Authors: David Gilman
The wounds of war still bled.
The greatest army in Christendom had been slaughtered ten years earlier at CrÃ©cy, when Thomas Blackstone and his fellow archers stood their ground and rained death on knight and horse, prince and commoner. It was from that squalid field of death that Blackstone had risen, fought hand to hand and saved the English King's son. Dragged from the blood-soaked mud, the badly wounded Blackstone had been given the last sacrament and honoured by his King. There was no greater accolade than to be knighted in battle and Sir Thomas Blackstone's broken body withstood its agony and eluded the dark mantle of death. Over the years since that day King Edward had continued to press his claim to the French throne. He still held Calais, the gateway to France, but that mighty nation was not yet on its knees.
Pestilence had ripped through the two kingdoms, stripping away lives and revenues, leaving both monarchs unable to finance war, or to bring about a decisive battle. Not yet. That would come when Norman lords, tricky and aggressive men who craved more power within France and who harboured resentment against their King, finally became strong enough to challenge him.
It was said Thomas Blackstone was like a ghost in a graveyard. A man could sense his presence but by the time he turned to face the spectre the chill wind of death struck him down. No one knew where this scarred-faced Englishman might strike next. That he was protected by Norman lords deep in their territory was known, but when mercenary assassins, disavowed by the French King, rode into the forests of the Norman stronghold to seek him out, their bodies were found hanging by the roadside.
His fierce reputation might have suffered had his enemies seen him on this windswept day. Spume ripped from the wave tops as the tide raced against a swirling offshore wind that flailed the sea into a saw-toothed, gut-wrenching swell. The thirty-ton cog, its rudder being wrenched by the turbulence, needed two of the fifteen mariners aboard to hold its tiller. The tide was rising and they hoped that the sandbar ahead of the ship was covered by sufficient water to save the protesting timbers from running aground and casting those on board into the mercy of the waves and the sucking mud that lay beyond. Blackstone's mentor from days gone by shouted a simple command into his mind.
Choose your ground to fight!
Sir Gilbert Killbere's voice insisted. Sweet merciful God, this was not
! This was the heaving hulk of a ship, one of the hundreds that had taken Edward's army to France ten years ago. And ten years was too short a respite before being put back aboard a cork-bobbing hulk, no matter how seaworthy her master insisted she might be.
Blackstone welcomed the stinging salt on his face and sucked the cold air deep into his lungs as he gripped the gunwale of the lurching ship. Vomit rose and he retched across the bow, knowing there were men behind him clinging as he was and now, no doubt, sprayed with his previous night's dinner.
âHow much longer?' he yelled at the master who, unlike Blackstone and his men, stood braced, legs apart, on the raised quarterdeck, and cupped a hand to his ear to catch the knight's words.
âI'll tell you when I know, Sir Thomas! When I know! Not a damned moment before!'
Blackstone balanced himself, twisting a ship's rope about his arm. He brought the silver figure of Arianrhod from around his neck, and kissed it with spittle-flecked lips. The pagan goddess had been given to him years before by a dying Welsh archer in the ferocious battle for Caen and her protective mantle had served him well, but misery made him reach further in his quest for relief.
Sweet Jesus, I have turned my back on you many a time. I place my faith in pagan superstition, but I swear to you, by all that is holy in heaven, that if you bring me through this torture I will give my share of spoils from this battle to the nearest, poorest church I find.
A figure staggered up next to him, but the man who held the ship's side for support showed no sign of illness. He pulled his hair back from his face with the help of the biting wind. âPromises to God are seldom kept, my lord. Better to pray to your stomach for comfort,' said Guillaume Bourdin, Blackstone's squire, as if he had read his lord's mind. The young fighter was unaffected by the raging waves. Blackstone could barely raise his eyes without his gorge rising. He squared his shoulders, shamed by his squire's lack of discomfort. Blackstone had not been on a ship since that crossing to invade France ten years ago, when his brother Richard had been the only man unaffected, yet here he was breaking the vow he had made never to repeat the experience. Every second of the heaving horizon twisted his stomach. Nothing had changed.
âThe men?' Blackstone demanded, half turning just in time to see the stern rise on a mighty wave, making the small ship dip her nose into a trough that threatened to pitchpole her end over end. Blackstone and Guillaume clung to their handholds. The master shouted an unheard command and the ship slid across the face of the wave, shuddered and then steadied back on course. The single sail fluttered, its iron-hard wet canvas cracking like the snap of a mighty oak being felled. Blackstone could see the packed deck, men huddling behind their shields, shoulders jammed into their neighbour's, steadying themselves. âCan they fight?' Blackstone demanded.
âA third are too weak; half have a chance to reach the castle walls; the rest might have the strength to scale them and fight.' Guillaume squinted through the spray. The shoreline and its feared sandbar were getting closer. The
Saint Margaret Boat
was twice as long as she was wide, overladen with men and rundlets of tar and oil. She wallowed like a drunken pig.
âYou're smiling like a monk with a candle up his arse! Don't mock your sworn lord, Guillaume â he can make your life more hellish than this!'
âForgive me, lord, but from what the sailors say there's no need to worry about assaulting the castle. There's a wicked cross-current at the mouth of the estuary and beyond that bogland that will suck down man and horse. Taking the stronghold is the least of our worries.'
Another bone-jarring crash and Guillaume bent his body to accommodate the turbulence. He was lithe and strong, taught to move rapidly with sword, axe and mace. A fighting man, nineteen years old, with the immortality of youth, who had fought at Blackstone's side through desperate hours of battle since the squire had forged his pact of loyalty.
A warning cry carried on the wind. The master had urged his sailors to put their weight on the slab of sail. âYou'd best ready yourself, Sir Thomas!' he yelled. âLose a man here and he's gone to the devil!'
Blackstone took another turn on the rope and felt the ship surge, lift and crash in a bone-jarring jolt. In the sudden, unexpected contortion, Guillaume's fingers tore loose from their purchase and his body slammed into the ship's side. The blow took his legs from him and he grabbed wildly to find a handhold. Blackstone loosened his grip on the rope, its coarse fibre stinging his palm as it slid through his hand. He snatched Guillaume's tunic and took his weight, but knew, despite his strength, that the heaving, sluicing deck would soon wrench the squire free and he would be lost. The young man's set face showed the determination Blackstone had first recognized when his squire was a boy, and had held a trembling dagger close to Blackstone's face to protect his dying master. But now there was sudden panic in Guillaume's eyes. Neither spoke, but with a final, desperate glance at his sworn lord, Guillaume was snatched from him by a churning, malevolent green wave, shrouded in white spray, that tore across the ship's bows.
Helplessness and regret engulfed Blackstone. He should have left the ship's master, Jennah of Hythe, on the alehouse floor in Bordeaux with a knife at his throat and let the drunken German mercenaries, who had started the fight, finish it. But Blackstone had kicked the heavy-set murderer aside when the men pinned Jennah's arms. Knife fights in harbour taverns often ended with someone dead or maimed, but holding a defenceless man down was worse than pig slaughter and so Blackstone stopped it. Men in alehouses should know better than to challenge strangers, he had said to the German who threatened him. Foolishly, the drunken knifeman lunged â a futile attempt, as Blackstone and Guillaume quickly disarmed their attackers. Then Blackstone's captain, Meulon, the throat-cutter, did the rest, quietly and with a cut so deep the men had no breath left to cry out. The old whore who ran the alehouse screamed abuse, but Meulon showed her the blade and raised his shaggy eyebrows. No words were needed. The woman kicked the child servant and the floor was sluiced; then sawdust was thrown across the spilled blood as the men's bodies were dragged through the back alley that led to the wharf. The splash as they hit the water twenty feet below was barely heard. The Prince's invading army would not miss three of their men.
And Master Jennah was grateful. After a dozen shared bottles of rough red wine and a plate of mutton, his rambling stories of sailing the graveyard coast of France's western shores mentioned a castle garrisoned in the French King's name that held a key bridge across a river fifty miles to the north as the crow flies. Rumour had it that it held weapons that supplied the French king's supporters. It was too far north for the Prince of Wales to attack and the castle's key location kept his loyal Gascon commander, the Captal de Buch, from warring beyond Bordeaux. The English Prince wanted booty and victory, not a prolonged, bone-aching siege in the marshlands, which is why he took his army south: the Prince had landed in Bordeaux late the previous year and was raiding south and east from Bordeaux. Like a cork in a bottle the castle sat at the head of an estuary, a foul, mist-laden place of stinking marsh gas like a whore's fart and a powerful, surging tide. And when that tide turned it left a devil's maw of a quagmire.