By Angus Donald
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Angus Donald
All rights reserved.
I have been thinking much upon Death of late; my own demise mostly, but also that of beloved comrades. I do not fear the Reaper — I like to think that I never have — and yet I can sense his presence just over the next rise. Death is not the enemy; no, he is an old, old friend coming as promised to collect me and take me on a strange journey. And perhaps when he raps at my chamber door with his bony knuckles I shall even be pleased to see him, weary as I am: for he will take me to a place where I shall see the face of God and, I earnestly pray, be reunited at last with those whom I have loved and who went on before me.
Friend or enemy, he is coming, and soon. I can feel it in my old and creaking bones; I feel it in my bladder that now needs to be emptied almost hourly in the long nighttime, or so it seems. I feel Death in my aching kidneys, in my shortness of breath and my constant, grinding weariness. But I have a task to complete before his shadow stains my threshold: I must set down another tale of my young days as a bold warrior, another tale of my friend Robert Odo, Earl of Locksley; a lord of war, a master thief, King Richard the Lionheart's loyal lieutenant, and the man the people remember best as the outlaw Robin Hood.
I have not recalled this part of my life for a long time; it has been five years since I last took up the quill to write about my strong, youthful self. My daughter-in-law Marie, who, with her husband Osric, runs this manor of Westbury on my behalf, had convinced me that it was not good for me to be dwelling on ancient battles and fruitless quests. She told me with uncommon firmness — it was indeed little short of a command — that I must pay attention to the present, that I must accept the life of the man I am today, white-haired, stooped, and well past sixty winters, and not pine for the man I was and for all my glorious yesterdays. And I think she may be right; for a while, for a year or more, I spent my days at Westbury inside the hall at my writing stand, setting down the old stories of Robin and myself. It was not a healthy life: my eyes grew blurred and tinged with blood, my hands ached from the long hours of scribbling, and my legs protested at their forced stillness, for I stirred little beyond the courtyard for months on end. The unbalanced humors in my torpid body made me irritable, even angry; worse, my mind became clouded and confused. In these past five years, with the writing stand dismantled and packed away and my quills curling, moth-chewed and dusty in an old wooden mug, I have rediscovered the joy of fresh breezes and bright sunlight, and of riding, if only on a gentle ambling mare, and I have joined my hunt servants in flying noble falcons and running the eager hounds over my lands.
However, a visit to Westbury this week by my only grandson, Alan, has changed my mind, and decided me that I must grind black ink, cut a fresh goose feather or two, and pore over parchment once again. That and the fact that Marie has gone to visit her sick cousin Alice in Lincoln, and will not return for a week or more. So here I stand in the hall of the manor of Westbury, in the fair county of Nottinghamshire, casting my mind back forty years, scratching out these lines as quickly as I may and rekindling my old, half-forgotten skills.
He is a delightful lad, Alan; strong-limbed, cheerful, clean and obedient, with a fine seat on a horse and an ear for a pretty tune — though he cannot sing a true note. He serves as a squire to the Earl of Locksley, not my old friend Robin, who has long been in his grave, alas, but his vigorous son, the new earl. Alan is being trained in warfare and gentility at Kirkton Castle, and seemingly has a respectable amount of talent with a blade; and I have received good reports of his courtly conduct, too. But my grandson has almost no notion of events that took place before his birth, fourteen short summers ago. He knows nothing and is oddly incurious about his grandmother Goody, my beloved but blazing-tempered wife, and about his own father Robert, our son. Alan seems to believe that our good Henry of Winchester has been on the throne of England for an eternity, since time began, when it has been no more than four and twenty years. And, while he has heard garbled tales of the noble sovereign King Richard and his long wars in France, he once asked me, I believe quite seriously, if it was true that he had a lion's head. So it is for young Alan, in order that he might learn the truth of these long-ago struggles and the men and women who took part in them, that I set down this tale, this tragic tale of cruel wars and savage devastation, of ugly, unnecessary deaths and the inevitable search for bloody vengeance.
Prince John was on his knees. The youngest son of old King Henry, second monarch of that name, and brother of Lionhearted Richard, now cowered on the greasy, fishy-smelling rushes on the floor of a run-down manor house in Normandy. Tears streamed from reddened eyes down his pale cheeks and he clutched at the right hand of his elder brother, who was standing over him. John's thick shoulder-length reddish hair brushing the back of Richard's hand, his oily teardrops anointing the King's knuckles as he babbled of mercy and forgiveness, swearing before Almighty God and all the saints that he would be a loyal man, a true subject from this moment forth and forever, if only his generous brother could find it in his heart to forgive him. Richard remained silent, looking down coldly at his disheveled sibling. But he did not pull his hand away.
I was watching this strange performance in the solar of the old manor house of Lisieux, in northern Normandy, some thirty miles east of Caen. I was in the small, crowded room off the main hall, standing with a score of knights a pace or two behind King Richard, and I must admit that I was thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. Prince John, once titled Lord of Ireland and Count of Mortain, who had until recently enjoyed the enormous revenues of the plump English counties of Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, was once again John Lackland, a man without a clod of earth to his name. Yet his fall was richly deserved, for John had a list of black crimes to his credit as long as my lance: when King Richard had been captured and imprisoned in Germany the year before, this sniveling prince had made an attempt to snatch the throne of England — and he had very nearly succeeded. He had schemed with Richard's enemy, King Philip Augustus of France, to keep the Lionheart imprisoned, hampering the collection of the enormous sum in silver that Richard's captor, the Holy Roman Emperor, had demanded — and even going so far as to join the French King in making a counter-offer to the Emperor if he would hold his brother in chains for another year. But he had failed, God be praised: the ransom had been painfully gathered from an already tax-racked English populace and paid over, and Richard had been freed.
On his release, the Lionheart had crushed the rebellion in England in a matter of weeks. Then, just a few days prior to this painful scene, he had crossed to Normandy with a large, well-provisioned army of seasoned fighting men. His avowed aim was to push King Philip and his French troops out of the eastern part of his duchy, which they had annexed during his long imprisonment, and contain them in the Île de France, the traditional land-locked fief of the French kings. And Prince John, who had so treacherously sided with Philip, was now on his knees before his brother, weeping and begging for forgiveness.
Truly, John had been a bad brother; disloyal, duplicitous and treasonous, and all of this despite Richard's great kindness to him before his departure for the Holy Land. I despised the man — and not only for his underhand actions against my King; I hated him on my own account, too. The previous year I had found myself, unwillingly, in John's service — and I had seen, at close quarters, his evil deeds, his callousness toward the people of England and his unholy delight in wanton cruelty. He had, in fact, ordered my death on two occasions, and it was only by the grace of God and the help of my friend and comrade, my lord Robert, Earl of Locksley, that I had escaped with my life.
I found that I was actually grinning while watching John's kneeling discomfort. King Richard was quite capable of inflicting a terrible vengeance: in the Holy Land, victorious after the fall of Acre, he had ordered the public beheading of thousands of helpless Muslim captives; and while he was retaking the fortress of Nottingham on his return to England, he had casually hanged half a dozen English prisoners of war, just to make a point to the occupants of the castle about his very serious intent. So there was no doubt that Richard was equal to the task of punishing his brother in a fitting manner; but I also knew deep in my heart that he would not. Richard would forgive John, and almost every man in that small overcrowded chamber knew it. For the King loved to show mercy, whenever and wherever he could; it pleased him to display a magnificent clemency as much as to demonstrate his wrathful vengeance. More to the point, he had a very strong sense of family duty. Whatever his crimes, the fellow now snuffling wetly on the floor before him was his own flesh and blood. How could he tell his mother, the venerable Queen Eleanor, that he had executed her youngest son?
John continued to babble and sob at the feet of the King — who remained stern and silent — when a voice from the far side of the chamber, a dry, cold voice, with a hint of the nasal twang of Gascony, called out: "Sire, give him to me, I beseech you. Give him into my hands and I will strip every inch of skin from his living body and leave him in raw, screaming agony, begging for the sweet mercy of death."
Prince John's whimpering stopped as if his mouth had been plugged; his bowed red head whipped round to the right and he stared into the gloom on the far side of the chamber from whence the voice had come, seeking its owner. I knew that voice. It belonged to Mercadier, King Richard's longtime captain of mercenaries, a grim and merciless man. Mercadier had been fighting on Richard's behalf in Normandy longer than any of us and, as a warrior and leader of several hundred battle-hardened paid fighters, he was worthy of respect — yet he had the most unsavory reputation of any man in Richard's army. His men, while fanatically loyal to the King, were, when unleashed to ravage an enemy's territory, capable of a savagery that was certainly bestial and very nearly demonic. There were tales of nuns raped and crucified, churches looted and burnned to their foundations, of babies tossed into the air and caught on his laughing men's spear-points; the streets of towns captured by these men quite literally ran with hot, fresh blood. A ghastly foretaste of the Hell they would doubtless one day inhabit followed these soldiers of fortune, these routiers, as they were sometimes called, wherever they plied their ungodly trade.
Mercadier stared boldly at the King from the far side of the chamber, awaiting a response to his bloodthirsty offer — which I had not the smallest doubt was entirely genuine. He was not a handsome man, I reflected, although his looks were certainly striking. Beneath a mop of jet black, longish hair, which looked as if it had been cut with a sword, and probably had been, the mercenary captain's dead brown eyes stared out of a swarthy, sun-darkened face that was bisected by a long, jagged scar that ran from his left temple, across his broad nose, to the bottom right-hand corner of his mouth. In the slanting afternoon light of the chamber that long yellow-white cicatrice gave him an almost monstrous appearance, like some misshapen creature from one of the Devil's uglier realms. Mercadier's offer to flay the royal traitor hung in the air: the silence thickened, clotted, until John gave a little coughing sob and dropped his red head into his two cupped hands.
Then I heard a deep voice, growling like a bear, half under its breath: "Oh, for God's sake, Sire, have we not had enough of this tomfoolery?" and looked to my left where William the Marshal, Earl of Striguil, Lord of Pembroke, Usk, Longueville, Orbec and Meuller, and dozens of other castles and manors in England and Normandy, was scowling over the King's shoulder. This veteran warrior — perhaps the finest in the army, and a man of unimpeachable courage and chivalry, a knight sans peur et sans reproche, as the trouvères put it — was looking disgustedly at the tableau before him, impatient for this pantomime of contrition and forgiveness to come to an end.
Finally, the King spoke, with an edge of grumpiness in his voice, the tone of a man whose private pleasure has been curtailed. "Oh, all right. Get up now, John, will you? And let us put an end to all this nonsense."
"Do you forgive me then, Sire?" asked Prince John, his white-and-red blotched face staring up piteously at his elder brother, looking very much like a well-whipped lapdog.
Richard nodded. "Let us put it behind us. You are no more than a child who has been badly advised by your friends. Come, brother, on your feet."
As John rose, I caught his eye and he gave me a glare of such ferocity and hatred that for a moment I was taken aback. I managed to suppress my broad grin and adopt a stern expression while our eyes were engaged. But I understood that look. Quite apart from our past involvements — and the fact that, as he saw it, I had tricked and betrayed him — he was a proud man in his late twenties, the son of a king, who had been forced to humble himself in front of a room full of his brother's knights — and, to boot, he had been called a stupid child to his face. His humiliation was complete.
Richard gave no sign of having seen the spark of fury in John's eye. He raised him up and kissed his younger sibling, clapped an arm around his shoulders and said: "Come on, let us all go and have a bite of dinner together. What have you got for us today, Alençon?" The King addressed his question to a gloomy young Norman knight standing by the doorway, who owned the hall in which we were gathered. The knight sighed lugubriously; housing and feeding a royal household full of active hungry men put a heavy strain on the purse of even the richest lord: "We have two pair of salmon, Sire; caught fresh from the Touques this morning. And there is cold venison, left over from yesterday. Some boiled ham. Rabbit pie, too, I think. We have a milk pudding ..."
"Excellent!" Richard clapped his hands together, cutting short his host's doleful speech. "Then let us eat at last."
As we all trooped into the hall, the knights joking quietly with each other as they filed through the door, I heard one say a mite too loudly: "He's no more than a naughty little boy!" His companion half-laughed, then frowned and said: "Have a care, Simon, he's still royalty; he might even be King one day and, if so, I doubt he'll be as forgiving as his brother to those who have crossed him."
* * *
At first light the next morning, well fed and rested, I rode out of Lisieux at the head of a column of a hundred armed men. At my left shoulder, on a quiet brown rouncey, rode Thomas ap Lloyd, my squire, a serious dark-haired youth on the lip of manhood, who cared for my weapons and kit, spare lances and shields, cooking and camping equipment and so on, with a zeal and efficiency that verged on the miraculous. At my right shoulder rode Hanno, a tough, shaven-headed Bavarian man-at-arms, who had attached himself to me on the long road back to England from the Holy Land, and who treated me with the friendly disrespect warranted by an oak-hard killer who had taught me so much of the arts of war, ambush and bloody slaughter.
Behind Hanno and Thomas rode Owain the Bowman, a short and deep-chested captain of archers — my second in command. Owain carried a banner on a tall pole: an image of a snarling wolf's head in gray and black on a field of white. It was the standard of my lord and master the Earl of Locksley, whom I had left behind in Yorkshire to recover from a javelin wound to his left thigh, taken at the siege of Nottingham in March.
It was now May, in the Year of the Incarnation eleven hundred and ninety-four, the fifth year of the reign of King Richard, and a magnificent spring morning. The fruit trees were still adorned with the remains of their delicate lacy blossom, the grass on the verges glowed vivid green, birds called and swooped about the column, men smiled for no particular reason, the sky was a deep, innocent blue, with a scattering of plump clouds. The world seemed fresh and new and filled with possibilities; and I was on a mission of great import and no little danger for my beloved King.
Because Robin had been wounded, as had his huge right-hand man "Little" John Nailor, I had been given the honor of leading a company of a hundred of Robin's men to Normandy as part of King Richard's army. I had never had sole command of such a force before, and I have to admit that the feeling was intoxicating: I felt like a mighty warlord of old; the leader of a band of brave men riding forth in search of honor and glory. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Warlord by Angus Donald. Copyright © 2012 Angus Donald. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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