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Authors: David Gilman

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BOOK: Defiant Unto Death
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Agonizing screams soon faltered into whimpering pain and then fell silent as the wounded were put to death. Blackstone stepped into the tower and saw Meulon cutting a wounded man's throat. His men stood gasping for air, their lungs heaving, this final assault sapping the last of their strength. Blackstone knew they all needed sleep, food and a safe haven, but there were still men in the stronghold who could gather their wits and their weapons and hunt them down.

‘Bring it up,' he commanded. Meulon and two others took to the windlass as Blackstone stepped back out into the night and called for the others. ‘Gaillard. The bridge! Lower it! And open the gates!'

Gaillard's unmistakable lumbering figure led others from the cover of one of the low stone buildings towards the two counterweights below. Once they were released the ten-foot drawbridge would drop into place across the defensive ditch and join road and castle.

Inside the tower his exhausted men secured the windlass and slumped against the wall. Only Meulon remained standing, but Blackstone could see that even he had little left in him to carry on the fight.

Blackstone said: ‘The garrison's not yet surrendered. Meulon! Two men who bear wounds remain here for the portcullis. They see French reinforcements – drop it. Everyone else outside.'

They had neither slept nor eaten a decent meal in three days, had vomited their way across a violent sea and fought quagmire and enemy. For a moment it seemed the gaunt-eyed men might refuse as he turned back through the door, not wanting to risk his order being questioned, not knowing what he would do if it were. As he reached the courtyard he heard the men chase down the steps after him. The gaping space in the vaulted archway was without portcullis and gate. The way of escape was now open.

‘Gaillard, Meulon. Form up the men, shield high. We'll chase the wolf from its lair.'

Of the twenty men who had followed him over the wall, three were now dead, two bore wounds that would need a barber-surgeon and everyone else, including himself, carried lesser hurts. He stepped forward, followed by fourteen men who brought their shields up and advanced across the open courtyard. The scattered remnants of the garrison's force saw their discipline and their swords held ready to strike and, as Blackstone wheeled the men like beaters driving game, they ran for the open gate and safety beyond the garrison's walls.

One group did not.

A strengthening wind whipped torchlight flames, distorting the shadows, making the small knot of men indistinguishable from the building they defended. Were there more than the handful of men that Blackstone could see, who stood in front of a lone bareheaded figure? They made no advance to attack, waiting instead for Blackstone to turn on them. He halted his men; the stronghold was theirs except for these soldiers. The bareheaded man was the knight he had seen running across the courtyard. His shield was distinguished by a boar's head, and the men's jupons bore the same emblem. Blackstone realized it was the garrison commander and led his men forward slowly; the outnumbered Frenchmen had to be fearful, as every man is when death approaches, but Blackstone could see their resolute stance in defence of their lord.

‘Hold the men,' Blackstone told Meulon, and stepped closer to the group. The torchlight around them showed them to be older men, most, Blackstone guessed, having known battle for twenty-odd years; taken into their lord's service when they were little more than boys. Probably about the same age as Blackstone's fourteen-year-old brother when he had gone to war with him ten years before. And if these men had survived this long it meant their fighting skills were honed. The knight reminded him of Sir Reginald Cobham, the unyielding warrior who had commanded at Crécy. Older. Aggressively proud. Fearless.

Blackstone stopped ten paces from them.

‘I am Thomas—' he began, but was quickly interrupted by the knight.

‘I know who you are, Thomas Blackstone. A routier and a murderer. A man without honour. I am Henri de la Beaumont, Count of Saint-Clair-de-la-Beaumont and guardian of this, my lord King's castle.'

Blackstone knew in that moment that the old man would never surrender and that more of Blackstone's men would die in this fight.

‘This place is lost, my lord. I claim it in the name of Edward, King of England, and his son the Prince of Wales. Lay down your weapons.'

The old man sneered and spat into the dirt. ‘To a handful of cut-throats? Your bodies will float back on the tide like turds from our latrines.'

Blackstone heard his men shuffle into a half-moon formation behind him. They would envelop these few men and the long night of bloodshed would finally end.

‘I desire no more slaughter, my lord. Take your men and leave this place,' said Blackstone. ‘I will not even ask for your surrender because you think me a lesser knight than yourself. If you stand fast and wait until morning then Lord de Grailly will take your surrender and ransom you to your King.'

Blackstone saw the look of defeat move across the old man's face. If the Captal de Buch was so close then he had struck further north than had been thought possible. This was no mere opportunistic raid by a daring independent captain; it was an attack designed to give King John's enemies a strategic advantage. For a moment Blackstone thought the old fighter would see the helplessness of the situation. There was no shame in surrendering to someone of such rank as de Grailly. But de la Beaumont's eyes narrowed with contempt.

‘Jean de Grailly is a Gascon arse-wipe for your English King.'

Blackstone could refuse to engage the old man and wait until de Grailly arrived and took command, but the shuffling feet and gathering of shields meant the men were ready to fight and die. It took only an instant for it to happen; a brief warning as men's eyes steeled themselves. Then, like men in a dream wading helplessly through mud, the French came forward. Shields clashed and the illusion ended. Blackstone barged and hacked, feinted and killed. Wolf Sword's blood knot bit into his wrist and kept its slippery grip firmly in his hand. Spears lunged past him as Meulon beat down with a mace, hammering a man's helmet and skull into pulp. The old knight waited behind his men, determined not to yield whatever lay in the building behind him. It would be Blackstone who would kill him – a swift, vicious fight that would end in the knight's death. Blackstone beat his way forward, men at his shoulder. A sudden blow caught him as a wounded Frenchman went down wildly swinging his sword; the flat of it slammed across the back of Blackstone's head. He fell hard, rolled quickly, covering himself with his shield. Contorted faces of his dead men glared at him. Images of them when alive flashed through the pain in his head. He scrambled to his feet, but his men had pushed past him and he saw Meulon parry the knight's blows, allowing men behind him to ram their spears into the old man, pinning him to the door. He squirmed, coughed blood, looked wildly at Blackstone – a man of rank and honour being slaughtered by lesser men – seconds before others mobbed him and hacked him down. The old boar was dead. The fight was finally over.

Blackstone ripped the silver belt from the knight's body and passed it to Meulon. It was his reward.

‘Search the garrison. There'll be plate and Sir Henri will have clasps and silk. Gather whatever you find before Lord de Grailly's men arrive – they'll strip the place.' All except Meulon and Gaillard grabbed torches and ran. ‘Go out and find Guillaume and Perinne, then close the gates,' he told them.

The two men defied their exhaustion and lumbered into the night as Blackstone dragged Sir Henri's body aside and pushed open the door that he had guarded. The spluttering torch lasted long enough for Blackstone to see barrels packed with crossbow bolts and swords. Spears were stacked against the wall. The French had used the garrison for supplying local lords to support the southern borders against Gascony. There was no sign of coin until Blackstone shifted some of the weapons and then pulled aside planks shrouded in old sackcloth covered with a few shovelfuls of earth. The space dug below the floor was big enough for several barrels, but he found only two remaining – enough, Blackstone realized, to keep the men who served him until they raided again next year, and enough to deny the French King the means to pay his vassals in the area. It would be a good, long year when Blackstone's men could rest and he would lie with Christiana beneath the shade of the great willow down at the riverside. They would make another baby and the year would end with its birth. This fight had been worth every damned minute of its misery.

Within the hour Guillaume and Perinne, barely conscious from their hours spent lying in the cold water, were wrapped into blankets and kept close to a blazing fire the men built in the centre of the courtyard. They lay with their backs to the warmth, with their booty gathered near them, and let the fatigue of battle finally claim them.

When the distant church bell rang for matins, Jean de Grailly's troops moved down the narrow road between smouldering reed beds. He had kept his word and secured the route from the south. A sentry, barely awake, called out the challenge and then allowed de Grailly to ride forward with a handful of his men, taking in the sight of the battleground within the walls. It was too soon after the fighting to see anything other than Blackstone's filthy and exhausted men. Their bodies, caked in dried mud and blood, gave them the appearance of a wild, ancient tribe. He had a fleeting thought that he would rather have this scarred fighter on his side than not. French defenders' bodies lay scattered where they had fallen across battlements and courtyard, as smoke still drifted over the wasteland. A handful of dead men lay butchered in front of a building, their stench already rising like the morning tide. De Grailly had half expected to ride down the road and find the French garrison intact. He had planned for skirmishers to ride out and lay ambush should the French come at him in force. There would have been no shame in turning back and admitting he had gone too far north.

But Thomas Blackstone and his savage-looking men had offered him glory.

‘You will have made a grave enemy of the King of France for this success, Thomas,' said de Grailly as he dismounted.

‘I took it in the name of Edward. You'll hold it for him, my lord?' said Blackstone, aware that de Grailly had not extended the hand of friendship, nor made any gesture to embrace a fellow knight.

‘I'll garrison it with a hundred men and send a messenger to the Prince. Is there food here?'

‘I dare say, but we've slept this past couple of hours. We needed that more than food.'

De Grailly nodded, looking about the scene. And saw the boar-head shield lying near one of the dead. ‘You slaughtered Sir Henri. A ransom could have been earned.'

‘He placed too high a price on himself.'

De Grailly studied the Englishman. ‘As have you after this attack. They'll want your head on a pole for the King to see. The hornet's nest has been badly beaten with a big stick. You will soon be even more famous than I am. In truth, you are already. Very well, Thomas. I'll have the rest of your men brought from the rear of the column.'

‘Thank you, my lord. I need your barber-surgeon for my wounded.'

‘Then you will have him. And my cooks will feed you. I'll have Sir Henri's body sent home for a Christian burial; the others we'll let the tide take out to sea.'

Blackstone looked at those who had survived the fight. ‘There's a church somewhere near; we've heard its bell. I'll take my dead and bury them there and have prayers said for them.' He looked at the unstained surcoat of the knight. If there had been fighting it had not been done by de Grailly, although Blackstone knew that if there was killing needed doing de Grailly would be happiest in the turmoil, using his sword. Whatever conflict they had faced coming up from the south must have offered little contest for the Gascon war leader. His fighting was still to come.

‘See to it. Your plunder is safe here. None of mine will touch it. Honour your dead.'

Finding the church was easy enough; they simply waited until the next call to prayer was chimed and followed the dull, mournful sound. The poorly cast bell from an inefficient foundry offered no hope or joy in its sullen clanging. The marshland gave way to forest and then a clearing, with tree stumps still unearthed, that supported a timbered enclosure with a wooden belfry. It was a modest foothold for a humble monastic cell that supported only half a dozen monks, who lived in hovels and spent their time scratching a living from the soil and keeping a few goats for their milk. The undernourished monks and their mud-caked habits told their own story of toil. As Blackstone led his hard-bitten soldiers into the clearing the monks gathered in a fearful knot. One of them stepped forward. He was younger than some of the others; his dirt-ingrained hands gripped the axe he had been using to chop wood, but it was held close to his body, suggesting it was more for comfort and assurance than any intended act of violence.

‘We have nothing here of value, but we have broth we can share. Your soldiers look hungry,' the monk said with some trepidation in his voice. These dangerous-looking men had obviously been involved in the fighting the night before that had set the night sky alight. Appeasement seemed the only option. There was so little to plunder but that did not mean that killing for its own sake was not their intention.

Blackstone looked at the man's veins, which pulsed from the pressure of his grip. The monk's face was etched with weariness, making him look older than his years, but his eyes glared with a determination that meant he would die defending the holy cross that no doubt had pride of place in the wattle and mud chapel.

‘Is there a prior here?' Blackstone asked.

‘No, we are little more than a cell for our order. The priory itself is a week's walk to the east. We have not yet cast a vote to see who among us should lead us. We make our choices by common consensus. I am Brother Clement.'

BOOK: Defiant Unto Death
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