rogé hadn’t seen it and even forewarned, stumbled over it. “You’ve got to know every inch of the town to do this at night, especially when there’s no moon or it’s hidden by overcast.” Repeatedly he had to warn Rogé of some obstruction ahead. Rogé decided henceforth to pay more attention during the day to memorize all the pitfalls.

“Mostly we enforce the curfew, watch for fires and discourage anyone from venturing out.” As they passed the church, Rogé heard some scuffle in the dark shadows. He turned toward it but Boise held him back. “That’s an old beggar, no need to take heed of him and haul him off to jail. It just means more work for us that serves nobody. It’s best just to look the other way.”

Most houses were locked up tight and the windows shuttered. At odd times a little candlelight spilled out from inside. “That’s Master Boudier, no one knows what he does up at this time of the night.” They walked on, their steps sounding eerily hollow in the empty streets. As they passed a corner house, Boise sniffed the air. “That’s Pierre the baker. He starts early in the morning and we swing by and get the first bread of the day from him.”

On a side street Boise paused, looking up at the shuttered window. “That’s Mathilde, a well known lady of the night. Sometimes she invites us in for mulled wine and a minute or two by the fireplace. In winter we all look forward to that.” The window remained closed, and regretfully they passed on. Twice they went by the North Tower and paused to exchange words with the guard up front.

“Saw nothing, heard nothing,” Boise said, warming his hands over the open brazier. It was near morning and the air was quite chilly.

“The way it should be,” the guard said, nodding his head.

By the time he got home, Rogé was quite tired from walking all night. He had a piece of bread with cheese and collapsed into bed, just as the rest were getting up. They left and he tried to ignore the noises of the city stirring. The worst were the church bells ringing every hour, from sun up to sun down, framing the working day.

Interestingly, the night watch had changed his perception of the city. His eyes found new recesses, people and places to look out for. On day patrol, he and his partner, most often Boise, would stop in a tavern and get a complimentary drink so they would overlook small infractions against the town’s ordinances. Most often that included garbage strewn about the property, as the city fathers were most interested in cleaning up the town. However, around the wells, nothing was allowed. Typically they were fenced off to keep people from soiling them.

“Eleven, no, twelve years ago, there was an outbreak of sickness brought on by bad water. Nearly a hundred people died. Ever since we have been extremely strict in policing all the wells. Four years ago, a demented youth threw a dead dog into the well, poisoning the water. He was questioned, but never gave a reason. He was hung in hopes of deterring others from doing something that crazy.” Boise shook his head, still not understanding it.

Rogé reported on his first week to Lieutenant Chalmier. “It’s surprising how little we have to do. Most times, our presence is enough… with one exception. When the wife is fighting with the husband, then there’s often no holding them apart. The way I see it, the men chastise the wives in private, whereas the women pick a fight in public to shame their men into compliance.”

“True enough. But take us away and the whole town would quickly boil over. As it is, it’s mostly drunks we have to deal with, the jealousies of neighbors and family feuds. Unlike Paris, or even Lyon, we have no gangs in town. What there is, is petty pilfering, malicious gossip, stealing fruit on the market, or breaking the curfew or an ordinance. Of course the merchants cheat their customers, and buyers in their turn try to short-change them with shaved coins and such. Be friendly and get yourself known, and people will tell you who’s doing wrong and who isn’t.”

Clod was a bit happier with his placement. “We sit around a lot, talk and dice. Even sleep a bit on the bench. There’s little to do with the prisoners. They come and go, or rot below. We practice a bit, but it’s not very serious. Samson, who used to be a wrestler, showed me some good holds, how to subdue a person and keep control of him. Otherwise it’s mostly boring… and I swear, I’ll have to learn to read to entertain myself.”

Much to Rogé’s frustration, the situation with Avril hadn’t become any clearer. They were amicable with each other, even tender, but nothing beyond. Rogé had built such inhibitions around his wants that he was no longer sure if he even could satisfy them.

“Simple enough to fix,” Clod advised. “Hire yourself a pleasure woman, who’ll take care of you and reignite your passions.”

“Doesn’t seem right. Is that what you do to Cloe?”

“Of course not. But Cloe’s more than willing. It’s me who has to come up for air, if you know what I mean.” Rogé didn’t want to know but, nonetheless, envied his friend. He felt even more despondent.

Avril was quick to note all his moods, but didn’t know how to address this one. To her love was a mental thing, a mind-set, capable of tenderness, but stopping short of the physical. She kept her mind from that, and every time her thoughts wandered there, she was attacked by a noxious smell from her past that embodied everything that she sought to avoid. She trusted Rogé, but still in a very vulnerable way.

Cloe, the shy girl who had been silent for so long, had found her voice in her marriage. More than once she berated Rogé for not being sensitive enough in his care of Avril and at the same time, reproached Avril for being standoffish. “You’ve got to take care of your man, feed him, groom him, amuse him and keep him satisfied… if you don’t want him to go to someone else.” Her admonishing didn’t help at either end and served only to entrench them more firmly in their respective states.

From time to time Rogé considered visiting a pleasure lady. There was Bernice, a nice young thing whom many admired and praised. “She’s very adventuresome, always ready to play.” Adventuresome? Rogé wasn’t sure. Besides he wallowed in his frustration; it was a source of comfort, as pain was to one who chose to be a martyr. He went as far as to confess at church, received penance and performed it, feeling released for a half an hour before the usual torment began again.

May 11 was Saint Estelle’s day. Because she wasn’t as well known as the others, there was only a modest celebration organized that included archery by the river, and of course cockfights behind the town slaughterhouse. Though he was invited, Rogé refused to take part in the shoot. Instead he was on duty for crowd control, though there were not that many people attending. As the highpoint of the archery, the Marshall again risked a gold ring at a hundred paces, but no one came even close to it.

“You should have seen it. Guiscard the miller’s son tried six times and missed by two hands, the closest anyone ever came to the ring. Young Carlo, the barber, who’s in the town’s militia and is accounted as a good shot could not come within an arm’s span. But I must admit it made the contest interesting when over a dozen tried and failed. The Marshall was heard to say that next year he’ll charge an entry fee for the ring and give the proceeds to charity. Your name was often mentioned, calling your shot a miracle.”

Two days later Rogé had his hair cut by Carlo himself. The young man couldn’t stop talking about the experience. “I shot and was sure I would hit because Saint Estelle is my family’s patron saint, but no…maybe she was busy in Lyon aiding someone else.” Then he pumped Rogé for the secret of his success.

“It was bad luck that the wind was blowing while you shot. When I did it everything was still. Pick your day better the next time.”

“I don’t know, there’s talk that they’ll have an entry fee of ten sous per person. That’s ten haircuts to pay for it. I hardly think it’s worth it.”

The only other event that caught people’s attention was that the rope walker, trying to cross from the South to the Water Tower, fell midway and broke both his legs and likely wouldn’t ever walk again without a limp. There was also a foot race along the town wall, but it was poorly attended and was won by a nobody from a western estate miles outside town. Same for the boat race, only three boats took part and two of them sank at the outset when they got their oars tangled. There was also a donkey race, but the riders had to sit backwards.

On Sunday as on every Sunday, Rogé attended church with Avril. They stood in the back as only the notables had seats in the front pews. They were dressed in their best, but looked drab in the flock of color and jewelry. Of course only the nobility and the rich were allowed to dress fashionably; the common man had to make do (by law) with humbler choices.

What Rogé enjoyed the most were the choir and the organ, sounding bright and enthusiastic in the high vaulted church. He didn’t follow the Latin service but gazed at the altar piece depicting the birth of Christ on the left, the passion of Christ in the center, and on the right his ascent to the throne of God in heaven. Each time he discovered a new detail to think about.

It was nice to see the congregation at its best. These were his neighbors, the people he had sworn to protect. After the service he and Avril walked around the square like many other couples, though here and there he caught a few disapproving looks, as everyone knew that they weren’t married. But most people chose to overlook that fact, because he was the man who shot the golden ring.

He also visited Father Cordilo and asked to be christened, giving his name as Rogé Durant.

“You weren’t christened?” Father Cordilo was quite shocked.

“I’m sure I was, but sometime in-between my name was lost and I need a new one. I need to be baptized so Heaven knows who I am.”

After some thought and consulting the Bible, Father Cordilo finally acceded to his request, willing to perform a private ceremony two days hence.

“Durant? Why Durant? Why not Simon or Fournier?” Avril asked.

“Because…because Durant means hard… made strong. That fits me, no?”

“Is that the name you want to leave to your children?” she asked, and he just about fell over in surprise. Were they going to get married, and how were they going to produce children without engaging in sex? Questions rushed in, so confusing that he didn’t know what to ask or say.

Bedtime that night was a little strained and he didn’t know if because of himself or her.

Two days later, he was baptized Rogé Simon-Durant, a compromise Avril and he had worked out. As a baptism gift Clod gave him a small dinner knife with an ivory handle and a sheath chased with silver.

With both couples’ savings, they decided to look for a place of their own. There wasn’t much choice in town so they had to settle for a smallish house, with a kitchen/dayroom, and two smaller rooms toward the back. It took a bit of haggling to get the price down to what they could afford, but in the end they paid it. They cleaned the place from top to bottom, whitewashed the interior, and as soon as things were dry, they moved in, each couple taking a room and sharing the rest of the space.

There was a small enclosed yard outside for spending sunny days under the open sky. Avril was happy, humming as she worked, arranging and rearranging their few possessions. Cloe sang along as she had a very pretty voice.

On the next market day, Rogé stood with Lieutenant Chalmier overlooking the farmers and merchants as they set out their produce and wares. It was still quiet, in the early stages of the day. The morning had been easy, just two men to pillory, a baker who mixed too much chaff into his flour and a cloth merchant found to have a short measuring stick. Next to them, chained by his neck to the shame post was a middle-aged man caught with his neighbor’s wife.

“Today we watch for purse snatchers and pickpockets. The market lures them here. Not many today, seeing it’s not a high market day. The other thing to watch for: a few of the farmers will drink too much and get quite belligerent. Don’t try to fight with them, hit them over the head and cart’em off to jail.”

“Do we give them water?” Rogé asked, shifting the crossbow on his back to a more comfortable position.

“Give who?”

“The pilloried men.”

“Nah. Their family or friends might do that, but they have to pee and defecate where they stand. The shaming is part of the punishment.” Rogé nodded; he wasn’t a stranger to such a procedure since every village practiced some form of it.

A bit later Clod showed up with a wide grin on his face, carrying a short spear. “Look, they let me out for a day. Sometimes I feel like a prisoner myself, locked up.” He didn’t stay long, but circulated with two others of the Watch.

Rogé circled through the stands, looking for some lotion for the women. They had been complaining of dry hands from all the laundry they washed. By now there were a few customers around, mostly farmers selling produce and buying what they needed. Rogé found an unguent laced with some exotic scent that made it too expensive. Finally he settled on an ointment smelling of mint.

All morning he circled around letting himself be seen. The morning passed largely uneventfully. People haggled with passion but it stayed at shouting. In the afternoon three times he had to break up a fight in the tavern nearest the square.

Mid afternoon Rogé came upon Lieutenant Chalmier, sitting on the church steps peeling an orange.

“It’s been quiet so far. A little ruckus at the gate but it didn’t amount to much.” Rogé wanted to sit down, but knew that it wouldn’t look good for people to see the Watch lax on the job. That his superior did it… well that was his prerogative.

“It’s a real shame that the Bishop is so infirm that he hardly shows himself anymore. I expect we’ll get a new one soon. Prior Wulfram, the German, no doubt, rules already in the Bishop’s stead.”

“What’s a German doing here?”

“And what are the French priests and monks doing in Germany? Or Rome? The Catholic Church, the most high and exalted, is a nation unto itself, and doesn’t recognize borders. They regard people either as faithful or heretic or misled. The Inquisition is quiet for now, but it could flare up again. There’s much dissent, particularly to the north.”

“I hope we don’t get caught up in that.”

“Not much. We turn over such cases to the Church for trial.”

Later still, Rogé marched through the market, trying to look purposeful and officious. He came across Avril at the spice merchant sorting through his wares. She looked up and seeing him, her face lit up, and his heart gave a sweet sad tug.

“We’re low on everything,” she said. “But we like to eat and taste what we eat.” Was she trying to justify overspending the allowance?

“Good news,” she continued. “Father Cordilo agreed to wed Clod and Cloe.”

“What changed his mind?”

“Probably that he’s now part of the Watch and Cloe goes to church and confesses regularly.”

Later when Rogé saw Clod again, he congratulated him. “About time, as she’s pregnant.”

“What??! Why didn’t I know?”

“I thought you did. Avril knew.” This information made Rogé very thoughtful. Why was he the last to be informed?

A farmer was hitching his horses to a wagon loaded with produce that he couldn’t sell. One of the horses lifted a tail and dropped down a load. Rogé frowned. There was a town ordinance to reduce such polluting but it didn’t apply to horses.

“Hey, I know you,” the wagoneer suddenly called to him. “You’re the archer who shot the ring. Never saw a better shot in my life.” Rogé managed a narrow smile, although the praise was wearing thin for him. He was more than just an archer, and he wished people would recognize it.

“I would shoot too, but my eyes are weak, can’t adjust to the distance,” the wagoneer added as he hefted one more sack of turnips onto his wagon.

“Yes, you have to see what you’re aiming at,” Rogé said to flatter the man’s conceit. He was starting to realize that he had exceptional vision; up to now he thought everyone had his acuity.

By evening Rogé was at the South Gate with two of his archers, watching people leave. Most times he could tell from the people’s expressions if they had had a good day, or a disappointing one. A farm wagon rumbled through, filled with the whole family and their dog. Normally outside dogs were not allowed in town, but somehow this dog had snuck through.

At ten bells they closed the gates, Lieutenant Chalmier there to oversee it. He stayed to watch the inside portcullis lowered and made secure. He and Rogé walked back together then the Lieutenant stopped off at the Ten Doves for supper: he wasn’t married or had any family in town.

Certainly Rogé liked him better that the other Lieutenant, Brossard, who, having been granted the rank due to his family’s connections, was often uncivil to his charges and shirked his duties whenever he could. But he was there at public events, all feasts and celebrations, to show that he was doing his duty.

Next week the wedding ceremony was duly performed, uniting Claude and Clothilde as husband and wife. Father Cordilo frowned at not having a family name to scribe into the parish records and suggested that they should also be baptized like Rogé, but Clod wasn’t keen on paying the extra fee.

At the Peacock, admittedly one of the better eateries in town, they ate a wedding meal of mussels, trout and goose with watercress and carrots, with plenty of Beaujolais to go along. Afterward they barely had room for the wedding cake.

Avril gave Cloe a beautiful lace shawl while Rogé gave Clod a fine belt with a silver buckle and a tooled purse attached. It was fortunate that the Peacock wasn’t far from their place, as they were overloaded with food and wine.

Over the summer bad news arrived from the north. The English had retaken much of Normandy and were threatening Rouen. It seemed nothing could stop Henry in his campaigns to claim the French throne. There were rumors again that Burgundy was siding with the English. It didn’t impact Vienne all that much, except for the news coming down the Saône and the Rhône with every ship or barge.

By late summer Rogé was pleased with the progress his archers had made. They had placed well in archery contests, which was duly noted. Because of his fame, recruits wanted to be assigned to him; he had 25 men under him now with more spirit than other conscripts. He had also risen in the ranks and there was some talk of making him a Lieutenant. He resisted because he didn’t want to play the politics that the position required.

One day in August a certain Monsieur Bernard cornered him in the Crouching Lion as he was sipping ale by himself. He was a large man and by the looks of him, allowed himself every indulgence.

“Sergeant Durant. It’s a great pleasure finally to meet you. I hear so many tales of your accuracy that I just had to come and shake your hand.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Rogé muttered stiffly, not pleased by the man’s sudden intrusion into the peaceful time of his day.

“I’m a huge admirer of yours. I would dearly like to have seen the contests myself that I heard so much about. Yet, it puzzles me that given your abilities you haven’t participated in any more contests.” The florid face turned perplexed.

“I don’t compete anymore,” Rogé said, trying to avoid getting into a conversation with the stranger.

“I understand… prizes have shrunk to next to nothing. With everybody thinking they can shoot, the contests have degenerated into the mediocre. But I’ve a proposal to make to you. I’d pay good money to see you shoot again—say as much as 500 sous.”

“I’m really sorry, but you’re wasting your time. I don’t compete anymore.”

“Not even for 800 sous?”

“Not even.”

“How about 200 Byzantine solidi. That’s all gold.” Rogé still shook his head.

“You can have that in Venetian ducats or Florentine florins. Or in gulden or silver marks, you name it, you can have it.” That was a fair sum. In spite of himself, Rogé was intrigued.

“Is that Parisian mint or Tours mint?”

“Ha! A shrewd question. Tours, of course, the finest quality in all of France.”

“And why would you pay that much just to see me shoot?”

“I confess. I’m a promoter from Marseille and I organize shoots. Your fame is talked about far and wide and if it were to be made known that you’re ready to shoot, half the archers in Europe would beat a path to the door, wanting to see it and wanting to test themselves against your skill.”

“What exactly are you proposing?”

“The same shot at a thumb ring at a hundred paces.”

Rogé was tempted; with that kind of money they could buy a farm, but then he shook his head. “No, the last time I did that, God was on my side. I don’t think He cares so much for gold as you.”

“Tell you what, you could take five tries but all you’d need to do is hit it once, and all is yours. You have the 200 gold, the ring and one tenth of the betting. That’s a huge sum even for a rich man.”

“And how do you make your money?”

“Let that be my worry,” Monsieur Bernard said, then added, “You’re the main attraction and the appetizer. With all the archers here, I could run three, maybe even four contests back to back.”

“And if I miss all five shots?”

“Doesn’t matter, there’d be a hundred others here to try.”

Rogé thought hard; this man wasn’t going to leave him alone, so he temporized, “Let me think about it until tomorrow.”

At home Clod nearly hit the roof when he heard about it. “And you turned it down? It would take us twenty … thirty years to get that much money together. We could buy a business and have people working for us.”

“I didn’t turn it down… I just didn’t say yes.”

“Well then run, find the man and on your bended knees thank him for the opportunity.” At these words Rogé’s face clouded over. Clod persisted. “What’s the problem? He’s willing to pay even if you miss. It’s a gift from Heaven I tell you.”

“More likely from the Devil.”

Later in their bedroom Rogé asked for Avril’s opinion. “I agree with Clod, it’s a gift. Free money whether you hit or miss.”

“But it sounds wrong to take money and not deliver.”

“Don’t worry, I know his kind, he’ll make a profit regardless of what you achieve.” With everybody pushing, the issue seemed decided. The next day he accepted the challenge but had some provisions of his own.

“First off, I won’t shoot on a windy day.”

“Agreed.”

“Second, I want half the money in my hand before I shoot, not after.”

“Agreed.” The man rubbed his hands together gleefully. “You made a wise decision. All we need to do now is to draw up a contract stating the terms.”

“No contracts. You can take my word or not, but there’s not going to be a contract.”

“All right, all right, have it your way. I take your word as a gentleman.”

“You take my word as offered. I’m no gentleman.”

Next morning Bernard was gone, to spread the word he said. For a big man he was chock full of energy.

Two days later Lieutenant Chalmier hailed him on the exercise yard. “Is it true you’re going to shoot? Try to replicate your feat?”

“I’ll try, of course. Whether I succeed remains to be seen.”

“I expect there’s an indecent amount of money to tempt you, but I still think you’re making a mistake. In the long run, it would serve you better to keep your hero status of an archer who never misses.”

“I get five chances; I might just surprise you.”

“I hope so, but I’d be a fool to bet on it.”

Rogé felt called upon to explain to his troop. “It’s not a shame to miss the mark. Any archer will do that sometimes. It can be because of things he can’t control. An errant gust could blow his bolt off target. Or the air’s too heavy to help the quarrel fly. You can prepare, check your weapon closely, choose the best bolts, control your breathing. Put the contest out of your mind, empty your thoughts and see nothing but the target. You may still miss, but you’ve done all you can.”

Some days later, Rogé was stopped by one of the Aldermen. “I hear you’ll shoot again and archers are coming from near and far and many spectators. Such an influx will be good for the town, bringing us new money and recognition. God knows we can use such an infusion. Well done Rogé, well done.”

At the tavern the barkeep refused to take his money. “The shoot will be bringing me an overflow of thirsty customers. It would take you all your life to drink that much.”

All of a sudden people were out on the archery butt by the river, practicing. Even if they had no ability they wanted to see how it felt to stand at the shooting line. Mostly it was crossbows, but a few longbowmen showed up. Giles Orville, a Scotsman, was one of those and he was quite good, easily hitting the target nine out of ten times. But good enough to win the ring?

One morning, Rogé went down early to beat the crowd. He took six shots at sixty paces, all hitting the painted area of the target. When he finished he wiped the morning freshness off his bow and slung it onto his back.

“Very pretty,” Gilles Orville clapped on the sideline. “You know what? I’ll risk some money on you. I’ll bet that you hit, and I’ll bet that you miss. So whatever happens I’ll have it covered.”

“Where’s the sense in that? Your losses will wipe out your winnings.”

“Not if you do it smartly and watch the odds. Believe me I’ve done it before and gained nicely by it.” He squinted at Rogé. “The big question is how do you feel? Do you think you can do it?”

“Given five tries, my chances are better than not. Take that to the betting.”

“I like you Frenchie, even though at Agincourt we stood on opposite sides.”

“You were at Agincourt??!”

“Sure, fighting for the Duke of York. He was a good man, too bad he died in the battle.”

“We lost nearly half the nobility of France. I lost friends there…” Rogé’s throat tightened at the memory.

“Yeah, lot of French died that day, not so many Welsh and English. That day God was on our side.”

“Was He on your side when he ordered the prisoners executed?”

“Believe me we were pissed about that too. We lost a heap of ransom money there. We didn’t enjoy the killing either. But we thought we had to do it. There were so few of us and French reinforcements were arriving and attacking us.”

“I’m amazed that you walk so boldly among us French…”

“So what? Your neighbors to the north in Burgundy are cozying up to the English again. It’s only a hop and a skip from there to here. And English traders and merchants are going up and down the river. Let the kings make war, I’m happy if I don’t have to march.”

“Well I don’t know what to think. I haven’t forgotten Agincourt.”

“Neither have I. The mud saved us. Can’t always count on that.”

Rogé was upset by the meeting that so confronted him with the pain and ugliness of the past. He tried not to think about it, but it was always in the back of his mind.

The shoot was set for early September but well before, people started arriving, filling up the inns and overflowing into the houses as they rented a room or space in the stable. A caravan of houses on wheels arrived pulled by big farm horses. The barges on the river crowded the banks, covered their holds with tarp, filled them with straw and rented the spaces out.

The crowding on the street became uncomfortable and often one had to step aside to let someone by. The Watch was busy overseeing the flood and keeping order. By and large, by tacit agreement, Rogé was left out of the duty rotation, allowed to prepare himself for the upcoming test.

The inns were busy serving food, the taverns pouring out ale and wine, and everywhere the talk was of the shoot. Monsieur Bernard had done a good job with the promotion as the population had easily doubled and there were over eighty archers ready to have a go at it. The way it was scheduled, Rogé was to go first, then after that five streams of archers were going to try their luck with the three best allowed to shoot for the ring.

All through the town the betting was furious. For the locals, of course, Rogé remained the sentimental favorite, whereas outlanders were prone to bet against him. People watched the archers practicing, trying to decide who to favor and who to avoid.

The day of the shoot opened with a fanfare, and early in the morning a huge crowd collected on the butt. People argued passionately about the likely results. The whole Watch turned out to control the expected crowd, and both Lieutenants were circulating, trying to keep a handle on things.

Of course, barrels were rolled onto the meadow, tapped and soon people lined up to have a mug of ale or beer. The day looked like it would be pleasant, with hardly a cloud in the sky. As people kept coming it was harder and harder to find a place to stand. The men pushed to the front, elbowing themselves some room. The women and children were forced onto the small hill farther away, though with a good view of the butt. The smith made a brass copy of the thumb ring and nailed it to the post so the spectators could see how small it was from afar, or even up close. There was always a crowd peering at it, shaking their heads.

Meanwhile, Clod was busy holding visitors, the curious and the well wishers away from Rogé. Of course everyone wanted to have a last peek at him, to decide how to bet. Even Avril and Cloe were very quiet around him. Rogé was readying himself. The shoot had been important the last time, but perhaps even more so today. His reputation was at risk… and there was a huge amount of money to be won. All the same he was relaxed, almost unconcerned about the outcome.

Monsieur Bernard showed up nervous and sweating profusely, wanting to ascertain that Rogé would be there. He had invested a lot in this event and his reputation and a huge pile of money was on the line.

“Of course he’ll be there,” Clod assured him. “But now, let him compose himself.” He wouldn’t let the promoter anywhere near Rogé.

“Tell him to miss the first shot on purpose. That will drive the odds even higher and increase his take.”

“Sure, sure…” Clod said pushing the man away from the door. However, he couldn’t do much about the curious, collecting around the house and peering through the windows.

The church bell rang in ten o’clock, followed by a fanfare from the butt driving the spectators near crazy with excitement. From all over town horns joined in, with cheers and shouting.

“I’m so glad I’m here,” a man from Lyon said. “This is likely the event of the year, and I’m here to see it.”

“I came from Aachen to see if he’s as good as people say.”

“Better… he has the eyes of an eagle and nerves of steel.”

“Then you’re sure he can make the shot?”

“I’d bet my life savings on it.”

“What an idiot. The shot’s impossible. I paced it off last night and there’s no way he can hit it.”

“But he did it once before.”

“Must have been luck or witchcraft.”

Rogé stood up, mechanically collected his bow and his quiver of select bolts and left the house. Immediately a crowd encompassed him, chanting his name. Clod strained to open a lane for him. Rogé, his face blank, sleepwalked in this procession.

“Are you all right?’ Clod asked, concerned about his friend’s stony look.

“Never better,” said Rogé but didn’t show it.

A group of the Watch tried to spearhead the parade that was pressing in on all sides. Arriving at the butt, this wave of people collided with the compact crowd already there. Somehow Clod got Rogé through the press and led him to the shooting line. At the sight of him standing there, the crowd roared in unfettered excitement, drowning out the event Marshal trying to make himself heard.

Rogé stood calmly, his eyes scanning the crowd, perhaps looking for Avril but not finding her in the sea of faces. His own face was smooth, with not an emotion stirring in his expression.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Clod asked anxiously, shouting in his ear. Rogé gave him a tight smile but didn’t bother to answer. His eyes were looking down the venue, at the post at the far end a hundred paces away. The gold ring was already there, nailed to the post, looking impossibly small.

The Marshal had the trumpets blow and the drums beat a loud staccato until the crowd quieted. Finally he could be heard. “The town of Vienne is proud to invite the world to this test of skill. Our archer and Sergeant-at-arms of the Town Watch, Rogé Simon-Durant, is ready to prove that he’s all that people think he is.” A wave of sound again swept through the crowd and the Marshal had to get the trumpets and the drums to call for order and silence so he could continue. “We also have 84 renowned archers from near and far, to test their skill. The three best will also test themselves against the ring…” The crowd erupted again and refused to be stilled. The Marshal finally waved to set things in motion.

A stand-in for the Archbishop blessed the event and the crowd. In full voice a choir of monks sang “Illumina nos,” competing with the multitude who wanted the shooting to start.

Rogé stood on the line, his cocked crossbow firmly in his hands. He watched the motion of the foliage of the trees, and the grass swaying in the breeze. Of all the people on the butt, he was in the least hurry. Clod beside him looked anxiously on, worried about what his friend was thinking or feeling… but Rogé gave no sign of it. Even the crowd quieted, trying to guess what was happening in front of them. The bow was spanned, and so was the crowd tense with expectation.

Finally the Marshal and Monsieur Bernard strode out to Rogé. “What’s the problem? Are you going to shoot or not?” Bernard asked fretfully. Rogé’s eyes were still intent on the grass. He relaxed the bow.

“No, not today.” He slung the bow onto his back.

“Why not??!” Bernard asked, panic rising in his voice.

“For two reasons. One, there’s enough wind to disturb my shot. Second, the half of the promised money has not been delivered.”

“Yes, yes… it slipped my mind. I had so much to do… so many things to attend to…” Bernard tried to justify himself.

“As we agreed… until I see the money, there won’t be any shooting. Not from me.”

By now it had become clear that there wasn’t going to be any shooting for the main event. An angry murmur swept the crowd. The Marshal stepped up front and ordered the first group of archers to take the field. Somewhat disorganized, the first set collected on the line, looking at their individual targets at sixty paces. To the sides the crowd moved about dissatisfied. They had come to see the shot of the century and they weren’t so pleased with the ordinary fare served up for them. The first flight of arrows was loose and by the third flight, the people again started to get excited. Everyone was well aware that money could be won… and lost. That Lady Luck was tempting them all.

Meanwhile Rogé and Clod quietly withdrew, finding a way around the crowd.

“You’re going to shoot, aren’t you?” Clod asked.

“Yes of course… but first I want to see the gold.”

“Amen to that.” They arrived home and had some ale. Soon Avril and Cloe returned, anxious about Rogé.

“What’s going on?” Avril asked, her hand on his chest.

He smiled at her. “There was a bit too much wind to risk a shot. All these people came to see with their own eyes if I hit or miss. And I want to give them my best attempt. Actually, it’ll be a story either way. If I hit it I prove the first wasn’t plain luck and if I miss, an icon has fallen. Both make a worthy tale.”

“Be better if you hit…” Clod murmured.

An hour later Monsieur Bernard knocked on the door and was let in with his bodyguard. He pulled out a purse and gave it to Clod, who set himself at the table and counted out the coins, all Venetian ducats, 100 of them. Then he argued with Bernard that three were light.

“See, you can see they were shaved. These three are unacceptable,” And he shoved the coins in question across the table to Bernard. The promoter argued, but Clod remained unyielding and finally Bernard had to pay a German mark to make up the difference. “But if you don’t shoot I want all of it back.”

After the promoter left, Clod couldn’t stop playing with the coins, stacking them, polishing them on his shirt. “Doesn’t that sound beautiful?” Cloe loved the shine of gold and held two to her ears like earrings. Laughing, she twirled, making her skirt fly out.

They stayed inside the rest of the day, finding out from Master Hebert that the field was down to ten. However the big question in town was if Rogé would shoot the next day. “We’ll see,” was all Rogé replied.

Connair the neighbor bemoaned the fact that he had lost all his money and had nothing to bet with for the main event.

The next day was a repetition of the first. People came even earlier, lining the butt on both sides. They were tense as they watched Rogé go to the line and scan the field ahead of him. The wind was blowing again, but a little more erratically. The crowd watched, holding its breath. Rogé took his time. The wind came in from the left, then curved downstream over the river. The trouble was that it wasn’t steady, but often interrupted, and the seed heads swayed back and forth. Rogé dropped his arms and the crowd groaned. The Marshal was forced to call the remaining ten to the line, while Rogé and Clod made their retreat.

“You’ll have to shoot tomorrow,” Clod said, his face tight with worry. “Or give the money back.”

“Then I’ll shoot tomorrow,” Rogé returned calmly.

“But… what if there’s even more wind…”

“Then I shoot in the more wind.” Clod couldn’t understand his friend’s arithmetic, but swallowed the rest of his protests.

Clod counted the money all over again, worried that he might have to give it back. Six times he counted, a silly grin on his face. “Have you noticed how painful it was for Bernard to part with the gold? We’ve got to make sure we get the rest. I don’t trust that fat bastard.”

“But if you miss, why should he pay out the rest?” Avril asked.

“Because it was so agreed. Rogé has five tries, but win or lose, Bernard has to pay 100 more as agreed.” Cloe just shook her head not understanding the reasoning.

In the afternoon Lieutenant Chalmier came to say that the final three had been determined. “Unfortunately one broke his bow on the last shot and it’s unclear if he can continue tomorrow. So you’re facing a crossbow from Genoa, and a Welsh longbow, I believe.” This was interesting. Crecy and Poitiers all over again. “The Captain sends you his best wishes. Good luck to you, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

The next morning the crowd was silent as they spread through the field and waited tensely as Rogé arrived. Rogé was outwardly calm. He felt a light breeze on his left cheek, strong enough to stir his hair. No matter, today had to be the day. Waiting already at the line was the Marshal and the Scotsman Giles Orville with a wry smile on his face.

“Well Frenchie, we meet again. A repeat of Agincourt.” He stuck out his hand and surprised Rogé into shaking it.

“Where’re the others?” Rogé asked the Marshal.

“It’s just you two. One broke his bow and wouldn’t trust a borrowed bow, and the other broke his fingers in a tavern brawl, the fool.” Then he turned officious and declared loudly enough to be overheard, “You’ll be firing at the ring at a hundred paces. You’ll be taking turns; the order will be decided by the flip of a coin.” He threw a coin in the air as the Scot called out his choice and lost. “You go first then,” the Marshal said pointing at the longbowman. The Scot nodded, spanned his bow and flexed it experimentally. He stepped to the line.

When it was clear that the contest was on, the crowd went wild. They roared and swayed; the line of Watch had trouble holding them back with their locked shields. Still in places, people spilled through.

“Well, here it goes,” the Scot said, kissing the silver crucifix around his neck. He selected an arrow and dropped his quiver. His face sharp, he looked at the target, at the small glint of gold. He drew back, paused half an instant and let the string go. The arrow flew, reaching its apex then angled down. It stuck the post a half a hand above the ring. Good shot! The crowd roared its approval. Some still tried to make a bet, while others waited anxiously to see if they had won or lost.

Rogé stepped to the line beside Orville. He did not hurry. His hands caressed the crossbow taking confidence in its smoothness. With the cocking lever he pulled the string back and set his bolt. He turned toward the target, his eyes keenly focused on the gold ring. He watched the breeze ruffle lightly through the grass. It was steady, angling in from the left and maybe a little off. How much and how strong?

Rogé heard nothing and saw nothing but the gold ring. He was icily calm. “This isn’t Agincourt, this is here and now.” Just an arrow flight that would decide his future. Slowly, deliberately he lifted the bow and sighted, aiming straight for the ring, making no adjustment. He let his breath out slowly and gently increased the pressure on the trigger. The string released, snapped forward and the bolt catapulted out of the groove and bore through the air, rotating evenly. Rogé saw it all, the flight as in slow motion. He saw it strike low and to the right of the ring. Not as close as the Scot. He relaxed his arms and shoulders, the tunnel vision widened again, and the roar of the crowd grew louder in his ears. He turned to Orville and said pleasantly, “Your shot.”

Wasting no time, the Scot turned sideways to the target, spanned his bow and let go. The arrow was pushed off course by the wind and missed the target by two hands. “Damn,” Orville muttered, slapping his thigh.

Again Rogé took his time. With slow deliberation, he spanned his bow, placed his bolt and sighted. His eyes told him that the breeze was still from the left and steady. He aimed up and left. He was hardly conscious of the shot, but closely tracked his missile. The quarrel flew steady with only a slight drift that was enough to miss the post on the left. The crowd groaned and breathed again. Rogé was satisfied he was on the right level, a little too much to the left.

Orville crossed himself, uttering a short prayer as he stepped to the length of rope that defined the line. Still praying he looked down the range. Then smoothly, as practiced many thousands of times before, he set himself, spanned his bow and let go. The air whistled as the arrow flew, hitting just below the ring and rattling it. The crowd lost all control and surged back and forth. People fell and were trodden on. Cheers mixed with groans and cries of pain. The Watch had to use the butt end of their spears to restore order.

It was now Rogé’s turn for his third shot; he stepped forward and set himself. He was in no hurry: he thought back on how it all started with finding the discarded crossbow on the battlefield, joining the Crushers and learning to shoot. “That’s the power of this weapon, so easy to learn to use.” Then he erased all thoughts, turned deaf and blind to everything but the target, and became a machine. He raised the bow, sighted along its shaft, adjusted and eased his finger on the trigger. The string snapped with a confident hum and the bolt left the bow behind. Rogé saw it rotating, ascending on its arc then swooping down. It struck, and he had to squint to see the bolt in the dead center of the ring, the head hardly any less than the circumference of the glittering metal. The crowd was strangely quiet, frozen in silence, trying to see, trying to believe that the impossible had been achieved… and they were there to see it. A child cried out which unleashed a roar that was heard across the river and the neighboring town miles away.

“Did you see that??!”

“Are you sure it’s in?”

“Yes you dolt! Where’re your eyes?”

“They’re lying to me. I see a hit, but that’s impossible. No one can do that.”

The Marshal and two judges ran to the post to make certain that the ring was truly pinned. Both judges waved their flags, confirming the hit, making it official. Many in the crowd were jumping up and down, not knowing what to do with themselves and a few pissed themselves in their excitement.

Rogé slowly let out his breath and eased his shoulders. Then Clod was beside him, grabbing him, flailing at him, unable to contain his joy.

More people ran to the post to witness the result and be able to testify of it. “I was there… this close and saw it clearly… with my own eyes…” Whose eyes if not your own?

The Marshal finally wrestled the bolt free and replaced the ring. He then signaled to clear the field. The Watch formed up and with some effort pushed the spectators back.

Clod had his hands all over Rogé, until he put a stop to it. “He still has two shots left,” Rogé said indicating Orville, who gave him a small bow. The Scot advanced to the line, his face pinched in concentration. The crowd quieted. Would it be possible to have two hits in one day? No… that was quite impossible. The first hit was impossible… two would never happen. But still they held their breath, keeping absolutely still. Many did not know where to look, at the archer or the target?

Orville shot and thousands of eyes followed the arrow, seeing it strike a couple of inches above the ring. The breath whooshed out of lungs and a shudder went through the crowd.

“See, I told you it was impossible,” a tailor said to his neighbor, though he had risked a gold Louis on it.

“He still has another chance,” the neighbor replied, clutching his crucifix in hope of winning the impossible.

Without pausing much Orville raised his bow, and the crowd went dead quiet again. The bowstring snapped and the last arrow of the competition jumped off the bow, flying… flying, burrowing itself into the wood, nicking the ring but just outside it. A miss, but all the same a fantastic shot! Rogé bowed to Orville to return the earlier compliment.

There was no holding back the crowd, who flooded the field and half rushed the post all wanting to see it. Clearly, a close miss. The Marshal fought his way through the crowd, took the ring off the nail and fought his way back to Rogé, presenting him with the ring and declaring him the winner.

The Watch formed up around Rogé, lifted him onto their shoulders, then onto their shields and carried him around triumphantly. Poor Rogé couldn’t enjoy his victory, afraid of falling off and making an ass of himself. Heroes aren’t fools…

In front of his house Rogé’s archers finally let him down. Avril was there, smiling and laughing, holding the door open for him.

Rogé grabbed one of his men. “Denis, where’s Bernard staying?”

“He came late, there was nowhere left for him to stay, so he hired a barge on the river.”

“Good. I don’t trust him. You go and keep an eye on him. Let me know if he moves an inch.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Inside the house, Avril tried to feed him but he had no appetite. On the other hand he could not stop drinking. Clod finally had to go buy two jugs of ale at the tavern. Still Rogé was thirsty.

“I shot my first quarrel to see how much drift was in the air. I saw it go wide right and down a bit. The next I overcorrected the other way. On my last, thank God, the breeze held steady and I hit dead center, nailing the ring.”

“Did you ever doubt it?” Clod asked, a little envious of his friend’s success.

“No, that was the strange thing about it. I knew it would hit. When I first stood at the line all I saw was that ring… but not how small it was… or how far it was. It was as if I was the arrow, ready to swoop down on it.” Now that the competition was over, the suppressed excitement was driving him. “Strange, now that I’ve done it… now it seems so impossible to me, but not then. How do you figure that?”

“I don’t know how you did it. I was praying all the time… to all the Saints and angels…and you know I’m not religious. But Heaven rewarded me… us,” he finished lamely.

“The first time I nailed the ring, it was for Agincourt. I felt that the shot was helped by God to set right all that had gone wrong in that battle. But this time it was for me. I was shooting and I hit or missed on my own. On the line I felt totally confident. Now… that I’m home and thinking back on it, it does seem impossible. Does that make any sense?”

“Who cares about why and how? You did it and that’s the important thing.” Clod took a deep drought, wiping his mouth afterward with his sleeve. “And… you can thank me for it.”

“How?”

“I made you come into the battlefield and made you look for things. You didn’t want to, remember? And that’s where you found the bow… that has led to all this. Avril, fame, gold and everything.”

“True. Rightly said, it was you who won the ring, I was just your instrument,” Rogé said, sarcasm tinting his voice.

“I’d not go that far, but yes, I feel I had a hand in it. At least a finger.”

For the rest of the day a whole procession of townspeople walked by the house, some leaving flowers, others green boughs, and yelling congratulations. From time to time Avril and Cloe went out to thank them.

“That’s the other thing, I don’t understand people making a hero out of me. Why? I’m no better than them.”

“But you are. You did something that everyone would like to do, be the very best at something very hard. For the more business minded, this news will put us on the map, into people’s ears and mouths, near and far. It’s rare that people can get this excited, all of them together. There isn’t a child in here who doesn’t know you or praise you. Not even a new-born…”

“Now you’re exaggerating.”

“My friend, you’re their hero now. Get used to it and start acting the part. They think they own you somehow.”

Avril didn’t speak much, but bathed him with such admiring looks that Rogé started feeling hot. Could it be that the hero would be somehow rewarded with things held back… to be finally granted? Unlikely, he pushed the thought away.

The evening passed in much excited chatter and it proved nearly impossible to settle down. And then sleep would not take hold. Rogé was up and down with his emotions. For the first time the true measure of the risk he had taken fell on him. “It was truly impossible but by the grace of God…” He replayed his shots trying to learn something new from them. The Scot was praying to his Saints but they didn’t listen to him this time. Or maybe they did. Twice he had come hair-breadth close.

He listened to Avril snoring lightly beside him. Of course she didn’t need to stand on the firing line and attempt to do the impossible. But he thought kindly of her, knowing that she had the hem of her apron in her mouth, praying for him.

After a long while he fell asleep. But hardly had he slipped off when loud pounding on the door woke him. Rogé stumbled to the door but Clod beat him to it. Denis was outside. “Monsieur Bernard has slipped away. The barge cast its moorings and took off down the river.”

“When?” Clod asked. The bastard was trying to slip out of paying the rest of what was agreed on.

“A half hour ago.”

Rogé thought fast. The night was light with almost a full moon and the current wasn’t fast on this stretch of the river.

“Go hitch us a wagon and bring it here.”

“What are you intending to do?”

“Why chase him down, of course. I won’t let him spoil a perfect day.”

They got ready and the wagon was there with Denis. “I sent word to the River Gate that we’re coming. They’ll be ready for us.” The three climbed up into the wagon, Denis started the horses and they clattered down the street, no doubt waking some people who wondered what the hell was going on during curfew.

At the gate, however, the duty Sergeant refused to open for them. “I’ve standing orders not to open until seven bells in the morning. You know that, everybody knows that. No exception. Christ himself couldn’t come through until seven.”

“Sergeant, open the door for official business.”

“There’s nothing official about this. And unless you have a writ from the Archbishop or the Lord Mayor, you shall not pass…”

“Oh yes he will,” Lieutenant Chalmier emerged out of the darkness. “Open the gate!”

“Sir, you know I can’t do that. I’ll lose my rank and…”

“Are you refusing an order from your superior officer?”

“No Sir, but—”

“I’ll only tell you one more time. If you refuse, then go home and burn your uniform for you won’t need it.”

Reluctantly the gate opened and closed behind them. “Good luck,” the Lieutenant called into the darkness.

In moonlight that was just enough to see by, they rattled down the road following the river. “Hi-yah!” Denis urged the horses on. In an hour they began to catch up with the barge sedately floating down the river. It was near daybreak and the light was rising in the east when they pulled even with the vessel. Rogé spanned his bow, selected a bolt, and shot it, hitting the tiller just in front of the startled steersman.

“Monsieur Bernard, I think you’ve forgotten to pay me,” Rogé yelled, setting his bow. “I advise you to pull to shore and pay up what you owe.” There was no response from the barge: everyone was hiding below the wale. “I have fire arrows with me. I can easily set your craft ablaze and sink you.” He lit one bolt and fired it over the boat, drawing a bright arc in the air which hissed as it splashed down into the water just beyond the boat. There was still no answer from aboard. “So be it. I hope you can swim.” This time he fired a burning arrow into the cargo on deck, and just as quickly someone doused the flames but got an arrow through his shoulder.

“Now we can play cat and mouse a while, but the next shot will be deadly, I promise you that. And you all know my aim…” Rogé laughed sarcastically.

After half a minute, the barge angled toward their shore. It grounded into the weeds, and the crew stood up. Rogé was ready with the crossbow, Clod had the halberd in his hand and Denis had pulled his sword. The sight was intimidating enough to give up on any plans the others might have made to overpower them.

Shaking from head to foot, Monsieur Bernard counted out the money with a sour expression on his face. Clod counted it again, making sure.

“And a percentage of the betting?” Rogé reminded the promoter.

“There wasn’t any… I bet against you.”

Rogé laughed pleasantly. “I don’t believe you. You might as well give me the rest of the purse if you want to walk away from here in one piece.” With trembling hands, Bernard handed over the purse to Clod who counted the contents.

Then Rogé gestured with his crossbow to the steersman, allowing the barge to shove off downstream. He watched until the current grabbed the vessel, which was soon out of sight around the next bend.

Rogé took the bolt out and placed it back in the quiver; he let the tension off, and sat down in the wagon.

“How much did we get?” he asked Clod.

“The 100 he owed and about another 48.”

“About?”

“Yes, some feel a little light, and there are a few silver coins mixed in.”

“Well then, give one to Denis.” Reluctantly Clod handed over a gold coin to the man who mumbled his thanks. Rogé, put out with Clod for being so miserly when after all, Denis had been essential, added, “Make that two.” With his face tight, Clod handed over another coin.

They turned the wagon around and much more slowly they rode home. In the rising light they saw how rough the road was and were glad that the horses hadn’t broken a leg in the dark.

Arriving home, Rogé thanked Denis again, who returned it for the two gold coins he had been awarded.

Clod took all the gold and spread it out on the table, glorying in its sight. He couldn’t stop playing with the coins, whereas Rogé remained quite disinterested.

“Well how shall we spend it?” Rogé asked after he got tired of looking at the pile.

“Spend it?” Clod hovered protectively around the coins on the table.

“Of course spend it. Maybe invest it in something that could earn us an income.”

“Income?” Clod considered. It was clear that he was conflicted. “Invest in what?”

“Maybe a farm—”

“No farms!” Clod cut him off.

“Not what you think. A fruit orchard with beehives, or a vineyard with a cellar. An olive grove and press. Or maybe even a grain mill.”

“All you describe sounds like too much work.”

“Again, not what you think. We could hire people to work it or lease it outright. The point is, it would yield a steady income. A pile of gold is just that, it doesn’t earn a thing.”

“Hoarding makes you into a miser,” Avril said, cutting to the heart of the matter.

“But what do you know about starting a business? You’re not Marcel, you’ve worked for someone else all your life.”

“True, but I know people I can ask. Master Hebert for instance.”

“I don’t know. We lost our first investment in Arne, remember?”

“Sure I remember. But look what it got us, a new opportunity here,” Rogé pointed out. “The more I think of it, the better I like it.”

Reluctantly Clod collected the coins and locked them in the moneybox. Cloe saw the gold, thinking how it ensured their future.

Next morning Rogé did what he had proposed. He learned that Master Hebert had a friend who knew everything about everything, and it wasn’t long before Clod, Cloe, Avril and Rogé were inspecting properties for sale. Three they liked, and after much discussion they settled on a small vineyard overlooking the Rhône, with a wine press and a cellar dug into the hillside that housed 23 large oak barrels. Clod found that three were at least half full with vintage wine.

“I like ale,” Clod grumbled, “or beer. Wine doesn’t slake one’s thirst half so well.” The only real issue remaining was the price. Rogé made a low offer and allowed himself to be jacked up halfway to the asking price. The previous owner had been a hard man who was on bad terms with his children, having forced them to find other lives in other towns. As a result, on the death of their father, they were interested only in getting rid of the property at the best price.

“Are you sure about this?” Clod asked, still not entirely convinced.

“Sure I’m sure. It’s on a favored hillside facing south, the soil’s ideal for the grapes and the wine is known for its quality, not too sour, not too sweet. It’s hard to compete with the reputation of Beaujolais, of course, but Rhône wines are also in great demand, especially by the nobility. We already have a caretaker, Gaétan Vachon, who lives in the small cottage on the down slope; he can look after the grape stocks, maintain the trellises, train and prune the canes. For the harvest and the pressing we can hire seasonal help. You needn’t even get your hands dirty.”

“I have to admit that you’ve thought this through,” Clod conceded.

“You better believe it. The main house is spacious, certainly big enough for the four of us. And that’s not all.”

“There’s more?”

“On the reverse slope of the property there’s an unused kiln with a mixing pit and drying racks. Up the road is a clay deposit that we can mine. So we can start it up and fire pottery or make bricks. Again, not so much us but the people we’d hire.”

They walked the property, examining every detail. The grapes looked healthy, and the cellar dug into the hillside was stone lined and dry with the barrels neatly stacked against the side wall. Most were empty; Clod sampled the wine and the taste finally convinced him of the wisdom of the acquisition.

It took a week to settle on the price, pay it and register themselves as the new owners. They decided to keep the house in town until they could move into this new home. On closer inspection it had a few problems. The roof leaked, and water was seeping into the cellar. The wood on several doors was cracked, and a few windows wouldn’t open or close. Upon having the chimney cleaned, they were told that it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Apparently the previous owner hadn’t taken very good care of the property. By all accounts he was a miser, though the money wasn’t found. The well also had to be cleaned as too much silt had built up on the bottom. These were headaches, to be sure, but Avril tackled each head on. Only Clod complained that they had gone from being rich to poor again. “But with property,” Rogé declared proudly.

Though Rogé didn’t voice it to anyone, in his heart of hearts he hoped that a place of their own would cure Avril’s restlessness enough to let her settle down to a normal life… maybe with a husband and children.

The property was only three miles north of the town, just uphill of the river running within a bow shot on the Rhône’s east bank. Part of the wall was of Roman origins, certified by a half-broken Latin tablet near the east corner. The well was also of the same vintage, giving the place the name of Roman Wells. The house was near the brow of the rise with a wonderful view of the orderly rows of grape vines strung along trellises. One could sit on the rear patio, and see the traffic move past on the road by the river’s edge. To the south, the town walls and towers of Vienne were barely visible, partially hidden by the curve of the river.

Every day, Rogé and Clod walked the three miles to town to take up their duties with the Watch. For the past month, Clod had served in the Tower overlooking by turns the North or South gates. He liked this posting much better but it didn’t take him long to start complaining again. “I’m teamed with Horace and he has not an ounce of learning or imagination. All he can talk about is cockfights and how much he won or lost on them. I swear, I’m going to tear out my hair or his if he doesn’t shut up. He talks all the time as if he’s trying to say everything before Christ comes back. He has me wishing for the Savior’s return, and I’m not even religious.”

The following week Clod was reassigned to prison duties again, which revived all his old complaints. “The smell is disgusting. And it’s dark. I nearly broke my ankle yesterday, stumbling on steps that are half worn away. The prisoners are dirty, unwashed, and half crazy with the dark. Some haven’t seen the daylight in years and their skins are covered with scabs. Sometimes I itch, thinking I must have caught something from them. That’s why when I get home, the first thing I do is to scrub myself from head to toe.”

In contrast, Rogé was doing well, as could be expected given his fame. The Captain recommended him for promotion but he turned it down. Even the Mayor couldn’t prevail on him. Of course all politicians wanted to have him in their pocket to shore up their standings. Rogé, however, scrupulously avoided all such entanglements. He still exercised the archers, as well as the town militia. Most of the latter were older men who wanted to get away from whatever drove them out of the home. Added to them was a number of apprentices, glad for the free ale that came with once a week practice. Due to Rogé’s efforts both the Watch and the Militia demonstrated increased accuracy in archery.

Master Hebert was proud of Rogé, considering him a protégé. He introduced him in the circles of guilds, recommending him all around. And even though his liaison with Avril was well known and gossiped about, mothers pushed their available daughters at him. Obviously he was considered a rising man, and parents wanted to hitch a daughter to his wagon. It was awkward at times to escape from such pitfalls without humiliating the girl.

What bothered Rogé was that he continued to have no resolution with Avril. Sure they were unfailingly amicable with each other, but though they slept together, there was still no promise of intimacy. He was afraid even to ask, and she didn’t seem inclined to answer. Frustrated as he was, Rogé looked at Clod and Cloe enviously. They managed to make a happy life of it, going together for walks on the back trails of the hills. Cloe even got Clod to pick flowers with her and make garlands of them. She liked to decorate the crosses along the road with wreaths of flowers. They went fishing together, and often came back from an outing with grass seeds in their hair.

Avril was busy with the house, having a new fireplace built for the kitchen and adding a separate laundry room to the house. She bought bed clothes and wall hangings. Of course she and Cloe had stopped doing laundry, except for their own. She cooked and was trying out new recipes. A few steps outside the kitchen door she planted a small herb garden and was proud as a child over the first growth.

“Do you like it here?” Rogé asked her, making it sound innocent.

“Here, or anywhere,” she answered. “I learned early to make the best of what I had. This place… has most everything one could wish for, I suppose…” she tailed off, sensing he was looking for some kind of affirmation. “I can be happy… almost anywhere… for a while.” And that was the problem… everything was always just temporary.

A scion of a wealthy family in Vienne was getting married. Along with the wedding feast there were other entertainments organized, including a horse race, wrestling and archery with a modest prize. Rogé didn’t take part in the shooting, but his best pupil did and walked away the winner. The second and third were also his students, so he was credited with their successes as well.

As a counterpoint, Clod complained, “They brought in a woman accused of witchery, and the Archbishop sent over a Dominican Inquisitor to interrogate her. You could hear the screaming all through the Tower. It was terrible.”

“Did you see her?” Cloe wanted to know.

“Yes. She didn’t look at all powerful. Just an old woman barely able to lift her feet.”

“Don’t look her in the eye, she could bewitch you,” Cloe said.

“Her? Not at all. She’s a broken down person. She’s been through two interrogations.”

“How horrible. What did they do to her?” Cloe’s face turned white, but she still wanted to know.

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know. But it’s in the torture room, full of evil devices to cause pain and suffering…” Clod took a long drink of ale, trying to wash away the memory of the screams. “When I joined the Watch I thought I would be keeping the public peace… not be any part of this. I don’t know if I can keep doing this.”

The next evening Clod was even more uncertain. “I don’t know if she’s a witch or not, and I don’t know what she is supposed to have done, but it’s not right. It’s no way to treat another human being. I well remember how the belt felt, but this is a hundred times worse. I don’t want to be a part of it.” He took a ragged breath before going on. “I swear I won’t go back there…”

“What do you intend to do?” Rogé asked. The entire Watch was talking about it, as nobody could ignore the screams. But mostly the concern was about the reality of witches and what should be done about them. Most felt it was a church matter best left to the priests and the Inquisition.

“I… I…” Clod paused, trying to come to a decision. “Tomorrow I’ll see the Captain and resign from the Watch. Now that we have Roman Wells, maybe I can do something here. Maybe see if we can get the kiln started and make bricks again. There’s nobody near town making bricks; they have to be imported from somewhere twelve miles north. But there’s always need for bricks… and fired pitchers and kitchen plates. Do you know how many earthenware cups and mugs are broken in taverns alone?”

“How many?” Cloe asked breathlessly.

“I don’t know the real figures but it has to be a huge number.”

“Are you really serious about quitting?” Rogé asked.

“Yes, I am.” Clod set his jaw, nodding. “It’s different for you. You’re out in the open in the exercise yard or walking in the street in the fresh air. I’ve been stuck in the stinking dark too often and look how pale I’ve become. You see the brighter side of the Watch but I’m exposed to the darker. I see the prisoners, the poor wretches. The one who’s been there the longest isn’t even human anymore. It doesn’t feel right… It isn’t right.”

Next morning, Clod quit. He marched up to the Captain and declared himself unwilling to continue. The Captain looked surprised but didn’t question it. Clod stripped off the tunic of the Watch and returned the weaponry. On the way home, he stopped at every tavern along the route and had a drink. By the time he got home, he was quite drunk and wanted to go dancing with Cloe. It took both women to convince him to go to bed and sleep it off.

Clod’s decision made Rogé think of his own situation. He had been content to be part of the Watch, feeling he had been doing a worthwhile service. He had rank and the town regarded him as a home-grown hero. Those in power were eager to have him join their ranks. But now, Roman Wells gave him other options. He was slow to awaken to this realization, but what convinced him in the end was that he’d be near Avril throughout the day, with a chance to work something out with her. He wanted to win her over and marry her. She continued to shy away from the thought, closing it out of her mind and any conversation.

A week later Rogé also resigned. The Captain was loath to let him go, and offered him all sorts of inducements: promotion to the military council, more money, but Rogé remained firm. He turned in his uniform and weaponry and was surprised how free he felt afterwards.

“I saw it coming,” Lieutenant Chalmier said, shaking Rogé’s hand. “You’re much too innovative for this position. You know when to take a chance and aren’t shy to exploit it. I hate to lose you, though. Will you still be continuing to the Militia?”

“Of course. We still have the house in town and the vineyard is in the town’s administrative sphere.”

Master Hebert went right to the point. “You were wasted in the Watch. You have too many talents to tie yourself down like that.”

“Talents?”

“Yes. When Marcel wrote about you, he said that you practically taught yourself to read and write.”

“He taught me plenty. He was an artist, decorating illuminated manuscripts and a real man of letters.”

“Yes, he wrote me quite often and through the years we never lost contact. Did he tell you we were in the same class in the Cathedral school?”

“No. He didn’t talk about himself very much. He was a great mentor, though. It’s such a waste that he died.”

“I was so looking forward to him coming. Instead, I got the four of you. Can’t say I regret it.”

“Thank you, Sir. Your help was invaluable to get us started.”

“Well you’re out of the Watch now and I guess you’ll be working Roman Wells.”

“We intend to, though my friend and partner is allergic to sweaty work, having been used and abused early in life, so we’ll have others do the actual labor.”

“Don’t underestimate the part of an overseer. It often takes more effort and worry than the sweaty part.”

Life in Roman Wells evolved quickly. Rogé learned much about wine making and the care of the vineyard by visiting neighbors and constantly milking them for information. Clod did get the kiln repaired and working, and started producing earthenware jugs and mugs for the taverns. Avril loved her herb garden and took care of the fruit trees in the orchard. Cloe liked her needlework, embroidery and lace and was so good at it that her work sold well on the market.

Rogé often walked along the rows of stocks, checking on the grapes. Gaétan proved invaluable in instructing him. “I was raised in the vineyard, and it was said that grape was my first word. I come from generations of growers and by rights should have a vineyard of my own, but my family went bankrupt when father gambled on cockfights. Now I work and don’t worry so much about the markets. That’s your headache now. We have about five loyal customers and they buy enough to keep us profitable. The rest we sell to occasional buyers.”

Gaétan showed Rogé how to care for the grapes, prune the vines to improve the yield and flavor. As well, he knew about harvesting, turning grapes into juice by threading or pressing and the steps of the fermentation process, aging in barrels and decanting. “Winemaking is an art, you can’t do it blindly. You must taste it and ask yourself if it’s ready for the next step.” Gaétan and Rogé spent much time in the “cave” as they called the cellar, in reality a long tunnel dug into the hillside, shored up by masonry. They often sat among the barrels, sampling the wines they had. “This barrel’s the best we have, matured only two years ago. It has the perfect balance of taste, silky feel and the right color. You’d be surprised how important color is… And aroma, must not forget the aroma. We call it bouquet in finer company.” Rogé had a lot to learn and he was thirsty for it. He dropped in on his neighbors and sampled their wines, always learning the new language. He thought he knew how to speak, but his taste had to be reeducated to discern the difference between tart and sharp, precocious and overripe. When does the wine reach its peak and how long does it last before going stale? Avril sometimes complained that he reeked of wine and he did, getting his hands into every aspect of the work.

The thing about the winemaking was that the grapes needed time to ripen, to be harvested and made into must, nurtured with additives, fermented and slowly turned into wine. It took time for the process to complete and to be in a state to sell. It took years from beginning to end, years to recover the investment in time, effort and money. It was thus a good thing that Clod brought in some income with his mugs and jugs, that Cloe contributed with her needlework and that Avril could sell fruit and dried herbs.

Still it was that period of the growing season when nothing much demanded Rogé’s attention. With time on his hands, he sat on the patio in the shade of the trellis and watched the traffic on the road and the occasional barge float by on the river. He felt listless and vaguely dissatisfied. He tried reading a pamphlet Master Hebert had lent him, but the language was so stilted that he soon lost interest. As it was a very fine day, Clod and Cloe joined him and discussed a new glaze to try in the kiln.

“I don’t know what I think of the new blue,” Clod said. “I admit it fires well, but in my experience a drinker is used to the light reddish tint that adds to the color of wine or ale, whereas the blue robs from it.”

“Perhaps not for drinking cups in taverns, but this blue would look very handsome for a milk jug, because white goes so well with it,” Cloe said. “Anyway, we should try it as no one else is making anything like it.”

Rogé listened, envious of how closely the two worked together. Clod had kept anything to do with the kiln for himself while ceding the winemaking to him, so Rogé had nothing to add to the present discussion. Avril brought a bowl of sweet cherries which they all dipped into. They drifted into conversation about little everyday things. Thinking back on it, Rogé couldn’t recall how they came to it, but he had answered, “I’m a patient man, have I not proven it?”

“A man who sits should not be surprised if he wears a hole in his pantaloons,” Avril had said, quoting an old army saying, for the only time an army sat was during a protracted siege; otherwise it wore holes in its shoes. By some twist of logic, Rogé took it wrong, as demeaning his patience as he waited for Avril to come around to his way of thinking about their relationship. He grew quiet and morose inside. He had a sip of wine, which added to his growing melancholy. Cloe’s carefree laughter somehow underlined his dissatisfaction. He skipped dinner and stayed outside watching the darkness steal over the landscape.

In bed he puzzled over how he felt. There was Avril beside him, snuggling into the curve of his body, filling him with bitter-sweet longings. He had an itch he couldn’t scratch; he couldn’t do anything about it for she trusted him not to take advantage of their closeness. Maybe I should go away for awhile, let her miss me. Maybe it would wake her from her complacency. He wanted things to change, but day after day he was only adding to its sameness, buttressing it. But where could I go? The money was tight until some wine could be sold. But Lyon wasn’t far, and there could be a reason found for going there.

He announced at breakfast his intention to go to Lyon.

“Whatever for?” Clod asked, genuinely perplexed.

“Master Hebert asked about a book and I thought about finding it in the bigger town with all its bookshops.” More discussion followed but Avril never even questioned his decision.

The long and short of it was that Rogé made ready to leave the next day. He had little money and only a hunting knife and a bedroll to take with him. At first, it felt good to move, as if distancing himself from his problems. But after a few leagues he was already questioning his impulse to start on this journey.

Perhaps a third of the way Rogé came across a transport wagon that had tipped into the ditch. Caskets of flour lay scattered about and a farmer and his wife were struggling to calm the horses. Rogé lent a hand, helped to settle the animals, unload the wagon, and with all of them straining, pulled it onto the road. He also helped to load the barrels back on. The couple thanked him and offered him a ride, and at the next way station even paid for his lunch. Later he sat in the common room, testing a cup of wine, trying to judge its quality. He was sure that his wine was better, both in first taste and the aftertaste. Around him people were eating and drinking or playing a board game that seemed popular with the locals. A nearby group sat near arguing about politics, catching Rogé’s attention by the passion in the voices.

“The country’s trouble starts with the fact that the King is mad and while he has his episodes his uncles strip the land of value and gain. The nobles squabble among themselves, alliances turn sour. So disunited, how can we stand against the English?” a man, by his dress a merchant, demanded loudly.

“King Henry won’t be satisfied until he gobbles up all of France and has us speaking English…” a farmer commented sourly.

“It wouldn’t be like that had we won at Agincourt,” a broad man with a red scar across the bridge of his nose said disparagingly. “When the English archers rained down arrows, the French knights ran away like whipped dogs. By all accounts it wasn’t that the English won, more true to the fact was that the French lost. How? you may well ask. We had the greatest army of modern times, vastly outnumbering the enemy. But we lacked the proper fighting spirit…”

Rogé listened, getting angrier at the unkind words.

“When things got hot and man stood against man, the French turned tail and ran—”

“It wasn’t like that!” Rogé leapt to his feet, striking the table with his cup so that it shattered. “Were you there to see it? Did you lift a hand to help?”

“Sure I was there,” the man rose to his feet, his face red with rage. “With good knight Ysembart d’Azincourt leading, we attacked the baggage train and took loot and prisoners. But by then the cream of France had gone sour, the flower of the nobility had lost its courage…”

“I know better. I was in the second battle line, right up front, packed together so tight that we couldn’t move or fight, and the English could take their sweet time and deal with us one by one.” Rogé was boiling mad. “It wasn’t lack of courage that lost us the battle, it was too much of it. Every noble, knight, man-at-arms and archer, was so eager to do battle that they rushed headlong into it and got in each others’ way. The mud did the rest, trapping our feet in the muck.”

“Like I said, stupid comes from stupid…” The man pushed himself in Rogé’s face.

“You know nothing! You and yours took the lightly defended baggage train, inciting Henry to slaughter his prisoners. Thousands more died there…” Unconsciously his hand went to his knife and closed around the handle. For an instant the two stood nose to nose, faces burning with anger, and fingers itching to draw weapons.

“Belay that!” The barkeep and his lad hurried over. “I won’t have fighting in my place. If you’ve got a quarrel take it outside.” Behind him the barmaid had sent the kitchen scullion running for help.

It took a moment for the fury to simmer down and the antagonists to take their seats. Rogé’s temples were still pounding and the next sip didn’t cool it. Beside him, an older man with thinning hair and white beard shoved a tankard of ale over to him. Rogé refilled his cup and took another swallow. Slowly he got control of himself. Across the room, his erstwhile opponent also cooled down, though still muttering to his tablemates.

“You were really there and saw it all?” the old man asked, his voice crackling with tension.

“Sure I saw it. Nearly got killed twice and escaped only by a hair.”

“And you say that it wasn’t cowardice that cost us the battle?”

“No. It was that the high and mighty nobles wouldn’t listen to the Constable and keep to the battle plan. Had they had more patience, more discipline, there’s no question we would have won. Had we had a sane King to lead us we would have destroyed every Englishman and driven them from France. But instead, hunger for fame cost us the battle and the war. Henry could retreat to Calais, restock and remain the thorn in our side he is today.” He finished his drink and put his cup down. The old man offered Rogé another, but he refused. The emotions had burned out of him and he felt tired.

“It’s tragic…” the old man said, his voice breaking, “the flower of a nation thrown away.” Rogé was shocked to see tears course down the man’s cheeks. “I had two sons die on that battlefield. It ripped the heart out of me.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.”

“No more than I. But I thank you for telling me the truth. There was such talk and gossip about cowardice that I could never think of them without remembering the shame. I know they were thrown into a mass grave, a few words mumbled over them, but they hadn’t run. I thank you again.” The man fumbled at his waist, pulled out a small pouch and put it into Rogé’s hand.

“What’s this for?” Rogé asked, shocked again, feeling the coins inside.

“That’s for giving my sons back to me. I can hold up my head from now on… and bless your name.”

“Sir, I really can’t take this. I’ve done nothing to earn it.”

“Then give it away. You took the great burden from me and have brought peace to my heart. I’m forever in your debt.” He got up and hurried from the room before Rogé could give him back the money. Dumbfounded, Rogé sat there, the purse in his hand. Later he rented a room upstairs and counted the money. 14 gold ducats, 17 silver marks, brass and copper beside. He still couldn’t understand why this fell upon him.

Midday he reached Lyon. Upon entering, he visited the first church he came to, bought a mark’s worth of candles and set them alight for the souls of his benefactor’s sons, even though he did not know their names or anything about them; the way he figured the Saints and Heaven kept track of such things. He walked about town in a more interested frame of mind. The flare-up in the tavern had distanced him from his private troubles, making him feel freer than he had in years. He visited bookshops, browsing through the selections, and gawked at churches and the Archbishop’s palace. He went to the market, thinking to buy some little gifts. For Clod he bought a silver cup, for Cloe golden earrings, and for Avril a small bottle of expensive perfume. For himself a pair of soft leather boots. He spent time looking at bows, but found nothing special. There were a few decorated with silver chase, but it was for looks, not really for shooting.

He stayed in a hostel, making do with a corner of the dayroom. In the morning he walked more of the town and the waterfront. In the cathedral, he admired the windows and the paintings of the altarpiece; the carved marble statues by famous sculptors, none of whom he had heard of; and he studied the bronze plaques of famous persons buried beneath the cathedral’s flagstones.

Having nothing better to do, he wandered aimlessly around. On a street corner he was drawn to a bulletin board covered with official pamphlets and private notices. He soon tired of their content, but was still interested in the penmanship; he was certain he could have done much better. He read about a horse for sale, a house to rent, and charms to be had for cheap. He also saw announcements of who died and who was born, who was to be married and a sinner admitting publicly that he sinned. To the side was a note in a neat script that caught his eyes: “Having passed away of his wounds received at Agincourt, the noble Jean Brebeuf left an estate the contents of which are to be auctioned off today. Clothes, arms, implements and household furnishings are offered for public viewing and sale…” Agincourt again! Would he ever escape its shadow?

On impulse, he attended the auction and inspected the items for sale. He saw pikes, swords, helmets, shields, pieces of mail, a battle axe and a mace. There was a tent, a folding cot, and even a breast plate of German steel. To the side he found a crossbow which piqued his interest instantly. Made of burnished hardwood, it was its shine that attracted his attention, convincing him of the quality of the piece. Strange though, the cocking lever was a part of the bow, not separate as he was used to, cleverly folding out of the way. He tried the draw manually, stepping in the front stirrup and pulling up with his hands, finding that the bow was stiff and hard to bend. He tried the lever which worked effortlessly, drawing the string back into its seat. It was obvious that the setup worked well for a quick draw. The weapon was well balanced and fit his grip perfectly. He looked around some more and eventually found a sealskin cover for the bow, as well as a leather quiver but no bolts.

He waited around for the furniture, the linen, the dishware and the clothes to be bid on. One by one the items were presented, and the auctioneer tried to cajole the attendees to up the price, but most things went for far below value. Finally, after the flowered chamber pot, the war gears’ turn came. As expected, the sword was bid for furiously, for it had a bit of gold and silver on the pommel. The other items went for much less. Then the crossbow was lifted up, but the cocking lever drooped so oddly that most people lost interest. Rogé bid and was raised by someone of military age, and raised again. However when Rogé offered four and a half ducats, the other gave in, and Rogé got the weapon. When receiving the payment, the auctioneer also threw in the cover and the quiver; after all, with the bow gone, who would want them?

Rogé was exceedingly pleased with his acquisition. Ever since he had returned all his arms to the Watch after quitting, he’d only had a hunting knife for protection. Now he was armed again. On the way back to the hostel, he stopped by the fletcher and bought 18 bolts. Next day he started for home again.

About halfway to Vienne, he stopped in a sundrenched meadow, and ate bread freshly baked that morning, smoked ham and cheese, and after, a handful of candied nuts. Between bites he slaked his thirst with sips of a light wine. He had a short nap afterward under an elm tree, trying his best to ignore the cloud of insects buzzing him.

Stretching, he rose and decided to try the bow. He cocked it easily, set the bolt, and fired across the meadow for distance. The range astonished him, exceeding his expectations easily by an additional half. He looked at the bow, trying to decipher the construction of the compound arms. He shot two more times and found the accuracy to be right on. He was very pleased to have bought it, which alone made the whole trip worthwhile.

Ready to press on, Rogé shouldered his pack and stepped onto the road again. It took him a dozen steps to find his stride. Ahead of him was a family with a small cart full of noisy kids of various ages. The children were hanging onto a young pig, no doubt intended for the market. Rogé slowed to avoid overtaking them and inciting their large dog to greet him as a friend by jumping all over him, or else growling and baring his teeth.

During this sunny day, Rogé got uncomfortably hot. He shrugged out of his shirt and when a gap in the undergrowth allowed, clambered down to the river. He cupped his hands and splashed his face and head to cool himself. He stood ankle deep in the water not caring that his boots got wet. Just then a barge neared, floating downstream close to the shore. “Hey Rogé Durant, I recognize you. Where’re you heading?” the barge captain shouted across the water.

“To Vienne.”

“Well then come on board, we’re going right by it.” The captain then roused his crew who poled the craft to shore and took on Rogé. “I saw you at the shoot. What a shot. I nearly swallowed my tongue in excitement. I made some money, not as much as I could have had I not also bet against you to cover myself for either outcome. I heard you bought a nice place with your winnings.” The Captain pulled a jug on a rope from the water and poured Rogé and himself a cup of chilled white wine. Rogé settled under the canvas stretched over the rear deck for shelter and watched the shore drift by.

There was another passenger on board named Emilio Castellan who looked to be a Spaniard with a mix of Moorish in him. He had a darkish tint to his skin and his eyes were black as charcoal. Within a mile he struck up a conversation.

“I was sent by my patron to find out how far we can ship our leather goods up the Rhône. All the way to Geneva on the Rhône itself or deep into France up the Saône. There are of course some very fine leather goods everywhere but not with our decorations or coloring.”

They talked as the river pushed the barge downstream surprisingly slowly. Rogé was able to track the family on the road for a good distance before they fell behind. The sun was deep into the western sky when the captain shared some soft cheese and rye bread with raisins and dates, all washed down with Beaujolais. Rogé tasted the wine and in spite of its reputation found it not much better than his own, maybe only smoother.

Emilio asked Rogé for a recommendation as to where to stay in Vienne as he intended to look around on the coming high market day. Rogé put in a good word for the Golden Elephant, knowing the service to be decent without being overly expensive.

Darkness fell and the boatmen lit lamps but kept floating. “This section of the river is so placid that we have little fear of navigating it at night,” the Captain said, correcting their course with a long pole, because drifting as they were, the tiller had little to no effect. Rogé passed his place on the hill in the dark and decided not to trouble the crew with dropping him off. Then near midnight they reached Vienne and tied up at the quay. They stayed on board as the gates wouldn’t open until sunup. Rogé slept, not waking until eight bells in the morning. After thanking the Captain he passed through the gates and was greeted warmly by the Watch. He shook hands with them and exchanged a few words.

He went to his house in town and let himself in downstairs. The upstairs had been rented to a young couple so the place would have some oversight and not stand empty, an invitation for thieves and vagabonds. Briefly he looked around, but since the cupboard was empty he brought fresh bread at the bakery for his breakfast. He visited Master Hebert and talked about books he had seen in Lyon. “Lyon is the centre of book making and they are experimenting with presses to duplicate etchings many times,” Master Hebert said, pulling a couple of renditions from the shelf. “Look how finely drawn they are, every line clear. And they are nearly identical. The way I heard, they made scores of copies of this one drawing.”

Afterwards, Rogé visited Lieutenant Chalmier at his lodging. “Rogé, what a nice surprise to see you! I missed you on the last training day with the Militia. Were you there?”

“Yes, but I took a troop of archers hunting for most of the day and we came back with eight rabbits.” Rogé was proud of their accomplishments; it was one thing to hit stationary targets, quite another to bag something hopping about.

It was near midday when he reached Roman Wells. The place looked the same as he had left it, and his heart gave a tug as he saw the orderly rows of grapes on the hillside. “My grapes, my soil… my view.”

“Rogé!” Avril trilled on seeing him. She rushed to him and nearly knocked him over with an embrace. “You were gone such a long time.”

“Was I?” he asked disingenuously.

Seated around the table for lunch, Rogé distributed the gifts. Cloe squealed over the earrings, Avril sampled the scent of the perfume trying to guess what it was comprised of; all she could be sure of was that it was expensive. Clod turned the silver cup around in his hand, frowning. “This cost you a pretty penny, where did you find so much money?”

“At Agincourt,” Rogé said but wouldn’t explain any further.

Rogé had been back three days when at noon, Emilio Castellan showed up. “I was just walking by and decided to look in. I hope I’m not imposing.”

“Of course not,” Rogé was forced to say. Of course, then they had to invite him for lunch. The Spaniard spoke smoothly, his smiling, charming self, relating amusing anecdotes of his travels. He pulled pieces of leather from his pack and explained their quality.

“This,” he said, holding up a piece for them to see, “is the finest Moroccan leather. Look at the evenness of toning and feel its subtlety. Have you ever felt anything more smooth and flexible? Velvet, maybe.” He stayed the afternoon, but left before they were forced to invite him for supper.

“An interesting fellow. Seems like he could talk the ear off a sow without trying very hard,” was Clod’s opinion. Cloe found him charming, thoroughly a gentleman. Rogé thought him informative, and now knew more about leather than he had ever expected. Only Avril had reservations. “Did you notice how his eyes were checking everything, as if weighing and assessing it?”

“What do you mean?” Rogé asked, thinking she was reading too much into it.

“I don’t know. He looked at me, he looked at you. At all of us. As if to see what we were made of.”

“You’re probably imagining it.”

“Come to think of it, it was a little strange, knowing what he knew of you, that he never asked about your prowess as an archer, even though your new bow was on the sideboard in plain view,” Clod said, more than a little thoughtful.

“We met on the barge and had a talk. That’s all. He’s looking for business contacts.”

“But you have nothing to do with leather,” Clod said, pinching his cheeks.

Later Rogé was sitting by the kitchen table, checking over the bolts he had bought. He found them in fine condition, but oiled the leather vanes to keep them from drying out. Avril was scrubbing the stove top and Cloe entered with two pails of water from the well.

“Rogé!” Avril called out loudly. “Don’t you see Cloe lugging heavy pails of water in her condition? Do you want her to lose her baby? Go, help her!”

Rogé jumped up to take the buckets from Cloe.

“Thanks,” Cloe muttered, stretching out her back.

Avril however wasn’t done yet. “What’s the matter with you men? Don’t you see her working hard? Don’t you ever think to help? She’s going to be a mother soon. What’s so important that you can’t stoop to give a hand?” Rogé felt shamed by Avril’s angry outpouring. Just then Clod walked in and also got a piece of her mind.

“What did I do?” Clod asked Rogé when they were alone.

“You weren’t here to help Cloe and I didn’t,” Rogé said sourly, the evening spoiled for him.

“Yes, she’s right. Cloe’s condition is very delicate, the midwife warned me of that.”

Slipping into bed, Rogé was met with Avril’s unforgiving back. “What the hell?” he thought, trying to sort out why she was so upset. In the end, he led it back to her mother. She loved her mother… still loves and misses her. As a young girl she couldn’t protect her mother… but she can and will protect Cloe. He decided to be more solicitous to Cloe’s needs.

Next day Etienne the neighbor came over and asked if he could use their wine press for his grapes.

“I would gladly, but we’ll need it for our grapes,” Rogé answered.

“No, no. I make white wine, my grapes ripen earlier than yours. We’ll be long done before you need to use it. In exchange I’d gladly help with your harvest and stay to press your grapes.” It sounded like a fair exchange so they made plans while sampling the wine from a barrel, judging its quality.

“It’s still a bit young,” Etienne said, sloshing a mouthful around on his tongue. “There’s a sense of sharpness in the aftertaste, don’t you find?” Rogé had to agree, knowing that Etienne came from generations of winemakers, while he was still learning the language. Afterwards they talked of possible prices.

“The prospects are good. In the north a late frost killed off the early bloom, so up there they’ll have a shortage of wine that will be noticeable two years from now. We might end up selling more to Paris and Rouen than we usually do.” Rogé was trying to hold onto all the information he was gleaning from the discussion. He knew that eventually their success would depend on the knowledge he acquired, even with Gaétan’s help. He often saw the man walking the rows checking on the grapes, pruning or tying the vines to the trellis. At times they met and talked about the care of grapes, and the blight that periodically affected them.

“Eleven years ago, we lost the whole crop to a rotting sickness. For three years after, the harvest wasn’t much, but, God be thanked, it eventually got better.” Gaétan crossed himself to ward off any evil threatening “his” grapes. The man was conscientious, a real blessing.

At the dinner table set up outside on the veranda, Avril quietly served a supper of lamb stew with lemon grass and boiled oats. There was cheese on the side and dried apricots. Clod uncorked a bottle of red wine and was sampling it.

“You know, our grapes are quite good and this is a decent quality of wine. A lot better than what they serve in the taverns in Vienne. If we can keep producing this we shouldn’t have any trouble finding buyers,” Clod declared, rolling the wine around his tongue.

“That was three years ago, an exceptional harvest that worked out very well. You can’t always count on being so lucky each year. We can hope, of course,” Rogé said, concentrating on his glass. “I must say it has a nice flavor and smooth texture, nothing harsh or unpleasant about it.”

Cloe was showing some lace she made to Avril and was a little displeased that the men weren’t paying enough attention to it. “It’s made with the best thread I could find, expensive, but it will double the price of the veil. There are several weddings coming up and I’m sure one of them will be pleased to have this.”

Something in her tone alerted Clod to her feelings and he started expressing more interest in her handiwork. He listened closely and fingered the delicate lace appreciatively. “I see you’ve worked in a silver thread at the borders. Very nice.”

“Gives it an accent. It’s the latest fashion. I’d like to work some pearls into it, but that would cost too much.”

“Who’s getting married?”

“The Colberts, the Ravels and the Moreaus, cream of the town elite. They have money and will likely try to outdo each other.”

“The Colberts own over twenty barges, three grain elevators and any number of warehouses. They can afford anything their heart wishes for,” Clod said, clucking his tongue.

“Yes, but they’ll insist on the best, something imported: they won’t settle for anything local. But Amelia Ravel is more level headed, and it’s for her I’m aiming it.”

“Then by all means, buy the pearls,” Clod offered graciously. “The kiln has earned fairly well and we’ve got enough money to get by.”

“Are you sure?” Cloe asked, clapping her hands together.

“Sure I’m sure. We’ll recoup that double and it’ll increase your reputation.”

Two days later, Rogé attended the military council held in the basement tavern of the town hall where most decisions were made. There was a large room at the back to provide some privacy for any serious deliberation. Rogé was surprised to see the Spaniard Emilio Castellan there talking with one of the Aldermen and the His Worship the Mayor.

“Why was this meeting called?” Rogé asked Lieutenant Chalmier.

“No reason really. Sometimes we meet so people can get away from home and do some quiet politicking. Believe me, more decisions are worked out here than in the Council Chambers.”

Halfway through the evening, dinner was served, venison with wheat dumplings garnished with watercress. The pepper sauce was just right to add the needed flavor to the meat. There were some sweet fruit pies to round out the meal. In spite of the quality, Rogé just picked through his plate, wondering why he was there. He noted that he was seated quite high at the table, a reflection of his increased status, higher than both Lieutenants, higher even than the Captain. The Mayor came up to him, shook his hand and welcomed him.

With an exquisite Venetian glass in hand Emilio Castellan found him. “We meet again,” the Spaniard said with a wide smile brightening his face. “You should have told me you were famous.”

“Why?” Rogé asked, coming straight to the point.

“No reason. But a reputation needs to be cultivated. You’d be amazed at how quickly people forget.”

“And how should I do that? Attend competitions perhaps?”

“Yes, occasionally, to remind people of your skills. But there’s more money to be made in hiring yourself out as a bodyguard.”

“Bodyguard? For whom?” Rogé asked with some skepticism.

“The very rich, the high nobility, and those with enemies. With your reputation you can demand your own price. More money than you can earn selling wine.” With a practiced gesture the Spaniard smoothed down his dark mustache. “I can easily arrange it. I know that Count Toulouse is looking for someone, as well as Baron Estrées of Carcassonne.”

“Why would they need me? Surely they have any number of soldiers and guards in their households.”

“True. But what they want is the very best. Someone proven with a name that goes in front of him. To intimidate other people.”

“And what would my duties be? Stand around day and night, my finger on the trigger?”

“No, no. You’d only be needed at public events, when the patron is more exposed. The rest of the time would be yours, to do with as you please.”

“Still I would need to be there, waiting, endlessly standing around.” Rogé shook his head.

“Not necessarily. You’d be needed only at certain times of the year. When the patron has to attend the Royal Court, for instance.”

Rogé had an uncomfortable feeling. The man reminded him of Monsieur Bernard, the promoter who had also been set on talking him into the shoot. All things considered, that hadn’t turned out badly, but he’d had to chase the promised money.

“Sorry Signor Castellan, but I’m not interested in going anywhere.”

“Are you sure? I could guarantee a lucrative position. And Toulouse is not that far away. In a month you could earn as much as a person working a whole year.”

“Really, Sir, I have no wish to leave my home.” Rogé was surprised to hear himself say and mean it. Had the orphan finally found a home he could call his own? He didn’t like the other’s pushiness and as soon as he could, he excused himself only to fall prey to Councilor Tibedeau, who then talked his head off about something in which Rogé wasn’t the least interested. He resolved never to attend these meetings in the future. He had no axe to grind, no politics or advantage to hammer out. He was very glad to leave the event as soon as he decently could.

To his surprise, on the street he found out that he had drunk more wine than he had intended and briefly got lost several times on his way home.

“You’re drunk,” Avril noted and averted her face from his strong breath when he tried to kiss her.

“Just a little,” Rogé said, rummaging around in the cupboard for some wine to chase the drunkenness away. He didn’t find it right off and it took a while to dawn on him that he had barrels full in the cellar. He stumbled his way there and struggled to get the key to work in the lock. He finally managed, poured himself a beakerful and even managed a sip before he collapsed over the table. “I don’t want to go to Toulouse,” he muttered before passing out completely.

Clod collected him from there the next morning, stiff and still under the influence.

Chapter 11

Two more times the Spaniard sought out Rogé and tried earnestly to convince him to accept the opportunity.

“You’re known all over Europe as the man with the impossible ring shot. Make use of your reputation, turn it into gold.”

“What do you get out of it?” Rogé asked.

“A commission. A finder’s fee.” It seemed that Emilio Castellan really wanted the fee, for he tried very hard to change Rogé’s mind. It got quite tiresome, and the last time Rogé had to be quite rude to reject him.

“I really don’t know why he wants it so much,” Rogé confided to Clod. “It’s as if his life depended on it.”

“Strange,” Clod mused. “But then people are strange and often behave in unpredictable ways. My advice is put him out of your mind, don’t waste any more time on him.”

“I would, but he’s there, waiting to pounce on me. I swear the next time I’ll drop him.” It didn’t come to that, but Rogé was always vigilant about the other’s presence.

In the middle of the night Rogé woke shaking. His gut was tied in a knot and he was sweating profusely. He couldn’t breathe, but gasped desperately. Avril rose to an elbow, peering at him. “A nightmare?” she asked.

“Y…es,” he croaked out.

“What about?”

“The same thing… always the same thing. Agincourt… being unable to move… unable to do anything. It’s like feeling Death’s breath on your neck, just waiting for that final blow.” He wiped his face, trying to rub the sweat from his eyes. “After all this time… you’d think I’d be over it…”

“For a couple of years my mother was with a soldier I hoped was my father. He wasn’t… but I still felt that way. He had such nightmares, over and over again. He never got over them; they haunted him almost every night.”

“What happened to him?”

“He died. Not in battle as he feared, but of dysentery. I was very sad and didn’t allow anyone close to me after that.”

“You allowed me…”

“You’re the first. Maybe the only one.”

Rogé got up, padded to the kitchen and took a long drink. Then he wiped off the sweat from his face and chest. He got back into bed, but then couldn’t fall asleep, perhaps afraid that he would fall back into the same nightmare. He was subdued all the next day, unable to shake off the feeling of being haunted. At the same time he suspected that his nightmares had something to do with his relationship with Avril. They seemed more frequent when there was tension between them.

Over time Roman Wells got to know their neighbor to the south quiet well. Thierry Montagne worked a smaller vineyard where Rogé often spent time learning more about grapes and wine. They also had an orchard with a couple of beehives and Avril was often over there exchanging recipes with the wife Flora. She was a kindly soul who, after raising her own two boys, took in a pair of orphans to nurture. She was firm but never heavy handed. If she had one fault it was that she had a sharp tongue and was not averse to using it.

Clod was also on good terms with the oldest son Robert, who often came to lend a hand with the running of the kiln. In fact, Robert knew more about clay and firing it than Clod, who came to appreciate the knowledgeable help. It soon evolved into a partnership; working together with some day laborers, they delivered orders on time. With her sweet tooth Cloe loved honey, which Flora often gave her. Most times the two households walked to the church together and on market days, the women shopped as a group.

Becoming friendly with the Montagnes, however, got them into trouble with the neighbors to the north, Étienne and Mira Lorenz, who had been engaged in a back and forth battle with the Montagnes for many years. Neither side talked about the origins of the conflict, but it was conducted with dogged determination. It didn’t bother Roman Wells all that much, that is… until the day that Mira went before the Town Court and accused Flora of spreading malicious gossip at her expense. Here, Flora’s well-known reputation for sharp talk counted against her and she was sentenced to a day of being chained and displayed at the shame tree in full view of the town. Flora was devastated, and cried half a day on Avril’s shoulder.

“I’m a decent woman who in all my life never spoke maliciously of any one. I speak the truth, even if people are offended by it.” Then faced with such injustice she started crying again. Avril took her in her arms and tried to console her.

“Flora, dearest, don’t take it so hard. In your heart you know your good intentions, let that be your armor against the shame. Those who know you recognize your kind heart and Christian deeds.”

“But to be chained and stripped to the waist for all to see. I… I’ll die of shame. I’ll never be able to look another person in the eye.”

“It might not come to that. Rogé has gone to petition the Court to reverse its ruling.”

“Do you think he’ll succeed?” With a handkerchief Flora dabbed her eyes and blew her nose.

“Let’s hope so.”

But Rogé didn’t succeed. Not to appear weak, the Court upheld the ruling; the sentence was to be carried out after church the upcoming Sunday when most people were in town. They sent a written notice to the Montagnes confirming the date and commanded her to present herself at the appointed time. Flora locked herself in the back room and refused to talk to anyone, not even to Avril.

Next Sunday the whole household was nervous about the upcoming event. More than once Avril snapped at the rest, then had to apologize. After breakfast she turned to Rogé and implored, “We must do something. Poor Flora, she’ll die of shame. You must do something.”

“I did what I could; what else would you have me do? Short of absconding with them, there’s nothing else. Harsh as it sounds, she’ll have to endure it.”

On Sunday, thinking of walking with the Montagnes in support, they stopped there but found them already gone.

“They left before dawn, to sneak into town without anybody ogling them,” Martha, the toothless old servant informed them.

“My poor Flora, my poor dear Flora,” Avril whimpered all the way into town. She had grown very fond of the woman, seeing in her a vestige of her beloved mother.

In church the Montagnes snuck in only after the service had started, causing people to look wide-eyed at them and whisper loud enough to cause the priest’s tone to waver in the liturgy. Avril twisted the lace kerchief that Cloe had made for her into a tight ball. Just after the service ended, the Montagnes were also the first to leave and disappear.

Outside, Flora was nowhere to be seen. People milled around, just waiting for the punishment to be carried out. The law clerk had to call three times for Flora before she approached the shame tree with her head down, white-faced. A member of the Watch unceremoniously peeled the bodice and shirt from her and chained her to the post. Her chest bare, she stood there crying, her eyes on the ground.

People gathered around and watched, a few feeling her debasement. But some others jeered and called her ugly names. A clutch of young apprentices took the opportunity to pelt her with spoiled vegetables and eggs. They laughed as the items stuck to her bare skin and ran down her chest. Her shoulders shook with sobs and her eyes tried to escape the many lascivious looks.

“Oh my poor Flora…” Avril mumbled, her eyes turning from the painful scene.

Out of the crowd a young boy of eight ran to Flora, grabbed her skirt and tried to pull it off to fully expose her. Flora wailed in desperation.

“NO!” Avril yelled in a high pitched voice and shouldered herself forward. Much alarmed the boy ran away. “For shame! This woman doesn’t deserve any of this.” With quick steps she ran to Flora and shielded her with her own body. “This woman is kind and honest and when she speaks she tells the truth. She’s not malicious as accused and you may well ask who cast this blame upon her.” She stood there defiant, her face ablaze, her eyes flashing. “If you want to punish someone, punish me for I speak more unkindly than she ever did.” She shrugged out of her shirt and stood revealed in front of everybody. “I think every woman should be up here protecting her.” There was a stunned silence at this unexpected turn.

With a sob, Cloe ran forward to join Flora and Avril. She too peeled out of her shirt and bared herself.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Rogé rumbled and strode forward to shield the women, likewise baring his chest. In a minute Thierry and Clod joined them up front. With a shrill cry, a number of women stepped forward to be part of the wall. They didn’t bare themselves, but nonetheless stood there defiant, their eyes challenging the crowd.

Speechless the crowd stood, uneasily switching from foot to foot. No more vegetables flew, no more jeers sounded.

“Heaven be merciful…” A big woman, the Mayor’s wife, crossed the distance to stand in protest.

After that the crowd, shamefaced, melted away.

Avril covered herself, then hurried to cover Flora. Rogé wrestled the chain off her neck and in a triumphant procession, with Thierry on one side and Avril on the other, they led Flora home. She was crying but it was not from shame, but gratitude for the support.

“Thank you, most kind,” Thierry muttered as he led Flora into their home; their two sons followed them, not knowing what to think.

Safely back at Roman Wells, Avril couldn’t settle down. “It wasn’t justice… it was a travesty… if I get my hands on that Mira woman, I’ll pillory her…” Her agitation unsettled them all. She turned on Rogé and accused him, “You should have been the first—not me. You have a reputation none would dare to challenge. But no, I had to be the one to step up front and bare myself to protect her.”

“You didn’t have to bare yourself,” Rogé muttered, remembering his embarrassment at seeing her exposed in front of everybody.

“You think not??! I… I had to stop them from ogling her and draw the attention on me. Did you think I enjoyed being up there for all the world to see??! Well think again!” She was nearly out of breath she was so angry.

“What do you want?! I stood there with you, inviting the town to jeer at us and make fun of us.”

“Yes, after it was over! The moment had passed by then!”

“Easy now,” Clod tried to placate them.

“Stay out of this!” Avril turned on him. “You were no better. You took your sweet time to show your colors…”

“Please…” Cloe tried to head off any further argument. “In the end we all stood together…”

Eyes blazing at them, Avril turned and slammed the door to the pantry. They could hear her crying, great sobs that escaped through the door. There followed the sound of breaking pottery as Avril in her rage threw jugs of this and that against the walls. Rogé felt guilty, but also justified in his stance.

For the first time that night she didn’t sleep with him. The next day she didn’t rise for breakfast or lunch. Cloe went to talk with her to gentle her down but came back shaking her head. “She’s still very angry.”

“Why’s she so angry with me?” Rogé asked.

“I don’t think it’s just you,” Cloe said, wiping her eyes and face to ease her tension. “She’s angry at the whole world of men that puts a woman through such debasement.”

Rogé still couldn’t understand it. “Was I wrong?” he asked Clod.

Clod was slow to answer, seeking a way to smooth over the disagreement without ruffling any more feathers. “No, you weren’t wrong… but neither was she…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Rogé muttered, throwing the glove down that he was worrying. With loud steps he strode outside, walked to the cellar and drew himself a pitcher full of wine. He was determined not to give in, but wasn’t quite sure what he’d be giving in to. All he knew was that he felt ill-used.

He was already late when Clod joined him, to try talking some sense into him. The upshot was that shortly after, they both got drunk.

“You know… standing up there… facing the whole town …. was as hard as facing the English at Agincourt.” Bleary eyed, Rogé tried to decide if he had room for one more glass.

“I know what you mean,” Clod answered, but he was thinking of something else. “You know, Avril has small but nice firm breasts…”

Rogé punched his friend hard on the shoulder.

The next day Avril still didn’t come down and Rogé, feeling sluggish from the night before, was out of sorts himself. Somehow it felt like an indictment of him; he couldn’t comprehend why she was making such a drama of it.

“Maybe I should go up and talk with her again,” Cloe offered tentatively.

“Let her be,” he said peremptorily. “Let her sulk all she wants. Eventually she has to come down.” But all day he felt uneasy not seeing her at her usual activities. And it rankled him that she held him at fault.

When she did not show up for supper he became concerned. “Go up and see if you can get her down,” he told Cloe.

Cloe went upstairs but returned moments later, frowning. “She’s not there.”

“What do you mean not there?” Rogé demanded.

“The room’s empty, she’s gone,” Cloe said, worry lines framing her mouth.

“Where could she have gone?”

“Well, maybe to the Montagnes… and if not there, she has a few friends in town,” Cloe said. She got her shawl and went next door.

But Avril wasn’t at the neighbors either. Now Rogé really started to worry. It didn’t make any sense to him that she was gone. Where? Why? Vaguely he felt guilty but couldn’t really understand why. He asked Cloe if she could find Avril in town. He would have gone himself but thought if Avril was mad at him he wouldn’t be the best person to convince her to come home. Cloe and Clod left on the errand.

By himself, Rogé started striding around the day room. More than once he banged into the stool and after the third time, he kicked it irritably out of his way. It simply made no sense. They had argued, but he was unsure what the true reason was. He couldn’t get around the fact that Avril had left without saying a word. Why would she do that? They’d been together since before Agincourt and had never had any real trouble between them before. Had he taken her for granted? No, that wasn’t it, if anything he paid too much attention to her. Had he been maybe too ardent in his pursuit of her? That was only in his mind; outwardly he had been as quiet as a church mouse about his needs. Whichever way he looked at it, he could find no explanation for her abrupt disappearance.

A little after, the distant church bell rang in the evening hour of eight, Clod and Cloe returned, her face streaked with tears. Grimfaced, Clod just shook his head. After turning Vienne inside out they could find no trace of Avril anywhere.

“Have you tried Madame Bellerose?” Rogé asked, searching his memory.

“We tried everybody,” Clod replied irritably. His wife was crying and he was on edge. “What did you do to drive her away?”

“I? I did nothing! You saw it, you were here!” He spread his hands in his frustration. “Where the hell is she?”

“I can tell you where she isn’t. Not here, not at the neighbors, not in Vienne,” Clod said brutally, all pretence at civility forgotten.

“She must have run away!” Cloe wailed. Avril had been a sister and a mother to her. She wasn’t sure she could survive without her.

“Run away” struck dread in Rogé heart. Avril was used to being on the road, fending for herself. Maybe she had become tired of all the domesticity at Roman Wells and took this opportunity to flee. But how could that be? They were all too close for her to just turn her back on them. Had she not saved them and had he not saved her in return? No, no, it did not fit! There had to be some other reason, something rational.

Yet after another hour still nothing was certain. Finally Rogé locked his fears away. “We must make plans,” he said. “Clod, you take the road to the south and ask everybody. Someone must have seen her. I’ll go north and do the same that way. She can’t have disappeared into thin air.”

He couldn’t sleep that night. He could feel her absence beside him and all the same, his hand reached out to make sure. He half hoped to find her there, that it was just another nightmare he was waking from, but each time he was disappointed. He had finally stopped worrying about what had caused whatever this was, and worried more about her. Was she safe? Had she any money with her? He had already checked the money box, but couldn’t decide if any of it was missing. If she was running where would she go? North? South? There wasn’t much to the East, forest and wild lands, abandoned decades ago after the last plague. Maybe she talked her way onto one of the barges and went that way. How could he check out that possibility?

Also his conscience bothered him. If she ran off, it had to be because of him. He got up and went into the kitchen to take a deep drink of water, trying to settle himself down. He stood by the window and looked out at the vineyard bathed in the silver tint of a half moon. How could she leave all this? It defied his understanding.

When he lay down again, he broke into a sweat and had to get up and dry himself off. The sheet and covers felt clammy so he ended up on the floor, the bricks under him absorbing his heat and worries. And that’s where Clod found him in the morning and shook him awake.

For two days they tracked up and down the roads, asking about her. They returned home tired, neither having found a trace of her. Gloomily they sat around the table, guzzling wine, trying to find some comfort.

“Let’s face it, she’s gone,” Rogé said the unsayable. “How is a mystery, as no one saw any sight of her anywhere. I expect she wanted it that way.”

“What way is that?” Clod asked, not ready to let go of her so easily.

“Isn’t it obvious? She must have wanted to leave. Why else?” No one had an answer to that. They had more wine but it only added to the melancholy.

Trying to get a grip on his life, Rogé went fishing the next day. He sat under a beech on the river bank and stared woodenly at his line in the water. The river flowed slowly by; at this time of the year the Rhône was quiet and placid, hardly tugging at his float. He wished that no fish would bite and interrupt his thoughts. Step by step he went over the events of the last days trying to make sense of them. He couldn’t see how he could be at fault and after the third run through he felt convinced of it. But if she had no reason to run away then where was she? That opened the possibility that she left not by choice, but was taken. But by whom and why? That was another can of worms.

In the end he caught a fair sized lamprey but as he hated the looks of the fish he threw it back. When about an hour later he caught another one, he gave up in disgust. He gathered up his gear and headed back to the house. He climbed the gentle hill and felt comforted by the clusters of grapes ripening on the vines. Gaétan had predicted a good harvest. Rogé wondered how many barrels that translated into.

In the kitchen he found Cloe and Flora. Crying, Flora was blaming herself for Avril’s disappearance. Cloe tried to dissuade her, but she wouldn’t let go and cried harder still.

Rogé put away the fishing gear, then sat down at the table across from the women. “First off, none of this is your fault any more than it’s mine. I don’t believe that Avril ran away,” he said forcefully. All tears stopped as Flora looked at him, bewildered. “I believe that she was forced.”

“Forced? By whom?” both women asked at once.

“That I don’t know. But there’re too many good feelings between us for her to run away. If she has some problem with a person, she has no trouble saying it. This is not like her at all.” He slapped the table for emphasis, making both women jump. “So that means she was taken against her will.”

“But why?”

“That I don’t know. But from now on we should look for someone in the dark doing dark deeds.”

They were still mulling this over when Clod arrived with a folded page he held out to Rogé.

“What is it?’

“I don’t know.” Clod shrugged his shoulders. “You know I can’t read, but I recognize your name on it.”

Indeed, there was Rogé’s name on the outside. He took and opened it. His eyes flew over the page and his face darkened as he read. “The Devil take all the rotten bastards to hell!” he exploded slapping the page down.

“What is it?”

“A ransom note. Someone wants me to do something to get Avril back.”

“What? What do they want?”

“They want me go to Toulouse and guard a highborn bastard. If I do so, they’ll return Avril unharmed. If not…” Rogé paused heavily. He looked at Clod and demanded, “Who gave you this note?”

“A boy… one of the Francine boys. He said a foreign man gave it to him to pass on to Rogé. He got three sous for it.”

“Did he describe the man?”

“Not much. Dark haired, portly, dressed in outlandish clothes. That’s all.”

“Sounds like that pigshit Spaniard, Emilio Castellan. He’s been after me to take this assignment. It didn’t sound honest to me then and much less so now. The wonder is that he would go to such extremes to force it.” He picked up the letter and with his brow in a furrow, read it again.

“What does it say?” Clod asked.

“I told you, it’s a ransom note.”

“I mean word for word.”

“To Rogé Durant. If you would like your lady back unhurt you would do well to follow all of the instructions below. Take yourself to Toulouse and report to the third house on the left on Bishop Walk. It would be in your best interests to keep this quiet. Not all’s bad news: there’s gold in it if you do what’s asked. Otherwise…” Rogé’s voice turned hard and he fairly spit out the words. “Avril will be killed and sent back to you in little pieces.” He slammed the page down, making the dishes rattle. “That’s all. There’s no name, no seal.”

“What do they want you to do?”

“I don’t really know. Protect somebody, but the more I think about it the less sure I am of that.”

“It sounds dodgy,” Clod said.

“It sure does.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“Go along with it. What else can I do? I need Avril back.”

“Then I’m going with you,” Clod said without hesitation. Then he remembered his wife. “In our absence you, dear, will have to take care of the property and make sure no harm comes to it.”

Cloe was speechless, fearing for him and Avril, overawed by the responsibility.

“It’s all right dear,” Flora patted her arm reassuringly. “Thierry and I will help.”

At the table Rogé caught himself having a second glass of wine and he pushed it away. He would need a clear head to get him through this mess. Clod noticed the gesture and also pushed his glass away. Cloe looked from one to the other, afraid to ask the questions that were written on her face.

After the meal, Rogé took his crossbow out of its sealskin cover and examined it closely. Everything looked good, but he spent some time rubbing it down with some hemp oil until the wood gleamed. He touched up the string with beeswax and searched for any unraveling. Pleased, he put it back in its cover.

“Tomorrow I’ll go to the fletcher and get two dozen of his finest bolts,” Rogé said.

Clod was honing his clasp knife until it could split a hair by its own weight. “Go to Lambert, he’s the best.”

“I intend to.” Rogé rummaged through his clothes, choosing what to wear. Something fine to show himself in better company and something rough to be used outside or to blend in with the rougher sorts. Clod took his cue and also put together such a travel pack.

Next, Rogé collected some food stuff and divided it between two sacks then he took a wine bottle from the back of the cupboard and sniffed the cork. “This is the best that we have; maybe it’ll fill us with courage if we need it.”

“Piss on that. Remember how we were taken by the English after the battle and how Avril came to rescue us? We’re here only because of her. I need no other inducement.”

“Neither do I.” Rogé collected the packs and looked around as if seeing the place for the first or last time. Outside a bird sang, the chickens cackled and a neighbor’s dog barked. “You know, we’ve come a long way. From swine herders to here, but the road led through Agincourt, cursed be the ground where it stands.”

“Don’t curse it! A good many friends were buried there,” Clod objected.

“Well now, we fight a different battle that needs cunning as well as guts. I feel more confident having you with me.”

Clod looked up at him and his eyes became misty. “Remember the orphanage? Do you recall that loudmouth lout Bruno twice our age and size, how we took him out fighting him together? We swore to be brothers then and I haven’t forgotten that. We’ll always be brothers according to my counting.”

“And according to mine as well.” Clod stood up and they embraced and pounded each other’s backs.

Chapter 12

The trip to Toulouse took four days, most of it riding on a cheese merchant’s wagon for a small fee. Rogé would have had a chance to learn about cheese, its pedigree and taste classifications, had he not been so irritated by the constant chatter of the man when he had more critical things to think about. His other ear was filled by Clod.

“I worry about leaving Cloe by herself. What lies could that loud-mouth Mira spread if she gets a whiff of this?”

“She doesn’t know anything about it. Who would tell? Not Cloe and not Flora, that’s certain. So leave the worrying to me.”

Toulouse was a well situated town astride the River Garonne. The gates were open and no one stopped the cheese merchant to ask any probing questions. They drove through the massive archway, soon losing themselves in the narrow streets inside the city.

Clod sniffed suspiciously at himself. “God Almighty, I smell of cheese. I hope not like an over ripe Roquefort.” The smell bothered him, but he couldn’t escape it.

Across from the Cathedral of Saint-Étienne, they took leave of the cheese merchant to strike out on their own. They had covered their weapons with their bed roll to avoid inciting any unwanted interest. The first person they asked, a knife sharpener who was working his spinning stone on the corner, professed not to know Bishop Walk. Neither did the next, not even the third.

They had better luck in the tavern, where an old timer nursing an ale seemed to know. “They renamed Bishop Walk and now call it the Street of Widows, as in the last plague over twenty years ago so many people died that there were hardly any men left.”

“How can we find it?” Rogé asked, shifting the weight of his pack on his shoulders.

“Turn right at the next street and when you see the statue of Saint Dominic kneeling at his prayers in a corner alcove of the wall, turn right again and you’re on the Street of the Grieving Widows.”

Rogé thanked the man profusely and bought another ale for him.

“Why do you suppose you were told the Bishop Walk when no one seems to know anything about it?” Outside again, Clod asked the obvious question.

“How should I know? Perhaps the man didn’t want to tip his hand. The letter said the third house on the street, nothing else.”

They had no difficulty finding the street, nor the third house on it that had a cloth shop at street level. Not quite sure of themselves they entered and were greeted by the shopkeeper eager to sell them something.

“I’m not sure if this is the right place,” Rogé started. “I’m from Vienne and was told to come here and meet somebody.”

For half a minute the shopkeeper gazed dumbly at them then broke into a toothy smile. “And I was told that someone from Vienne would come and I was to convey him to another place.” He found his hat, jammed it on his head and strode for the door. “Well come along, won’t you?”

“Where’re we going?” Clod asked, even less sure of himself.

The man was already on the outside and they had to hurry to catch up with him. The shopkeeper puffed out his cheeks and said, “I was told to ask no questions and answer none. I’m just the blind man leading the blind,” he cackled to himself.

They turned left then right any number of times until Rogé had no idea where they were. The cloth merchant led them to a public water fountain where a dark figure waited.

“Here you are,” the shop keeper said, then turned and hurried away.

“Follow me,” the cowled figure said, grabbing hold of Rogé’s sleeve.

“Not so fast, I won’t move an inch until I find out what this is all about.”

“All in good time, but not here out in the open.” Rogé recognized the darkened face of Emilio Castellan. “Now hurry. Believe me it’s dangerous for all of us to be seen.”

There was nothing to do but follow the fast pace Castellan set. It was obvious that the man was skirting the more populated places. They darted from one dark alley to another, finally slipping through a back door into a yard, and crossing it into a darkened house. Up a short flight of stairs into a room, with windows tightly shuttered by heavy curtains. There was one candle burning on the table which Castellan used to light four more.

“Have a seat, gentlemen. I’ll get the wine and we can talk freely; no one can hear us in here.” He got the wine and pewter cups and poured them each a drink. He sat down and took a sip, wiping his narrow moustache. He frowned at Rogé and said, “You were supposed to come alone. Wasn’t the instruction clear enough?”

“It might have been,” Rogé shrugged his shoulders, “but I don’t like to travel alone.” He stuck out his chin defiantly. There was a half minute of strained silence.

“All right, let’s leave that for now.” He pulled his cowl off, for the first time revealing his face. There was nothing charming about him; his look was furtive and there were shadows under his eyes. “I don’t mind telling you that I don’t like resorting to these means but it was necessary—”

“Where’s Avril?” Rogé demanded, striking the table forcefully.

“She’s safe and she’ll continue to be safe as long as you cooperate.”

“Cooperate with what?” Rogé hissed, his anger rising.

“Easy now,” Clod whispered to him. “Think of why we’re here.”

Rogé swallowed and said in a more reasonable tone, “Again I ask, what’s this about?”

“I’m just a go-between; it’s not for me to tell, but someone will be here shortly to explain it all.” He took another sip, trying to look casual.

“So then we wait,” Clod said reaching for the cup, but pulled his hand back when Rogé flashed him a warning look.

Somewhere outside a church bell rang the half hour, as if to announce the arrival of a stylish young gentleman in a satin doublet and hose. He stood in the center of the room regarding them intently.

“Which is the one?” he asked in a high nasal voice. Castellan pointed. The eyes turned on Rogé, coldly measuring him. “He doesn’t look capable of hitting through a ring at a hundred paces.”

“I have on very good authority that he did. I’ve proven it a hundred times.”

“How? Have you seen him shoot?”

“No, but talked with those who had.”

“I would have preferred if you had tested him yourself. A lot is riding on his ability.”

“He’s who he says he is,” Clod broke in uninvited.

“And we’re to take his word on that?” The young man pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and waved it in front of his nose. “Do I smell cheese?” he asked, frowning. “Most unpleasant.” He waved the handkerchief energetically, to Clod’s horror, toward him. Nonetheless the new arrival stepped forward and slid into the chair opposite them.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Rogé asked, his voice dangerously low.

“In my own good time. But first the ground rules. No names are to be used, ever. Instead we’ll talk about colors and I’ll tell you more about them as we go on.” He sniffed the air again, much perturbed. “Do you smell cheap cheese? It’s quite insupportable.” He took a small vial from his pocket, dabbed his finger tip in it and oiled the orifices of his nose. He sipped the air and slid the vial back into his pocket. “That’s better.” He settled himself in his chair more comfortably and scanned the two men again.

“Simply said the situation here in Toulouse and its region is quite complicated. You need to understand that about 250 years ago the whole area here broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and established its own order of beliefs, popularly known as the Cathars. They declared themselves the only pure religion and accused the mother church in Rome of corruption and perversion of Christ’s teaching. They were quite popular and sustained themselves a while, spreading their seditious beliefs. The Pope in Rome declared the enlightenment a heresy and set his dog of the Inquisition on the population. Wars were fought, battles were won and lost, and heretics burned at the stake by the thousands. It was a wholesale butchery of anyone touched by this polluted creed. To keep this short, over time the Cathars were eradicated—”

“Yes, yes, everyone in France knows about the Albigensian Crusade.”

“True enough.” The young man held up his hand to ward off any more interruptions. “Less well known is the fact that the Inquisition that has firmly ensconced itself among us like a leach, in order to maintain its mandate, is still looking for heretics with a fine sieve… and of course finding some.”

“Then this has something to do with the heresy?” Rogé asked, impatient for the man to make his point.

“Not at all, and let me stress again, absolutely not. But it’s the backdrop; fear and suspicion are still thick in the air. If a whisper of what we contemplate gets out, the Inquisition will be on us faster than dogs on a blood trail. It underlines the care we must take to avoid discovery.” The young man reached for the wine and poured some into a pewter cup. He took a sip, grimacing at the taste. “More to the point is that the town is run by 24 consuls but the Capitouls is really controlled by three families, trading off leadership and the power among themselves. Over the past hundred years, the struggle has become deadly and assassinations have become quite common, to the point that now a state of vendetta exists.” His voice rose dramatically. After a pause he continued in a conspiratorial whisper. “Not to name any names, let’s call the three families the Reds, the Whites and the Blues. I represent the Whites and today the Reds are in power, having killed a member of my family four years ago. It’s time to return the favor. That’s why you’re here.”

“Why did you wait four years?” Clod asked, quite ready to be contentious.

“Because there’re whole armies of mercenaries and body guards protecting each faction and it’s downright impossible to penetrate their defenses. The current … ah, leader is carried around in an armored litter and never shows himself in public. Everything is done behind closed doors and shutters. That’s why we need a super shot like you.”

“Then you want me to assassinate this red what’s his name?” Rogé asked in a tight voice.

“No names, please, and the answer is yes. As you can see we went to a lot of trouble to find you and get you here.”

“It doesn’t seem reasonable to me that by killing one man you can assume power. What about the rest of the family? Wouldn’t they still claim control?”

“Ah, you don’t quite appreciate our situation. That’s the way the game is played by tradition. By cutting off the head of the snake, the body may twist and turn, but its voice is gone. These days in the Capitouls we vote by vendetta.”

“Any reason I should do this?” Rogé asked, shaking his head.

“Yes. A thousand gold reasons and failing that, regretfully we had to resort to other means of getting insurance. It would have been a lot simpler had you come along voluntarily. There it is, now you know the truth, at least as much of it as you need to know at this point.”

Rogé lowered his head and thought hard for a long minute. “Where’s Avril now?” he asked raising his head again.

“She’s quite safe and comfortable,” the other assured him glibly.

“I’ll have to see her and talk to her before I’ll do anything.”

“Quite impossible. You’ll see her when it’s over, not before.”

“Then find yourself another assassin.” Abruptly he rose, the chair falling away from him. Clod sprang to his feet, his hand already on his poniard. Tensely they waited in the flicker of candlelight.

“I’ll have to see,” the young man said, affecting boredom with the drama.

“What’s your name?” Rogé demanded.

“You may call me … Yellow, if you must.” He rose too, languidly stretching out his muscles as if after a boring encounter. “Monsieur Dark here will take you to a safe house. You may move around at will, but be aware that you’ll be watched every minute.” His eyes flashed dangerously. “When the time comes, you’ll be notified.”

“What about Avril? I won’t lift a finger until I speak with her.”

“As I said, you’ll be notified.” Monsieur Yellow turned and left the room. Monsieur Dark finished his wine before getting up and leading the two to the door.

“What does a Spaniard have to do with a French conspiracy?”

“In life one is often forced to end up with strange bedfellows.”

“In a whorehouse, the beauty you went to bed with the night before often turns into a hag by next morning,” Clod said.

“Who cares if you get well paid for it?” Castellan said.

They walked through a darkening city and once again Rogé thought that they were being led around to confuse all sense of direction. In time they entered a modest house and off the hallway, were led into a room with two beds, a table and two chairs. In a corner there was a washstand filled with water.

“You can sleep here. There’s a tavern on the corner that serves decent food and drinks.” He deposited some coins on the table. “Enjoy yourselves.” Before leaving he turned. “You’ll be contacted by someone who’ll call you brass and copper. Understand?” Then he left, quietly closing the door behind him.

“Well if that doesn’t beat all,” Clod said. “Did you expect all that?”

“Something like it,” Rogé replied, taking off his pack and slipping it under his bed.

Looking around the room, Clod was dissatisfied. “They ought to have left us some wine, don’t you think?”

“You can walk to the corner if that’s what you want.”

“No I’ve already walked enough. Most times it felt like I was being led around by my nose.”

“Possibly,” Rogé said aloud, then putting his lips close to Clod’s ears, he whispered, “It’s likely we’re watched and being listened to.”

“I still don’t quite get it all. You buy all this?” Clod scratched his head and whispered back, “The walls have eyes and the ceiling has ears. I understand.”

“Let’s get it done, the sooner the better and head home.”

“Amen to that.”

Clod jammed a chair under the latch, blocking the door. They took their boots off, then stretched out on the bed with their clothes on, ready for anything. The travel hadn’t been strenuous but they were tired out trying to deal with everything new around them. Rogé took his short jabbing sword and laid it beside himself. Clod drew his poniard and placed it by his pillow.

“Good night brother,” Rogé said less to Clod, more to whoever was listening. Clod grunted and tried to worm his shape into the straw mattress underneath him.

Next morning they took breakfast at the Falling Star tavern, which was only half full. As promised the food was more than decent, boiled eggs in crème sauce, soft and hard cheeses and dark rye bread with pale ale. Clod ordered a second helping. Rogé nodded pleasantly to the man at the next table who was reasonably well dressed, marking him as a merchant or a salesman, likely to talk even with strangers.

“Good to start the day with a decent breakfast.” Rogé aimed his comment at the man, who smiled and replied, “If one is lucky enough to find a place serving it.”

“My friend and I are from Lyon and don’t know our way around. Nice city, not overrun like many other places.”

“I know what you mean. In Paris you hardly have the space to breathe. But Toulouse has seen better days. There were wars and insurrection, heresies, a recent famine, repeated floods and twice the passing of the plague. The city has lost over 10,000 inhabitants and today has less than 22,000 people living here. Kind of makes one think of the plagues of Egypt or the coming of the Endtimes.”

“My travelling companion and I are interested in seeing all of France. So far we haven’t been disappointed.”

“Welcome to Toulouse. Rightly speaking we’ve only been part of France the last 200 years or so, but by Royal Decree enjoy a fair bit of political autonomy. We grow crops and sell the surplus if we’re lucky enough to have it. We sell Bordeaux wine to rest of France and even to England.”

“England?” Clod asked somewhat surprised.

“Trade knows no borders. True it’s smoother to trade in peacetime but even in war. Gold has no nationality.”

“Then you sell wine?” Rogé asked.

“No, but I gladly drink it. I sell woad the city is famous for.”

“Woad?” Clod asked. Of course he knew of the blue dye from mixing colors in the shop in Arne, but never knew its source.

“This is a fair city from what I’ve seen so far,” Rogé prompted to keep the man talking. Like any salesman the other was glad to do so.

“Yes, quite cultured. It’s a mix of many cultures; the Romans were here, the Visigoths, the Carolinians under Charlemagne, even the Vikings and for some time the caliphate of Cordoba exerted its influence. They all left their mark on the city. Our troubadours still sing praises of those days. We have a University to vie with any in Italy and famous libraries, though many irreplaceable books were burned during the Inquisition.”

“It puzzles me that the Inquisition is still so powerful. Throughout the rest of France they’re a lot less visible.”

“The Dominicans are the reason; their center is close to Toulouse. Here it was founded and here it is still. We’re the cultural and religious center of Languedoc.”

“I find the city politics confusing,” Rogé said, feigning perplexity.

“Because it is. We’re part of France to be sure, but uneasy neighbors with Aquitaine ruled by the English. And look at France. John the Fearless of Burgundy has taken Paris and worked out an understanding with Henry of England. The Dauphin tries to contest him but I doubt he’ll be successful. I tell you the world has turned head over heels.”

“At least Toulouse is far away, safe from those conflicts,” Rogé said trying to bring the conversation back to Toulouse.

“True enough when you look at all the troubles near about in the German principalities, Italy and Spain; we look peaceful by comparison. But our Capitouls is at war with itself. Influence peddling, corruption are the order of the day. Like backstreet dogs the three ruling families are fighting each other. For the past four years we’ve been lucky to have Montesano in power; he is the best of the lot and tries to maintain some honesty in the city government.” Rogé made a note, Montesano, Red. “Before that the Bevans ruled with an iron hand, causing much harm to civic authority and the economy. Nothing could be done without greasing their palms.” Bevans, the White. “The Roncesvalles are no better, perhaps even crueler.” Roncesvalles, the Blues.

“Then Montesano is the best you’ve got?”

“Definitely. But I fear that an assassin is waiting in the wings to take him out.”

“An assassin??!” Rogé and Clod said, pretending to be shocked.

“So it has ever been. An arrow, a dagger in the back, even poison. The place of power is drenched with blood.”

Rogé noticed a man sitting further away, who got up and took a closer seat. A paid ear, a spy. “Well, God be praised it has little to do with us,” he said to deflect the conversation. “For common folk like us, we should be thankful that the sun shines and the prices remain steady.”

“True enough,” the woad merchant returned, smiling.

Rogé and Clod left the tavern and walked a short distance to the riverbank. Leaning on the railing they watched the barges loading and unloading along the quay, talking in muted tones. “Well we know now who the players are,” Clod said, his arms pointing to one of the boats as if speaking about them.

“Maybe,” Rogé answered. “But we still need to prove it.”

Over the next two days, through casual conversations, they confirmed what they had already learned. Montesano the Red was the best of the three and people prayed for his safety. Again Bevan the White was said to be the worst, the stink of corruption thick around him.

“The way it stands, I’m to assassinate the best at the behest of the worst,” Rogé said in a private aside to Clod.

“And will you do it?”

“It appears I must; they’re holding Avril.”

The next day Monsieur Dark showed himself, announcing that the day was near. “Red will be at a certain place at a certain time. Some event in an unnamed garden that he has to attend, with a good line of sight from an overlooking tower.”

“And where is this tower?” Rogé asked.

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

“But you must. I have to see the place to calculate the angles, figure out the flow of air that’s easily disturbed by roofs and walls. You give me one shot, but would let me risk it without knowing the conditions.”

“I’ll ask.”

“And what about Avril? I’ll do nothing without seeing her.”

“I’ll ask.”

“Well then make sure you do,” Rogé said harshly. Castellan left the room, by his stiff bearing less than satisfied with the meeting. It was obvious that he had really very little power in the situation; he was no more than a go-between.

“Then you’ll do it?” Clod asked, not watching his tongue.

“Of course, there’s lots of gold in play,” Rogé said aloud, then mouthed, “Not here.”

Privately, atop the town wall with a good view in all directions, they talked freely. “First, I want to see what they have done with Avril, then I’ll decide.”

“The thousand gold coins worries me. Why should they pay that much? It would be cheaper just to kill us once the deed is done.”

“And that’s the problem, we have to figure a way to survive the aftermath.”

In the afternoon of the next day Castellan came to get Rogé. Clod rose to go, but Castellan waved him off. “Not you, just him.” Rogé hesitated. “If you want to see the girl, you must do so alone.”

Rogé followed along with grim determination. It was clear that they were going about this in a roundabout way, and after many turns and a few backtracks, they finally entered a house with shuttered windows. In a side room Rogé was told to wait. He strode around the room, his heart pounding. He was afraid of what he would find. Just when he was about to go look for her himself, the door opened and a hooded man came in, pushing Avril ahead of himself. At first glance Avril looked the same, a little thinner perhaps.

“Rog…gé…” she stammered, as if unable to believe her eyes. “What’re you doing here?”

“Come to get you, of course.” On closer look he saw a small bruise around her mouth, and tie-lines around her wrists. Her eyes had fear in them. “How are you?” he asked, knowing that she’d been mistreated.

“Fine…” she said, the situation clicking through her head. “I’ve been treated …decently here.” The hesitation told him different. But he had to be careful, to play along: he was in the lair of the wolf.

“It won’t be long now, then we can all go home.”

“Yes…” But again her eyes were trying to warn him.

“You’ve seen her and talked with her. Now it’s time for you to leave,” the man said menacingly. For a heartbeat he considered ripping the man’s tongue out and taking Avril, but he knew that somewhere there had to be others with drawn weapons ready to rush in.

“Don’t worry, I’ll see you shortly.”

The man shoved Avril out the door and left. Tense as a bow, Rogé waited impatiently. After some moments Castellan came back, his eyes searching the stone face before him. “You have seen the girl…” he tailed off.

“Next, I want to see the place you want me to shoot from.”

“I can get you near the place but not into it.”

“That might be enough,” Rogé returned gruffly. He was in no mood to be sociable or accommodating. Once again they walked through the town, turning every which way. This time whenever he could Rogé took bearings from the church spires that were often visible over the rooftops. Then they were in the better part of the town with massive doors reinforcing entry gates to various private compounds.

“Don’t look now, but there is the tower and there is the garden wall you have to shoot over.”

As casually as he could, Rogé took his measurements. The distance wasn’t a problem but the swirling wind was. Even on such a quiet day as this, the wind changed unexpectedly from side to side. The narrow street trapped the wind and deflected it. It hit a wall and rebounded or broke up into turbulence, not enough to disturb a walker perhaps, but certainly enough to influence a flying bolt. They walked by the place and continued on. Two streets further, Castellan asked, “So what do you think?”

“Didn’t you feel it? The wind was much too erratic to risk a shot. My advice is to find a quieter place where the wind won’t be a factor.”

“Are you refusing the assignment?” the other asked aggressively.

“No, but I can’t guarantee it. Even the best archer in the world can’t command the wind.”

Castellan led the way back to the house and turned Rogé over to Clod.

“How did it go?” Clod asked when they were alone.

“Famously,” Rogé said sarcastically, causing Clod’s eyebrows to rise. “What’ve you been doing all day?”

“I spent the time in the Falling Star sampling the famous Bordeaux.” Then whispering, “How did it go with Avril?”

“Not here, later outside,” Rogé whispered back.

Not too long after, Monsieur Yellow showed up with Castellan. “Monsieur Dark tells me that you think the shot is too uncertain.” Rogé just nodded and waited. Yellow’s lips pursed. “What would you suggest?”

“How will Red get to the place?”

“As I said, in an armored conveyance that’s immune to arrows. There are no windows, only a solid door. It’s closed all around.”

“How is the litter ventilated?”

“Pardon?”

“A passenger needs air, how does he get it?”

“There’s a grate on top, I suppose through that.”

“What kind of grate?”

“A grate with holes in it… Ah, I see what you’re thinking. But are the holes big enough?”

“How large are they?”

Yellow made a circle with his fingers. “Not much larger than a ring… Aha! And you nailed a ring! You could shoot from an overhead window not even fifteen paces away.” For the first time Yellow showed genuine enthusiasm. “I like it!” he beamed.

“Now you’ve got it.”

Both visitors left and shortly after Rogé and Clod also, seemingly walking aimlessly through the city, staring at various places of interest. Behind them they often glimpsed two men following in the shadows.

“So, tell me how’s Avril?”

“She’s been hurt, but I don’t know how much. All the same somebody’s going to pay for it.”

“Hrump. Are you still going to do it?”

“Yes, of course, but don’t you worry, I’ll put my own twist on it.” Then he instructed Clod on what he had to do.

That evening while Clod was out, the conspirators had another meeting. “In two days, it’ll be the most auspicious for our purposes. The Capitouls meets the day after and we can present the fait accompli and claim the leadership,” Yellow said in a self-satisfied tone.

From under the bed Rogé pulled out his pack and unwrapped the bow. With a piece of soft chamois he dusted off the wood that needed no dusting. Both Yellow and Monsieur Dark watched with bated fascination as he checked the action of the lever and pulled the string back. He put a bolt into the groove and without looking fired from the hip, hitting a heraldic device on the opposite wall right dead center.

Yellow cleared his throat. “We’re ready then, no?”

“Not quite. So far all I’ve heard are promises. Avril and a thousand pieces of gold. I want to see half of that in my hand before I take a step.”

“Don’t you trust us?” Yellow asked in honeyed tones.

“You know the answer to that, the canary said to the fox. But that’s firm, 500 now and 500 after it’s done.” The other two hesitated. “You hired a professional, so let’s be professional about it.” It took a minute for Yellow to nod to Castellan, who left the room hurriedly.

“You know if this goes well, there might be other jobs for you.” Yes, you bastard. That was said to lull my caution, to make me think we could have an association in the future. You snake, your time will come.

“No doubt.” Rogé sighted along the unloaded bow, swept the room pausing on Monsieur Yellow, who in spite of the bow’s empty channel, licked his lips nervously. Rogé whistled tonelessly as he rubbed the bow, often just caressing it.

Finally Castellan returned and laid a purse on the table. Rogé spilled the coins and made a great show of counting it like a real professional would. He set eight aside as light, and drummed with his fingers on the table top until Castellan exchanged out the light pieces. Clod would be proud of me.

With a flourish, Rogé put the purse in his belt, tying the strings well. “Well that’s taken care of,” he said with great satisfaction. “Next, on the morning of the shoot, I want Avril delivered into the safekeeping of my friend. If not, the whole thing is off,” Rogé said, sticking his chin out.

“Monsieur, that’s quite impossible. Comes not in question.”

“In that case you can take your money back and go to hell!” Rogé fumbled for the purse string.

“Now hold it right there!” Castellan said, then exchanged quick Spanish with Yellow. They argued back and forth but in the end, Yellow gave in. “Agreed,” he said as if it were torn from him.

“I want to be quite clear on this. I’ll see Avril in safety before I lift the bow.”

“I already agreed to it!” Yellow threw back vehemently.

“Well then the negotiations have fairly concluded to both our satisfaction. I would ask you to stay, but I need my sleep to be rested for the big event.” The two left, not liking how the meeting had transpired.

Much later, close to curfew at eleven, Clod returned, his breath smelling strongly of ale.

“So what have you found out?” Rogé asked, cocking an eye on his friend.

Clod extracted a number of miniature portraits from under his jacket. “This is Monsieur Russo Montesano, the present Major of the Capitouls, the most powerful man in the city.” Rogé looked at the small tablet, finding the man not unsympathetic. “This is Consul Ruggio Bevan, one of the 24, whom we call White, our patron in this enterprise.” The picture showed a man with jowls and fat lips. His eyes were shifty even if the artist tried to minimize it. “Last but certainly not least, Consul Samuel Roncesvalles, Blue.” The nose was thin, sharp for a face. The artist had captured the cruel twist of the mouth. “And these are the main actors in this conspiracy.” Clod shuffled the pictures frowning at them. He scratched his chin before continuing, “You know I still can’t figure why they had to drag us all this way to do this thing when someone local could have done it just as well.”

“Ah, but then you don’t really understand the situation. There’s only one shot that has to succeed the first time, the only time. They can’t risk a miss; their lives depend on my aim.”

“Still, why did they need someone of your skill?”

“That’s to ease their fear of failure. If I succeed, they inherit the power and the rest accede to it. It might sound stupid to outsiders but that’s how the game is played here.”

They were talking in whispers, but Rogé added even more quietly. “At the end of this they’ll try to kill us, make no mistake about that. But I got 500 gold out of them and they’ll deliver Avril into your care. See if you can get her to safety, but you watch out, I’m sure they’ll be coming for you in numbers.” Rogé looked at the three miniatures trying to memorize the players. Finally he put them down, taking a big breath and holding it, letting it out in an explosive huff.

“Have you done everything else I asked?”

“Just like you said and the answer is yes.”

“Very good. We better get some sleep now. Tomorrow don’t have anything to drink; I want you sharp as a knife.”

“Understood.” Clod nodded and searched out his bed.

In spite of his best intentions Rogé found it impossible to calm his heart. Poor Avril, what have they done to you? Somebody will pay for it, that’s a promise. When sleep came it was full of nightmarish images and he woke more than once, breathing hard and covered with sweat. The Devil take you, whoever you are.

Chapter 13

After much anticipation the day finally arrived. It had been worked out where along the route the ambush should take place. It was not entirely certain, for the route was often changed from what was said beforehand. The final choice was a place that couldn’t be avoided, given the destination. Rogé was calm and Clod was ready, for his part.

Well before he was set to position himself at the ambush site, Rogé watched Avril being delivered to Clod, who quickly disappeared with her into the flow of the crowd heading for the market. He trusted Clod to take care of whoever was assigned to follow him. At least he hoped so.

Sergio, Rogé’s minder, led him to a house and up to the second floor into a room that overlooked the street. There was only a grate on the window that was perfectly angled to give him a sight line. He unpacked his bow and set his bolts out. After carefully examining them he chose one. Taking a vial from the inner linings of his vest, Rogé unscrewed the top and dripped several drops on the head of the bolt. “Poison,” he said. “To make sure.” He took a turn around the upstairs to spy out the surrounding neighborhood. The layout suggested a number of escape routes, if needed.

Then he sat in the front room, quietly watching the street. Sergio was at the other window and Rogé had to caution him to keep back so as not to be seen from the outside. The young man pursed his mouth and chewed on his nails, his other hand busy with some worry beads. He appeared unarmed, but Rogé suspected that he had a knife up his sleeve. No doubt he was sent to kill me after the deed is done.

Rogé tried to relax, put aside his worries and concentrate on his breathing, deep and slow. Below him people were moving back and forth with the business of their day. There were many with baskets, obviously heading for the market to buy or sell something. Twice the City Watch passed, four men each, the crowd readily parting for them. A street musician paused in front of the neighboring building and put his hat down on the curb, playing for all he was worth. A few coins were thrown into the hat, but not enough to pay for the effort. In time he moved on, no doubt thinking he would have better luck in a square. A fully loaded carriage moved through the wheel clattering on the cobblestones. Boys played in the gutter, inured to the trash on the street.

Sergio whistled sharply. “Here they come!”

Up the street a litter approached, carried by four men in front and four behind. The thing was obviously made of metal without any opening and had to be heavy. The eight men were lagging, and often changed out. There were four guards to the front to clear the way and two more in the rear. A man with a feather hat walked beside the litter, obviously talking with the occupant.

Rogé stood, retrieved the bow from the table and spanned it. He placed the bolt into the groove and stepped beside the window, looking at the approaching litter. It was no more than a metal box between two stout poles. Inside had to be a place to sit fairly comfortably. As it got closer, Rogé could see the grate on top and its holes. He could easily shoot a bolt through the spaces between the bars that would be sure to kill the person inside. The fools! Flaming oil thrown at the contraption could have done the job. It wouldn’t need a marksman to do the killing.

The conveyance was nearly even with Rogé’s location when the porters stopped to exchange men. Having accomplished the transfer, the litter moved forward again. The man with the hat gestured animatedly, in a spirited exchange with the occupant. Rogé took aim, tracking the movement of the litter. He pulled the trigger and instantly the bolt left the bow and struck through the grate into the interior of the litter. Someone screamed, the porters dropped their load, and stood with mouths open, nailed to the spot. Smoothly Rogé shot a second bolt, again finding the inside. Rich red blood seeped out of the box, staining the ground red. The guards reacted, screaming at the porters who snatched up their load and ran back the way they had come, the litter swaying with their uneven steps. The litter left a trail of blood behind. A dog smelled the outpouring and eagerly licked at it.

“It’s done,” Sergio said triumphantly, a smile across his face. He stepped nearer, lifting his hand to pat Rogé in congratulation. Rogé smiled back as he slammed his blade into the youth and twisted it upward an instant before Sergio could do the same to him. The stiletto fell from the youth’s nerveless hand.

“That comes with consorting with jackals,” Rogé said as he cleaned his blade on the youth’s shirt. Unhurried he packed his bow and quiver into a blanket and left the room, then the house going out the back way.

The back street was quiet, undisturbed, but the noise from the other street could be plainly heard. At a cross street, Rogé could see the Watch running. He walked casually, smiling, his pack hiding Sergio’s blood on him.

He came to the Garonne and walked along its shore upriver, past the bridge. Just before the watermill, he descended the steps to the quay below. Four steps more and he ducked into a boat, disappearing in the cabin below. Immediately the boat cast off and the men on both sides poled the boat into the middle of the river going upstream. Inside was dark but before even his eyes could adjust, Avril threw herself at him and clung to him desperately. As his arms closed around her a load of worry fell away.

“It’s all right, really, everything will be just fine,” he whispered, stroking her hair.

“No, it won’t.” Her voice sounded desperate. “Clod’s hurt. Badly.”

Rogé pushed her aside, stumbled to the side of the boat and found Clod lying there. He was pressing a piece of cloth to his side and breathing heavily.

“There were four. I got one, then another. Avril got the third with his own knife. But the fourth got me. I stabbed just as he was stabbing me.” His voice was weak.

“How deep is it?” Rogé asked, feeling the wetness of the cloth.

“Deep enough,” Clod groaned, “and hurts like hell’s fires.”

“Avril!” Rogé called, “What should we do?”

But she wasn’t in shape to answer and Rogé had to call to her again.

“Rub this into the wound to stop it from bleeding,” she said, passing him a packet of salt. Rogé lifted the blood soaked cloth and liberally sprinkled salt on the gash. Clod hissed in pain as it burned his injured flesh. Rogé could finally see better and noted that the blood wasn’t seeping anymore.

“Take some cobwebs and cover the wound,” she said but it didn’t sound like herself. Among the forward timbers, in the corner Rogé scooped up a handful of webs and stepping to Clod, draped it over the wound. He didn’t know how they worked. “The spiders have something to still the blood…” Avril said tiredly.

“Give something to drink?” Clod begged in a weak voice.

Rummaging through his pack, Rogé found a half-full wine sack and lifted it to Clod’s lips. He lapped at it eagerly. “Yes…” Avril said in a scratchy voice. “He lost a lot of blood and needs to replace the fluids.”

Rogé found some water and washed his friend’s face. “Thank you,” Clod muttered, then closed his eyes. For a moment Rogé thought he had died, but leaning over his face, he felt a light breath brush his cheeks. No… Thank God he’s still alive.

“Is he still bleeding?” Avril asked from her side of the boat.

“No, it seems to have stopped.”

“We must keep him quiet to prevent him from opening the wound again.”

Rogé covered Clod with a blanket and slipped a rolled up jacket under his head. He listened closely and was gratified to hear quiet but steady breathing. Clod was asleep.

Finally Rogé could turn his attention to Avril. He sat down beside her and took her in his arms. He had a thousand questions to ask, but knew it wasn’t the time. He rocked her gently.

“You… you don’t know how often I dreamed of this… that you would come and rescue me… but I was afraid I was luring you into a trap… afraid for you and Clod… that hurt more than anything they did to me.” Rogé bit his lips to stop himself from asking, nay, demanding an exact accounting. Listen! Just listen! She’ll tell you in her own time.

She relaxed into the comfort of his presence and she too fell asleep.

An hour later he stepped up on top. A riverman joined him and said with great politeness, “I’m Georg Bisset, Monsieur, and I’m the boss of this boat. Your friend hired us to take you all north. I’m sorry he’s wounded and I hope he isn’t dead.” Rogé said no, letting the other continue. “I understand there’s considerable urgency to get away from Toulouse. A half day north there’s a swamp nestled into an oxbow of the river where we can hide and not be found.”

“That’d be good. We need a couple of days for him to recover.”

“I don’t mean to pry, but is it something illegal?”

“I won’t lie to you, it would be uncomfortable if we were caught.”

“Don’t worry Sir, we rivermen know how to stay clear of the law.”

All in all they spent eight days on the boat, three hidden in a swamp, eating decent food. With time to recover, Clod was still a little weak, but he was healing well and could stand and walk short distances. Avril too recovered her spirits but wouldn’t talk about what happened to her. Rogé was dying to know, but stifled himself.

The rivermen were a companionable group, telling stories, joking and with a little wine in them prone to singing.

Bisset turned out to be an interesting fellow. “You know you speak too well to be a rough riverman. I hear some learning in your voice,” Rogé said on the second day.

“You might not believe it, but I studied at a Cathedral school and even spent a half a year at the University of Toulouse. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough money to pay for more, but worked three years as a clerk.”

“What made you leave? Being a clerk has to be a lot easier than pushing a boat.”

“You might notice I don’t push, my men do all the muscle work. Mostly I work the tiller. But I left the easy life because I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. I’m not a Cathar by any means, but I was touched by some of their teachings and found them a lot clearer on some points than what I was taught. The Church has piled its own dogma onto the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. I don’t have trouble with the Church, but I don’t want to be an inner part of it.”

“I spent some time in a monastery up North and found the monks to be pious men who worked hard and prayed hard. I never bothered with the larger context.”

“Yet, you too speak like a learned man.”

“That’s because I had an exceptional teacher, God rest his soul. But believe it or not I grew up in an orphanage and spent some hard years working my way up.”

Avril was certainly grateful but remained strangely distant. She sought Rogé out and hung onto him at every opportunity but still said nothing. Sometimes it nearly drove him crazy, the questions scratching around in him like an anthill let loose. Still, all things considering he was glad that she was in one piece and that they had all escaped an impossible trap.

As he healed, Clod grew more cheerful by the day and often joined the boatmen in their rowdy banter. Aside from irritation from his wound that would tell him when the weather was changing, he seemed unmarked by the experience. “I got the first two, but wasn’t quick enough for the third.” He was more curious about the outcome. “What do you supposed happened after we left?”

“I don’t know, but doubtless we’ll eventually find out.”

“Thing that makes my stomach sour is we only got 500 of the thousand we were promised.”

“Now don’t be greedy. We were lucky to get and keep the 500.”

“Well, maybe. But I really would like to know what happened.”

“We will in time, I’m sure of it.”

At a village by the river they disembarked, finding it hard to leave the good company of the rivermen.

“Good luck to you, Master Bisset. I’ll be glad if our paths cross again,” Rogé said, pleased to shake the man’s hand.

“The same to you, Monsieur Durant. Take care of the lady, she’s a rare piece among the common.”

In the village Clod bought the crew a barrel of quality ale and had it delivered to the boat. “I paid them generously for the ride, but it can’t hurt to spend a little more. They took good care of us.”

“That they did, especially as we didn’t smell clean as roses,” Rogé added.

“What do you mean?”

“Legally. For all we knew the Watch might be looking for us, or worse, the Inquisition.”

“I really would like to know where we stand with all that.”

“So would I.”

Rogé rented a wagon at the village to take them to the next town. There he bought a passage to the next place and after that the next. Thus they leapfrogged across Languedoc into the basin of the Rhône and followed the river north. After the calm waters of the Garonne, travelling overland was much harder: they were constantly bounced around aboard a cart that tipped from side to side and the animals often stumbled in the ruts. Rogé took it in easy stages not to stress Clod, who was still recovering. They spent a lot of time in wayside inns, allowing themselves the luxury of eating and drinking the best each place had to offer. Slowly Avril recovered her appetite.

Avril started talking in dribbles. “I was hanging out the wash in the backyard when three men surprised me. I fought one off with the water bucket to his head, but was overpowered by the others. They tied me up and dumped me in a boat and went downriver.”

Rogé was waiting for more but nothing more came. “We didn’t notice you were gone for almost two days because we thought you were avoiding us by staying upstairs, then we thought you went to stay with a friend in town or even ran away.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because you were angry with us over what happened to Flora.”

“I was upset… but I wouldn’t just run away.”

“We didn’t know what had happened until we got a note from them.” Rogé then described some of his experiences, hoping it would help her open up more—but she didn’t.

They were getting close to Vienne and for the next stretch Rogé bought them passage on a fishing boat that took them the rest of the way. They rounded the last bend and saw their place grew in their sight. Avril cried quietly and hugged herself as they got close to shore. As they clambered up the hill Rogé could see that the grapes were larger, and took note of their deep blue color. “It’ll be a good harvest,” he said to himself, half a wish and half a prayer.

At the sight of them arriving in the forecourt Cloe, in tears, ran and threw herself into Clod’s arms.

“My God, you’re home. I was… I was so afraid…it was so, so very long.” She buried her head in Clod’s chest.

“That’s all right my little dove, you know I would come home to you,” he said, stroking her hair.

Rogé threw his pack in the corner, sat down on his chair by the table and looked out at the view. He let out a deep sigh. Cloe was hugging Avril, both of them crying. By some instinct Flora turned up and gave a scream when she saw Avril. The three women sat on the veranda, hanging onto each other.

Following his wife, Thierry arrived, and stood shyly to the side. A taciturn man, he didn’t know what to do with the high emotions of the moment. Then Gaétan turned up with his dog, and the animal, sensing the drama of the occasion, ran around excitedly jumping up on everyone.

Avril then rolled up her sleeves, stepped into the pantry and returned with wine and glasses so people could toast the return. Cloe put out some cheese and bread she had baked earlier that day.

“I was hiccupping all morning… I should have known that something… someone was coming.” Cloe dabbed her eyes with the corner of her apron. “I’m so happy.” Then she started crying all over again. When she collected herself, she wanted to know all that they had experienced.

Rogé told a version of the story, leaving out parts that sounded in any way incriminating. When it was over, Cloe grabbed Avril’s hand and wouldn’t let go.

Flora had fingers in her mouth from the tension, and when the telling was over, cried out, “I don’t know how you could stand it being held prisoner by those detestable ruffians. Weren’t you terrified?”

“Sometimes. But I knew Rogé would come to rescue me.” And she flashed him a grateful smile.

Flora disappeared to return shortly with some roasted chicken and boiled leeks. Getting out some plates, Cloe passed around smoked sausage and chopped mushrooms. There was enough for everyone and it quickly turned into a feast.

Afterwards they settled on the veranda. Rogé and Clod made a bonfire in the pit, around which they sat, drinking wine and talking animatedly, happy to be alive, again to be together.

The moon came out and the stars shone bright in a cloudless sky when the party finally broke up. With a contented sigh Rogé sank onto his bed. Avril snuggled into him, making happy noises. Very aware of her, he felt the silence between them. He didn’t want to pry, but had to ask, “Are you ever going to tell me what happened to you?”

“I will in time,” she said, “but not tonight. Tonight I don’t want to think about anything… just of being back… and safe in your arms.” He hugged her tighter, thinking, “And I… I’ll be happy when we can all put this behind us.”

Avril soon fell asleep, and he listened to her breathing, counting each soft exhalation. He allowed himself to relax, and as the silence of the night deepened Toulouse faded in the far distance.

Chapter 14

It had gotten around that they had been away and as well that they were back. This brought visitors, Master Hebert first then Lieutenant Chalmier. It was a hot day and they sat on the veranda eating watermelon chilled in the well.

“We knew of course that Avril was missing, the whole town knew after you turned the place upside down searching for her. Then for a long time, nothing, but it was noted you weren’t around. People wondered what had happened,” Master Hebert said. “We’re of course very glad to see you back with Avril.”

“Did anybody miss me?” Clod asked, feeling a bit left out.

“Yes, somewhat…” Master Hebert said.

“A whole lot,” Lieutenant Chalmier corrected, “in the taverns.” Clod had to be satisfied with that.

Women from town came too, bringing little gifts, surprising Rogé about how many friends Avril had. They didn’t ask questions, sensing that Avril didn’t want to talk. For the next little while, people came and went, welcoming them back. A lot of people. In fact the only persons who remained away were the neighbors Étienne and Mira Lorenz, who glowered from the distance. Luckily there was a line of mixed trees and bush that separated the properties, blocking the view so they saw each other mostly on the road, passing on the other side.

It took two, three weeks for things to start to feel normal again. Rogé had little to do. He and Gaétan inspected the grapes daily checking on their progress. Two more weeks, Gaétan said.

One fine morning Rogé sat by the table on the veranda, feasting his eyes on the view. A barge was poling itself up the Rhône with another just ahead of it. Judging from the shouting that reached him faintly, there seem to be a competition happening. On the opposite shore someone was working on the grapes, clearing weeds from among the rows. He heard a church bell from Vienne strike ten.

Rogé collected his fishing gear and walked downhill to the river. He settled down in the shadow of an elm and let the line trail in the water. There was a splash further up but nothing was biting on his bait. He watched a water bug skitter across the surface and saw the shadow of a fish following it until both disappeared into a clump of reeds near shore.

Avril and Cleo came down as well and set up near him. They let themselves into the crisp grass, sorting field flowers they had picked. They talked quietly as they made wreaths of the bloom. Laughing Cloe put one on her head, wearing it as a crown. So adorned she looked very striking, with her pale hair giving the colors a nice contrast.

Avril dropped her wreath into the water and watched it float downstream. Then she made another and likewise let it drift away. Her face was solemn, sadness in her eyes.

“What is that?” Rogé asked. “I’ve seen you do that before.”

“It’s for my mother. She was buried in a mass grave in a field in northern France, near where she was killed. I sometimes like to pretend that she died peacefully in her sleep… but she didn’t. I have no grave to go back to … to honor her. So I light a candle or let a wreath remember her. Maybe … she wasn’t the best of women… but she was the best mother to me. I miss her.” Her eyes filled with tears but she didn’t cry.

“I… envy you,” Cloe said haltingly. “I had three brothers and four sisters. My mom didn’t even know I was alive let alone love me. You at least know what love is.”

“It was very special,” Avril agreed quietly. “But you’ll soon have your own child to teach what love is. There’s nothing finer than the bond between a child and a mother.”

“And the father?” Rogé asked; it suddenly mattered.

“I don’t know, I never knew my father… only that my mother loved him and that they were together only for a short time.” Avril’s eyes lost focus and she said little from then on. Rogé suspected that he had stumbled across something vital but wasn’t sure what.

Then the pole in his hand jerked, and he pulled in a large perch. Avril and Cloe started discussing how best to cook it.

Later Avril and Cloe went to town with a fully recovered Clod to do the weekly shopping, planning to be back by dinner. “Don’t worry about me,” Rogé had said, “I can make myself something to eat.”

Now, Rogé was inspecting a book of poems, copying a verse for Cloe who had developed a liking for them. As he was a little out of practice, the quill dropped an ink spatter here and there. It was a pleasant task that reminded him of working with Marcel in Arne. He felt sad, missing him. His concentration was broken by two birds chasing each other, squawking loudly. Landing on the walnut tree, they kept up the ruckus, driving Rogé to go in for a cool drink of water in the kitchen. In town one couldn’t trust the water and mostly people drank mild beer or ale but out here the well water was sweet. Suddenly the dog growled and there was a knock on the front door. Rogé went to open it.

At first he couldn’t believe his eyes, then his hand went to his belt for his knife, belatedly realizing it wasn’t there. He reached for the hoe that stood beside the door.

“I’m here to make amends,” the Spaniard Emilio Castellan said hurriedly. For a good moment Rogé was speechless, his mouth hanging open. “Really, I want to make peace.”

“How?” Rogé asked through clenched teeth.

“By a peace offering.” The Spaniard held out something that glinted green in his hand. It turned out to be a good-sized emerald. Rogé was inclined to slam the door in the other’s face but his curiosity got the better of him.

“Well, come in then,” he offered gruffly, standing aside. They settled around the kitchen table, as Rogé waited expectantly.

“I didn’t want to do it, but the Bevans had me in their clutches and forced me to do all those things. I was just a go-between, a message boy I kept telling myself so as not to feel the guilt, but I did. You’ve got to understand they could have destroyed me if I disobeyed. So I did as I was told. I came here to convince you to come to Toulouse, but when that failed, I was part of the abduction, so that we could force you. And it worked. I was told what to say and what to do… and I followed the directions to the letter. We set the ambush and it worked, or so it seemed at the time. It wasn’t part of the plan to let you and your friend escape with the girl and the money, but you did. It didn’t much matter as the deed was done and the enemy was dead.” He paused, clearing his throat. Rogé pushed a glass of water at him and the Spaniard gulped it down. “The next day Ruggio Bevan entered the Capitouls to claim the prize he had worked so hard for. In he walked puffed up and arrogant, demanding from the other Consuls homage and submission. Then the door opened and in walked Russo Montesano, all healthy and robust. There in the wings I saw Ruggio turn white as a sheet. He collapsed and sat there on the spot shaking. He was then accused of treason, attempted murder, insurrection and tyranny. In my hearing the Consuls sentenced him unanimously to death and those culpable with him. The Inquisition was there to lead him away.”

Castellan took another drink to refresh his voice. “I was taken too, interrogated for hours and even tortured.” He held out his hand to show his badly bruised and swollen fingernails. “I told them everything they wanted, everything I knew, and by cooperating bought my own life. Ruggio didn’t survive the questioning, nor did the person you know only as Monsieur Yellow. The rest, four members of the Bevan household were hanged, three more thrown in prison, sentenced to die there. I was the exception: luckily the Capitouls used me to demonstrate compassion and mercy. They let me go but exiled me.”

“What about me and Clod? Did they ask about us?”

“They did, but because you forewarned them and colluded in the outcome, you were never considered to be part of the conspiracy. There’re no warrants out or suspicions against any of you.”

They regarded each other, a mountain of words between them. Rogé recalled all the dangers he had faced, all the anxieties he had suffered.

“Do you know what they did to Avril?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.

The other dropped his eyes to his hands and said in a small voice, “I heard of it. They… they humiliated her…forced her… more I do not know.” Castellan lifted his face and there were tears in his eyes. “I would ask for forgiveness but I don’t feel worthy of it.” He held the emerald out. “Please take this as a token of my remorse.” Rogé didn’t move, but looked at the man searching his eyes.

“I don’t want your token. It’s not up to me to forgive you. That’s up to her,” Rogé said, the stone walls crumbling around his feelings, suddenly finding himself very tired. Castellan fidgeted, wanting forgiveness, but made no move to leave.

They sat there in silence, the Spaniard keeping his eyes low.

“What will you do now?” Rogé asked finally.

“From here I go to Paris. Try my luck there. I want to stay far away from the Inquisition,” Castellan offered. He looked up, his face a little more open. “You know I should really thank you. The Bevans had me under their thumbs and I was compelled to do whatever they asked. You freed me of that. I should be happy for a fresh start. Paris will give me that.”

They were silent again. Rogé waved a fly away that was bothering him, causing Castellan to stir too. “When was it you decided not to do what was asked… or instructed?” he asked.

“First off, I’m not an assassin. Second, I don’t like people coercing me. Third and most important, they shouldn’t have abducted Avril. Anyone who lays a finger on her…” He didn’t finish.

“Those two were hung,” Castellan was quick to inform. Then it was his turn to chase a fly. “But the blood… from the litter? Everyone saw that.”

“Yes, a sackful of red wine. It was all carefully planned and staged.”

“And it worked, God be thanked. Now only two families rule in Toulouse.”

“What about the Count?”

“He’s less than a figurehead, someone for show without any real power.”

Rogé started feeling hungry, but didn’t move to get food in front of the Spaniard. The door opened and chatting, Avril, Cloe and Clod marched into the room. They were surprised to see a visitor, and Clod shocked when he recognized him. When he pulled his knife, Rogé had to hurry to yell, “No!” Clod pulled up not understanding. “First you’d better listen to him.”

Averting his eyes from Avril, Castellan talked in a halting voice. As the story unfolded, Avril started crying and Cloe ran to comfort her. There was no other sound in the room, only the remorseful tone of a confession. “And the reason I came is to ask for your forgiveness,” Castellan finished still not daring to look at Avril. Everyone waited, even the flies.

After a burdened sigh, Avril whispered, her voice still trembling. “I can’t forgive you or the others. They stole from me and what they stole they can’t give back. You had a hand in that even if not directly. I know you came a long way not to hear that. But if you really seek forgiveness, do good works. Prove your repentance. Maybe then I can forgive you.” By the end her voice had a bite to it.

Castellan nodded. “No more than I deserve.” He stood and bowed his head. “Thank you for hearing me out.” He took his hat and departed, leaving a silence behind.

Clod was the first to wake. “We should have asked for the 500 he still owes us!”

“Are you crazy? We didn’t do the job as contracted. Logically we should give the money back.” That stopped Clod in his tracks.

Rogé looked at Avril and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I am.” Her voice was clear. “It helped to talk and look for answers. I won’t blame myself or any of the others. I have a life to live and I won’t be burdened by hate or past hurt.” Cloe was still crying, but didn’t really know why.

To settle herself Avril went to her garden to take care of her plants and flowers. Cloe grabbed Clod by the hand and pulled him into their room. An hour later he reemerged looking for ale but had to settle for some wine. He joined Rogé on the veranda, settling down on the bench. They watched the road and the river below them. An ox-cart was moving slowly past loaded high with hay, the driver perched up on top. A herd of goats grazed along the roadsides, two young boys minding them. Rogé suddenly remembered the swine he and Clod had shepherded so long ago. A row boat nudged into a stretch of water plants and the occupant dropped a fishing line over the side.

Clod stood up, got another bottle of wine and refreshed their cups. “You know I can’t believe he had the balls to turn up here. My first impulse was to gut him like a fish and I probably would have had you not stopped me.”

“And what do you think now?”

“I’m not sure. He acted repentant and maybe he was. Still…”

“We all can use a second chance, Marcel always said. We should just let it go.”

“That’ll be easier once he leaves for Paris.”

That night Avril nudged closer to him and he started getting hard. He tried to turn away but she held him. He tried to back out off the embrace, but she still held him.

“Avril—”

“It’s all right,” she whispered huskily. “It seems unfair that I’m used by thugs but withhold pleasure from someone I love.” Rogé’s heart jumped in his chest, and his throat nearly closed. “You can if you like, I’ll survive it.”

Turned to face her, Rogé reached out, one hand to cradle her head, the other to caress her shoulders. As he touched her, she stiffened and her breath stopped. He stroked her face and arms, but nothing more.

“Rogé…?”

“Avril… not tonight. You’d be feeling me but remembering them. That I don’t want. I can wait, God knows how long I’ve waited already, a little longer won’t kill me.” He gently caressed her lips and eyelids, but not for long because the temptation grew in him. He then settled into their usual position and tried to still his heart.

Things changed after that. It was as if the visit of the Spaniard had opened locked doors. Avril felt freed up and found her laughter again. Even Rogé who by nature carried the burdens of responsibility, real or imagined, felt somehow released too. Maybe it was because they weren’t sought by anybody and their actions had telling consequences. He could close that chapter of his past. Only Clod still muttered about the gold and he really got upset when he was told about the refused emerald.

Chapter 15

Then it was time for the harvest. Gaétan had it all organized. A dozen men and women arrived from nearby properties with baskets on their backs, and went along the rows picking the ripe grapes. Others wrestled a large tub and set it up under the lone chestnut tree, so rare to find in the low altitudes. No one needed to be told anything; they all knew their business. The first basketfuls arrived, were dumped onto the table where the clusters were destemmed by the women, and the grapes alone went into the tub. Three young women washed their feet, tucked their skirts into the waistbands and clambered into the tub. People stood around and clapped, singing an ancient song. The girls danced, crushing the grapes. It wasn’t long before the juice started flowing into the bucket set under the tub. When it was almost full, they all stopped to have a glassful, praising it.

“May this be a good year to produce good wine to tease the tongue and refresh the soul. May it rest and age well and turn into a quality wine to please everyone. Let whoever drinks from it taste the sunshine the grapes soaked up throughout the season. May it lighten his heart and fill his belly with joy. Let him sing and let him dance. Winemen, bless the earth wherein the grape stock grew, bless the sky that watered it, bless the sun that made it grow and thank God for the increase,” Gaétan sang loudly.

Then people got down to work again, picking, dumping and stomping. The juice flowed and was carried bucket by bucket into the cellar, to be poured into one of the large fermenting vats.

Midmorning a man showed up with his son. He took out a fiddle to strike up a bouncy tune; the boy pounded on a hand-held drum. Certainly the stomping went better after that.

“How’re we doing?” Rogé asked Gaétan.

The other smiled. “Not bad. I’ve seen better years, but I think we’ll fill about 14 barrels in the end.” That sounded encouraging.

Clod and Rogé got busy making a fire and when it had burned down to a solid bed of embers, they placed an entire skewered pig over it. Clod stayed to turn the spit, while Rogé joined the basketmen collecting the grapes from the trellises. With a flick of a curved knifed he cut the clusters from the vine and dumped it in the basket on his back.

After getting their hands stained purple by destemming, Avril and Cloe tucked up their skirts and took their turn in the vat. Holding onto each other they danced in the calf-deep mush, squashing the grapes. In no time their legs were purple to above their knees.

“Tell the ladies,” Étienne said to Rogé, “not to swing their hips so much. Otherwise they are wasting too much energy and won’t last very long.” Rogé did so and the ladies complied. In half an hour they were tired, breathing hard and hanging onto the rim, their stomping falling behind the music. Soon they had to change up.

“Good too,” Clod muttered to his wife. “Don’t forget you’re pregnant.”

By nightfall everyone was tired, very glad to sit down and have something to eat. Clod sliced off generous portions of the pork served with bread, boiled young turnips and pickled beets. There was plenty of wine from the previous years to pass around.

When everyone finished eating, they gathered around the fire roasting chestnuts. Gaétan brought out some must, the raw juice of the grape, and offered it to Rogé, Avril, Clod and Cloe. “As owners, you ought to sample the juice so you can learn how it tastes before it becomes wine. Then when it matures and you test it you’ll remember how it started. A good wine master can tell from the taste of the must how the wine will be.”

They drank, finding it thick and sweet. Gaétan smacked his lips. “It’ll make a good batch.”

After that people didn’t stay long, the week heavy ahead of them.

It took four days to finish the harvesting and fill the large vats inside the cellar, enough to make14 barrels confirming Gaétan’s prediction.

Outside on the open slope Rogé inspected the rows, finding clusters here and there. He pointed this out to Gaétan, who just waved. “Those are not quite ripe, haven’t received their full share of the sun. We pick’em later when the other harvest is done.”

“What other harvest?”

“Now it’s our turn to help the neighbors who helped us.”

The whole month went by before all the grapes were picked.

“I can’t stand to look at another grape, even less to eat one,” Clod complained. He went off to the kiln which had been idle on account of the harvest.

Each day, Gaétan and Rogé checked on the vats, smelling the ripe odor of grapes fermenting. Day by day a foamy layer grew on top. “That’s the cap,” Gaétan explained, “the grape skins collecting on the surface. The skin gives the wine its deep red color.” He stirred the layer, checking its thickness. “In time we’ll skim it off and transfer the liquid below into the barrels.”

Next morning Rogé got a good view of Cloe framed by the light in the doorway. She looked pregnant, her stomach rounding out. He had a rush of good feelings, thinking how blessed she and Clod must feel about becoming parents. However the feeling didn’t last long for it rekindled his dissatisfaction that he and Avril still hadn’t worked out their difficulties. They were closer than ever, especially after the rescue, and she was willing to reward him for it, but this time his sensibilities got in the way. He felt as if he were blackmailing her into it. She was willing, but only because he wanted it. But he didn’t want it on that basis. He spent many nights arguing with himself, the good side of him fighting the bad side, as he thought of it.

As the days went on, Cloe became rounder and slower. She found it hard to get out of bed and had to be helped up. She couldn’t do much; if she was standing she didn’t want to sit down, knowing she would eventually need to get up again, and conversely if she was sitting she didn’t want to get up. And she didn’t want to bend for anything, fearing she would become overbalanced, fall and be unable to get up, even with help. As the rest catered to her needs and fussed over her, she greatly enjoyed the attention.

Avril was fascinated by the whole process. She often put her hand on Cloe’s abdomen to feel the baby moving around, her face etched with wonder. “How does it feel?” she asked Cloe.

“Like I’ve swallowed a watermelon,” Cloe replied. “He doesn’t sleep the same time I do and often wakes me up in the middle of the night. And he’s hungry all the time, then I have to eat for him.”

“He? How do you know?”

“Madame Duval, the apothecary’s wife told me that when they’re this active, it’s likely to be a boy. It feels like a boy.”

“And do you have a name for it… for him?”

“I’ve always liked Émile. I…had a cousin named Émile who was always nice to me.” Cloe fanned herself, feeling hot. Avril washed her flushed face with a wet cloth trying to cool her friend down. She was very solicitous and tried to anticipate Cloe’s wishes and needs. In no time she started calling Émile “our boy” and felt vaguely envious of Cloe. She often asked “And how does it feel now?” Of course Cloe never got tired of the attention and rewarded it with smiles.

Madame Manon the midwife came, gently felt Cloe’s distended abdomen and listened to the baby’s faint heartbeat.

“Is it twins?” Cloe asked, a reasonable question seeing how big she was.

“No dear, just a good sized baby, probably a boy,” the midwife said kindly. Feeling Cloe’s enlarged breasts, she nodding approvingly. Then she oiled the stretched skin of the belly. All the while Clod looked on anxiously, alternatively fearing for his wife and his baby.

“They’re doing well?” he asked as he accompanied the midwife to the fence gate.

“My goodness, yes,” Madame Manon said. “She’s not even that big. You should see Madam Olivie on Church Street. She hasn’t gotten out of bed the last two months. It’s important for Cloe to keep moving and not give in to the awkwardness of her size. It’s healthier for the baby too.”

That settled it, it was now certain to be Émile. Cloe and Avril often had their heads together, chatting about the boy’s future.

“He’s going to be someone important… like a priest or a lawyer,” Cloe gushed.

“Or a famous Captain in the army, bravely leading his men into battle,” Avril fantasized.

“He’s going to be rich merchant or a tavern owner,” Clod prophesized when he overheard the women talking.

“Not a tavern owner or a barkeep,” Cloe objected. “I’m not raising a drunk!” After that the two women whispered as they sketched out “their boy’s” life without the intrusion of the father.

Avril watched Cloe carefully, awed by her friend’s size but fascinated by her glow. In spite of all the discomforts and inconveniences of her state, Cloe took it all in stride, and was happy with the thought of her own baby. That lasted until the last week of her pregnancy when she became impatient and irritated at being so limited.

“It’s all right, dear,” Madam Manon reassured her. “It means the baby wants to come out. It won’t be long now.”

Two days later, with the rising of the sun, Cloe woke with sharp flashes of pain through her abdomen. She cried out and Clod panicked, thinking that the birth was imminent. If it only were. The whole morning passed with Cloe racked by intermittent spasms of pain. When they hit, she cried out loudly, scaring Clod to death. Avril held onto Cloe’s hand, wiping the sweat from her face.

“It’s alright, my dear. Émile wants out… and will be soon,” Avril whispered. “Think of it, your baby to hold in your arms, to kiss and caress.”

“He’d better hurry…” Cloe panted, racked by the contractions. “He’s tearing me apart.”

“It won’t be long now… Just a little more patience…”

“I’m patient. For nine months I’ve been patient… now I just want it to end.”

The neighbor boy was sent running for the midwife and she arrived in good time to take control. Water was boiled, fresh linen was set out, and swaddling cloth prepared. She washed Cloe’s sweaty face and chest. She prepared a herbal infusion and made sure Cloe drank all of it.

“Is she going to be alright?” Clod asked every two minutes. Finally the midwife threw both men out. They went onto the veranda, where Rogé opened their best bottle of wine and poured out generous portions hoping to bolster his friend. Still they winced at every cry of pain that they overheard.

Then after an especially loud, protracted scream that sent chills down their spines, a hesitant thin voice joined the concert. “A girl…a beautiful lovely girl…” an awestruck Avril announced through the window.

Clod tried to rush to his wife’s side but the midwife forbade it. “Stay out! We’ve got to clean up in here before you can come in.”

When they were finally allowed into the room, Cloe was lying in a fresh made bed, her hair combed and face clean and bright with a tired smile. “It’s a girl…” she said in a weak voice, looking at Clod’s face for reassurance. He looked with a stunned expression at the newborn’s face, red and moist.

“He’s…she’s good?” he stuttered.

“She’s beautiful,” Avril said, gathering up the swaddled bundle and holding it out to him. Alarmed he stepped back, then curious and excited he reached out his arms to take it from her. He was cautious as if afraid he would break her. Rogé looked into the red little face with eyes shut, mouth puckered.

“She’s beautiful,” Avril cooed again, but Rogé couldn’t see it; to him the baby looked like an ugly, miniature old man, with little hair, eyes swollen shut and face red, lined with creased folds. Clod surrendered the baby into Cloe’s arms as if it was where she rightfully belonged. Cloe gave a sigh, and shortly fell asleep.

For the next days Clod couldn’t stop talking about the baby. “Did you see that…?” he would ask constantly, marveling at everything the baby did. They were, of course, all very aware of her; as she got stronger, her volume increased, filling the whole house with crying when she wanted or needed something. As it was they all spoke in whispers and tiptoed around quietly not to disturb her or the mother.

Of them all, however, Avril seemed most affected. She was quietly watchful as Cloe fed and cuddled the baby. She begged to hold the little thing and happily walked around the room to settle her. She was thrilled when the baby opened her eyes and looked around as yet unfocussed. And she melted when she first managed a half smile. At first just little trials, a twist to her mouth, then little by little it spread across her face and a sparkle filled her eyes.

“Isn’t she the most beautiful thing in the world you’ve ever seen?” Avril asked Rogé, holding the baby up for him to admire. If he were honest, he would have said no, but seeing her pleasure he agreed with her. Rogé didn’t know what to think. He had seen animals give birth, cows and even a horse, any number of piglets spilling out, and somehow he found them cuter than what he saw now. One morning he found Avril by the window, rocking the baby gently in her arms, shushing her. Rogé was surprised to see tears in Avril’s eyes.

“Are you sad?” he asked, alarmed.

“No, no. She’s so sweet. Makes me think of how my mom must have felt holding me,” and silently the tears cascaded down her face, tears that made him feel anxious. Whenever she could, she held the baby and rocked her back and forth. She wished she had milk to feed her and looked on enviously when Cloe nursed her. Sometimes when she was alone, Avril slipped the baby a nipple for her to nuzzle. It filled her with a tremendous longing to feel a baby at her breast. She sang to her tenderly as she changed her and cleaned her up.

When, after a few days, Cloe was able to get up and cautiously move around, the two women washed the infant in a tub filled with lukewarm water. She seemed to like the experience, making happy sounds.

“She thinks she’s back in the womb, warm and comfortable,” Avril said, overawed by the realization. She warmed a soft fleece blanket over the stove and they wrapped the baby into it, all warm and pink. Avril could not get over the fact that a few short days ago, the baby had been part of Cloe, but now was distinct and separate, exerting her will and communicating it by crying. By contrast Cloe took it in stride, finding it quite natural.

The new parents doted on the little girl, every day discovering new things about her. “Look, look, she’s really looking now,” Cloe would say.

“Of course she is,” Clod would reply. “That’s why she has eyes.”

“No, you don’t understand, she’s seeing me. She’s looking in my face, in my eyes. She didn’t do that before.” Avril rushed to mother and daughter to see for herself.

There was one disagreement between Clod and Cloe: they couldn’t agree on the baby’s name. Cloe wanted to name her Ariel but that sounded too religious to him. He preferred Caroline but that reminded her of a dried up prune of a nun back in her nunnery days. Demi, Desirée, Eloise, Evette, Jeannette, Laina, Maurissa, Noella, Rachelle, Renate floundered in someone’s past.

“We’ll name her Nothing. Null, Zero,” Clod threatened. “When the priest asks about the name to christen her I’ll tell him to name her Blanko or NoName. Maybe then you’ll be happy.”

In the end Cloe put her foot down and insisted that her daughter be named Rose as she liked pretty flowers. She was so adamant that Clod reluctantly had to yield. In an aside to Rogé, he made him promise not to tell Cloe about wanting to pinch Rosa’s bottom in the past.

“Your daughter’s her own little person, not someone else who shares her name,” Rogé pronounced pompously.

“Don’t preach at me. I’ve a daughter, you’ve none. Therefore I know what I’m talking about.” Rogé had to concede the point.

Avril was happy to call the baby anything they wanted as long as she could hold the little thing snugly in her arms. She even took delight when Rose cried, proudly egging her on. “That’s right, you tell the world what you want… insist on it.” Cloe would come running and take Rose to feed her. Avril’s eyes followed her enviously.

An unexpected result of the new arrival was that at night Avril clung onto Rogé a little tighter and when he grew stiff, she accidentally brushed against his hardness, causing him to shudder with a burst of pleasure. When it happened again and the third time, he had to realize it wasn’t by chance. She was causing it, building his arousal. He tried to pull away, but she followed after, burrowing into him.

Rogé was confused until lightning hit him. “She wants a baby of her own!!! That must be it!” He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, did she want him or just the baby? He struggled uncertainly, his feelings warring within. In the end his wanting overwhelmed him and he turned toward her more than ready.

She yielded willingly, opening herself up to receive him. He was driven by instinct, not by experience, and he plowed into her in a frenzy. But she was ready for him, moist and warm, meeting each thrust with an arch of her back. It was crazily intense… and did not last long but exploded with violence into a million bits of energy and feelings that cascaded through both of them. They were panting, each wondering what just happened.

Although Avril was the more knowledgeable, having been around her mother and other comfort women, she still hadn’t expected the intensity of feelings that she had experienced. Rightly speaking she’d had no time to feel the pleasure as she was overwhelmed by her driving, compelling sense of need. Rogé was lost too, disoriented, unable to understand the gap between the urgency that had driven him and the precipitous collapse that followed. So that was it. What people wrote about, sang about and wished for. He had expected something but not the totality of this. He was aware that the world had changed for him, had opened a door to a new, as yet unexplored dimension.

Hardly had their breathing eased when they were already reaching for each other, each ready and eager to experience this new world again. Slowly, cautiously they explored by kisses and caresses, wandering over each other’s bodies. He groaned and she moaned when they discovered sensitive parts. Then with passion growing to blaze furiously, he mounted her, pressing into her. This time both he and she were able to separate each sensation, enjoying the pleasure of them. Still it wasn’t long before it took control and they climbed the mountain, coming closer and closer to the top.

Whereas the first time it had been violent and almost painful, this time it was sweet but no less intense. Avril was able to feel the love behind each motion and in a ragged breath whispered, “I love you,” sending him falling, falling into the peace of fulfillment. He was saturated, spent, but totally gratified. She nuzzled him and blew into his neck sending shivers through all his nerves. Yet it didn’t take but a minute to fall asleep.

Next morning they woke at the same time, so aware were they of each other. They were still locked in an embrace and it was a bit difficult to untangle themselves. He was naked and so was she, wrapped in the cover. She bounced up, and let him see her naked. Slowly she put on her clothes allowing him to feast his eyes on her. She laughed, and it was ticklish and free.

He got up, feeling his member waking up in little jerks. He pulled on his clothes. They looked at each other in a completely different light. Was it real or was it a dream? He couldn’t decide. “You’re mine, completely mine…” she thought, or something akin to it as it was said without words.

In the kitchen, Avril rummaged through the cupboard, taking out bread, cheese, strawberry jelly, raisins and yogurt. He sat down at the table surprised how famished he felt. Just how much energy had he expended on lovemaking? He stuffed his mouth, not taking his eyes off her. Her smile broke into a laugh, and she felt tingly all over.

It was later that Cloe got up with Rose in her arms. She sat down at the table, bared a breast and guided Rose to the nipple. The baby made eager suckling noises.

Clod came out, scratching his chest, looking a little unkempt with an unshaven chin. Avril looked at the stubble on Rogé’s face. Remembering how it scratched in the night, she broke into a satisfied giggle. The tone caught Clod’s ear and he looked from one to the other.

Later on when they were outside, Clod said in a knowing tone, “You went and did it, didn’t you?”

“Did what?” Rogé pretended.

“Bedded her… serviced her… made her a full woman… however you’re pleased to call it. Don’t bother to deny it, it’s written in every gesture of your body.”

“Really? In every gesture?”

“Well didn’t you?”

“You seem to know it all, you tell me.”

“You did it.”

Shortly after Clod had to go to work, as he had a pile of bricks in the kiln that needed a fresh load of wood to burn. Rogé went fishing, catching himself whistling all day.

Over the next week they skimmed the top off the vats, then filtered the rich red liquid which they laboriously poured into the barrels to age. It was slow and tedious work, but as predicted they ended up with a little over 14 barrels. Gaétan put a strange contraption into the top hole of each barrel, explaining, “This is to let out the gases, while preventing the air from going in and souring the brew.”

Afterwards, Rogé made notes in a log to document the whole process. When the grapes were harvested, how long they were in the fermentation vats, when they were put into the barrels, all neatly recorded.

Inside the house the mood was cheerful. Avril and Cloe often sat to the side having private conversations. Now that Avril was initiated into the rites of womanhood, it removed the last barrier between them. Cloe no longer had to be careful around her friend not to say something untoward to pain her. Avril was content and at peace all the time, and Cloe had only to look at Rogé to discern if her friends had made love.

Since it had snowed lightly overnight, Rogé left prints behind on the road as he walked to Vienne on a secret errand. It was mid afternoon when he returned with a matron whom he introduced as Claire Vachon, to help out with the business of the household.

“You hired her?” Avril asked, frowning lightly.

“Of course not. I brought her so you can find out if she’s suitable.” It turned out that Claire could cook, clean, wash and even sew; besides, she had recommendations from previous patrons. Quiet and rarely intruding into the flow of conversation or getting into anybody’s way, she proved to be an ideal help and soon became part of the household.

They had a couple of days with nothing wanted from them, nothing needed for the vineyard or the kiln. “It’s getting cold at night and it’s too much work and too wasteful of wood to let the kiln burn. We should stop until spring,” Clod said.

Rogé felt it was time for a celebration, because aside from the abduction it had been a good year. “The first wine’s in the barrels, maturing. We added a new member to our family and we find ourselves with ample money to enjoy a good life. Let’s therefore celebrate.” He ordered a side of beef, a slaughtered pig, some special cakes and sweet tarts from the baker, and musicians borrowed from a tavern. Guests were invited.

Early on the appointed day Rogé and Clod built a fire. They put the beef and the pig onto the spit and drenched them with spiced marinade. They changed up turning the spit. Later they surrendered the task to the second oldest Montagne son, Pierre.

Clod was looking at the house, the grounds and the spit, stopping by the roasting pig. “Remember how it all started with pigs?” Clod asked with a tone of wonder in his voice. “And look where we are now. House, property, vinery and a kiln. I’m married to a woman I love, have a child and you with a girlfriend and property to your name. I don’t know how it could be any better.” He scooped up some imported Dutch beer, and dribbled it upon the turning pig.

“You know I’m not that religious, but I give thanks to God all the time. He saw us through some rough times, delivered us from the jaws of death, and blessed us abundantly. This celebration is as much to honor Him as to celebrate our successes,” Rogé said, pinching off a bit of the outside of the pork. He chewed the tender piece, smiling.

“You know I have a mind to give some money to the church in gratitude for His kindness.”

“Really??! I can’t believe it.” Rogé was truly astounded.

“But I do. I want the blessings to continue,” Clod said, a serious look on his face. “Besides I wasn’t thinking of giving it to the church, they’re rich enough already, but to the orphanage run by a Christian order. I remember where I came from and though it wasn’t the best experience, they did good work.” He ladled more beer onto the pork. “Besides,” he gave a significant look, “That’s where you and I met.”

Gaétan arrived shortly with an armful of bottles. “I’ve been saving these. They’re the best we’ve ever produced. I figure this is a good occasion to drink them.”

Thierry and Flora came with two of their girls, bringing peach jam pies. Then the baker’s boy on a cart delivered the cakes and pies. Robert, Clod’s co-worker at the kiln, and his wife Nan with their offspring arrived bringing a large bowl of sugar glazed nuts.

Then in rolled a wagon from which Master Antoine Hebert climbed down accompanied by Lieutenant Chalmier. The master had a fine leather bound book that he presented to Rogé. “In it you’ll find the history of the war with England with a long chapter on Agincourt in it. It’s fairly presented but not accurate in all respects, I’ve been told. So don’t spoil this celebration by reading it now.” Clod offered them some beer and they gladly took it as it was turning into a warm day for this late in the year.

Lieutenant Chalmier shook Rogé’s hand and said, “It seems sad that we only see you in church on Sundays. You haven’t been to training of the militia for quite some time and they suffer for it. I swear the bowmen can’t hit the City gate, they’ve become so lax.”

“I was forced to make a … business trip and fell out of the habit. But you’re right, I have to get back into it.”

Things were going exceedingly well: much to Avril’s delight the benign weather matched the mood of the gathering. They set up a long harvest table on the veranda but found they did not have enough dishes for everyone and had to borrow from Flora. They had also hired two young girls to help Claire with the extra work. The musicians arrived, two viols, a flute and drum, and after a drink they started playing. The music really got the event going.

As soon as meat was ready, Clod started carving the beef and pork and the extra girls ran back and forth with plates to serve the guests. There were boiled vegetables, rice, and pasta with a choice of sauces and a large pile of fresh baked bread. The guests helped themselves to whatever they liked, and filled and refilled their glasses with the abundant wine or beer.

The musicians played throughout except for the short pause for a glass or two to animate them. Full to the gills, people stopped eating. Master Hebert belched, then embarrassed, he had to excuse himself. Lieutenant Chalmier had to loosen his belt to ease the pressure on his guts. Clod forced down one more bite of pie and immediately regretted it.

When Rose woke from her nap and cried loudly, Cloe disappeared to feed and change her. When she returned, she had the baby in her arms making big eyes at the crowd. Of course, then Rose had to be dutifully admired and praised, especially by the other women. Cloe was glowing with the surfeit of admiration and even Clod managed to look proud.

Then 13 year old Demi, one of Robert and Nan’s girls, suggested a guessing game. Flora was quick to put together a riddle, asking what it meant. As it wasn’t hard, people easily guessed it as the river. Gaétan wove something together and it, of course, was a cork stopper in a barrel of wine.

Chosen next, Master Geber started, “What is high, quiet as a whisper, a shadow in the moon but hears every sound…”

“An owl,” someone guessed correctly.

Demi pointed to Cloe, telling her that she had to make up a puzzle that Clod had to solve. She thought a moment, then tried. “It’s gold and often frothy, well liked and popular, some people can’t seem to have just one.”

“That’s easy, light ale,” Clod said, smiling at his wife.

Then Demi pointed at Rogé and commanded him to make up a puzzle for Avril. “Something really, really hard this time.”

“Let’s see, if it’s to be real hard you have to give me a minute.” People waited while he thought. “All right here it is. A woman looked through a white veil at all her friends and relatives; she heard the bells ringing and walked in quiet pride, aware of all the eyes on her…”

“That’s easy,” Avril smiled, “a bride.”

“That was too easy,” Demi complained.

“That’s because it’s not finished yet,” Rogé said. “People looked but the groom wasn’t where he should have been, and everyone was wondering where could he be?”

“Maybe he changed his mind,” Avril guessed, but Rogé shook his head. “He got lost,” one of the boys suggested. “No, he drowned falling into the river as he crossed the bridge…” his brother shouted. Again Rogé shook his head and continued, “He wasn’t lost and didn’t drown: he was looking for something he hid in a safe place… but couldn’t recall where. He looked under his pillow, in the cupboard, even in his boots…”

“The ring… the wedding ring!” Demi shouted joyfully.

“Partway right,” Rogé agreed. “The poor man knew people were waiting and he was becoming desperate. He looked here and he looked there…” Rogé started searching through the dishes, going from person to person looking under plates and under cups. He came to Avril and made a helpless gesture, “Now where could it be?” Avril just shook her head, mystified. “He was sure he had looked everywhere. What other place was left?” No one had an answer. Rogé reached across the table and took the small pie from his plate, broke it in half and his face broke into a delighted smile. “And look, here they are! Safe as he intended.” He held up two gold rings for all to see.

At first people didn’t know what to make of it. Rogé took out a handkerchief and cleaned the rings off, gave one to Avril and tried the other on his finger.

Avril’s eyes were wide with astonishment. “Are you asking me to … to marry you???” Her voice was a whisper.

“The ring is true as my love is true… and like the ring it’s endless…” He paused, his eyes on her, waiting. And so did everyone else; will she, won’t she? They didn’t dare to breathe.

“Yes…” she said, and gave a tingling laugh, “Yes!” Everyone jumped to their feet and applauded.

“That was no riddle,” Robert’s oldest boy complained but no one listened to him as they rushed to congratulate the couple, Clod among the first, pounding on his friend’s back.

It took a while for the excitement to die down. Rose got frightened by the commotion and Cloe had to take her inside to settle her. Lieutenant Chalmier shook Rogé’s hand energetically. “Congratulations, my friend. She is of course a wonderful catch.” One by one he accepted people’s well-wishes, feeling a great relief that his ploy hadn’t fallen flat.

Later, after the guests had left, the dishes were cleared and the musicians and the extra help were paid off, Rogé and Avril prepared to go to bed. Both were tired from a very long and busy day. Avril took off her dress and slipped into her nightgown.

“You organized this celebration just to ask me, didn’t you?”

“Yes, that was my intent.”

“You even put Demi up to propose a game of riddles.”

“No, that just happened. You were supposed to find the rings in the pie yourself. The riddles just added to the fun and it was too good a chance to pass up.”

“And what would you have done if I refused? In public?”

“I would have withdrawn into a monastery and lived out my life by taking on a perpetual vow of silence.”

“Good thing then that I said yes,” she said, her eyes twinkling.

“A very good thing.” He kissed her on the forehead. She offered him her lips, but he shook his head. “Don’t take this wrong, but my stomach’s so full that if I do anything I’ll chuck it all up.” She laughed as they got under the covers. She snuggled into him and nibbled on his ear and neck until he forgot his reservations.

A half hour later, they lay satiated and he hadn’t thrown up as he had warned.

Next morning Clod and Cloe were full of plans for a glorious wedding. But Avril just shook her head. “Remember the first time you two got married? With Marcel offering God’s blessing? That meant more to me that any wedding rite. I want a quiet, small church wedding with just our closest friends. Something very simple.” Rogé was happy to do anything she wanted.

The day after, Rogé went to the church to make arrangements with Father Cordilo. Bans were posted by the church door, and they had to wait the prescribed period of two weeks. Then on a Saturday, Rogé and Avril were wed in a quiet ceremony with just Clod and Cloe there to witness it.

Avril looked striking in a simple full length dress with a lace veil from head to foot that Cloe had made for her. She wore a locket around her neck containing a lock of her mother’s hair. “That way, she’s here with us…symbolically,” she whispered, traces of tears in her eyes.

Rogé wore a deep blue velvet jacket with black hose and calf-high deer skin boots. He chose a simple silver chain but no other jewelry.

“I haven’t seen you looking better,” Clod said to him quietly in the near empty church. He and Cloe were in their best outfits too.

Father Cordilo was taken aback by the smallness of the wedding party and consequently he hurried through the ceremony. After, they signed the parish records and left the church as husband and wife. Keeping to the simplicity they had lunch at the Royal Oak, enjoying a not overly elaborate meal.

Leaving the restaurant, they hired a carriage to drive them home to Roman Wells. Claire, waiting at the door, scattered flower petals over the newlyweds.

“Where did you find them in winter?” Avril asked her.

“I have a friend who presses and dries them. I thought it’d be a nice touch.”

“Thank you Claire, very thoughtful of you.”

Married or unmarried life continued just the same at Roman Wells. Rogé read and copied manuscripts related to wine; Avril learned to weave to keep her hands busy; Clod took his ease, occasionally walking to Vienne to spend an afternoon in a tavern, arguing with tablemates; and Cloe was busy with making lace and attending to Rosa. The baby was growing quickly and her crying became more differentiated as she tried to communicate her wishes. Already she had definite likes and dislikes. But when she smiled, it was impossible not to smile back.

As Rogé was reading through the history of the French-English Wars he finally got to the chapter on the Battle of Agincourt near the end of the book. He read it three times and though the narrator got most things right, he erred on some important facts. The Bonecrushers were never mentioned, nor some of the Burgundians who fought on the French side. The blame was laid on the Constable and the Grand Marshal, not on any of the headstrong nobles who unleashed the catastrophic general attack. Rogé also felt that the writer had inflated the number of English losses… perhaps to lessen the shame of the defeat by a smaller force.

Rubbing his forehead, he closed his eyes, seeking to remember the past… where he had been on the battlefield and how little of the fighting he had really seen. Why did I survive when so many others died? I’m married today, when many never had the chance to finish out their lives in peace. Perhaps I was spared for some purpose. I mustn’t waste my life. From time to time he still felt that Agincourt hovered over him like a cloud casting a shadow on his happiness… the happiness he felt he somehow had no right to. He had sworn the Crushers’ oath, yet he had run away. Was there any way of lessening his guilt over his survival? He decided that he would light candles in church for the friends he lost. It wouldn’t be enough, perhaps nothing would be enough. But this is my chance, my life… and I’ll make the most of it.

The winter was mild, nothing like what they had experienced up north. There wasn’t much snow, and the days were mostly bright and clear. To keep fit Rogé took to walking along the river or up into the hills. On one such outing a dog followed him home. He seemed intent on staying and no one chased him away. After some days, Rogé decided to call him Rusty because of his color. It took a while for the animal to understand that that was his name now, but he appeared rather indifferent to it by ignoring it. Rusty adapted quickly to the house, claimed a corner of the kitchen for himself, and depending on his mood, persecuted the tabby by chasing it all over the property, the cat usually ending up on the sour cherry tree meowing from the branches. He could also be a nuisance around the kitchen, addicted to stealing food when no one was looking. Avril often yelled, “Rogé, tell your dog not to…” causing Rogé to mutter sourly, “He’s not my dog.”

One afternoon, Rogé and Gaétan were sampling the state of fermentation in the barrels. Inserting a long necked wine gourd into the barrel, Gaétan sucked some wine into the gourd, then covering the hole with his thumb, he let out a glassful of wine to sample. He looked at the cloudy color, then took a sip, rolling the mixture around in his mouth. Finally he spit it out onto the ground. He had Rogé also take a taste.

“Not bad, I’d say. A little sour and grainy, but just right for its age.” They sampled half of the 14 barrels, Gaétan putting a chalk mark on each. Next week he meant to test the rest. “On the whole, not bad at all. It shows we have seeded it properly. It helps to give it a little yeast and sugar to encourage it, but not much. It’s easy to overdo.”

After church service the following Sunday, in spite of the cool air, Rogé and Avril took a turn around Cathedral Square, greeting people they knew. Now that they were married, it proved a lot easier to talk with other couples. Clod and Cloe were just a step behind, Rose drawing quite a lot of attention from the women. Because it was brisk Rogé had a cart waiting to take them home, with thick covers to keep them comfortable. It wasn’t the distance that concerned him; he wanted to make it easier for the baby.

They were just about to climb into the cart when the Mayor’s pageboy plucked at Rogé’s sleeve. “Sir, His Worship requests your presence at the Town Hall.”

“Now?”

“If it’s convenient.”

“What did you do that you’re sent for?” Clod asked, frowning.

“Nothing,” Rogé responded, perplexed. “You take Avril home with you and I’ll see what the Mayor wants.” He followed the page back to the Town Hall and inside to the Mayor’s Office.

“Come, sit.” The Mayor with the heavy chain of office around his neck beckoned. Rogé sat and waited. “Would you like something to drink? A little port from Portugal perhaps?”

“No thank you,” Rogge replied, looking around the large room at the city crests on the paneled walls, and the large windows to the outside. What does he want? And why is he so polite to me? Careful now, he must want something big…

“As you know we’re subjects of His Royal Highness Charles the Sixth. By his indulgence we enjoy a fair bit of independence, but when he asks for something, we comply.” He paused, enjoying the suspense. “His Highness or the Dauphin has requested your presence in Paris.”

“What??!” Rogé was stunned. “Me? Why, for heaven’s sake?”

“That wasn’t communicated to us, but my guess is that your prowess with the crossbow must have reached the Royal ears.”

“Is there an upcoming contest at the Court that I don’t know about?”

“There’re always contests somewhere, but it wasn’t made clear why you were summoned. Of course you will go. This is a Royal Command.”

“I thought it was a request.”

“It amounts to the same thing.” The Mayor’s florid face took on a sly look. “And of course, when you’re in the Royal presence, you’ll make it clear that we’re all doing good work here, serving the kingdom in every capacity.”

“Is that a command as well?”

“No, no, Heaven forbid, merely a polite request.” With that assurance it seemed the audience was over. Rogé rose, bowed briefly and left.

“You’re what??!” Clod asked at home, nearly dropping Rose in surprise. “You’re ordered before King Charles? Whatever for?”

“I don’t know. The Mayor thinks it’s because I’m so well known for my crossbow skills.”

“Or maybe because someone wants to assassinate somebody,” Clod said, turning white.

“No one knows about that.”

“Didn’t the Spaniard go to Paris?”

“Yes, he did.” Suddenly the possibility seemed quite real.

“You want to go to Paris?” Avril asked when they were alone.

“I don’t want to, I was ordered to.”

“By the King?”

“Or the Dauphin, or maybe one of the Ministers.”

“What would they want from you?”

“I don’t know. But let’s both go and have fun at Court.”

“You don’t really think they want you in Court.”

“No, but at least we can look around and say we’ve seen it.”

“I don’t feel at ease around the high and mighty. Besides I can’t go…”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m pregnant.”

“You’re what??!” He took a step back. “When were you going to tell me?”

“When I was sure. Now I’m sure,” she said, instinctively touching her abdomen protectively. “Can’t you say you’re happy about it?”

“Of course… very happy.” Immediately he made a happy face. But she was already upset. “Really Avril, I’m extremely happy. A son … or a daughter… imagine that.” Slowly he reached out to her, careful not to startle her. “I know… I’ll refuse to go!”

“You can’t do that. You must go. It’s ordered.”

In the evening after supper, Rogé was sitting in the day room, staring moodily at the flickering fire in the fireplace. He was drinking a better vintage, thinking about how he would be away from it. Clod joined him, and accepted a glass of the same.

“Then you’re going?” Clod asked, slipping into the high-backed chair across from his friend.

“It seems I must. What about you? Want to come along?”

“As much as I would wish, I can’t. Cloe and Rose need me. And we shouldn’t leave Roman Wells alone again.”

“Wish I knew what this was all about.”

“Didn’t the Mayor tell you anything?”

“Just that I was summoned. I don’t want to go especially as Avril… you do know that she’s pregnant?”

“Cloe suspected as much.”

“Why was I the last to know?”

“Women know these things. The signs…”

“I really hate to leave but dare not refuse.” He put the glass down on the table and rubbed his forehead irritably.

“When are you planning to leave?”

“Sooner I leave the sooner I’ll be back. Avril tells me I must order at least two new suits so that I’ll be presentable at Court.” His head really started to ache. “I fear this will cost us money. Clothes, travel, a stay in Paris, and who knows what else. I’d rather stay home.”

“The King’s mad; maybe he won’t remember from one day to the next.”

“Maybe, but I can’t take that chance.”

Two days later Rogé left with more baggage than he liked. For the first part he hired a boat to take him north on the Saône, then travelled overland by cart to Dijon. From there a long stretch along uncertain roads in a carriage to Paris. It troubled him that the traveling would have been enjoyable with his companions, but alone, it was tedious and weary. The journey lasted nearly half a month as the roads were terrible in winter, and he arrived exhausted. All around him were masses of people, noise and the unpleasant smell of overcrowding and garbage. And that in the cold of winter; he couldn’t imagine it in the high heat of summer.

Rogé took a room at the Ten Point Stag with a view of the river Seine, where the smell seemed a little better. He slept through a day and a half, before he ventured out. As first, he found a bathhouse and had a long bath to wash the dust and tension out of him. Then he got dressed in his finest clothes and asked his way to the royal residence. “That would be the Hotel Saint-Pol, further along the river,” he was told and he followed the direction, careful not to get his shoes soiled in the garbage lying around.

From the outside the palace didn’t seem particularly imposing, just several buildings around an inner courtyard. Gray stone walls everywhere, interrupted by many windows. Ivy grew thickly on the outside, covering wall statues and the ornamentation.

Rogé tried to enter but was stopped by the guards at the iron grill gate of the courtyard and told to move along. He didn’t move, even when two of the guards leveled a halberd at him.

“You don’t understand, I was summoned.”

“By whom?” the Sergeant asked, looking Rogé over.

“I’m not sure, perhaps by the King.”

“Where’s your summons?” The Sergeant frowned.

Rogé had to admit he didn’t have anything in writting. “Without some form of authorization you can’t get in. You’re not on the list and have no invitation. ”

An officer, with shiny breastplate and helmet, came over to investigate. The Sergeant explained the situation.

“It’s true. Without a letter of some sort we can’t let you in. But if you were summoned, then go to the ministry across from Clovis Square and get a clerk to get you proper authorization. Be firm and insist since they’re lazy sorts who loaf away the day.”

After many false turns Rogé found the ministry and waited three hours in a drafty hall filled with petitioners. When he finally had a chance to explain, the clerk sent him to another waiting room where he spent another two hours. The clerk he finally got to see looked harried, his desk covered with scraps of paper. However he listened attentively and made notes.

“From what you tell me, the summons must have come from the Dauphin. If it were from the King or one of his ministers, you would have been on the list of people invited. The Dauphin is new to this game having just risen to the position after his older brother died so unfortunately. I’ll give you a script that will let you see the Dauphin’s secretary; maybe he can straighten it out.”

Rogé went back to the palace and this time was allowed in. A soldier led him through a labyrinth of doors and halls to turn him over to the clerk of the Secretary. For the third time that day Rogé explained his predicament. The clerk consulted the list but his name wasn’t on it. All the same he took the issue to the Secretary, who seemed interested enough to invite Rogé in. The Secretary was younger than expected but he came straight to the point. “His Highness the Dauphin often doesn’t communicate clearly what he wants, but I do seem to remember something about a crossbow archer he was interested in who might just be you. I’ll send my clerk over to ask his Royal Highness his wishes. It’s already too late for today…where’re you staying?”

“At the Stag… the Ten Point Stag.”

“Good, I’ll inform you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Rogé left, shaking his head; it seemed to him too many people didn’t know a thing. Because he was famished he stopped at the first place that served food and had cabbage with sausage washed down with ale. From a street vendor he bought some candied pine nuts to take back to his room. At the Stag his room had been cleaned and checking his baggage, he thankfully found nothing missing. Come evening he tried to sleep but couldn’t on account of the noise from the street and the bad smell.

While at breakfast, Rogé was approached by a runner and given a letter. “What is it?” he asked but the other just shrugged and left as quickly as he had come.

Opening the folds Rogé read the stylish writing, allowing him access to see the Dauphin. He went back to his room, washed and put on his best clothes.

With the letter, this time there was no problem at the gate. He was turned over to a page, who led him to the east wing of the palace. One paneled hallway flowed into another, tapestries and artwork on the walls, marble and bronze statues everywhere. Gold paint highlighted the ceilings, and there were candle holders in huge numbers. Several times they were inspected by guards who were dispersed throughout the palace.

They approached a set of tall richly ornamented double-doors. “The Dauphin’s apartment,” the page whispered. Two guards there checked him again.

Inside there was a waiting room with benches along the long wall, but no one sitting on them. The page directed Rogé to sit and told him that someone would come for him… eventually. That turned out to be over an hour, as the chimes of an unseen clock indicated. Rogé had time to examine the artwork around the room. Large frescoes of a battle scene dominated the wall facing the windows, and there were paintings of two noblemen beside the door that led to the inner rooms of the apartment. Eventually the door opened and the Secretary entered.

“Ah, Monsieur Durant, the archer, you’ve found us. I fear the Dauphin isn’t quite ready yet, but he does want to see you. He got quite excited when I told him you were here.”

“Any reason why he would be?”

“Your skill as an archer had reached his ears and he dearly wants to have a look at you. I hope it isn’t an inconvenience.”

“A Royal wish is my command,” Rogé said, but he desperately wanted to go home.

“Good man,” the Secretary said. As they waited silently, Rogé’s eyes returned to the battle scene, noting that there were many archers, but no crossbowmen. The Secretary, seeing the direction he was looking, explained, “That was of the great Battle of Taillebourg in 1242, where King Louis IX defeated the combined forces of the English and local insurgents. Those were the good old days when we were still winning. The painter is quite famous but his name slips my mind. Were you in the Army?”

“Briefly. At Agincourt.” The Secretary had the courtesy not to make a disparaging comment.

Just then the door opened a crack and a page slipped into the room. “His Highness is ready to receive visitors.”

“Good,” the Secretary said and led the way. Inside, the room was bright with color, a profusion of scrollwork to highlight every feature of the room. There were seats in red velvet and in one of them sat a young man dressed in blue silk with lace around his neck and ruffles at the sleeves. His clothes clashed with the upholstery but he seemed unaware of it. Seeing Rogé he jumped up and hurried to him. “The archer. I finally get to meet the famous archer.” He was surprisingly young, possibly a year or two younger than Rogé. His hair was coiffed, his face powdered and highlighted with color. He appeared lanky and his movements were only slightly affected. In spite of his young age Rogé saw intelligence in the Royal eyes, with no sign of the madness that tormented his father.

“Your Highness, I’m pleased to be summoned.” Rogé made a bow, aware of how awkward and unpracticed it was.

“It’s Rogé Durant, is it not?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“You’re just the man I want to see. I’m planning a party for my sister Catherine and maybe you could provide us with a spectacular demonstration of your skill.” He took off a ring, and looked through the circle. “A ring at a hundred paces, what an astonishing feat. I’d like to see that.”

“I’ll of course oblige if asked, but I can’t guarantee the results. They were miraculous shots, on both occasions. But who knows in the future?” His Royal Highness was visibly disappointed. Rogé hurried to add, “A wise man once advised me not to try to replicate the feat, thereby risking my one asset, my reputation as a man who couldn’t miss. I need to fail just once to lose all I’ve gained.”

“I see your problem and believe me I understand. I’m the Dauphin since all my older brothers died and the title passed onto me only two years ago. I’m the future King of France, if I don’t die as my four brothers did. I wasn’t brought up to be the King, and everybody waits for me to fail. My father’s mad, some say because craziness is on his mother’s side, but I think it’s the failures against the English that are the cause. He can’t trust anybody, not even his own son. But enough, let’s talk of more pleasant things. What did you feel when you took your shot?”

“Like I was on the edge of a precipice, alone, expectation heavy on me, my whole future in my eyes and hands. If I fail I fall, if I succeed I soar… as I did…”

The Dauphin pulled him to the side so they could be private. The two talked for half an hour, less about accomplishments, more about the risks of striving. The Dauphin spoke easily without any reservations and Rogé found himself liking him. There was no sign of the haughtiness he had expected.

In time, the Secretary interrupted, “Your Highness is expected for lunch with the Queen Mother.”

“Yes, yes. I promised to attend. Rogé, I wish I could invite you, but my mother has strict rules about whom she allows at her table. But stay, a guest room will be found for you in the palace.” He looked at his Secretary. “Please see to it.”

The audience broke up. “That went well,” the Secretary said on the way out. “His Highness isn’t always so pleasant in the morning. I should’ve warned you not to mention Agincourt. His Highness gets quite upset when it comes to talking about the English. You see, in order to secure peace his father the King was forced to sign a treaty with the English, ceding succession to Henry of England, betrothing his daughter Catherine to him and effectively disinheriting the Dauphin. So we’re on very thin ice here.”

A pleasant room was found for Rogé and his belongings were sent for. “The Dauphin has his own supper table and you’re invited, of course. A page will come to summon you.” The Secretary turned to go, but paused at the door. “Don’t take this wrong, but heed my caution. The Dauphin has favored you, so please enjoy it, but don’t count on it lasting long. Other courtiers will be jealous and will try to poison the Dauphin against you. So be careful.” Then he left.

Rogé examined the room, finding it luxurious. It was astounding to him that he was an invited guest of the palace, this intimate with Royalty. He wished Avril were with him to enjoy it, but knew she wouldn’t like the pretence, the false courtesies, the underground battle for attention and recognition. He hoped that the Dauphin would grow tired of him soon and let him go home.

He wandered around the courtyard and the garden to the back, admiring the many sculptures and the few fountains that were attempts to improve the looks of the austere exterior of the palace buildings. There were soldiers everywhere and he was challenged several times. He paused to watch some soldiers practice swordplay in the corner when someone near yelled, “Rogé!” Rogé turned to see a Sergeant of the Guards heading for him. “My God, Rogé! I heard from Jose that you had survived but I wouldn’t believe him. Look at you…” The man looked familiar.

“Pierre… LeBoeuf? What are you doing here? Stupid question—You’re in the Guard…”

“And you?”

“I’m the Dauphin’s guest for the moment. Otherwise I live in Vienne just south of Lyon.”

“What about your companion? Clod something?”

“His real name is Claude and he survived with me. We own a small vineyard in the south.”

“Even looking at you with my own eyes, I can scarcely believe it. So few of us survived. Jose, Claus, Robert, me, you and Claude, that’s the lot… unless you’ve seen someone.”

“No, nobody. After the battle, we went south to stay out of the way and ended up below Lyon. I’m married now and so is Claude.”

“Sometimes I wish I were, but you know a soldier’s life, on the move all the time.” Pierre gave him a piercing look. “But how did you end up a guest of the Dauphin?”

“That’s a long story,” Rogé said relaying some of his history.

Pierre shook his head in amazement. “You’re one lucky bastard. Always landing on your feet. Angus told me that about you.” They sat down on an out of the way bench. “But I can’t say you’re in the best place now. The Dauphin’s in a precarious position right now. Henry’s claiming the title that mad Charles was forced to give him. At the moment the Dauphin’s a bit of an embarrassment to the Crown. I don’t know, but I suspect he should be wary. Four of his brothers died, by accident or sickness it was claimed, but maybe one or two had help…”

“You mean poison??!”

“I wouldn’t put it past some of these people, so greedy for power. But you didn’t hear that from me, understand?”

Rogé nodded. “Is the King really mad?” he asked.

“He is when the fit is on him. Afraid of everyone, kill first before being killed. Sometimes his people have to lock him up and tie him so he doesn’t cause a scandal or hurt himself. But the madness is in the family and the Dauphin could have it.”

“Mon Dieu, who runs the country?”

“The King’s brothers, the Duke of this and the Duke of that… and the ministers. Everyone’s pilfering the treasury, but we aren’t supposed to know. We’re to pretend that the Kingdom is in good hands. But how can it be with the cursed English breathing down on our necks?” Pierre stood up and offered his hand. “I must return to my duties but it was really nice to see you. The Guard meets at the Randy Boar two streets over so if you can find the time you can see me there.” Rogé looked puzzled after the man. He knew little of Pierre, beyond having seen him with the Crushers. But, as one of the few survivors of the unit, he had a strong affinity for him.

He had time to wash up and comb his hair before the page came to convey him to supper. The room was bright with candles, illuminating about thirty people on each side of a long table. He was seated at the low end, almost at the last position. For the most part his tablemates ignored him to put him in his place. Who did he think he was? Not anyone worthy of note. So he listened to the tone of forced gaiety around him. Everyone seemed desperate to gain the attention of the Dauphin, fawning for the heir whose inheritance was to be given away. But the Dauphin at the far end didn’t seem to be worried, talking animatedly with those close to him.

Rogé spent the rest of the supper watching the farce play out in front of him, all the courtiers vying with each other while the Dauphin looked on unimpressed. No one talked to Rogé, except Guiscard, who wanted to find out who he was and why he was there. Rogé played dumb, earning the man’s thinly disguised contempt.

After supper, the Dauphin rose and with him the rest of the company. The Prince walked about, talking graciously with everyone who adroitly drifted in his path. He kept the contact short, and moved on.

Almost the last, Rogé got to shake hands with the Dauphin, exchanging a few polite words, earning Rogé resentful looks from the other courtiers. Looking at his hand later, Rogé read the note the Prince had slipped him. “See me at 9 o’clock.”

Just before nine bells, a page came for him and led him to the Dauphin’s apartment. Once again Rogé was overwhelmed by all the luxury and the busyness of the decorations around him. The Dauphin was dressed in simple clothes and slippers, relaxing in front of a fireplace.

“Come, have some wine with me,” the Dauphin invited, filling a crystal goblet with rich red wine. Rogé sat down and regarded the Prince cautiously. The other smiled and made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “All through supper I had to ignore you to avoid setting the other people at your throat. Life at Court can be complicated. Beyond the glitter are lies and more lies couched in honeyed words. Some days I can barely stand it.” He took a sip. “I’m glad you’re here and glad that I heard of your double amazing shot. So I summoned you, and maybe you can tell me the truth.”

“About what, Your Highness?”

“The real story about Agincourt. All I’ve heard are excuses and justifications, the truth hidden in a smoke of lies and half-truths. If I’m to rule this land I have to know more.”

“What would Your Highness need from me?”

“Something about the battle, our side, the English. Is Henry the great leader he’s claimed to be? Or are we the French incompetent, lazy or cowards? Why did we really lose?”

“I wasn’t in a position to get an overview of the battle. What I remember was that in the press of combat, I saw only as far as my sword could reach. I think the Constable had a good plan that could have succeeded had we kept to it. But at the first exchange of arrows, our side lost its head and rushed into a death trap…” Rogé explained in some detail what he had seen, what he had felt and what he now thought, ending with, “But that’s only one man’s opinion, who was busy trying to survive. There wasn’t any one factor that cost us the battle, but many… unfortunate choices, with the terrain and the weather colluding against us. We would have done better not to have engaged in any battle but rather to have continued blocking Henry’s escape route. He would have fallen like a rotten fruit into our lap.” Rogé fell silent, curious about the effect of his words. The Prince had listened without interrupting.

“Thank you Rogé. That was better explained than all the what-ifs and only-ifs I’ve been presented with. I’m glad that I summoned you and you complied. I needed to hear your honesty.” He put his glass down and wiped his mouth with a silk handkerchief. “Now all that remains is to organize a party for my sister who’s forced into the marriage bed of that evil Henry. I won’t ask you to do the ring shot and risk your reputation, but maybe between the two of us we can come up with something interesting.” They talked of possibilities, and did in time come up with an arrangement that satisfied the Prince.

“Thank you, Rogé, I sincerely thank you. It gives me a chance to say farewell to my sister before she joins my enemy and takes on his causes. I fear I’m not only losing a sister and an ally but gaining a new enemy.” Then he became quite agitated. “The English are parasites, leeches, sucking blood, gold, peace and comfort from us French. We have to stop them and send them back to their wretched island. But first, I must defeat them… but how? Where? And with what troops? My father seeks to give my inheritance away, my mother cares only about the regency and tries to control me. Yet, it falls to me to restore the glory of France…” He went on for a while, thinking out loud, of what he must do and the difficulties he faced. Listening, Rogé concluded that the Dauphin had a heavy load to carry, too much for someone younger than him.

The Dauphin finally interrupted himself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go on like that. But believe me it’s rare to hear true words and rarer still to be listened to.” He frowned. “I hear you’re married and no doubt want to hurry home, so help me with this farewell party for my beloved sister and you have my leave to return to your family.”

Rogé was quite stirred up by what he had said and what he had heard, realizing that he was talking to the future King of France, but only if the Prince could snatch back the crown promised to his arch rival and enemy, Henry of England. Given that Rogé wasn’t used to thinking on such a broad scale, his mind buzzed with the enormity of the tasks and obstacles the Prince has to overcome. And how did he fit into all this? He was just a bit of driftwood carried about by the tides, not the power of the current or the wind.

Chapter 16

Two days later the party was a success. The Dauphin loved his sister and it pained him deeply that she would be given to the enemy. He knew it was a good-bye in many ways: she would take on the ambitions of her husband Henry of England. The main celebration was held indoors with a spread of foods, cakes and a selection of drinks. There was music and dancing, with people conversing animatedly with each other.

It was an interesting mix of guests: the Dauphin’s cronies, Catherine’s intimates and courtiers but no real nobility. The King and Queen mother had sent no people. It was therefore freer of the cumbersome Court protocol. Yet it was robbed of real gaiety as courtiers competed for attention and admiration. Of course, nowhere was this more obvious than around the Dauphin. By and large these people hitched their wagon to the Prince’s future and would prevail or sink with him. That explained some of their desperation, a sense that a sword hung above their heads by a very flimsy thread.

Part of the event was continued outside, around a number of bonfires. There was hot mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, and heated pies and pastries to keep the guests warm. The weather cooperated with mild temperatures.

Rogé’s part was carefully orchestrated. He and another renowned archer, Gustav, readied their crossbows and tied long silk streamers to their bolts, Rogé’s red, Gustav’s all yellow. They set up on the terrace, above the heads of guests. At about forty paces, which was all the garden allowed, a group of servants set up a large round table on its side, ingeniously supported so it could be rotated. The Dauphin himself gave it a spin and everyone watched the table rotate, curiously trying to guess its purpose. The Prince then called one of his companions, Damien to stand in front of the table. “We’ll put your feet here in these stirrups, and you have to hold on to these straps, and we’ll spin you around, and two archers from up there will try to not hit you as you are turned around and around. It’ll be great fun.”

“But …Your Highness… isn’t that somewhat risky?” the hapless Damien asked.

“No, I assure you, they’re very good archers. You’re not afraid, are you?”

“No…no… but it seems so dangerous.”

“Very well then we shall test it.” When the Dauphin gestured with his hand, a servant came with paint and drew Damien’s outline onto the table top. Damien was glad to get away. “Now, we’ll spin it, and see the drawing turn around, and we shall see if our archers are good enough not to kill our friend here.” Helped by a man-at-arms he gave the table a spin and the guests watched mesmerized as the outline turned with dizzying speed. “We shall take some time, to allow people to bet on the outcome. I’ll wager five gold Louis that no arrow will hit our man…” That unleashed a flurry of betting as the crowd tried to keep up with their host. “Are we ready then?” he asked, then had to ask again to get a general assent. He spun the table, and kept spinning it, blurring the outline. Then the Dauphin gestured toward the archers. Rogé lifted his crossbow and shot, the long streamer flashing like fire after the bolt that hit safely between the legs. Gustav shot, the yellow lightning just missing the head. There was tense silence as people tried to stay with the game.

Rogé shot again, hitting just below the left armpit, the red ribbon fluttering as the table turned. Gustav’s next shot came close to the body, almost touching the paint. There were gasps at this outcome. Now that the game had become clear to the spectators, people asked for time so they could make proper bets with a better sense of the odds. When everyone was ready the table was spun again. Rogé lifted his bow and released the bolt, hitting close to the top of the head. Gustav risked a shot at the level of the knee just missing it. Rogé’s next bolt came close to piercing the ear but just short of it. Gustav’s bolt nearly took out the ankle. People were getting really excited, shouting and cheering each round on, even the ladies. Catherine herself risked a bet against her brother. There were two types of bets; one that the man would be hit or not, or which of the two archers would win, Rogé or Gustav.

Four more rounds followed, all shots landing safely outside the outline. But such steady outcomes eventually robbed the contest of excitement. Again the Dauphin intervened. “Seeing how accurate our archers are, I’ll give five Florins to the man who dares to stand in front and risk being hit.” Understandably there were no takers. “All right, I’ll raise it to ten.” It took all the way to 25 before one of the courtiers took a shield from one of the guards and volunteered to face a round. Rogé shot, missing the man and the spinning outline behind him. Gustav too, but allowed himself an extra margin of safety by aiming for the rim of the circle. The Courtier collected his reward but refused to stand for another round.

“Well as you can see our archers are very competent and Damien, note that you wouldn’t have been hurt. Maybe this time, we should let them shoot for the heart.” He had a man nail a large gold coin where the heart was. “Whoever comes closest, will win it.” The table was spun again.

With a candle Rogé lit the streamer, the silk catching instantly. When he shot, it was the flame that flashed across the distance, to pierce the coin dead on. Gustav lit his streamer too, shot and hit right next to Rogé’s. There was a murmur of astonishment at such proofs of accuracy.

“There’s not much of this coin left. But I’ll volunteer another somewhat smaller one, to find the best marksman,” Dauphin declared.

This time, eager to be done with the test Gustav shot first and missed by a hair. People exhaled their breath, wondering if Rogé could do it.

This coin was half the size of the other, no larger than a ring. Why the clever fox, he has me shooting for the ring after all. He relaxed his breath and released his bolt, hitting the coin again. A collective sigh went through the crowd. People hurried to settle their wagers.

“Well done, Rogé Durant, you deserve the honor,” the Prince said, giving him the coins.

“Thank you Your Highness.”

Rogé wiped down his bow and put it in its cover. He turned to Gustav and said, “Well shot, Sir.”

“Well shot indeed, but you won.” Gustav tipped the goblet in his hand, saluting Rogé.

“My name is Rogé Durant…”

“Every archer knows your name and has tried secretly or publicly to duplicate your feat. There’re now ring-shots in contests, patterned after your succes.” He lifted his glass again in tribute. “You know what the hardest part of this shoot was for me?—not having a drink all day, waiting for this to be over.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m with the Royal Guards.”

“And how’s that?”

“All right, I guess. Better than the field army, though you have to bow and scrape a lot. Isn’t that funny? I bow with my bow.”

“Where did you serve before?”

“In 1416 I was at Harfleur, trying to retake it from the English. We failed, miserably. Before that I was at Agincourt with the forces of the Duke of Orleans. What a mess that was.”

“It sure was,” Rogé said quietly, remembering it as the most critical point in his life. Before Agincourt he was nothing, what was he after? Gustav left shortly to resume his duties with the Guard.

Throughout the rest of the celebration Rogé was approached a fair number of times by people congratulating him. Some were genuinely admiring, while others betrayed some jealousy in sizing up a potential rival for the friendship of the Dauphin. Rogé also got many admiring glances from the female guests and had he made the least bit of effort, he could have easily gained a conquest for the night; after all he was the hero of the day.

As he prepared for bed, a polite knock drew him to the door. Rogé found the Dauphin’s page there with a summons. Tired as he was he had to go.

“Ah Rogé, you did well, didn’t disappoint us at all. I bet you could have hit the target at a hundred paces. You were a huge success.”

“Thank you, Your Highness. I flatter myself for coming ahead of the dancing bear and the fire-eater.”

“That you did, not to forget the sword swallower.” The Dauphin laughed. “But most importantly, my sister had a good time. I fear it will be long before she laughs or dances so freely again married to that lout Henry.” A servant helped him out of his courtly attire into something more comfortable.

Rogé wondered how much wine the Prince had imbibed in the course of the fête. But the Dauphin turned serious as he settled in a chair and invited Rogé to sit as well. “I’ve called you to send you home. I fear that the courtiers would not be kind to you. I want also to express my thanks for the success of the party and for your frank views. I have advisors to fill my ears and supporters who hope that one day I’ll be the King, in spite of my father’s attempt to sell my future throne for peace with England. I fear people lie to me, steal me blind and support me only to advance their own causes. I trust them not. I don’t feel safe in Paris anymore.” He reached behind him and taking something from a table, handed it to Rogé. “To thank you, my friend. If you ever want to come to Court in my France, you’ll be welcome with your family.”

Rogé felt the purse, heavy with coins. “Your Highness…” he started to protest but the Prince waved him off.

“You’ve earned it. Now tell me if you have some advice for your future King.”

“How so, Your Highness?” Rogé was taken aback.

“Regarding the military situation. France against England; to improve my armies and so on.”

Rogé thought hard. “I was with mercenaries and I think that’s the direction of the future. The feudal levies don’t work well in modern times. Henry had a paid professional army: certainly made up of common folk but well-trained. Welsh and English archers formed the backbone of his forces with only a few nobles to lead them, whereas with us, we stumbled over a surfeit of nobility full of their own ambitions. We need an army who listens and obeys one voice, a commander who knows the business of making war. Other than that…” He shrugged his shoulders but did have another thought. “There’s talk of a new weapon, bombards shooting balls of iron and stone by exploding black powder. They destroy walls and mow down rows of men and armor. I fear it’s a weapon to change wars and history.”

“Humm. Well said, and again I thank you. So on parting I wish you a happy life. My future’s sadly uncertain. Perhaps I’ll prevail and perhaps not. But I’ll remember you.”

Rogé bowed and backed away from the Prince. Before he reached the door, the Prince called after him. “You might not believe it but I’d much rather be you than me. And that’s said without knowing your circumstances. But we have the burden of our births to bear and mine is to be King.”

“I was an orphan, but now I’ve found a family.” The door swung shut behind him, and strangely he felt sorry for the Prince because of the heavy load he had to carry, young as he was. In his room he counted out 15 gold pieces and 18 silver, a very tidy sum.

With a light heart Rogé packed the next morning, ordered himself a cart and by nine bells he was on the road toward home. He was amazed how light of spirit he felt. On the way to Paris, he had worried about what was wanted of him, which had overshadowed his whole journey. He had been summoned because a young prince admired tales of his prowess. He had shot and scored and perhaps made a friend.

On the last leg of drifting down the Saône on a barge, he was filled with great impatience to see Avril and his friends. Arriving at night, Rogé disembarked and climbed the hill to his home in the dark. Knowing the secret of the latch, he pushed open the door and stepped inside to be greeted by his dog Rusty, enthusiastically wagging his tail and licking his hand. Rogé settled the dog, and spread himself along the wall bench, not wishing to disturb Avril and the rest of the household.

Claire on her morning rounds didn’t discover him. Rogé awoke to the delighted cry of Avril as she threw herself on him.

“You’re home… finally here… what did you do? What adventures did you have? Why didn’t you write to let us know?”

Rogé laughed as he tried to rub the sleep from his eyes. Clod and Cloe appeared, adding to the host of questions. Rogé asked for breakfast and something to drink. With some food in him he started on his tale, coloring it a bit.

“You saw the palace and talked with the King?” Avril asked, amazed.

“The Dauphin, the future King. He’s a young man filled with curiosity who had heard of me and wanted to meet me face to face. He even organized a competition just to see for himself.”

“And you won, right?” Clod interrupted.

“Yes, and the prize money.” Rogé placed a small money bag on the table. Clod reached for it eagerly.

“Not that we need more money, we still have lots…” He counted the coins, and was disappointed to find three light among them. “You’d think the Royal Treasury would re-mint those.”

“In Court everybody lies and everybody cheats with smiles on their faces. They all seek recognition and royal favors, but there’s never enough to please everybody. It’s like a pack of dogs fighting over scraps, except with fine words and false politeness.”

“Surely not the ladies,” Cloe interjected.

“Especially the ladies. They paint themselves so you can barely recognize them. They praise you to your face but gossip behind your back with words that cut and damage reputations.”

“And have wild parties,” Cloe suggested as she was interested in such things.

“That I don’t know for I’ve never attended one, but there’re rumors, of course.”

It took a while to satisfy their curiosity. Rogé looked at his wife, finding just a bit of a bump from her pregnancy. It felt good to be back home to enjoy and overlook his small kingdom. Now that he was back, he didn’t regret the experience; his eyes had opened, having glimpsed another world. It astonished him that as a no-account orphan, he even got to be so close to royalty.

In spring their son was born and christened Eugène Marcel Simon-Durant in the cathedral.

“Why does he need a second name?” Clod asked.

“Eugène means well-born, for he’s well born into the love and caring of his parents. And Marcel is in the memory of Marcel Probius. Besides I lost my name, so I gave him two: two is harder to lose than one, don’t you think?”

Soon after they spent a month decanting their wine into bottles. Halfway they had to stop because they ran short of cork from Spain. They also made their first sales of the young wine, largely to the north, where there was a shortage due to a blight the year before.

Clod started up the kiln again, making drinking jugs and pitchers, kitchen plates and bowls, and of course bricks. So money was coming in faster than it was going out. They planned an addition to the house to make room for more children and more help.

Rogé resumed his duties with the town militia. He trained archers every Tuesday and attended the Military Council afterwards. Following his invitation to Paris, his reputation had grown even more, and the town tried to engage him in their politics. But Rogé stayed wary of it.

When next year a son was born to Clod and Cloe, they named him Odilon, meaning wealthy.

Chapter 17

Over the next few years the news from the north continued to be bad. John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy, took Paris and forced himself to be recognized as the Regent to the mad King. The Dauphin fled to Bourges and from there tried to defend his title and inheritance. Then John the Fearless was assassinated by agents of the Dauphin, and his son Philip the Good made an alliance with the English. The Treaty of Troys was signed in 1420, ceding the succession to Henry who had married Catherine de Valois, the daughter of the French King. Then in quick succession Henry died in 1422, and a couple of months later the Mad King. So Henry V never became the King of France, the title devolving on his son Henry VI. The English ruled most of France with the Dauphin holding out in the south, but his situation looked hopeless.

For the most part the storm that shook the rest of the country had bypassed Vienne, and Roman Wells prospered. Clod bought out the neighboring property to the kiln and built a house there. That’s where he and Cloe had a second son named Anton Julien Lambert, the family name he took for himself.

Rogé and Avril welcomed a girl, Chantal Isabelle. In the meantime the boys had grown and were both quite a handful. In spite of being younger, Odil tried to boss Eugène around, but he wouldn’t have it. They fought and had to be separated often. “Why can’t you be friends like your fathers are?” Cloe lamented.

“Let them be, friendship often grows out of such contests. Makes them both strong and resilient,” Clod replied, proud of his son.

Avril loved being a mother, and because of it had lost her restlessness. Each year she worked on the garden and the new orchard she had planted. She had also lost her revulsion at being touched and greatly enjoyed her love play with Rogé, passionate and generous with her body. Still, at odd times, something triggered an old memory and she shuddered, but she suppressed those feelings and buried them deep.

Rogé was busy with the vineyard, and had become quite knowledgeable about all aspects of growing grapes and of making and selling wine. He kept meticulous records, intending to write a book on the art of winemaking. In time he invested in two barges for transporting his product north on the Saône and south on the Rhône. When he got tired of sitting around at home, he would take a trip with his crew.

It was nice on the veranda overlooking the winery and the Rhône, and to enjoy a warm evening breeze bringing the smell of ripening vegetation. Often Rogé and Avril sat together while she sewed and he read a book that Master Bertrand had sent him. It was a quiet, peaceful life, and often they said, “Remember the time when…” reliving and enjoying those adventures.

“I’ll teach our children myself,” Rogé declared on one such occasion. “I don’t want the Priests filling their heads with God knows what. I wouldn’t want him to become a priest or her a nun.”

“What would you like Eugène to become?”

“The same as me, a wine maker.”

“Do you think that’s really something that would appeal to a young mind, eager for the adventures you’ve had?”

“Maybe not. What would you wish for him?”

“A good woman and a future that’s not always harmless but ultimately safe. I want sons and daughters from my son.”

“And for your daughter?”

“Happiness. Always knowing who her family is.”

“Strange. Chantal is barely a year old and Eugène not yet four, yet we have their future already decided.”

On June of 1429 a courier brought Rogé a message with the Dauphin’s seal. Breaking it and unrolling the parchment, Rogé read an urgent summons from the Prince to join him at the castle of Chinon in the Loire Valley. No reason was given, just the invitation.

“The Dauphin wants you?” Avril asked, astounded.

“Yes, but he doesn’t say why. Still I must go. I owe him obedience.”

Clod was more skeptical. “The Dauphin? That’s laughable. He’s called the King of Buerges, but he’s no King. With more cause you ought to serve Henry VI, who owns more of France than the Dauphin the Pretender.”

“Well you’d best pay attention to where we live. Henry doesn’t own us…”

“But neither does Charles… not formally. Not until he’s crowned in Rheims, but that’s held by the English.”

Rogé packed and left the next day mindful of the urgency of the summons. His route took him north-west through the heartland of old France. Traveling on horseback, it took him about a week. On the way he heard much about the siege of Orleans on the border of English and French controlled lands.

He arrived at Chinon, finding it somehow remarkable that the town straddled the River Vienne, the same name as his home town. Crossing the river, he entered the town proper and started up the hill toward the Royal Castle. He was stopped at the gate and the purpose of his business demanded. He showed the summons, glad that no reason had been divulged in it. After a thorough examination of the broken seal he was allowed inside and passed on to a page, who led him through the inner gates to an interior courtyard. The palace was spacious but unadorned. Once conveyed inside, he was introduced to an elderly man.

“I’m one of the Secretaries of his Royal Highness. At present he’s out riding but is expected back for lunch. You’re on the list, so if you care to refresh yourself, perhaps you can be ready for the meal. The boy will show you where you’re to be lodged and will bring you back to me.”

Rogé put his pack on the bed in a simple room. There was water on a side stand with which he washed himself, then changed into clean clothes. Combing his hair, he felt ready. He met with the Secretary again.

“His Highness is back; lunch will be served in half an hour. His Highness has been informed of your arrival. We have few guests today, so it will be a quiet lunch.” He then sank into some parchment on his desk. When a chime rang throughout the palace, the Secretary looked up and smiled in satisfaction. “Ah, lunch.” He got up and bid Rogé to follow. They entered a room with a large table and found a group of five people only, the Dauphin in the center.

“Ah Rogé, it’s good to see you.” Charles smiled. “This is Jean Telemann, my Captain of the Guards, and next to him is Andre Gillard, one of my generals. Come take a seat beside me and tell me about your family.” The Prince looked much older and there were worry lines around his eyes.

Rogé sat and made short work of home and family. Then he waited curiously to hear why he was summoned. But the Dauphin talked pleasantly of the ride and the freshness of the countryside. The others talked quietly among themselves, answering dutifully when addressed by the Prince. Charles kept up some rather meaningless prattle during a dinner of stuffed roasted pigeons and assorted boiled vegetables in a spicy sauce. A servant topped off Rogé’s glass when it was about half empty, making Rogé more cautious about how much he was actually drinking. He noted that the Prince signaled when he wanted a refill.

The meal was quickly over and after a few words to the others, the Dauphin took Rogé into a side room where they were alone. They took seats and the Dauphin poured them some wine.

“I bet you’ve been wondering why I called you,” Charles said.

“Only the last miles or so,” Rogé quipped.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know myself. Over the years my troubles have grown and I’m often not sure about the people I’ve surrounded myself with. However, I don’t want to turn into my father who couldn’t trust anyone or anything. Then I remembered how the last time you spoke the truth to me, and that’s why I called you, for a bit of comfort perhaps.”

“How can I be of service?”

“You already have been. Today my armies are made up mostly of professional soldiers, not of levies called up for service. I’ve appointed a strong commander and trained an officer core to obey. I’ve also followed your suggestion of promoting cannons and achieved some success with them. But I still have troubles. I tried to make peace with Burgundy and offered John the Fearless safe conduct to talk peace, but some of my allies were against it and assassinated him. I was blamed and his son Philip the Good now sides with the English against me. Thus, Paris is gone, Rouen and all of the north with it, deep in enemy hands.” The Dauphin stood up and paced around the room agitated. “Now Orleans is besieged and has been for some time. It’s the key to my remaining kingdom, and if it falls it would force me to flee to Spain. But I dare not commit to a battle with the English and risk it all. So what do I do?”

Rogé didn’t know what to say. What could he say? So he waited. The Dauphin twisted his sleeve in indecision. “I’m King, yet I’m not. How can I be? Rheims in the possession of my enemies. No one would recognize my kingship if I were to be crowned somewhere else. My own mother gave away the title to the English and now with Henry V dead, his infant son Henry VI is to be King of France. How the fates and angels can keep all this convoluted mess in mind is beyond me.” He paused at the mantelpiece, absently picking up a ceramic vase and fingering it.

“Then a strange thing happened to me. A slip of a girl, just seventeen, presented herself to me at Court claiming that she had been sent by God to drive out the English and see me crowned the King of France in Rheims.”

“Jeanne d’Arc. Yes I heard rumors of her on my journey. People hope that she’s who she says she is. People feel it would take an act of God to get rid of the English vermin. The question is, is what she says true?”

“Yes and that’s my dilemma. I want to believe of course, but my wanting likely has colored my judgment. She gave me proof that she is somehow inspired, but are the visions she claims to have received true or false? Proven warriors of great renown swear by her, but there are plenty of others who call her false and her visions lies. She could be a heretic and any victory would be a gift of the Devil, not of God. I don’t know what or who to believe. Still, I hang here by a spider’s thread; my situation is desperate. What should I do?” He paused and turned his eyes on Rogé. “I want you to join the army at Orleans and watch her and tell me what you think. From you I’ll accept an answer.”

“As you wish, Your Highness. But I must warn you I’m not schooled in religious issues and might fail to see true inspiration or deception…”

“Granted. But if she can convince you, then I can add your conviction to my wishes.”

“And if she doesn’t convince me?”

“Then I’m no worse off than before. Now go rest, and I’ll give you a writ tomorrow to present you to my army.” Rogé stood up, gave a slight bow and left. He had a bit of trouble finding his assigned room. The palace was not built square; there were many unexpected angles to the corridors. His steps sounded hollow under the high arched ceilings and it was a bit unnerving not to see anybody. He finally located his room. Gratefully he took his dress boots off, which had pinched his feet swollen from the constant travelling. Pulling off his tunic, shirt and pants, he sat on the bed and tried a prayer but the words didn’t come easily. That’s not good if he was to assess a person touched by God.

Early next morning, Rogé found the Dauphin in his boudoir, still in his bedclothes covered by a robe. Charles was already at work, dictating messages to his Secretary. Seeing Rogé the Dauphin waved him over, dismissing his Secretary.

“Come, help yourself.” The Dauphin gestured toward the table holding an assortment of food. Rogé took some bread, cheese and a boiled egg. While he ate the Dauphin talked.

“Orleans is invested by the English who have the city surrounded with a series of outworks. There’s a gap to the north-east that allows us to send provisions, but only about a third get through while the rest falls into the hands of strong enemy patrols.” He gestured over a map on the wall. “When Jeanne arrived in the city on April 29, her presence lifted the city’s morale. All good but my greatest concern at this point is that she and my commanders are arguing over what’s best to do. She sees it one way and demands action, while my commanders are more cautious. From here, I can’t tell who’s right.” The Dauphin’s eyes lingered over the city on the north bank of the Loire River. Whoever takes and holds the city has command of the Loire Valley and threatens Chinon, the Prince’s residence and Court. “I want you to go, join the city’s defense and see who’s right.”

“Your Highness, this morning I spoke with a messenger who recently came from that city, and he said that this has turned into a religious war of liberation. The inhabitants think so, the rank and file of the common soldiers think so. Surely if she can inspire such spirit and confidence, it’s got to be good.”

“Undoubtedly. But my commanders have written me that they have to keep her from making military mistakes, because everywhere she looks, she wants to attack, regardless of numbers or other prudent considerations. I need the zeal she inspires, but one defeat can lose all that. She must win at all costs or be repudiated. So you can see my problem. Do I support her or look elsewhere?”

“Events will prove her right or wrong.”

“Yes. But can I wait and wager on such a test? So go, look and report back to me.” He picked up a roll of parchment. “This is my authorization of you. It presents you as a Captain with a free hand to come and do as you please.” He picked up another roll with his seal and passed it to Rogé. “Give this to Jean de Brosse, into his hand only. Understand?” Rogé nodded. The Dauphin’s eyes flew over Rogé’s attire. “Do you have your bow with you?”

“Of course, Prince. It’s my claim to fame.” The Dauphin smiled.

“You know I’m truly glad that I heard of you and with a boyish heart I wanted to meet you and you came. You have been most useful to me and I have done nothing to reward you. Do this well and I swear I’ll make you a noble to sit among the nobles.”

“Your Highness, it’s my pleasure to serve you, that’s my reward.”

“Good of you.” Charles’ eyes returned to the table with all the parchments on them. “I’ve gifted you a worthy steed from my own stable. I know you don’t wear armor, but I present you with a helmet with my royal seal to gain you compliance among the army. May God go with you.”

“At your command,” Rogé said, backing away.

“On your way out, send in my Secretary.”

Rogé did so. The Secretary looked at him, his eyes curious.

“You’ve come a long way from the time we first met,” he said then hurried on.

In the courtyard Rogé found a man holding a war steed for him. The horse gear was of the finest workmanship without being overly decorated. Rogé climbed aboard, settled in the saddle and made sure to attach his pack securely behind him. He took the reins and asked for the horse’s name.

“Trouble, my Lord.”

“Well met, Trouble, we’re no strangers to each other then.” He gave him a light nudge and rode off on the north-east road.

Chapter 18

From the Royal residence Rogé rode north-east until he intercepted the Loire River. Using the river as his guide Rogé rode up the valley, passing through villages where he bought food for himself and watered his horse. Contrary to his name, Trouble was an easy mount who enjoyed the outing. He responded well to commands and knew how to place his feet to give a smooth ride.

Several times Rogé encountered troops and wagon trains loaded with provision all heading to Orleans, but his mission was urgent so he didn’t stay with them but pushed on. In Tours, he stayed a day to rest his horse. The town was abuzz with the latest from the siege. It was widely reported that the Burgundian contingent had left the English because of a disagreement between the respective leaders. But Jeanne was on everybody’s lips. By and large people saw her as an agent of God, sent to rid France of the hated English. A few just shook their heads at the foolishness of their neighbors. In the Cathedral of Saint Gatien and in the Basilica of Saint Martin masses were conducted daily for the brave defenders of Orleans and the success of the forces converging to lift the siege. The choirs sang the praises of Jeanne. Mindful that he was heading into danger, Rogé went to confession and received absolution for his sins.

Next morning he continued on. It wasn’t until Blois that he was challenged and an accounting was demanded from him. Rogé showed the Dauphin’s seal, which opened the way for him. After just a short rest he rode on, anxious to reach Orleans. For the most part he found the road deserted, meeting only a few refugees fleeing the trouble up north. They warned of marauding troops and deserters, French and English, foraging for provisions. Rogé passed a number of burnt-out farms that had fallen prey to scavengers. The villages had barricaded themselves behind a ring of fortified wagons and wouldn’t let anyone pass through them. Rogé had to ride around and was lucky if he could buy victuals at inflated prices.

Fields, surrounded by hedges, extended on both sides of the road. Most were neglected, but occasionally a crew of workers were plowing and preparing the soil for seeding. At the appearance of Rogé on the road, they banded together with farm implements ready to defend themselves, watching him suspiciously until he passed out of sight.

The nearer he got to his destination the more spooked people became. Twice Rogé saw herders drive sheep into the forest to keep them safe.

On a deserted stretch of the road, bounded by woods on both sides, Rogé was accosted by three mounted men in front and two behind. It was obvious that they meant to rob him.

Rogé drew his sword and faced the leader. “You English dogs, come taste my steel.”

The leader laughed, riding closer. “We’re not English, we’re Burgundians going home empty handed. They promised rich booty for taking Orleans, but then we were ordered home. So give us your money and valuables and maybe we’ll spare your life.” He was coming closer, still smiling. “Come, come, you can’t prevail against the five of us. Just do as we ask—” He couldn’t finish for Rogé ran him through with his sword. The man fell back over the rump of his horse, his foot caught in the stirrup. The frightened animal ran off, dragging him. Spurring his horse Rogé attacked the nearest and struck at him. The man managed to deflect the blow, the blade sliding along its edge, but it cut deeply into his thigh. Screaming in pain, he dropped his weapon and jerked his horse to the side and galloped away, leaving behind a trail of blood. The remaining three were looking at new odds, suddenly unsure of themselves. The lead man turned and the others followed.

“That’s right, run you dogs and don’t ever show your faces here again.” Rogé cleaned his blade on his saddle cloth and slipped it back in the scabbard. He regretted that he had no time to take out his bow and hazard a shot after the fleeing men. He realized that Trouble had done exactly as directed, and patted the horse’s neck gratefully.

He also recalled Angus of the Crushers often repeated words, “Strike first, catch your enemy off balance and you’ve halfway won. Think a thought too many, and you’re done.” How right he was and how lucky I was that he taught me.

Rogé arrived on the south shore of the Loire, just across from the city of Orleans. Camped there was a large contingent of the French facing the turreted outworks protecting the bridgehead firmly in English hands. The Royal banner of Henry waved tauntingly on the battlements. The French were setting up cannons to bring it down.

After many questions Rogé found Jean de Brosse and delivered the royal letter into his hands. The man read, his mouth silently following his eyes.

“So, the Dauphin trusts you, isn’t that something? He doesn’t trust many people. Very well, if you need my support, you may call on it.”

“Thank you, Sir. How goes the battle?”

“As you would expect. They sit comfortably in their fortification and jeer at us. We sit here looking at them, hoping that supplies arrive in time and it won’t rain.” The General shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll blast them out with cannons, though it’ll take weeks to pound through all that masonry. But they’re trapped between us and the town.”

“What about Jeanne?”

“What can I tell you? Some swear by her, others hope she is real. Certain is that she argues passionately for an attack, regardless of odds. She has the soldiers believing as well as the town folk.”

“But what do you think?”

“I think… that is, I hope she has God’s ears. But I’ve been in the army too long and see the risks in everything she proposes. Still she has personally led attacks against two English strongholds and taken them both. Each time she has risked her life but appeared at critical points to inspire the victories. The town loves her… and raises levies to aid her efforts. The results vouch for her.”

Rogé found a place for himself and his horse. Walking around camp looking at everything, it unnerved him at times to be saluted for his rank. He wasn’t used to such treatment and didn’t feel he deserved it. He had his crossbow on his back and gauged the distance to the English forts, itching to take a shot.

He assessed the situation. On the north side of the Loire was the town of Orleans, its walls intact, the battlements proudly flying the French flag. The Duke of Orleans had been captured by the English at Agincourt fourteen years ago and was still held prisoner by them. The defenses were led by Jean of Dunois whom people called the Bastard of Orleans though Rogé didn’t know why. The English didn’t have sufficient troops to seal off the city completely, so they established strategic strong points around the city and aggressively patrolled the open areas in-between.

The town was connected to the south shore by a bridge that spanned over to the island of Saint Antoine in mid river and then beyond to the fortified gatehouse, known as the Tourelles on the south shore. Somewhat to the fore, two strong points called Saint Augustine and closer, the Boulevard shielded the gatehouse. Both outlying fortifications would have to be taken first in order to attack the English at the gatehouse and then the island in the middle of the river. In the first English attacks some months ago, after yielding the Tourelles and the island, the town defenders retreated to the north shore back into the city but destroyed the rest of the spans closer to the town. Thus the English were trapped between the assembling French forces on the south shore and the town to the north, with nowhere to go. Still, they had a considerable force bottled up in strong positions and it promised to be a tough fight with an uncertain outcome.

On several occasions Rogé caught sight of Jeanne in borrowed armor, riding on a white horse, encouraging the troops, “God is with us, have faith and courage in Him.” He marveled at how strong her voice was, how far it carried. Wherever she went, at the sight of her the soldiers cheered and many crossed themselves. It was certain that she inspired a fire in them making them want to annihilate the hated English.

There was growing confidence because one of the English forts north of the river to the east, known as St. Loup, had been taken and those not killed taken prisoner. Veterans of previous battles were quick to point out that the numbers had been hugely in favor of the French; nonetheless, such realities couldn’t dampen the growing excitement. This local victory allowed easy access to the town so they could be resupplied without risk of being intercepted. Daily more reinforcements arrived, swelling the ranks of the French who were now concentrating on the south side, lining up against the three English strong points, St. Augustine, Boulevard and the formidable gatehouse, the Tourelles.

Jeanne had crossed over to the town and returned the next day with some of the garrison troops and the volunteer civilian militia. With this force she led an attack against the Boulevard, but was rebuffed. Her forces had to retreat in panic, but Jeanne rallied them, and turned on the farther English outwork of St. Augustine. The battle lasted all day, but in the end the French prevailed.

Jeanne was wounded on the foot and had to be taken to Orleans for treatment. However when she heard that in her absence the commanders had postponed any further attacks until the next day, she returned and grabbing a ladder herself, launched a frontal assault against the next obstacle, the Boulevard.

Again she was wounded by an arrow to her shoulder and had to be taken away. The English were encouraged that the “witch” was defeated. It was said that Jeanne pulled out the arrow herself, and wounded or not, returned to inspire a further assault. After a desperate fight, the English remnant retreated into the final fortification, the Tourelles. It was at this point that Rogé had arrived on the scene, finding the French preparing to take this last English stronghold on the south shore.

Rogé sought out the archers, finding them a mixed lot of French, Genoese, Scottish and Spanish. They were led by a German Konrad Fitzwald, who had distinguished himself in the successful defense of Montargis the previous year.

“Who’re you?” the German demanded of Rogé.

“I’m Rogé Durant, an archer as you can see.” Rogé brandished his crossbow.

“You can’t be,” the German insisted. “Rogé Durant is a giant of a man, you’re not half his size.”

“I fear my reputation has outgrown me,” Rogé replied. However his name had caused quite a stir among the archers, as everyone had heard of the man who couldn’t miss. “I’ve been made Captain by the Dauphin and carry his royal seal on my helmet.”

“Welcome then, Rogé Durant, we’re pleased to have you,” Konrad said. “We’ve been successful so far—we have the rats trapped in the bridge house. The town folk have repaired the bridge on their side so we’ll attack them from both sides. Our task is to clear the battlements of archers.” Konrad positioned his men to range on the fortification. To the north a continuous cannonading pounded the walls, the iron balls smashing into the stonework. A veil of smoked drifted over the scene.

“Who’s the English commander?” Rogé asked.

“Glasdale… but the last we heard was that he died. The drawbridge collapsed under the weight of their retreat and he fell into the Loire and drowned. Who’s leading them now is anybody’s guess.”

Rogé found the fletcher and chose another quiverful of bolts. Then he looked for a good shooting position. Along the river’s edge Rogé settled on a spot with a good sight line to the east towers of the bridge house. Seeing a nearby peasant lugging a full size pavise, Rogé called to him. “Where’s your archer?”

“He died. A stone smashed in his head,” the man said, wrestling the full-length shield around.

“Well then, go in front of me so I can get closer,” Rogé directed and together, protected by the shield, they moved toward the fortification. Rogé found a good spot and had the man stand, holding the shield for them. Rogé crouched behind the protection, cocked and set his bolt. Through a spy hole in the shield he watched the battlement above. He found a number of men-at-arms on the parapet. He stepped from behind the shield, raised his bow and took aim. He shot and saw the quarrel bore into the gap in the armor below the chinstrap. The man fell back, disappearing from view. Rogé crouched down behind the pavise to reload in safety. He peered through the hole again, choosing his next target. He got an archer in the neck and he fell away too. One by one he took down the men standing above, some falling inward, some out into the depths below.

A couple of arrows hit the shield, piercing the layers of hardwood slats. “The Devil take them!” the peasant swore; one of the arrows had nicked his arm. Rogé quickly bound the wound.

“What’s your name?”

“Macon, my Lord,” the man said, sucking his breath through his teeth, the wound troubling him.

“I’m no Lord. I’m a simple archer. I shoot, you hold the shield for both of us.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Rogé searched the battlements. He saw some common soldiers up there on the parapet but mindful of his shrinking number of quarrels, he was looking for someone in command. A stone hit the pavise sharply and shattered into fragments. Macon swore, wiping dust out of his eyes. Rogé found the slinger hiding behind a merlon, readying the next throw. A stone hit them again, and this time Rogé swore. He gritted his teeth, aimed his bow and shot just as the slinger stepped into the crenel between the merlons. The quarrel caught him in the throat just above the boiled-leather gorget and he too disappeared.

“Good shooting, my Lord.”

“I’m no damned Lord. Just an archer.”

“And a good one at that.”

A clay pot flew above them, striking somewhat behind. The clay shattered and spewed burning oil and resin around. Two men-at-arms screamed as the fire engulfed them. Their companions tried dousing the flames, but the resin burned in spite of the water thrown at it. A sickening odor of burned flesh filled the air.

“Come, let’s move,” Rogé said, leading to the right, but the smell followed him. They set up in the lee of an overturned wagon. For a moment they relaxed. Something landed near them.

Macon swore again, “The shit-eating bastards.”

“What is it?” Rogé asked. Macon pointed. Following his finger, Rogé found an eviscerated cat not two steps away. A mess of flies had already found the remains and a dog came nosing it.

“Shit!” Rogé spat. “Let’s move again.” They sidestepped further right until they came to a barricade made from barrel staves. There was a pleasant smell of wine coming from the oak.

“Macon, go find us something to drink. I haven’t had anything since morning.”

Macon left, running and zigzagging out of range of the English archers. Two soldiers in bright chainmail also took shelter behind the barricade. One took out a sausage and bread and broke off pieces which he handed around.

“Thanks,” Rogé said, realizing just how hungry he was. Where’s Macon? He should’ve been back by now. But there was no sign of him. Some troops were collecting further back, but it was unclear what their intention was. A steady rain of arrows pelted the staves, encouraging them to keep their heads down. One arrow got through and nailed one of the two through the foot. He cried out in pain, then cursed, “May the ravens peck out his damned eyes… dogs eat his entrails and foxes chew on his bones…” He went on for quite a bit, stopping only when his companion broke off the back of the arrow, then with a jerk pulled the front out. “You diseased son of a whore, did you have to be so rough??!”

A large stone the size of a chest sailed by overhead, landed and skipped along the ground, gouging the soil. The troop scattered as the stone cut a swath through those who reacted too slowly. A trebuchet had found their range. Time to move! Where was Macon? Not daring to wait any longer, Rogé skirted some earthworks where diggers were tunneling to reach the walls and perchance collapse them. From behind a mound of excavated earth, he shot twice, hitting each time.

To the west the canons were firing; to the east four trebuchets were slinging stones and fire pots. Occasionally a burning mass of tightly wound straw soaked with pitch drew a flaming trail across the sky, bursting into an explosion of fire as they hit a tower or the inner works. Smoke was everywhere, din everywhere. Now and then a trumpet or a horn sounded, without any visible purpose.

Rogé had only one bolt left. He peeked over the crest of the mound looking for a worthwhile target on the wall. He saw a Captain up there in full armor, issuing commands. Rogé had him in his sight, but couldn’t find a spot to penetrate the cleverly designed armor. Even the eye slits were protected.

“Come on you filthy vermin, give me a target,” Rogé muttered in frustration as he tracked the man along the wall, hoping for a chance. When the Captain turned his head, Rogé found his opportunity and shot, the bolt piercing through the ear hole. The knight fell, his companions bending over him, but there was no question that he was dead.

“Good shooting,” a voice called behind Rogé. He turned and found Jeanne on her steed holding her battle banner, her face alight with passion. Rogé, feeling a shudder pass through his spine, didn’t know what to think. She moved off, arrows from above raining down all around her, missing her. But one found her horse which collapsed, trapping Jeanne beneath his weight. Rogé ran to her and with four others, pulled her free.

“Thank you, brothers. Today you’re doing God’s work.” She picked up her banner and mounted another horse a rider offered her. She rode off, encouraging the men around her.

“Holy Mother of God, please protect her,” a Lieutenant of the foot soldiers near Rogé muttered. Coming upon a dead crossbowman Rogé collected the archer’s remaining bolts. Standing behind a willow, he stepped out to shoot, hitting someone every time.

A trumpet sounded, joined by others and the great mass of soldiers with scaling ladders raced toward the wall. Reaching it, they set the ladders and yelling and screaming, they climbed, desperate to reach the top. Above the English defended with everything they had; rocks, quicklime, burning oil and of course, a hail of arrows. Still, the French –Scottish mix of troops pressed on, trying to reach the parapet. At times they succeeded, but a determined counterattack cleared them again. Trumpets blew, “attack, attack, attack…” drum rolls adding the needed urgency.

Some barges floated down the river aflame, hoping to set the gate house on fire. Somewhere tunnels were collapsed to bring down the walls. In such places the stonework cracked but didn’t fail entirely. Then from both sides the assault began anew and a fresh tide of soldiers rushed the walls and scrambled up ladders attempting to breach the top.

Rogé shot until his quiver was empty again. He slung his bow onto his back, drew his sword and joined the press toward the foot of the wall. On a small knoll Jeanne stood in her stirrups, calling out encouragement. Then she burst into a church song, praising God. The soldiers cheered around her, yelling, “Forward, forward!” There was a great congestion at the base of the wall. Everyone was yelling, trying to reach the ladders.

Having to step over fallen bodies, Rogé, with one hand, grabbed a ladder, and stepped on the next rung. A man fell from above, his head split open. Rogé yelled to keep the terror out of his mind, and took the next step up. All around men, like ants, were swarming up the wall, yelling battle cries, calling on Saint Martin or Saint Denis. Another body fell by him, spraying him with blood. Then a severed arm hit him across the face and for an instant he was blinded. He howled in rage and pushed himself upward. A spear jabbed him from below as those following pushed upward. There were only two men above him, soon he would be next. With one hand he grasped his sword, with the other he pulled himself up another rung. He didn’t reach the top; the man above him fell taking him down too. He fell twisting in the air, screaming. With a sickening crunch he hit bottom and felt his bones break. The pain was excruciating but his screams were lost in the general tumult. Then as he lost consciousness, the last thing he heard was a voice singing a hymn to God.

Chapter 19

With a shudder Rogé came to. He felt pain in his left side where he had hit the ground and couldn’t move his arm and leg. He groaned as he looked around for help. He was in a tent, with six other soldiers on cots. One was definitely dead, another close to it, the blood draining out of him drop by drop. Rogé stifled a groan; at least he was still alive. How badly am I hurt? He tried to move and only managed to do so on the right side; on the left he was stopped by pain. He was so thirsty that his mouth felt like a sand pit and it hurt his throat even to moan. Have we won? Or am I a prisoner? Weakly he called out, “Aidez-moi…” but no one answered.

Two men came and took the dead away then brought in two more wounded. Rogé groaned but they ignored him. The man beside him was in his undershirt covered in blood, his breath wheezing with every exhalation. His eyes were wide with shock and he was trying to find something to focus on. He found Rogé’s eyes and unblinking, he stared into them.

“Did we win?” Rogé croaked.

“Against the English… yes. But I’m losing to Death…” His voice fluttered, and blood seeped from his mouth at every word.

Rogé closed his eyes, content with his injuries. They hurt too much for him to be dying.

Finally someone came to look at him. He prodded Rogé’s body to locate his injuries. He cut away the sleeve and his pants on the left side, washed him and put splints around his leg and arm. Then with someone else he tied the splints firmly with bandages. It eased his pain somewhat.

Later still, someone lifted a wine skin to his lips which he lapped thirstily at. Finally he fell asleep, waking in the night having to piss. “Aidez-moi…” he wheezed, but there was no one to answer. Finally he peed, groaning with shame as he did so.

Beside him the man with the chest wound was breathing his last. The air rattled in his throat. Then the greaves still on his legs clanked once and there was no more sound from him. Rogé begged for sleep to take him from this nightmare. And it did.

When he awoke, it was light, the tent above him aglow with the sunshine. A man came to wash his face and another gave him water to drink. One dead man was taken away. A monk came with a bowl and spoon-fed Rogé something lukewarm. Rogé slurped it down, his body begging for nourishment. The monk wiped his lips and chin, then moved on.

“Wait… wait,” Rogé called after him weakly. “What’s wrong with me?”

The monk looked back. “I don’t know. Pray to God to heal you.”

Hours later someone looked at his arm and leg. He didn’t do much, but sniffed at the wound to see if the rotting-sickness had set in. He too left without saying anything. Rogé had to pee again and was forced to let it go on his cot. He smelled the sweat of dried-on terror on himself.

Midday a group of commanders entered the tent. Rogé only recognized Jean de Brosse. Behind them came Jeanne, pausing beside each cot, saying something softly to each. Beside the dead man she knelt and offered up a prayer. Afterward she traced the sign of the cross on the dead man’s forehead. Reaching Rogé she leaned over him, peering in his face. “I recognize you… you’re that archer… and now you’re wounded.” She reached out and laid her hands on his chest. “Please God, take away his pain and heal this man.” She moved on to minister to the next cot. Rogé suddenly felt his pain diminish and offered up a prayer of thanks.

Maybe she’s a messenger of God, an angel sent to liberate us from the curse of the English. Maybe she’s all what people claim her to be… Maybe she’s who she says she is… or maybe just a simple farm girl filled with the hopes of a nation sick of the heavy hand of England. What do I tell the Dauphin?

Jean de Brosse lingered by Rogé. He waved an attendant over and said, “Take care of this man. The Dauphin needs him.”

As the more lightly wounded were brought in, they confirmed the victory. “We’ve taken the gatehouse and linked up with the town. The English are either dead or prisoners,” exulted a soldier, his tunic caked with blood, one eye bandaged.

“How many of us were killed or wounded?”

“Don’t know the numbers, but there was a mountain of bodies piled up. I saw with my one good eye.”

“What happened to you?”

“Burning pitch on the left side of my face. By the time I smothered it, my eyeball burst…”

Then two men arrived, loaded Rogé onto a stretcher and carried him outside. They laid him on an open field where hundreds lay already, some moaning, others just staring woodenly around them. On the next field they were piling up the dead, as was said, a mountain of them. Were they all French or mixed with the enemy? A drunken soldier, half his armor hanging off him, stumbled by, singing a ribald song. Another pikeman was going from one wounded to another, helping them to drink from a wineskin. Rogé hoped that the man would come toward him. Then someone approached, looking for someone named Armand among the wounded.

The stretcher bearers came again and off loaded a man who seemed not to be wounded too badly.

“What’s wrong with you?” Rogé asked, seeing him covered in soot.

“What?? hat??” The whites of his eyes gleamed oddly in his darkened face. “Can’t hear you… or anything. I’m with the artillery… loading the cannon. On the eighth shot it burst and killed half the crew. The explosion made me deaf. I just hear ringing… and buzzing…”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The next man had his left hand bandaged but nothing else, other than a light blood spatter on his tunic. He turned out to be a Scot who spoke with a heavy accent. “I was on the third ladder by the east tower. People were falling in front of me, while those below pushed on. I had a shield I held above my head and had broad knife in my mouth as I scrambled upward. I was nearly on top, face to face with a monster of a man, swinging a huge war hammer. His first hit smashed my shield and hand, but I got the knife into him… right into his belly and he fell backward off the wall. But the next English was on me, and sent me backward and I fell… taking two more below me. We hit, and the one in the bottom had his chest busted and couldn’t get his breath and died right there. But he broke our fall, and the two of us walked away…”

“I fell too,” Rogé said. “And do you know what I worried about? That I would land on a spear… Luckily I didn’t, but broke an arm and a leg.”

“What? What?” the artillery man asked on the other side, looking from one to the other.

Eventually a thin broth was passed out to the wounded. Those who could, ate, others had to be helped or went hungry. Rogé held the bowl in his right hand and drank from it. The night was long, filled with moans and groaning. Then their clothes got soaked by the dew, and Rogé shivered until mid morning when the sun burned the chill off.

Rogé wondered where his sword and bow were, and his horse Trouble.

Late morning a medical man looked Rogé over. He unbound the arm first, then washed it, careful not to move it any. Still Rogé hissed in pain as he felt the loose bones grate against each other. Using better splints, the medic and his assistant rebound the arm. They did the same with the leg. Then the doctor pulled up Rogé’s tunic and undershirt and probed along the ribs, pausing at one spot. His fingers were gentle, but still Rogé moaned with a sudden stab of pain.

“Is the rib busted?” the assistant asked.

“No, he was stabbed,” the other answered, cleaning the wound. “Not deeply, but we’d better get him away from all this dirt.”

Stabbed??! With what? And how? Rogé couldn’t remember receiving the wound. “Am I going to be all right?”

“Sure, sure… But just to be sure, we’ll ship you down the river to Blois where they can take better care of you.” The doctor waved two stretcher bearers over and had them pick Rogé up. “Take him to the barge going south.”

The man in front was taller and the strides didn’t match, jarring Rogé every so often. He bit his lips to keep the pain inside. All around troops were milling about, some resting by the fire, others listless, licking their wounds so to speak. Some of the tents were being dismantled and loaded onto wagons. A warhorse neighed in protest as his rider cleaned a wound on his flank. The place stank of sweat, gore and excrement. Dirty and disheveled people didn’t even look like soldiers anymore. Many wore blood stained clothes, but since they were walking about, it had to be someone else’s blood. Then clean and neat, a herald was inspecting the troops, recording who had survived and who had fallen.

Suddenly the wonderful smell of fresh baked bread masked all other smells, filling Rogé with an instant need for some. As were the stretcher bearers, who set Rogé down abruptly to join the throng pushing and shoving around an oven on wheels. The front man managed to wrestle some out of grasping hands, and he shared it with his partner, giving a pinch to Rogé. That one mouthful tasted indescribably good… better than a feast… better even than… well, just better.

With many jolts and bumps, they reached the river and Rogé was carried aboard one of the barges lining the shore. All around, hundreds of wounded were being loaded. To the side under a willow was a pile of those who had only made it this far.

The barge shoved off, the crew poling the boat into the current. It was a smooth, easy ride allowing Rogé finally to relax. His injuries were still hurting, but not enough to push other thoughts aside. He turned to his neighbor and asked, “How’s the army doing?”

“We’re doing well, but I can’t say the same for the English. We cleared out the south bank, killed them or took them prisoner. Then we crossed the river, lined up on one side with the English from the last strong points facing us, and we stared at each other, doing nothing for an hour. Then without saying so much as a fare you well, the English retreated without an arrow being fired. I was there and got trampled on by a warhorse impatient to do battle.”

“So then the siege is lifted?”

“It was lifted when we took the south shore of the river and opened a clear way into the city. After that it made little sense for the English to stick around.”

The river took them south at a leisurely pace. There were other boats and barges within sight, heading downstream. Here and there charred timbers from the rubble of the Tourelles floated by, and now and then the corpse of a man. His face screwed up in distaste, one of the crew pushed it away from the barge with his pole.

It was nightfall when they reached Blois and the wounded were unloaded. The dock-master was tearing at his hair, trying to find places for them. The town was already full with the debris of the battle to the north. “The Abbey can’t take any more. The Town Hall and Guildhall are already bursting with the injured. All churches and the threshing barns are full. People took them into their own houses, but what do I do with still so many coming…?”

Finally, Rogé was taken to the nunnery of Saint Agnes just three miles from the town. The infirmary was already full with cots but one was found for him. There were about forty or fifty others all jammed together. Candles on wrought iron stands gave an uncertain illumination. An older nun, her face a set mask, undressed Rogé and washed him. She didn’t touch his bound arm and leg, but took pains with his stab wound. Rogé felt ashamed to be naked in front of her but she gave no sign of her feelings. Very gently she rubbed some ointment over his wound that stung, but eased the itching that had bothered him all day. As her hand ministered to him, she was muttering prayers in Latin. To his surprise Rogé mumbled the prayer with her, remembering if from the Priory of Saint Martin. When she finished, she covered him with a woolen blanket, took his soiled clothes and moved on.

Right after a younger nun, most likely a novice, came with a pot of hot soup and spoon fed him, wiping his chin of anything spilled. She too was praying. The soup tasted very good and he wanted more than she gave him. “It’s better not to eat too much at once,” she said keeping her voice to a whisper. Half an hour later, Rogé’s stomach felt unsettled from the rich broth and he had to give her credit for her wisdom.

The night passed uncomfortably, with Rogé waking every hour. Twice he needed to urinate, having to motion for the nun with the chamber pot. He blushed as he did his business in her hearing.

In the daylight, some of the congestion was relieved when a third of the wounded were taken to a cleaned up store room. It was a lot easier for the nuns to move between the cots. Rogé was washed again, given a long undershirt, and fed a thin broth and bread. A novice trimmed his beard that had grown since leaving the royal residence in Chinon. She too was praying as she worked; Rogé figured they had all been ordered to do so, not permitted to speak beyond the most necessary. It must be quite a shock for cloistered nuns to be overrun with so many men… but it was their Christian duty to minister to the needs of the injured.

A big man lay next to Rogé, with both legs bandaged.

“Broke them when the tunnel we were digging collapsed. And that was a scant ten feet from the wall. A week of digging gone to waste in an eye blink. But I was lucky, five others didn’t make it out and got buried there. They didn’t even bother to dig them out, just had the priest sprinkle holy water around the hole and pray over them.”

“I was climbing the ladder and was nearly at the top when the man above me fell and took me down with him. Broke an arm and leg and got stabbed. I guess I was lucky too, after falling forty feet.”

“In war you can be brave all you like, but if your luck runs out then bravery will count for little. I’ve seen more people die in this one battle than in my whole life. And that’s after the plague nearly wiped out my village.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Rogé said, his mood plummeting. “At Agincourt.”

“You were at Agincourt?” the other asked. “Then you must be twice lucky.”

“Something like that.” But he was thinking, another cat-life lost, just how many did he have left?

In the afternoon a doctor came to look him over, prodding here and there, and sniffing the bandages. In the end he only said, “You’ll be all right.” Then he moved on to the next cot.

“My name is Rene,” the miner said, nodding to Rogé.

“I’m called Rogé from Vienne on the Rhône.”

“Vienne? Isn’t that the place…? Maybe you know the man who shot the eye out at a hundred paces.”

“That was a thumb ring at a hundred paces.”

“And you saw it?”

“Yes, I saw it and can swear it’s true.”

“I’ve heard about that for years. In my village we used to have archery contests after church, but only at twenty, thirty paces. After hearing about the hundred paces, we sort of gave it up. Some said it couldn’t be true, that it was all made up.”

“I was there to see it.”

A man came to look at Rene’s legs. He spent some time re-bandaging them, careful not to cause pain. Afterwards he turned his attention to Rogé and examined him in great detail. He was very gentle, an expert at bandaging.

“You’re healing well,” he said, and moved on.

“Was he a doctor?” Rogé asked.

“My goodness, no. He’s the local barber who does hair, teeth, setting of bones, fixing horses and minor surgeries. He’s better than a doctor… who only looks at your urine and bleeds you.”

Rogé stayed at the nunnery for five days. His injuries no longer pained him, but his rib was still tender. He was tired of lying in bed, but there wasn’t much else he could do. He and Rene played dice for imaginary money.

“I won again,” Rene exulted after a fortunate throw. “And now you owe me six Ducats, two Florins and eight Louises…”

Rogé asked for paper and a stick of lead to write his family a letter, which he hoped the post would deliver. After that, many came to him, asking him to write to their people.

“But if your father can’t read, how will he know what I’ve written?”

“He’ll ask the priest or the village clerk to read it to him.”

On the sixth day a man presented himself saying, “I’m charged by Monsieur Abelard to bring you to Chinon.”

“I don’t think I know the Monsieur…”

“He’s one of the Royal Ministers. I have a cart waiting outside.”

There was the minor problem that Rogé had no clothes, only the long undershirt he had been given. In the end he wrapped himself in a blanket.

“Rene, take care of yourself and if you’re ever in Vienne…”

“And if you are by chance near Saint-Germain, come and see me…”

Two men laid Rogé on a bed of cushions in a wheelbarrow and pushed him outside. They loaded him onto a farm wagon filled with straw for the short stretch to the Loire. There a barge was waiting with the crew ready. They set him up in a tent, but he asked the sides to be raised, so he could see. The barge pushed off, and floated downstream.

It took them three days, passing Tours and reaching the confluence where La Vienne joined the Loire. From there another half day poling up river to reach Chinon. On shore a sedan chair was waiting for Rogé, carried by four men to the royal palace. In a side room, a clerk had a barber cut his hair and beard, a maid came to wash him, then a suit of clothes was procured for him. When he was presentable, he was wheeled into the waiting room of Monsieur Abelard. He turned out to be a portly man with thinning frosted hair, who talked too fast and was constantly gesturing.

“Come, come, His Royal Highness is waiting.”

He was wheeled down a long corridor filled with frescoes and wall hangings. They entered a side room that was painted sky blue. It was empty… well not quite.

“Monsieur Durant, it’s good to see you.” The Dauphin stepped out of the wall dressed in the exact sky blue of the paint. “Ah, I surprised you, no?” He smiled with pleasure at his stunt.

“Most surprised, Your Highness,” Rogé answered.

The Dauphin’s eyes turned serious. “I’m sorry to see you in this state. I sent you for information, not to take part in a battle.”

“I’m sorry Your Highness, but Jeanne has little use for those who do not fight.”

“Well?” The Royal brows rose questioningly. “What did you find out?”

“Not much, I fear. I can say little about divine guidance, beyond that she believes it. And because she’s so inspired, the soldiers around her are inspired too and follow her without question. She’s fearless, believing it’s her avowed destiny to rid France of the English and have you crowned in Rheims.”

“This I know from other sources; have you nothing new to add?”

“My Lord, when I see her, so fearless in battle, facing the enemy and a rain of arrows, singing hymns to God, I believe… and those around believe also. She was wounded once with an arrow in the shoulder that she pulled out herself, then she returned to the front to wave her banner and lead the attack. In her presence it’s hard not to believe. Her countenance shines with an unearthly glow and her eyes are alight with determination. I can’t prove she is or she isn’t God inspired, but the results must indicate something…”

“My generals tell me that given the number of troops we had, we would have won in any case.”

“Possibly true. But it’s also true that at Agincourt we outnumbered the English three, four to one and still lost. Why? Because of leadership. Thus far, Jeanne has shown that she can lead. More I don’t know.”

Frowning, the Dauphin walked up and down the room, his face reflecting his indecision. “Believe me, it’s tempting for me to think she was sent by God to crown me the rightful King of France. She promises me that… yet everyone around me whispers about her being a charlatan, or even worse a witch. Who am I to believe? Her or them? Who really has the ear of God?”

“It doesn’t matter as long as she wins and helps you onto the throne. When the wind blows your way, why not make use of it and turn your sail in that direction?”

“You’re right. I’ll shut my ears against the gainsayers and let Jeanne fulfill her destiny as she sees it. I thank you for your honest advice.” The Prince walked to the window and looked outside, lost in thought. Rogé was beginning to think that the Dauphin had forgotten him when the Prince turned around. “Again, you’ve done me good service. However, I won’t invite you to Court and expose you to the poison tongues and conspiracies there. Believe me in Court it is nigh impossible to make friends, all the easier to make enemies. But know this, I shall think of you and fondly recall our meetings. I’ve instructed Abelard to take good care of you as you heal. Then you may return home.”

“Thank you, Your Royal Highness.”

“Abelard has let it be known that you’re just a messenger from General Jean de Brosse. That will give you an inoffensive reason for your presence in the palace. I’ll ask the Treasurer to reimburse you for your expenses. More, I fear I can’t do.” The Dauphin walked to a sky blue chair, in a sky blue room and disappeared into it.

Bowing lightly, Rogé wheeled himself out of the room. In the waiting room, a servant pushed him back into the room assigned to him. For the next days, Rogé ate food delivered to his room from the royal table and drank quality wine. The rest of the time he read rare books that Abelard sent him or watched the back garden from the window. There was lawn bowling or tennis to distract him, or couples walking the garden path. Still after two weeks, he was tired of being shut up, eager to be rid of his cast. The doctor came and removed the support from his arm so he could at least use his two hands again. But the leg had to wait, not ready to take his weight yet.

Abelard’s page sometimes spent time with Rogé, playing draughts or chess, talking all the while. He was quite a gossip and could relate many tales of lords and ladies of the Court; who was in favor, who was out. From him Rogé learned that Jeanne had received royal approval to use command authority. So it seemed that the Dauphin had finally made up his mind.

The days turned into weeks and the weeks overflowed into months. Rogé was ready to leave his room but Abelard advised against it. “You’re only good to the Dauphin if people don’t know of your connection to him. That’s why we’re keeping you out of sight. Were you not injured, you would have long been on your way home.”

Often Rogé dwelt upon his Vienne, Roman Wells, acutely missing his wife and children. He wondered what Clod was doing and how this year’s grapes looked. He spent some time envisioning projects for his estate, such as adding a new olive press as there were many olive trees in the neighborhood. He wanted to enlarge the dovecote and build a new bathhouse with a tub big enough for two. Otherwise he read and watched from the window. From his view above, the Court with the courtesans and the courtiers looked to be a gay affair, vibrant with color, restless and no doubt affected. But he couldn’t see the competition for recognition and fawning for favors. He found himself sleeping a lot, even in the daytime and worried that the prolonged inactivity was adding to his weight.

One night he was having another dream of home, then getting lost in the past with himself, Clod and Avril on the road, roughing it. Avril was cooking something on the fire that Clod had caught. They ate and called it a night. In the cold air, Avril snuggled close to him, breathing lightly on the back of his neck.

Rogé awoke in the darkness of the room, desperately wishing to be back in the dream. He had a stiffy and that bothered him no end. He sniffed the air and could almost smell her. He grew even stiffer and growled, irritated. He would have to go home soon or go crazy. The doctor promised him that the leg cast would come off in the morning. After he would have to rest it, and build up his strength before he could return home. “It was broken in four places and had to be reset twice.”

He turned over and startled, he recoiled. There was something or someone in the bed with him! “What the hell??!” He tried to back away, nearly falling out of the bed.

“It’s all right, it’s only me,” Avril’s voice said in the darkness. Am I dreaming??! But it was she.

“But… but how?”

“I arrived late in the night, but you were already sleeping, so I climbed in with you. Aren’t you happy to see me?”

“Of course I am… but you … startled me.”

“I didn’t want to wake you. You need your sleep to get strong so we can return home.”

“Yes, yes, of course… but still… you gave me a fright.”

“What? Afraid that some loose Court woman had climbed into your bed to do unseemly things with you?” she asked in a lightly mocking tone.

“Yes, something like that. At Court, people jump in and out of each other’s beds.”

“It disturbs me that you would know such things…”

“No, no… it’s not what you think. I heard it from Jacques, the page who plays chess with me.”

“I see,” she said, but her tone was suspicious.

“For God’s sake, I have a cast on my leg.”

“And you have a cast on your short leg?”

“That no,” he said. “But… but… Let’s not argue and split hairs. Let me enjoy that you’re here. You must have gotten my letters. I hope you weren’t worried.”

“I was. Both your letters sounded sad and moody.”

“I sent you four.”

“I only got two.”

“Well no matter, you’re here. Did you bring our children with you?”

“No. Left them with Cloe. I hope you don’t intend to stay much longer; we need to get back to them.”

“I agree. The cast is coming off tomorrow. The doctor advises me to do light exercises for a week before I can undertake anything strenuous. Then we can go home.” He put his arms around her and drew her to him. “I’m very glad you’re here. By the way, who else knows you’re here?”

“A guard or two and somebody called Abelard. Is that a problem?”

“Not really, but I’m supposed to keep out of sight.”

Next morning the maid brought a sumptuous breakfast for two. She set the table, and curtsied. “With the compliments of Lord Abelard for the Lord and the Lady.” And she hurried away.

“Did she call me a Lady?” Avril asked.

“That’s the way it is at Court. It’s safer for a servant to bestow titles than to ignore them.”

Avril had some fresh bread with whipped butter and honey, fresh milk and early strawberries. There were cheeses and cold cuts on the table and a wide assortment of pastries. “Have you been eating this well the whole time? No wonder you weren’t in a hurry to get home.”

“My dear, without you it all tastes sour.”

“So you say.” But she was smiling.

In the course of the morning the doctor arrived with his assistant. They made short work of the cast and after an extensive leg massage, they had Rogé stand and try a few steps. Those first steps were awkward and uncoordinated, but in about half an hour he was able to move around quite well. Still it was tiring and he had to rest often.

Later in the day Jacques appeared with a scripted invitation for Monsieur and Madame Durant to attend the Dauphin’s supper the following evening.

“I thought you said you were to remain unseen,” Avril said, knitting her brows.

“So I was advised. But who can tell? There are many winds that blow in Court.”

“But I can’t go,” Avril said alarmed. “Look at me, I’m dressed for traveling not for a dinner party.”

“All the same we have to go. Even if we were both naked, we would still have to go.” But it remained a problem that worried them both.

Near evening, a woman appeared with a silk dress that she measured against Avril. “Just the right color to match my Lady’s eyes. With a tiny bit of alteration the dress will fit, like a hand into a glove.” Abelard had again taken care of things.

The next evening, all dressed in their finery, Rogé and Avril appeared and were announced at the door of the royal dining room. Self-consciously they followed the page who led them to their places. Rogé was limping slightly, using a cane for support.

A long table stretched along the entire room, loaded with fine ceramics and crystal glass. There were candles everywhere, turning the night into daylight. Avril looked very current in a light apricot colored dress and a neck pendant that Abelard had lent her. They were seated at the lower end beside a countess and her Chevalier consort. After the curtest of nods, the older couple ignored the young people, paying attention only to the higher end of the table.

“Why were we invited?” Avril whispered.

“I’m not sure, but I guess that the Prince wanted to look at you.”

“Me? The Dauphin? Why?”

“Who knows why a Prince does what he does? His wishes are a command to the rest of us. He heard about me and sent for me, remember?”

A host of servers brought a long succession of platters from which one took whatever caught one’s fancy. In spite of the fine selection of foods, neither Avril or Rogé felt any hunger and often waved the offerings away. There was only a light murmur around the table, and the only laughter was around the Dauphin. But the whole room listened avidly to every word that was exchanged there, calculating the implications.

At long last, the Prince rose and led them into an adjoining sitting room with many upholstered chairs and sofas. People sat or stood about conversing with each other. Rogé’s keen eyes perceived a certain ordering to the room, those favored close to the Prince, those less, farther away. And though people talked just as at dinner, there was only one conversation that people were really listening to. He made sure that he and Avril didn’t stray into zones not meant for them. Much later in the evening, the Dauphin walked through the room stopping to have a few words with everyone. He paused in front of Rogé and Avril; she blushed and curtsied to him.

“Ah Rogé, your wife?” Avril curtsied again; Rogé just nodded. “Very pretty,” the Dauphin said with a gracious smile. Then turning serious he looked back at Rogé. “I’ve just had news from the east. The army took Jargeau and cleared out the south bank of the Loire. It’s seems you were right.”

“I’m most glad to hear it. I shudder to think about being wrong.”

“Then my dear Rogé, we would’ve had to throw you in the dungeon and forget where we put the key,” the Dauphin said in a mock severe tone but his eyes were laughing. “I understand you’re starting home tomorrow.” Rogé inclined his head. “Well the best of luck to both of you.” He soon moved on, but already many hostile looks inspected the two nobodies. What was such riffraff doing at the Prince’s table, stealing his time?

“I can’t believe that the King of France spoke to me,” Avril said, still breathless.

“The future King. We still have a long way to go before he can be crowned.”

The evening finally broke up and gratefully, Rogé and Avril went back to their room. Rogé sat down on the bed and let out a huge sigh. His left leg felt tired even after such light use. Avril got down on her knees and helped him out of his boots, then she took off her borrowed dress and jewelry, folding it carefully over the chair.

“I’m not sure I want to be invited again. Have you noticed how people were looking down their noses at us?”

“Of course, my dear. They were putting us in our place. Such is the life at Court.”

It was hard to settle down after the excitement of the evening. Again and again, Avril made a comment.

“I think the Queen looked especially lovely, don’t you think?”

“That wasn’t the Queen. That was Countess Beauregard, the mistress of the Prince.”

“So… public?” She was taken aback.

“Such is life at Court.” Rogé shrugged. “The Queen isn’t a looker, rather a drab person who’s fascinated with astrology, and won’t move without the sanction of the stars. No doubt she has her own beau among the tight circle of her friends.”

“I’ve seen soldiers act like rutting pigs, why should nobles be any different? It was just… that I had higher expectations of them.”

“It really is a dog eat dog world at Court,” Rogé said. “I don’t envy the Dauphin.”

“Still… He’s the head of everything, what he thinks matters, what he says matters. Yet the chaos you see around him is partly his fault.”

“How so?”

“He sets the tone and allows willy-nilly what’s happening. The rest take their cue from him.”

“Hmm.” Rogé struggled with the thought.

In the morning there was only Abelard to see them off. He passed over a small purse, smiling oddly. “With the compliment of the Dauphin.” Then he waved and some servants brought over two saddled horses for them. “Again, with compliments.”

“Be sure to tell the Prince how much we appreciate his thoughtfulness,” Rogé said, even with assistance finding it difficult to settle into the saddle. With reins firmly in hand, they started off.

Soon they were out of the town on the road heading northeast. Rogé noted that there was a sword hanging from the pommel and a crossbow behind. There was also a leather satchel filled with food and two bottles of fine wine. Avril discovered the apricot dress in her pack.

“The Prince is very generous…” she said over and over again.

“He is, but I’m glad to be out of there. I can’t wait to get home to hold my children.”

“Me neither.” And she lightly spurred her horse. Rogé followed suit.

“You know I don’t even know the horse’s name,” she said, somewhat later as they let the animals drink from a clear stream. Rogé passed her an apple and took a big bite from his. A pleasantly fresh sweet taste filled his mouth.

“I suspect that among the things in your pack you might find a name as well.”

“I hope so.” She frowned. “I still can’t understand it. A Prince can’t possibly be so generous to the likes of us. He’d bankrupt his treasury.”

“It does make you wonder,” Rogé said but didn’t explain. His horse was steady, used to walking a well-marked road, not needing direction so his feet could relax.

For the night they stopped at a village, halfway to Tours.

Chapter 20

It was late in the year and there was a touch of frost on the grass in the mornings. But the sun quickly melted the thin layer so it was pleasantly warm by the afternoon. Rogé and Clod were sitting on the veranda under the grape trellis. Avril and Cloe came to join them and got busy on some needlework. Rogé was silently reading a letter from the army in the north.

“Anything new?” Clod asked, whittling on a walking stick.

“We forced the English out of more French territory. If this keeps up, King Charles will have his country back.”

“Yes Jeanne d’Arc has shown us the way,” Clod said, putting the stick down and reaching for the wine bottle on the table in from of him.

“Unfortunately Jeanne’s dead. Burned by the English in Rouen last year. At the age of nineteen.”

“The French call her a saint, the English tried and executed her as a witch. So which was it? You saw her, even spoke with her. What’s true?”

“King Charles asked me that and I couldn’t tell him and I don’t know what to say now. Perhaps both are right.”

“What do you mean?”

“For us French, she was undoubtedly a saint. She roused and incited us to battle and after 85 years of losing every battle, she showed us how to win again. King Charles can thank her for his crown as she liberated Rheims so that he could be crowned in the cathedral like his ancestors.”

“But about the witchery?”

“Look at it with English eyes. They were so cocksure of themselves that no French could stand against them. Then we taught them different. There was Jeanne in the forefront leading the army to victory. A girl of seventeen, eighteen. She had to be a witch, using sorcery to humiliate the English in a series of battles. They couldn’t believe that God was against them and had sent Jeanne to punish them. Ergo she had to be from the Devil.”

“But what do you really think?” Clod asked.

“She was just a young peasant girl with visions from the Archangel Michael, from Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. In reality she was born of the dire need of France that was slowly disappearing under relentless English pressure. She was the personification of hope that had foretold of her coming. She had energy and great determination. What does it matter what she was? A saint, a witch or a girl, the results speak for her.”

“A person can’t get a straight answer out of you.” Frustrated Clod shook his head and slapped the table top. “I can never understand why the Dauphin even sought your advice and followed it.”

“Neither can I.” Rogé shrugged.

“Really?” Avril asked. “In his younger days he heard of you, an archer who couldn’t miss. He wanted to see you and summoned you. I think he made a hero of you then, and those feelings remain with him to this day. Didn’t you say he trusted you?”

“That’s what he said.”

“There you have it. He’s surrounded with people who fill his ears with advice, but often talk at cross purposes. No wonder he was confused. He wanted to know your thoughts about Jeanne, knowing you would give a straight answer.”

“And I gave it, for all it helped. Couldn’t say yes, couldn’t say no. I couldn’t make up my mind about her.”

Avril looked up from her work, her eyes piercing her husband’s. “You were at Patay. You saw her there.”

“Yes I was there and so were you.”

“You were both there?” Clod asked in surprise.

“Yes, we were just returning from Chinon, intending to hurry home, but we got swept up by the French Army heading northeast. We were among the cavalry led by La Hire, a close supporter of Jeanne. Around Patay we caught the English setting up for a battle, starting to hammer in the wall of stakes they had used so well in the past. But they were a long way from being finished. Our cavalry attacked and I was in the forefront yelling Agincourt, Agincourt… That became the general battle cry that day. And Jeanne was among us on a white horse, with her battle banner, singing hymns, leading the rush. The English saw us coming, and their cavalry shamefully fled, leaving the archers unprotected, with no stakes to protect them. We scattered them in one charge, cut them down by the thousand. Blood flowed, painting the ground red. It was their Agincourt and we hardly suffered any losses. And our main force wasn’t even there yet.”

“I wish I could have been there to see it,” Clod said.

“The sad part is we could have done the same at Agincourt. Remember how we stood just watching each other at the wide ends of the valley and how the English moved into the middle constriction shortening their lines? They were just starting to dig in the stakes and that’s when we should have charged them, while they were vulnerable. We didn’t even need the numbers. Patay proves that. We were only 1500 going up against 5000 English. And we won decisively. Took John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury prisoner and sent John Fastolf running back to Paris.”

“How many did you kill?” Clod asked, his face aglow.

“I don’t know. I wanted revenge for Agincourt and I slashed right, slashed left, finally breaking my blade. A very fine sword that the Dauphin gave me.”

“And they knighted you,” Avril said reaching for the pitcher and taking a sip right out of it.

“Yes, Jean Poton, the chief lieutenant of Jeanne, knighted me himself. Right on the battlefield. Chevalier Rogé Durant. I still can’t believe it.”

“A Chevalier?” Cloe said, turning to her husband. “Why can’t you be a Chevalier?”

“Because as you’ve heard, I wasn’t there. I was home with you.” Clod looked around belligerently. “That was back in ‘29, we’re now in ‘33, how come this is the first time I’ve heard of it?”

“It didn’t seem important. It didn’t change me in any way.”

Still looking for a target Clod looked at Avril. “And where were you in all this?”

“I was on Blaze in the back of the charge. One English soldier recognized me as a female, and mistook me for Jeanne. He came at me sword raised to cut me in half.”

“And what did you do?” Cloe asked breathlessly.

“What do you think? I stabbed him with my stiletto right between the eyes. He went down like a sack of grain, without a scream.”

“And you, pregnant.” Cloe clapped her hands together in shock.

“I rode right up to the day before the birth.” Avril shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly.

Just then the children came running out of the back door, young Clara herding them. Old Clara was in the kitchen cooking supper.

“Which brings up a point…” Avril said laying her needle work down.

“What point is that?” Rogé asked, suddenly very alert.

“I’m pregnant again,” she said quietly. A stunned silence greeted this disclosure.

Rogé finally closed his mouth and croaked out, “That’s wonderful, my dear. How long?”

“I think about six weeks into it now.”

“That’s really magnificent,” Cloe recovered enough to say.

“Unbelievable!” Clod whistled. “We’ll be running out of names soon.”

Rogé sat down beside his wife, taking her hand and kissing it. She was red from the blood rushing into her face. “I wasn’t sure until this morning …” she said apologetically.

“Yesterday or today it doesn’t matter. What counts is that you’re healthy and will deliver a healthy baby.”

“What do you wish for, a boy or a girl?”

“Now that, that does not matter in the least. Boy or girl, either will be welcome.” And he grinned so widely that his face looked about to burst. He jumped up, suddenly unable to contain himself, and howled because he had to release his excitement somehow. The hound came running, joining in the howling. Soon everyone was howling and alarmed, Old Clara came running from the kitchen.

“What’s all the ruckus about?” She was told the news and had to sit down, fanning her hot face with her apron.

“Clod break out our best wine,” Rogé said expansively.

“We drank that last year, don’t you remember? Celebrating Gaétan’s birthday.”

At Gaétan’s name Clara’s red face suddenly turned a shade redder. Avril noticed right away, and asked, “Clara do you have something to tell us?”

Clara looked hesitant for an instant. “I guess I might as well tell you now. Gaétan has asked me to marry him.”

“And what did you say?” Cloe asked beating everyone to the question.

“I didn’t say yes and I didn’t say no. But seeing how auspicious today is, I will marry him.” Her face shone as if lit up from the inside. Then a cloud passed over it. “I’ll be living just down the hill and won’t be too far away to help, just as before.”

“Dear Clara,” Avril said. “We’re all happy for you and you’re welcome to stay or to go, just as you wish. You’re family now. With another child coming we’ll have to hire someone else to help.”

“I have a cousin,” Young Clara interjected. “Who’s looking for a good position.”

“Well, have her come and ask herself, then we’ll see.”

The second best wine was brought out and they freely toasted each other. All, that is, except Avril, who put her cup down after a cautious sip.

Soon Clod had a little too much and started singing so loud that before long, Gaétan showed up with a question on his lips. “What are you celebrating?”

Clod lifted his cup and declared in a full voice, “First off, we’re celebrating that Avril is pregnant. Second, we’re celebrating your betrothal.”

“What??! What!”

“I think Clara said yes. Did I not hear it right?”

“You did.” Rogé stood up, shaking the speechless man’s hand. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you … I think.” He got some of the second best wine and after tasting it, he said he’d had better. He ran off into the dusk and returned shortly with a handful of bottles. Clod cracked one and they had another round. No one noticed when exactly Clara and Gaétan slipped off.

Epilogue

Years later Rogé wrote in a faultless script, “Should I die years hence, bury me under the chestnut tree facing the river. On my headstone, write after my name that I fought at Agincourt and remembered that battle every day after.” He rolled up the bit of parchment and sealed it with the imprint of his signet ring which showed a crossbow.

“What are you doing out here when everyone’s inside?” Avril asked, coming out to the veranda.

“Enjoying a very fine day. My son’s married, my daughter’s betrothed, my younger son is in University and Celeste sings like an angel. I’m blessed with them and I’m blessed with you.”

“Come you sentimental old fool. The family’s together and you have to keep Clod from drinking all our best wine.”

“He deserves it. He was with me from the beginning. Besides we’ve a whole vineyard to make us some more.”

She took his hand and pulled him to his feet. “Come, we have company.”

At the door Rogé paused and looked back on the river quietly flowing south. “Do you think back sometimes to the four of us on the road looking for our future?”

“Sometimes. But today I know that our future is here at Roman Wells.”

The dog came bouncing outside, wagging his tail. From inside, Rogé heard his youngest daughter laugh, the sound ringing with overtones. And he was grateful.

The End

A Parting Word from the Author

I’ve always wanted to do this, to write about Agincourt, a critical pivotal point in the history of the Western World. I’d heard much about an English victory, less about a French defeat. How did it come about and what was the aftermath? In this book I explore those questions, getting down to the details, making myself feel them.

There are periods of history that were particularly excruciating, the rock bottoms of human experience. That was the Hundred Years’ War for the French. They were continually humiliated, every year forced deeper into the abyss. Agincourt was the bottom of the pit, but it was also the start of the way back. I’m most grateful to Rogé for illuminating the period for me.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the adventure. Leave me a comment, so I can have a sense of what my readers felt and took away with them.

I also have many other books you can find through my site at www.seeWordFactory.com. I hope to meet up with you again sometime.

Paul Telegdi

 


At the Point of a Quarrel

The defeat at Agincourt in 1415 left deep wounds in the French psyche. Two runaway youths, Rogé and Clod, find themselves in the middle of the battle and experience the horrors of the disaster. They escape to spend their lives feeling the shame and guilt for the defeat. Yet, life must go on, and it takes them years to come to terms with the disgrace of being on the front line of history. The story really begins when Rogé finds a crossbow after a skirmish and he and Clod join mercenaries who are in the service of the French. It comes to a battle near Agincourt, resulting in a ignoble defeat. Rogé and Clod flee, trying to find safety in the south, but always remembering the humiliation. .

  • Author: Paul Telegdi
  • Published: 2016-09-18 00:05:20
  • Words: 143918
At the Point of a Quarrel At the Point of a Quarrel