Winter, 1361: After two decades of conflict, Edward III has finally agreed a treaty with the captive French King, John II. In return for his freedom, John has ceeded vast tracts of territory to the English. But for five long years mercenary bands and belligerent lords have fought over the carcass of his kingdom. They will not give up their hard-won spoils to honor a defeated king's promises. If the English want their prize, they'll have to fight for it. As he battles to enforce Edward's claim, Thomas Blackstone will see his name blackened, his men slaughtered, his family hunted. He will be betrayed and, once again, he'll face the might of the French army on the field. But this time there will be no English army at his back. He'll face the French alone.
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Thomas Blackstone's men rode to their deaths.
As they eased their horses through the town's narrow streets Sir Gilbert Killbere watched the townspeople who moments before had cheered their arrival. Now, their faces filled with panic, some quickly turned away; others scuttled behind pillars. Killbere knew immediately that he and his men had been lured into a trap by the ill-named Breton lord, Bernard de Charité, who commanded the citadel of Saint-Aubin-la-Fère. Before he could call out a warning crossbowmen appeared on the walls and the first bolts struck home. Horses reared; men fell. An animal-like cry then soared up from the citizens as lust for the Englishmen's death twisted their features anew. Some dared to dash forward onto the bloodied ground and seize the fallen men's weapons. Soldiers appeared from the side streets and shop doorways and roughly pushed the townsmen aside to plunge sword and knife into Blackstone's wounded and dying men.
Killbere heeled his mount as his sword slashed two soldiers reaching up for him. Swinging the blade in swift practised arcs he slew three more as his war horse kicked and turned. Killbere was no stranger to the mêlée of war. He had fought at Blackstone's side since the boy became a man and together they had taken part in every great battle and victory the English had secured in France and Italy. Now he was going to die in a piss-stinking alleyway.
Swordsmen, jabbing low, thrust their blades deep into his horse's flanks and chest. The wild-eyed animal bellowed in pain and Killbere cursed as he crashed down into the mud. Desperately trying to parry the blows that assaulted him, he ripped his shield free from its saddle ties and rammed his sword upwards into the groin of one of his attackers. In his agony the man barged into the others while Killbere, twisting, managed to haul the shield across his body. He felt the heavy impact as a mace slammed into it. A blade jabbed at his side; slithering away, he struck out at the man's ankles and felt the steel cut deeply through unprotected flesh. The man fell, writhing, further obstructing the attackers, his screams joining the cacophony that echoed off the town's walls.
One of the attackers threw himself across Killbere's shield, smothering him with his weight as others grabbed his arms and yanked him upright. They had him now. Sweat and blood stung his eyes. He saw Blackstone's men going down from the overwhelming assault. Jack Halfpenny's archers had had no chance to unsheathe their war bows so the battle-hardened men, the backbone of King Edward's army, fought with archer's knife, sword and raw courage. An English archer's bow was of little use in such a confined place. Crossbowmen were better suited to close-quarter ambush and de Charité had used them well. Killbere saw the young ventenar jig left and right, crying out for the twenty archers he commanded to fall back, but most were already dead or dying so Halfpenny made one last desperate assault on the two men who cornered him. His archer's strength gave him the advantage and he smashed his left fist into one man's face, half turned on his heel and slashed the long archer's knife across the other's throat. Killbere struggled, brought up an elbow and felt bone break in his captor's face. In that split second he saw Halfpenny take a stride towards him. The lad was already wounded in his side but, seeing Killbere being held, was coming to his aide.
'No!' bellowed Killbere. 'Get Thomas!' The warning shout was barely out when those who held him clubbed him to the ground. The last thing Killbere saw before a sickening darkness engulfed him was Jack Halfpenny running for his life. If anyone had a chance to escape it was the lithe archer. That, at least, gave the old fighter a sense of satisfaction.
* * *
By nightfall the lifeless bodies of Thomas Blackstone's men hung from the gibbet in the town's square. Every man displayed evidence of the wounds resulting from the betrayal and ambush by the town's lord. Shadows danced in the torchlight as Saint-Aubin's men and women, relieved from the usual curfew, were permitted to desecrate the dead with knives and staves, making the corpses sway from the assault. Nineteen more of Blackstone's fighters dangled outside of the high town walls as a warning from Bernard de Charité.
Halfpenny had escaped the slaughter amid a hue and cry that echoed around the walls. Clasping a hand over the wound in his side he had forced himself to run hard and fast despite the pain through the labyrinthine alleys until he found a niche in a wall that he could just squeeze into. When darkness fell he had concealed his bow in a narrow crevice between pillar and lintel. It had been his father's war bow and its heartwood that had bent beneath father and son's hand was as precious to Jack Halfpenny as the memory of the man who had taught him to use it. Pushing aside his regret he made his way through the shadows until he reached the high walls. Once the night watch had turned their backs to cheer the brutality being inflicted on the corpses in the square below, he skirted the parapet. Grasping the hemp rope that held the dangling body of one of his men on the outside wall he lowered himself twenty feet down. The corpse sagged as Halfpenny clutched at its clothing. Dried blood soiled the gaping mouth and swollen tongue, half severed by its teeth when the noose tightened. Halfpenny turned his face away from the man he had once commanded, hoping his weight would not tear the man's head from his neck as he slithered down the body, using it to gain extra length before having to release his grip and plunge into the dense briar patch thirty feet below. He prayed that the scattered moonlight did not conceal rocks beneath the thick foliage as he let go of the dead man and fell into the night.
* * *
The following day's weak sun failed to burn away the mist that clung to the frost-covered land. Ignoring the morning chill and the skin-splitting roughness of the stone they handled, Perinne and Meulon worked alongside their men to heft stone onto the defensive wall of a ruined building. The rising ground gave the derelict barn a commanding position over the surrounding countryside. They were twelve miles from where the ambush took place in Saint-Aubin-la-Fère and even though the shelter was temporary Blackstone had demanded a low defensive wall be built. He and his men were tasked by the King's negotiator, Sir John Chandos, with securing towns ceded to King Edward in the peace treaty. At each village or town the burghers were called upon to pledge their allegiance to the English King. Some bemoaned what was asked of them, but eventually agreed when they gazed down from their walls at the battle-hardened men who made the demand. Others quickly saw the advantage of being under the protection of a strong warrior king while their own recently released monarch languished in Paris, bankrupt and sorely pressed to keep control over what was left of his kingdom. France was soured by destroyed crops, poisoned wells and the bitterness of defeat. Mercenaries who had fought on both sides of the war ravaged what little food and supplies remained. There were some French lords who resisted handing over their towns to Blackstone and Chandos until money was exchanged, at which point French loyalties were switched with remarkable ease. Those who resisted most fiercely were mercenaries who served the Breton lords. A civil war was raging in Brittany and lands as far south as the Limousin and Poitou were held by each of the warring factions. Saint-Aubin-la-Fère was one such town. Payment had been agreed for the Breton lord to turn over the town and for the burghers to swear allegiance to the English Crown. Sir Gilbert Killbere had taken twenty archers and as many hobelars into the fortified town to deliver the payment and receive their signed agreement.
'Look!' said Perinne, squinting into the morning sun, pointing to a lone figure emerging from the mist and stumbling across the open ground a half-mile away. The men stopped work and watched the man stagger, raise an arm and then fall. Caution made the wall builders hesitate. The woodland that lay three hundred paces to the man's flank might conceal an enemy. Whoever it was that had fallen could be bait for a trap. A war horse jumped the low wall, scattering the men. Its dappled black coat looked as though it had been singed by a fire's embers, part of the reason for its reputation of having been sired in hell.
'It's Jack!' cried Blackstone as he spurred the bastard horse on. Meulon and Perinne grabbed their weapons and ran after him. The fluttering wings of a raptor caught Perinne's eye as it suddenly beat its way skywards from the forest. It made no sound until it found an up- draught that spiralled it above Blackstone's race towards the fallen Halfpenny. Perinne's heart shuddered, not from exertion but from a long-held belief that the screech of a buzzard beckoned death as it called for a man's soul. And now it circled above Blackstone.
As the two men ran forward, Blackstone's centenar Will Longdon rallied the others behind the defensive wall. 'Stand ready!' he ordered. Archers and men-at-arms swiftly prepared themselves for any attack that might surge from the woodland.
Feet crunching on the hard frost, their breath billowing, Meulon and Perinne reached the fallen man at the same time as Blackstone's squire. John Jacob had caught up to them with one of the pack horses. Blackstone's belligerent mount would never allow another to be put onto its back and if Jack Halfpenny lived then he'd need a horse to bring him into the protective wall of the old barn.
'He's alive,' cried Blackstone. He picked up the unconscious man as if he were a child. John Jacob steadied the pack horse as Blackstone draped the wounded man over its withers. Meulon and Perinne had gone twenty paces beyond them, ready to guard against anyone who might have been in pursuit of their fallen comrade. If the buzzard's alarm was a portent of death for Thomas Blackstone then the forest might cloak the enemy.
Blackstone led his horse alongside John Jacob's slow-moving mount, which now carried Halfpenny. Once Perinne and Meulon were satisfied there was no ambush they rejoined the others. Perinne kept glancing skyward but the raptor had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. As the five men made their way back to safety the squire glanced at Blackstone.
'If Jack has made it back what of Sir Gilbert?'
Blackstone looked around at the gentle undulating landscape. The countryside was plagued with routiers and it was easy to be caught in the open. 'Meulon, you and Perinne run ahead and take ten men back a couple of miles,' he said. 'Scout out the foresters' tracks through the woods. If there's no sign of Sir Gilbert and the others get back here quickly. And tell Will to ready a bed for Jack. He needs his wound attending to.'
The hulking Norman spearman ran off with Perinne at his side. The air from the big man's breath freckled his beard with frost.
Blackstone laid a hand on the unconscious man as the horse swayed. 'They might have run into skinners,' he said. Some of the mercenary bands numbered in their hundreds and a small detachment of men such as that led by Killbere could have been overwhelmed. France was more dangerous now than when the English had fought the French armies. Violence swept across the unprotected towns and villages and the slaughter would continue until King Edward claimed what was rightfully his, and until the French King had reached a settlement with those who committed such carnage without fear of retribution. Or were foolish enough to believe they could cause harm to any of Thomas Blackstone's men with impunity. 'But if those bastards at Saint-Aubin have betrayed us I swear I'll burn it to the ground and kill every last one of them.'CHAPTER 2
Jack Halfpenny had quickly regained consciousness when nurtured with Will Longdon's broth and the gash in his side had been treated and bound. Those who served with Blackstone no longer packed their wounds with cow dung and grass because they had learnt better ways to treat their injuries from a woman who had once been thought a witch. She had been a herbalist and accompanied Blackstone when, a year before, he had gone into Milan to kill the man responsible for ordering the death of his wife and child. The so-called Witch of Balon had taught the men well and shown them how to gather plants and herbs, even in winter, and to dress wounds without bleeding the wounded. That she had died under her own hand to save Blackstone made the men honour her memory. Halfpenny had insisted the slash in his side be bound tightly and that he ride with Blackstone despite his hurt. Once Halfpenny had recounted the betrayal anger swept through Blackstone's camp. Men seethed with desire for vengeance. They wanted Saint-Aubin razed to the ground. Blades were sharpened and talk was of the slaughter to come. They waited, alert and impatient, at the camp while Blackstone took his captains to reconnoitre the town's defences.
Blackstone and his captains were lying on the cold ground on the edge of a forest in the shade of its bare branches. They ignored their discomfort as they studied the walls of Saint-Aubin. Their friends' bodies still hung there in a grotesque symbol of defiance against the English King. Halfpenny squatted next to Blackstone and Will Longdon.
Blackstone had questioned him carefully about Killbere's fate but the archer had only been able to tell what he saw. Killbere had been beaten into the dirt. 'We rode in through the east gate. Bernard de Charité stood on the gatehouse wall and welcomed us. Said he accepted the payment for the town and would sign the treaty himself.'
Will Longdon spat. 'Now the whoreson has taken the payment and killed my archers.'
'And the men-at-arms,' said Blackstone quietly, without censure, keeping his attention on the high walls behind which half of his force had been betrayed and slaughtered.
'Aye, I wasn't forgetting them,' admitted Blackstone's centenar, who despite his rank had had only sixty archers under his command, a number now reduced to forty. Those twenty dead men who could loose a dozen and more yard-long bodkin-tipped shafts in rapid succession were precious resources lost to any group of fighting men. The men-at- arms who laboured in hand-to-hand combat stank of sweat and piss as they took the fight to their enemy, but an archer – merciful Christ, Will Longdon crossed himself – an archer was worth his weight in gold and no other man's stench ever smelled sweeter. 'But our bowmen, Thomas, they can't be replaced as easily as a man-at- arms.'
Blackstone looked back at him. Longdon shrugged. The truth was the truth. 'A man like Sir Gilbert was worth ten men-at-arms, Will, let's not forget that,' said Blackstone and then crawled back deeper into the woodland to receive the reports from Perinne and Meulon's scouts.
One of the captains, the German man-at-arms Renfred, shook his head. 'There is no way to scale those walls, Sir Thomas. Fifty feet high at least and over there' – he gestured to where he had just returned from his reconnaissance – 'they have cut the forest back even further. Open ground for at least four hundred yards. If they don't invite us in then I cannot see how we breach the walls. There's a lake that covers the other half of the town. No drawbridge. No postern gate to give access to the water.'
John Jacob studied the battlements and took the twig he was chewing to point out the irregular shape of the town's defences. 'And even if we got under their walls with ladders they would have us in enfilade. Their crossbowmen would cut us down as we assembled the ladders.'
'And we cannot get close enough to mine the walls,' said Meulon.
'This is why Chandos wanted it under the King's control. It's a stronghold worth depriving his enemies of,' said Blackstone. His stonemason's eye studied the walls. They were of recycled stone, a usual means of building up fortifications over the years. Such construction didn't require the skill of a stonemason's cut, but of sufficiently experienced men to lay the stone with mortar. The walls at Saint-Aubin were well built. The expertise of earlier stonemasons who once cut stone for another building nearby, probably a manor house or convent, benefited those who came later. Demolish the old and rebuild the new. Good walls, but once Blackstone was inside them he knew how to bring them down, even though John Chandos and the King wanted the fortress to remain intact.
'Jack?' he said, turning to the bandaged archer who sat propped against a tree, his hand pressing the wound, which still seeped blood. 'What can you remember about the layout? How do we get to de Charité's keep?'
Halfpenny's brow furrowed. He shook his head. 'Like a whore's heart, Sir Thomas. Impossible to reach. A portcullis after the main gate, winding streets. Alleyways and small cloisters running along the street. Some of the merchants plied their wares under them. Stalls and suchlike. I remember them selling bread off one. That smell of baked bread was the last thing I remember before the killing started.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Scourge of Wolves"
Copyright © 2017 David Gilman.
Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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