By Angus Donald
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Angus Donald
All rights reserved.
I can hear the sound of singing floating across the courtyard from the big barn, thin and faint yet warmly comforting, like the last wisps of a happy dream to a man waking from deep slumber. I have left the remnants of the wedding party to their pleasures, leaving the bride, Marie, and her new husband, Osric, and dozens of their friends and neighbors to carouse long into the dark night. I have provided ale and wine, more than they could ever drink at half a dozen nuptials, and I slaughtered two of my sheep and a great sow, and all three carcasses spent the afternoon roasting over slow fires in the courtyard so that there might be plenty of meat for the newly joined couple and all their boozy well-wishers. But I slipped away from the throng when the serious drinking began and the wine-flushed carollers began to loosen their belts; I did not wish to be asked to perform alongside them. My voice is a little weaker, as is natural, now that I have reached almost sixty years of age, but I am still proud of my talent as a trouvère, a maker of fine music, and I husband my delicate throat-cords and do not choose to bellow like a cow in calf for the amusement of country-wedding drunks — I who have traded verses with a king, and held noble lords and prelates across Christendom spellbound with my skill.
But, in truth, there is another quiet reason why I have withdrawn here to my private chamber at the end of the great hall of Westbury, where, with a freshly sharpened quill and new-made oak gall ink, I am committing these words to parchment — I do not like Osric, the bridegroom.
There: I have admitted it. It is difficult to say exactly why I do not like him: he is a plain, ordinary man, round in the belly and with a pointed, peering, mole-like face and short chubby arms, and he will, I believe, make my widowed daughter-in-law Marie a good husband. He came here to Westbury a year ago as my bailiff, and he has rendered me good service in that office, ensuring that the manor — the only one I now hold — is well ordered and shows a little silver in profit every year. But I do not trust him; there is a slyness about him that repels me. His manner is furtive. I believe, in my secret heart, that he covets my position as lord of this manor, and sometimes I see him looking at me, as we eat together as a family at the long table in the hall, and I detect a glint of hatred in his tiny underground eye. It may be nothing but the foolish fancies of an old man, but I do not think so — I believe that despite my kindness to him, and the fact that I have allowed him to marry my son Rob's widow, Osric would like to see me hurried into my grave and himself sitting at the head of this long table, fawned on by my servants and addressed in this hall as "my lord."
I will go further: I believe that he means to kill me.
Pshaw! What nonsense, you will say to yourself. The old graybeard's wits are plainly as addled as a year-old goose egg. And it is true that I am well furnished with years, and that I sometimes forget the names of these dullards around me today, and dwell too much on the bright days of the past. But I know about betrayal: in my time, I have betrayed those who placed their trust in me. And I see the look of a traitor, a God-damned Judas, in Osric's face. To strike a telling blow, one must be close to the man you are to play false; and Osric is now as close to me as ever he can be.
My death would not, of course, immediately make him the lord of this manor; if I were to die, the manor would pass to my heir, my nine-year-old grandson and namesake, Alan, who is away now in Yorkshire learning the skills of a knight — learning how to fight on horseback and on foot, and how to dance and sing and make verses, how to speak and write in Latin, to play chess and serve elegantly at table and innumerable other gentlemanly skills.
But a child lord is weak, and easy to control: his mother Marie would have legal authority over him, just as Osric, now her husband, would have authority over her. Who is to say what Osric might do then? The boy might have a fatal "accident" or be imprisoned for years in some dark place while Osric makes free with the bounty of the manor. Who can say?
I have read over the words that I have just written and it might seem to a reader that I am afraid of Osric, like a coward — but I am not craven and I have shown my courage on more occasions than I care to remember. But I have decided not to strike the words out but to let the sentiments above stand, for I have made a promise that in this record of my life, this record that I now scratch out with an aging hand, I will tell the truth, and always the truth. I do perhaps fear Osric a little; at least, I am distrustful of his intentions, and wary. And I cannot sleep at night for thinking about him and what he might do to me and those whom I love. But I can do nothing; I cannot kill him out of hand on a mere suspicion, and I cannot drive the husband of my daughter-in-law away from this manor; Marie would never allow it — and who would oversee the smooth running of Westbury? No, I must endure, and watch, and be always on my guard.
And I must get along with my story now, while the hall is empty and quiet, for this tale is not about Osric's darkling ambitions, nor about Marie — nor even about little Alan, the delight of my remaining years — it is about myself, and the adventures that I had in the time of good King Richard, whom we called the Lionheart, when I was a young man, full of green sap, strong in body and mind, fearful of almost nothing save the wrath of my lord, Robert Odo, the Earl of Locksley — who was better known to the common people of England as Robin Hood — a savage warrior, a lawless thief, a Church-condemned heretic and, may Almighty God forgive me, for many long years, my good and true friend.
* * *
The sentry was young, a boy of no more than sixteen or seventeen summers, but he was quite old enough to die. I watched him as he walked up and down the dark rutted track that led north from my position, up to the brow of the hill; and I noted that his air in these, his last precious moments on this Earth, was one of resentful boredom. He had been on duty for perhaps an hour, I reckoned, judging by the position of the moon: I had seen him slouch up from the camp about midnight, yawning and stretching, and grudgingly take over from an older man, a squat warrior who clapped him hard on the shoulder with joy at his relief and hurried off to his warm blankets in one of the scores of tents that littered the field below the muddy track and made up the enemy encampment before Kirkton.
The young sentry was not due to be relieved for another two hours but by then, God willing, he would be dead. I could make out his young face in the faint moonlight, a pale patch in the darkness, as he trudged toward me down the track; as he came closer I could see that he was ill-favored, with a thin, well-pimpled visage: he looked like a sulky boy making his reluctant way to church when he would rather be at play.
Moodily he booted a stone out of his path and it skittered alarmingly near to where I was lying, in total darkness and black-clad from head to toe, face thickly smeared with greasy mud, in the lee of an old stone wall that ran at right angles to the track. For a panicky moment, I thought he would follow the stone's path straight toward me, coming off the track for another kick at the pebble that had landed only a few feet from my hiding place. If he had done that, he would have seen me for sure, or sensed me somehow, and I'd have had to launch myself at him, from the front, in full view, and try to drop him before he could make a sound. That would have been difficult. To be truthful, it would have been nigh on impossible, as I was tethered by a rope around my waist to a large, heavy, oozing sack. I tried not to think about its grisly contents.
As I pressed my shoulder against the rough stone of the wall, my hands by my sides, barely breathing, my fingertips brushed the handle of the dagger in my boot. It was my only weapon: a long, very thin, stabbing blade, triangular in section, with a strong steel crosspiece and a black wooden handle; the kind of weapon known as a misericorde, for it was used to grant the mercy of death to knights badly wounded in battle, the coup de grâce. The impoverished Italian knight who sold it to me called it a stiletto, a little stake, and though he took my silver needfully, he looked at me somewhat warily, too. For this was no weapon for honorable battle; this was a weapon for black murder in the dark of night, a tool for silent killing.
The sentry boy mooched on past my wall without even glancing into the darkness at its base where I was concealed and I suppressed a shiver while I fumbled with the knotted rope at my waist, finally freeing myself of my gruesome burden. My black clothes were soaking wet — after a brisk shower of rain around midnight, my tunic and hose had sucked up moisture from the damp ground like a sponge as I had crawled inch by inch through the wet grass to my ambush spot, dragging the heavy sack behind me. It had taken me nearly two hours to work myself into this position, propelling myself forward on toes and fingertips, staying low in the darkest folds of this sheep pasture, down over the brow of the hill, across a hundred yards of naked field and up to the relative concealment of the drystone wall. I had moved, most of the time, when the sentries, first the squat older man, and now this boy, were facing the other way, as they marched up to the top of the lane, took a cursory glance around and marched back down again. It was like some lethal game of Grandmother's Footsteps, although I could take no enjoyment in it. When the sentry was looking toward me, I buried my face in the wet turf and stayed absolutely still, trusting my ears to tell me if I was discovered. It was important, I had been told, never to stare directly at his face — men have an instinct for when they are being watched and some are more gifted than others at spotting a face in the darkness.
But I could certainly feel the heat of someone's gaze upon me — I was being watched myself just then, but not by this stripling soldier tramping the road before me. My friend Hanno, formerly a celebrated hunter from the inky forests of Bavaria, and now the chief scout for our small band of warrior-pilgrims, was lodged in a tree just below the skyline some two hundred yards away, his body wrapped cunningly around the trunk and branches like a serpent so as to appear part of the wood in the darkness. I knew he was watching me and I hoped that my approach had met with his approval. He had taught me everything he knew about stealthy movement on the long journey home from the Holy Land — in daylight and darkness, in forest, mountain and desert — and what he knew was considerable. He'd also personally tutored me, painstakingly, over many months, in the art of the silent kill. And he had suggested that I take on this deadly task as a test of my new skills. Everyone in our ragged band seemed to think it was a good idea, except me. So here I was: wet, cold, lying in a sheepshit-dotted pasture in the middle of the night, face blackened with mud, waiting for the right moment to slaughter an unsuspecting child.
I heard the boy reach the end of his tramp at the bottom of the track, cough, spit, and turn to begin his journey slowly back up the hill. He was out of my line of sight but audibly coming ever closer to the wall. He passed me and then suddenly stopped a few yards further up the track. Had he seen me? Surely he must hear my heart banging like a great drum in my chest? But no, he had merely paused to stare dully at the fingernail of moon that adorned the sky, trying to guess the hour. He did look so very young, I thought, although a part of me knew he was only perhaps a year or two junior to me. He switched the long spear he held from one shoulder to the other and with his free right hand he scratched at the inflamed spots on his cheek. He was close enough now, no more than two long paces away; close enough for me to strike, now that I was free of the drag of the sodden sack. And when he turned away to resume his march I told myself I would rise up and strike him down. I tensed my body, flexed my toes, hand on the dagger handle, waiting for him to move. I searched the surrounding area, eyes narrowed and roving slowly lest the slightest flash of white eyeball should attract attention; no one was stirring, the camp was silent as a stone at that hour. It was all clear. The moment he turned away, I'd be up and on him like a creeping farmyard cat on a sun-dulled dove.
But the boy remained still, half-turned toward me, and he continued to gaze like a simpleton at the moon, now picking at something stubborn inside his nose. Turn away, turn away, you dolt, I shrieked inside my head. Turn away and let this deed be done. But he stood like one of the marble statues I had seen on my Mediterranean travels, and continued to stare upward at the star-sprinkled sky and to mine away inside his nostril.
My body was beginning to shake, not just from the cold and the wet: my pent-up muscles were demanding violent action. I wanted to move while I still had the courage to commit this murder — for foul murder it was; although the black surcoat he wore, with its blood-red chevrons across the chest, marked him as my enemy. Nevertheless, I knew in my heart that this cold killing was no better than a shameful piece of butchery, an execution — and I did not relish its accomplishment. He would not be the first man or boy that I had killed, no, not by a long summer's day. I had killed before many times in my young life, in battle and out of it — but this felt different. And wrong. It was not only my friend Hanno who was watching me from on high; I felt that God Himself was looking down on my actions. And the Lord of Hosts was telling my conscience loud and clear that this was a mortal sin.
I knew that Robin would laugh if he could read my thoughts before this kill: he would think me soft, womanish. He would shrug and half-smile, if I were to voice my doubts about murdering this boy. And I knew exactly what he would say if he were by my side: "It is necessary, Alan," he would whisper, and then he would take the misericorde from my hand and do the deed himself — quickly, efficiently, without a moment's pause. And never lose a wink of sleep afterward.
Finally the boy stopped gawping at the moon, turned his back to me and took a first reluctant step up the path. I swallowed, blinked, and forced myself to rise as silently as I could from my dark corner, leaving the heavy sack in the shadows, but pulling the dagger from my boot as I did so. I kept my mind almost blank, thinking only, Now I will do this, now I will do that. And I took the first unsteady step, my foot squelching loudly in a patch of mud. I checked myself and stumbled slightly on wobbly legs, but my victim heard nothing. Suddenly my courage rose in me like a pot of water boiling over: I took three fast running steps and threw myself at his back; my left hand snaking around his head to clamp over mouth and nose and prevent him from making a sound as my chest thumped into his spine. He fell forward, slamming into the turf bank at the side of the muddy track with jolting force, with me on top of him, the impact of our landing nearly causing me to drop the dagger. Nearly — but drop it I did not. He squirmed wildly under me but I got the blade of the misericorde into the right position on the back of his neck, in the hollow at the base of his skull, the thin point resting between the mail links of his coif, and shoved once, upward, very hard, sending the eight-inch triangular blade up through the mail rings, splitting them apart, through skin, muscle, spinal cord and deep into his soft brain. I twisted the misericorde left and right, like a man scrambling a pot of buttered eggs with a spoon. His body gave one more frightful spasm under mine, as every muscle in his body twitched and then relaxed, and I felt him soiling himself in a loud farting rush of fluid, but then, God and all His holy saints be praised, he moved no more. (Continues...)
Excerpted from King's Man by Angus Donald. Copyright © 2012 Angus Donald. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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