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Gods of WarA Novel
By J. T. O'Brien
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 J. T. O'Brien
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarch, 1072 A.D.
Charles stood at the stern of his ship watching the combined effects of the tide, the waves and the billowing sail. He had brought his ships with the dawn, making land just as the ebb tide began to change. This meant that they would have but a couple of hours in which to accomplish this raid. Then their boats would once again be afloat on the flood tide and they could take their loot back to the sea. That contingency was part of his planning. They had come from the east, from across the wild tossing Channel in the midst of a storm wind. Until they were but a mile offshore he couldn't see the beach. His second in command, Raymond, had expressed some concern for missing the proper beach. According to Raymond they could be almost anywhere along the Briton coast.
Standing there on the quarter deck Charles was a commanding figure and if he were in the least bit uncertain it did not show in his demeanor. Landing at this precise spot was sheer lucky coincidence, for Charles had no real idea of where they were. Nevertheless, he turned and boasted to Raymond about his prowess as a navigator and took this fortuitous landfall as a sign of further good fortune.
Wind driven sea spray, which had been torn from the wave crests had added to the pouring rain to further restrict visibility, but above the noise of the wind and rain they could now hear the crashing of the waves upon the rocky beach. Charles ordered the stern anchor dropped so as to stabilize their approach. The men began straining at the oars, pulling for the shore. Now the first shore wave began to crest and the ship surged ahead and the men stayed their oars riding the wave, then as it passed them they pulled hard not to lose their forward progress. Then next wave crest picked up the stern and they surged ahead again. This was the dangerous time. This was the time when the ship could broach in the surf and be destroyed. The stern line was held to stabilize their approach.
"Pull damn you, pull," Charles shouted.
Charles stared up at the cliffs and at the looming castle walls. He was looking for any sign that his sails had been seen. There was no movement on the battlements. He assumed that if there were sentries up there they were hiding in their shacks to avoid the chill rain. Since there had never been such a raid on this castle they were probably complacent in their security. Even as he watched the heights the ship's keel ground hard on the rocky beach and slowed to a gradual stop. His men were silently scrambling ashore carrying the line with which they could tie the ship to the heavy rock outcroppings. Now the waves were breaking across the stern and driving it further up on the sand and cascading high into the air drenching the occupants. There was no sound other than the crashing surf as the men dropped from the ship's gunnels and splashed into the cold water.
Far below the towering Castle battlements, the raiders strained silently as they pulled their ships further up onto the shore. His men came across two sentries. These men were wrapped in their cloaks and sleeping within a small stone structure. It was these two men that were supposed to be vigilantly guarding the sea approach against just such an excursion. A bell rope connected their tiny hut with the castle far above. Had they been awake they could have pulled on this rope which would have rung a bell, which would have provided warning to the Castle Guards. Charles was striding forward across the sand as his men entered the tiny hut and he silently cautioned his men against touching that rope. These two men that had neglected their duties had their throats were cut while they slept. Charles sarcastically reflected that such was a bitter price for a man to pay for a few minutes of extra sleep or for a small bit of huddled warmth, but then he added the thought that such were the wages of betrayal. These two foolish men may as well have handed the keys of the castle to the invaders.
The other boats were landing now and the men were straining at the lines to secure them. Charles watched his men and allowed himself a moment of pride and satisfaction then he cautioned himself that it may have been too soon for overconfidence. These Norman warriors of his, those knights and men at arms that had originally descended from the tribes from the far north, had come across the Channel in their fine ships and had crept across the beach, pausing for just a moment to rip the life out of the two sentries. Then they began running as fast as they could as they charged up the steep rocky path that sloped upward towards Newport Castle.
On this morning the sole advantage of these raiders lay with surprise. Charles, also known as Charles the Merciless, knew that only too well. He knew that if the men of the sleeping Castle had been warned by the sentries on the beach that the great draw bridge would have been raised and the stout wooden gate would have been closed. If that had occurred the trip across the treacherous sea would have been for naught, but as the saying went, fortune smiled upon the bold.
He was well aware that on those cliffs far above the tossing sea, the villagers, those serfs and freemen who were living outside of the castle gates, would be comfortable in their warm huts and be understandably reluctant to face the cold wet dismal light of day. With any luck they would still be lingering, huddled about their smoky hearth fires.
Charles looked up at the Castle, which stood bravely high above them on a bleak English headland. This Castle guarded a small protected bay which was located to the north of the fortification. Stone walls backed to the sea and were protected on that side by the sheer cliffs that descended two hundred feet to this small rocky beach. The plunderers planned on taking the great edifice from the rear. The front entrance of the Castle faced down slope towards the harbor to the north and the structure had been built of earthen works that led up to a thick twelve foot high rock wall that was topped by parapets and a dungeon tower. This collection of structures was located on the sea side of a deep natural depression. A draw bridge had been constructed to breach that gap and when that bridge was drawn up the fortress was practically impregnable.
The next barrier to his success was that drawbridge. As he ran up the steep path his sword and shield and chain mail coat hung heavy upon him. As he crested the rise he was panting heavily and stopped, ostensibly he had paused to urge his men that were struggling up the path to hurry, but in fact he was gasping for breath, his chest was heaving with the exertion of the climb. Despite the chill wind and rain he was sweating. He waved his sword at his men and then looked toward the castle. The drawbridge was down! He thanked his Patron Saint and having gathered his strength he charged onward.
Timing was everything for these raiders, as was coincidence. Charles was well aware of that fact. If they had attacked on another day the draw bridge might still be up, if they attacked too early the Castle gate would still be secured.
As luck would have it, at dawn that morning the Warder and his minions of the night watch, had dropped the bridge and opened the portal. It was his duty to do so in preparation for a coming day of hunting and to allow the people of the village to set up their wares. When Charles gained the crest he was delighted to see the open portals. He laughed exultantly and then silently urged his men forward.
As routine dictated the merchants, the good men, the bon hommes, would soon be making their way from the village to the courtyard square that existed within the protective walls of the castle and there they would prepare stalls from which to sell their wares. Charles assumed that the village baker had probably been up for hours, hard at work preparing bread for the new day. His wife should already be assembling the baskets of bread for sale. A few diligent young boys would already be in the stables cleaning away the droppings of the night and preparing the horses for the day's hunt. Other boys and girls would be milking the cows. A smithy would be stoking his fires and making ready for any last minute problems. Up there in the great room of the castle young girls would be rebuilding the hearth fire and lighting morning candles, still others would be gathering chicken eggs from the nests that rested along the wall behind the kitchen. This was all normal routine and despite the dank chill dawn this sleeping fortress would be stirring and slowly coming to terms with this dismal new day.
Charles also knew that the fishermen of the village that sprawled along the edge of the North Bay would have left on the ebb tide for a day on the rough sea. So on this morning there were only a few boats left in the port which would be available to pursue him. It was all part of his plan, which had been based upon his knowledge of the habits of the villagers. Pots of porridge would already be simmering on a dozen small household fires. Far below the peaceful village, on the rocky trail that ran along the bluff, more of his men clambered frantically up the steep hill and even as they topped the crest they dare not linger to take a breath. A vanguard of running warriors, ignoring the village huts, made straight for the draw bridge and the open portal.
The village dogs normally would have been first to have sounded the alarm, but dogs seldom bark in the rain. The usual kaleidoscope of scents and sounds that assail their senses are disguised by the humidity and the noise of the falling rain drops and besides the animals knew instinctively that if they began barking their masters would hurl them from the warm huts out into the wet cold. When they finally began to discern the rhythm of running men, which was certainly an unusual sign, the dogs began to bark. First, one alert animal growled hesitantly with one apprehensive eye on his master's door. Then the others sensed the danger and tentatively joined in the chorus, but it was already too late, the raiders were now streaming across the drawbridge and but steps away from the portal.
The Warder, alerted by the barking, had come out of his shelter and shouted an alarm as he raised his stout staff to defend himself, but this was a time for iron battle axes not mere sticks of wood. This was not a collection of drunkards, carousing in the street after hours, but a gang of armed men intent upon murder.
Charles spotted the three young esquires, those young men in training for the knighthood, that were crossing the square as they made ready for the day's hunt and these young men had grabbed frantically for the nearest available weapons at the sight of the running men. They were reacting to the terrified scream of the dying Warder. Unfortunately for them, just as the Warder, they were cut down before they could summon the Castle Guard. These boys had fought bravely for brief moments and it was their dying screams of pain that had further alerted the Castle.
Now the raiders were within the walls, and they threw open the heavy doors to the castle manor and charged into the great hall, cutting and slashing at the fighting men that were coming half dressed from the guard room. High above this central great room, this room, where the occupants of the castle ate their meals and where the jongleurs sang their songs, up there on the curving stone stairs that lined the wall, the Iron Men, the knights of the castle, had rapidly strapped on their swords and prepared to do battle. They fought an impromptu holding action on the stairs that lead up to the Baron's apartment. Below this point of resistance the carnage continued as the servants and the visitors that were here for the hunt were cut down or ran screaming for safety. The second group of raiders, following their instructions, gathered prisoners from the Castle and from the village.
If the truth be known Charles had no intention of killing the Lord of the Castle. If a nobleman or a lady were captured, a ransom would be demanded and if the raiders were so stupid as to kill the Lord, who would be left to pay the ransom? This was a well thought out raid executed for the express purpose of gathering captives for ransom or as slaves for sale and for the taking of as much gold and silver as they could find. At this moment these men were not honorable warriors so much as they were thieves, but Charles didn't see it that way.
Charles and Raymond hurried their men along as much as they dared in their methodical search for gold and loot. A few hardy souls could keep the defending knights on the stairs occupied, as the rest of his men pillaged and plundered the huts of the peasants and harried their prisoners down to the sea. A stout chest was found near the head of the table that was situated next to that immense hearth, which is where the Lord of the Castle would customarily sit alone in the evenings. William Joinville the Baron of Newport would be surrounded there each evening as if at court. All of the lesser beings that resided here in this fortress would sit at a respectful distance. Only his lady, Esther, sat nearby and slightly behind the Baron. This chest of his was loaded with small silver bars. The Gods were smiling on the work of Charles on this day, as two of his raiders gathered the stout chest and ran from the Castle.
Out side, his men were going from hut to hut, killing the old men and women and the children, or thrusting them roughly out of way, this was being done in order to take the younger, stronger girls and young men as slaves. Then, as a further diversion, his men set fire to the thatched roofs of the stone huts as they chased the screaming serfs down the path toward the sea. The thatch wouldn't burn very well in the rain, but it did generate a thick smoke that hung low over the structures and swirled around the huts adding to the confusion of the morning. The rats that had made their homes in thatch were literally running for their lives and now the narrow streets were swarming with rats, barking dogs and screaming terrified people.
Isaac the Jew had been hosting a friend and the plunderers had found this visiting merchant and the small sack of gold coins that had hung at his waist. The presence of this single wealthy man had whetted their curiosity and they destroyed Isaac's house, ripping apart the walls and probing the dirt floors for soft spots. Seeking any secret place that might be hiding more of Isaac's gold. His wife and daughter were taken away and led down to the boats. Common knowledge had it that the Jews were always good for the ransom and therefore Isaac himself was left sitting there in the rain in front of his ruined hut to lament this evil that had befallen him. His guest had foolishly made the mistake of opposing the raiders and his headless body still lay sprawled across the flaming hearth.
In what Charles came to consider another incredible stroke of luck the raiders had found a lovely young blonde haired, green eyed woman strolling slowly along the battlement and she with a suckling babe at her breast. She and the brat were forced down the steps and into the throng of prisoners as they were rushed down the trail to the beach. Charles the Merciless, the leader and organizer of this wolf pack, ordered a Bowman, a trusted follower, to care for the woman and her child. Charles considered this young girl and her child to be a marvelous find. He was elated and speculated that perhaps the child was a prince or a princess. This woman wore oriental silk, beneath her woolen shawl. Her slippers were of fine leather with gold buckles. She was obviously a person of some great importance and he speculated that perhaps she too was a princess or even a queen? He had but a moment to consider his good fortune and then went back to the fighting.
The Bowman's task was that of simplicity itself. He was to take this wench and her brat down to the ship.
Unfortunately, as is the habit of such willful creatures, this woman was angry and demanding, defying the guards, certain that the rules, whatever they were, did not apply to her.
The Bowman had no time for such demonstrations of independence and he struck her across the ear and sent her reeling down the steps.
Then two of his men tried to carry her away, but she obstinately began dragging her feet as she resolutely refused to cooperate. In anger and perhaps in fear of the inevitable pursuit that was to follow, the Bowman, the man that was charged with her care, hit this foolish woman another stiff blow and she stumbled a few more steps down the pathway. Then he grabbed her arm and jerked her violently further down the narrow trail. As far as he was concerned there was no time for the indulgence of this obstinate bitch's moods.
Behind them in the fortress, the knights of the Castle had fought their way to the floor of the great room and now they had more room to fight and the feared Baron William Joinville, a giant of a man, clad in his chain mail armor, had joined the defenders and his great sword was slashing through the ranks of the raiders. William's son Robert was equally fierce and the two men were wrecking havoc among Charles men. Charles was there fighting this holding action with one eye on Robert Joinville and the other on the door as he kept urging his men to hold just a bit longer as the sea tide had not yet changed.
Excerpted from Gods of War by J. T. O'Brien Copyright © 2010 by J. T. O'Brien. Excerpted by permission.
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