‘Your father has crossed worse than that – and in full armour.’
Squire Percy ignored his servant’s comments and struggled to calm the horse frightened by the seething torrent ahead.
‘Baker, that water is over-deep and flowing faster than a man can run. Mark how the centre is higher than the sides. My father would not be so unwise.’ Percy allowed the horse to turn away. It relaxed and snorted.
‘There, Sinistrune, gently, gently; we will not attempt such folly,’ he said to calm her further. He turned to his servant. ‘Baker, the storm is long over. The water will subside overnight. We’ll set camp there, under that oak.’
Baker clambered from the cart and, taking the horse’s bridle, turned it away from the ford.
‘Maybe, young sir, you would take the opportunity of a shortened day’s travel to wash your jack and trews before the enemy can smell you from a day away,’ Baker said, cursing as both he and the carthorse slipped in the saturated mud. ‘Seven days and nights in that armour may well make it your second skin but you smell like fermenting herrings.’
Percy noted the taunt from his servant but dismissed it and replied, ‘We are but hours from the argent army and deep in the fog of war. No doubt this place abounds with a plague of mercenaries, thieves, thieving strumpets and cut-throats. Father bound me to bring you back alive. I must be ready at all times to protect you.’ Percy paused, scanning the area for danger. ‘However, I will remove my armour. You are probably right. I doubt the Duke would welcome me in the van unbathed as I am.’
Baker snorted. ‘The van? an inexperienced squire…? I think not. If you are lucky you may be asked to serve a knight.’
‘Baker, I will get some opportunity to prove myself. Set up the tent. I will sweep the area.’
‘Yes, Squire Percy, but your father bound me to give you the benefit of my wisdom and guidance. When we meet the argents you must follow my lead or prove nothing but your inexperience.’
Percy spurred Sinistrune among the trees bordering the torrent. Walking, doubling back, galloping between trees in unexpected directions, quartering the woods, Percy wondered at Baker’s comments. Percy was no fool unaccustomed to procedure.
‘All is clear,’ he reported, dismounting as Baker raised their small tent. I’ll move the armour to Dextrune,’ he added, unlacing the chamfron from Sinistrune’s face, ‘then you can help me with mine.’
Baker forced a guy-peg into the sodden ground with his bare hands and returned to the cart for more. ‘You need modern armour, Squire, then you could dress and undress yourself.’
The two warhorses and the carthorse munched rhythmically after darkness fell. Percy dipped coarse bread in wine. In silence he chewed flesh cut from a smoked ham. He shivered in light clothes. Baker had forbidden a fire.
‘Baker, since we left Fountains, you have been moody and withdrawn. I believe you wish you had gone with Jules.’
Bakers axe-like face darkened. ‘Squire, your brother’s title is Sir Roland Percy, when you bade him “Farewell, Jules,” he could have taken that as a slight. He will be your Lord one day,’ he muttered.
‘He bade me “Farewell, Argent” first and laughed. No offence could be inferred.’ Percy said, ‘He gave me a locket to bring me fortune.’ Percy sighed and added, ‘I have nightly added to my prayers that I don’t meet him on the field of battle.’
Percy’s eyes flicked open; instinct made him lie still. Bright moonlight penetrated gaps in the tent. Horses moved, hooves crunched on frosted ground. The sound came again, a blade drawn with stealth. Percy gripped his sword hilt. The scabbard fell away as he rolled under the wall of canvass and sprang up, pulling the tent flat with his left hand. A fleeting glance around showed only startled horses. Under the tumbled canvass, muffled shouts and frantic movements preceded the form of Baker scrabbling from the other side.
‘Wake, squire, we are attacked!’ He shouted, leapt to his feet and spun with raised sword. A moment of scanning their surroundings and he relaxed.
Staring into the shadows spangled with hoar, he drew his arm across his face.
‘A dream, sire, nothing but a dream.’ Baker groped under the canvass for his scabbard. ‘We may as well break our fast. Look at the moon; it will be dawn soon. The water has frozen in the ground and the ford will be low.’
Dextrune’s head split the vapour snorting from her nostrils. The low sun of late November burned away the soft mists over the lea. As Percy rounded a coppiced thicket, flashes of armour and vivid banners patterned fields of tents. Lances and pennants poked through layers of hanging smoke from myriad fires. Baker leapt from the cart.
‘Squire, I will take Sinistrune ahead, herald and blazon you before the duke. I will return upon the moment. Stay here.’
Baker slid bareback onto the unbridled warhorse and cantered forward. People stopped, pointed and stared at this demonstration of horsemanship. He disappeared into the confusion of colour and movement.
Percy slipped from Dextrune and led him to the cart. When Baker returned at full gallop, Percy held an unlaced shattering spear. Baker waved a warning hand.
‘Squire, it is to Fitzcount that I will take you. Take a war spear, not that toy. You will be seen as but a boy.’ Baker leant and grasped the carthorse’s bridle. ‘Lead on, squire. I will direct you from behind.’
Percy unlaced a war spear and, holding it vertical, remounted. Hefting his blue shield with zigzagged edges to the yellow horizontal stripe, he nudged Dexstrune forward, steering her with his knees.
Striped tents, pennants, smoke, mud, archers and men at arms, manure, sewage, jostling bodies and shouts surrounded Percy, unregarded in the hum and roar of an army. He needed no direction from Baker. A mounted knight in a churned area of mud lowered and raised his lance to Percy and turned to face a huge man on a stamping black stallion.
The knight turned back and raised his visor. He looked at Percy’s shield and called, ‘Field azure, fess dancetty or. A Percy indeed, Squire Andrew Percy of Fountains. Raise that ridiculous pig-face visor that we may see your face.’
Percy raised his conical visor after a squire took his lance.
‘Where is you brother, whelp?’ The huge man roared. Percy noted the gathered knights around him and assumed the speaker was the duke.
‘My brother follows hard on my heels, sire.’
The Duke spat at the ground. ‘You lie like all the others. He is with Richmond like half of the men of this country. Richmond gets the knight and I get the runt. Fountains will pay for this. Runt, can you fight or do you sew?’
After the laughter died, Percy answered, ‘I fight, sire. For you.’
The Duke addressed Fitzcount, ‛Test him. I see he carries a lance for battle: arrogant pup. Arm yourself likewise.’
The knight inclined his head, ‘Sire, if that is your sweet will. May I pray that we tip with grapers? It would be sad to see one so young die before his first battle.’
‘As you will, Fitzcount. With grapers you can break his back instead.’
Moments later Percy faced Fitzcount over a furlong of sods, frost, mud and horse manure. A ring of men-at-arms, archers, stable hands and smiths formed to watch, despite shouts from knights to continue with preparation for battle.
Fitzcount’s spear dropped and Percy kicked Dextrune into full gallop from standing. Her first pace, a surging leap, brought a gasp from the crowd and then a giggle as she skidded in slurry. Percy felt her recover. He stared through the holes in his visor at Fitzcount’s onrush, at the steadiness of his lance. It lifted at the last moment and pointed at Percy’s head. The pig-faced bascinet deflected it easily. Percy’s spear barely scratched Fitzcount’s shield. Sweat trickled into Percy’s eyes as he spun Dextrune round at the furlong end and, without urging, she leapt forward, more sure footed this time.
Shield held high, Percy watched Fitzcount’s point circling, giving Percy no indication where it would strike. Moments before impact it flicked to his helm: Percy swept his shield up. The lance crashed into the centre of his breastplate. Sky filled his visor followed by Dextrune’s crupper. The crowd cheered and whistled, though Percy felt he merited some applause for his flawless roll, landing on his feet. Mud sprayed from the impact, streaking his armour. Percy turned, throwing down his shield and drawing his bastard sword as Dextrune thundered back to him. He patted her rump to send her away. Turning again he wondered if Fitzcount would dismount or charge again.
His hear sank as Fitzcount lowered his spear and advanced. With his right arm Percy brushed his visor open – the better to see the attack. Fitzcount and his horse galloped in the centre of a ‘V’ of mud thrown up from the pounding hooves. Fitzcount’s spear aimed for Percy’s exposed face. It dropped to his chest only in the last few feet. Percy stepped in towards the charging horse, dropped his sword, caught the end of the spear and dragged it into the mud. A great hoof sent him sprawling to the ground. His open helmet filled with mud. He tore it off and scrambled for his sword. Standing again, he saw Fitzcount, without a spear, turn and trot towards him. Percy turned his attention the crowd who laughed, cheered and whistled.
Fitzcount dismounted and waved at the crowd. Opening and removing his close-helmet, he tucked it under one arm and with the other raised Percy’s hand to the audience. A roar erupted.
Through a smile to the crowd, Fitzcount said, ‘Never, ever do anything so stupid again. I would only have knocked you flat. You risked your life, an extraordinary move. The lance-butt nearly lifted me off Wren, my horse. It threw me flat over her crinet. I had to grab her ears to stay on. You came a crupper but I could almost see into Wren’s eyes. Let us retrieve our equipment and go to my tent, Squire Andrew Percy.’
He snorted and shook his head. ‘We hasten to the bell tower at Long Whittenham. From there we are to assess the numbers and make up of the Jules’ host if they cross the river Thames,’ Fitzcount declared as he opened the tent flap and entered. Looking Percy up and down he added, ‘I hope you are ready.’
‘Thank you, I am, sir.’
‘This day will become confused; collect what valuables you have. We may be separated from the host.’ Fitzcount rubbed his short black beard. ‘Take a close-helm. Better in a skirmish than your heavy bascinet. By the end of the day many knights will be dead. There will be armour aplenty to replace that which you wear.’
‘I thank you, sir, for the helmet. I hope I can repay you in some way. I am not in haste to replace my armour. Heavy and old it may be but these rolls and flutes have turned many a point for me, my brother and my father.’
‘Keep it by all means. It is by far the most handsome I have seen in many years but change it. With modern armour you will not need to wear chain beneath. Boy, you carry nearly twice the weight needed.’
Percy left the tent and splashed through cloying mud and clay to his cart. Thrusting his hand deep into horse feed, he tugged out an inlaid wooden box and dusted it off. Opening it, he extracted a purse. Percy frowned when he saw the box contained nothing else. Walking to the horses he took Sinistrune’s rein.
‘Wait, Squire!’ Baker’s nasal voice called from beneath the horse. His mud-spattered face and hair appeared from under her belly. ‘I have replaced the lacing on the plastron and I’m nearly finished with the girth. A moment please.’
‘Thank you, Baker. Have you seen the locket Roland gave me as he bade me farewell?’
‘Surely, squire, it should be around your neck. Is it not an heirloom, a charm for luck?’
‘I have mislaid it, Baker. If you find it I would be most grateful.’
Baker clambered from under the horse. ‘All is ready. You have orders, squire?’
‘Yes, I must leave and assist Fitzcount. We look from the village church tower to give warning of Jules’ approach. Farewell, today will be long and dangerous. Look after yourself.’
At the base of the church tower Percy waited with the horses. Fitzcount climbed to espy the land. Bored, Percy drew his sword and followed his training practice to loosen muscles chilled by the air. Deepening clouds made the morning resemble dull yellow twilight. Percy led the horses inside the church as bitter lashing rain roared to the ground. Mud-stained splashes danced as high as his knees. Inside the church he lit a torch and calmed Sinistrune and Wren. He knelt to the altar and asked forgiveness for using the church in such a way, begging the Lord to remember that his son had shared accommodation with animals.
Sinistrune skittered as the torch flared and spluttered. Percy put a hand out to calm her and felt her girth loose. Finishing his prayer he turned and groped for the lacings. Finding them knotted secure, Percy wondered why Baker had failed to tighten the girth properly. After adjusting it he stood and heard Fitzcount calling him from the tower. Percy raced up the stairs.
Fitzcount clapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ve prayed long enough for the whole army to be saved. He pointed to the nearby ford. ‘Now, tell me what you see.’
‘A cart and two horses have crossed, sir. Men, our men-at-arms, struggle across the rising flood. Some carry neither shield nor sword.’
Fitzcount hissed. ‘They are in rout and trapped hard against a swelling river. Jules attacked from the north and all is lost. Percy, we must away: now. You to the northwest and me to the south. We will meet again; this war is far from over. Next time it will be in Richmond’s army – if we have any sense. I won’t carry a rose argent for that boorish swine again.’
‘Sir, that cart and two horses are mine. Why is Baker taking the Abingdon road and not coming to me? He must know I can see him.’
They clattered down the stone steps. The sound of their steel sabatons echoed through the church.
Fitzcount climbed into his saddle so fast the combined weight of his body, weapons and armour pulled Wren sideways.
Snatching his lance from the wall, he cried, ‘Go with haste and with God, Percy.’ Sparks shot from horseshoes on flagstones and he thundered out into the village.
Percy followed and headed for the junction with the Abingdon road. Once there he turned from the screams of the trapped, dying and drowning on the other side of the river and galloped away. An arrow clattered from his pauldron and he spurred Sinistrune on. From the gaps in Baker’s cart tracks where it had bounced over stones, Percy concluded that Baker too was in haste. While wondering why Baker had not slowed when he was safe from archers, Percy rounded a corner to see a mounted knight bearing a red rose on his shield.
Percy slowed, tightened his grip on horse and shield and couched his spear. Closing at a trot he prepared for the charge. Deeper breaths, loosened muscles, “Plan tactics,” he reminded himself.
But the enemy Knight kept his lance vertical; he opened his visor and called, ‘Brother, to me! To me!’
Sinistrune carried Percy at a gentle trot to Roland’s side.
‘Well met! How fare you, brother?’ he cried.
‘I fare well, brother, and yet ill. Throw down your shield. You bear the rose argent and there are Richmond’s men ahead. The Lord’s rain kept us from battle. You must join me as my esquire. How goes the day? Do you know?’
‘Argent is in rout and drowning in the Thames. I fled for home. You passed Baker on this road, brother?’
‘Pass him? He stopped me and asked for protection from the Argent pursuing him. He wasn’t happy to see me, something astrange in his demeanour. He is tied to my cart and in the care of my servant until I return from dispatching his pursuer. He did not recognise my new armour and horse – I have done well in my skirmishes.’ Roland frowned. ‘Brother, it is good to see you well and alive. What makes Baker betray you?’ He turned and they trotted side by side.
‘I have been foolish, Roland.’ Percy confessed, ‘Baker must know the locket contains the secret of our gold in times of war. I believe he took it from me and thinks he can decipher the poem. He has tried to kill or get me killed several times but always too subtly, too clever for me to suspect until I saw him take this road.’
Roland hissed, ‘He will hang before dusk.’ They rode in silence until Roland snarled and urged his horse to a gallop.
Percy urged Sinistrune on. Before him two horseless carts burned, their contents strewn over the ground. A man in servant’s clothes lay dead beside them.
‘Ah, there is our family shield cast on the ground. Give me a moment, Roland.’
‘In haste, Andrew, Baker has fled with your horse. His clothes are scattered and armour is missing. He will pass himself off as a knight and flee to Fountains. Our Lord and Lady are in danger. We must fly!’
Urging the horses to a canter they splashed along the rutted, mired road. An hour later, Percy saw Dextrune standing in the road.
‘Baker is unhorsed, Roland!’
Percy kicked Sinistrune to a gallop as Baker pulled himself from the ground. He turned towards the two brothers, stiffened and remounted. Abandoning his lance, Baker kicked Dextrune, heaving and sliding towards the ford and spires of Abingdon.
Despite her armour Sinistrune left Roland and his heavier mount behind. She could not catch Baker and Percy knew the weight of his armour would tire her soon. Unable to think of anything else, he thundered on in pursuit.
Baker cast aside his shield. Percy raced past three knights bearing the red rose as he passed a barn. They scrambled for their mounts.
Ahead lay the ford beyond a flooded field. Baker’s feet rose and fell, kicking Dextrune straight towards the torrent. Percy guided Sinistrune in a zigzag, leaping and splashing, between standing water and boggy ground. Both horses faltered and steadied in turns. Percy gained inches, but too late; Baker reached the ford.
Percy dropped his lance and shield, tore off his helmet and, placing fingers between his lips, whistled to Dextrune. Dextrune slowed and tried to turn. Baker hauled her head round and spurred her into the ford. Percy whistled again and shouted to her. She half-turned, rose rampant and struggled against the strength of her tormentor.
Percy slowed and stopped Sinistrune before she plunged into the ford. Dextrune clambered up the bank her saddle empty. Percy dismounted and took the reins, helping her out and shouting encouragement. His sabatons sank in cold mud – only finding purchase in submerged rocks. Once up the bank Percy drew his sword and dashed round Dextrune’s flank but saw only heaving brown water; no sign of Baker.
‘My father would have done it, Baker,’ he whispered.
The three red Knights and Roland cantered to the bank. A tall Knight lifted his visor, revealing a ruddy face and greying beard.
He called to Percy, ‘Exquisite horsemanship, young master. You rode that Argent into the very maw of Lucifer. Your are a knight?’
‘A squire, sire.’
‘Take your vigil tonight. I knight you in the morn.’
Roland dismounted. ‘Brother, you did well.’ He turned to the river and called, ‘Farewell, Baker. May that locket and chain bring you fortune in Hell, and torment as it burns.’
©Gary Bonn 2011