Authors: Angus Donald
Published by Sphere
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Angus Donald
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
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Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
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Table of Contents
For Mary, Emma and Robin,
with all my love
My immortal soul is in grave peril, I have been informed, for the sin of blasphemy. And, as I am now in my seventh decade, a weary old man approaching my end, I suppose I must try to treat this sort of thing with a degree of seriousness – even if this extraordinary knowledge was imparted to me by a bouncy stripling barely out of childhood with a wispy upper lip and a brutally fresh tonsure … But I must strive to be fair in these writings; I must not indulge my envy of his youth: Father Anselm, our village priest, is no callow stripling, he is fully twenty-three years of age. It is only that he looks to me like an untried lad of twelve summers. Perhaps, when the ripe pimples that stud his small, eager face have cleared up, I will be able to show him the proper respect due a man of God.
But somehow I doubt it.
How did I blaspheme? I laughed in church today during Mass, long and very loud, joyously and uncontrollably; indeed, such was my mirth that I was forced to excuse myself and leave in the midst of the lesson. I was reproved for my levity afterwards, and I may, Father Anselm warned me, even be guilty of blasphemy as well – a mortal sin. I showed a gross lack of reverence for a holy object and I must do a penance. When he told me this after the service this morning, it was only with a deal of difficulty that I did not begin to roar like a donkey once again.
It happened like this: Father Anselm was delivering his usual Sunday homily to the villagers and using the Flask of St Luke the Evangelist, as it is known, our village’s only relic, as the basis for his theme, and the words from the Gospel of Matthew about the power of Faith as his text. I’m sure you will know it. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain: “Remove hence to yonder place”, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.’
Father Anselm claims that he had a vision in which St Luke himself came to his bedside and gave him the flask – which is an ancient leather bottle, sealed on the inside with pitch and at the neck with a wooden stopper. It has a rather indistinct image stamped into the leather of a prone man and a bovine animal of some kind. Father Anselm claims that it is an image of St Luke himself and his symbol of an ox, and that the saint told him to use it for God’s work in the manor of Westbury in the county of Nottinghamshire. My manor, where I am lord over all, except perhaps over my sharp-tongued daughter-in-law Marie, mother of my grandson and namesake Alan. It is my church, in fact, that Father Anselm preaches in. It stands on my land, the living is within my gift, and it was my silver, not five years ago, that paid for the new roof. If I choose to laugh there about his ridiculous stories of visions and holy flasks, surely that is my right.
I know that Father Anselm is lying about the vision; that water flask used to belong to me, and I gave it to the old village priest of Westbury – not Anselm’s predecessor Father Gilbert, but the incumbent even before him, a little owlish man named Father Arnold – long ago when I had returned from my travels in the south. Nobody but me remembers him now – they are all in their graves. I do not know exactly where Arnold hid the bottle away in his little cott behind the church but, evidently, Father Anselm has newly discovered it and he is now pretending that because, like me, it is very old, it must be a sacred relic. It is not – the ox is, in fact, a bull and the man depicted on the leather is St Sernin, a holy man who lived and died in the far south, and whose image can be found, I would imagine, on hundreds or even thousands of similar water bottles that are sold to pilgrims in the beautiful, rose-coloured city of Toulouse. I know because that is where I bought this particular bottle, merely as a container for refreshment during my journeying, when I was in that city some forty years ago.
I will refrain from exposing the priest as a liar, although I would enjoy that a good deal. That would no doubt also gravely imperil my soul, I suspect, but I choose not to expose him for another, better reason. Father Anselm is a distant kinsman of the Earl of Locksley, a landowner in the counties of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and I have given the priest the living here at Westbury as a boon to the Earl. This magnate is not my old friend Robert Odo, the hero of all those lively ale-house rhymes, and the man who was my liege lord and companion on many a bloody adventure – no, alas, my old friend Robin has long been in his grave – this is his son, a bird of a very different feather. Yet I would not wish to offend him by embarrassing his priestly kinsman. So I will remain silent about the true provenance of the Flask of St Luke, and I will try to control my mirth when he prates about the power of faith to move mountains and how the flask will perform miracles if only the villagers will believe in it. I am too old to make fresh enemies, and fight yet more futile battles over something as slight as a boy priest’s foolish lies.
I have seen enough of battle in my long life. Quite enough.
I must husband my strength, too. I do not know how long I have left in this sinful world – it cannot be long – and before I depart I have a tale to set down upon this parchment by my own blotched and shaking hand. By strange coincidence, it too is a tale of faith, and of a mountain. A tale of that journey to the rosy city of Toulouse when I was not much older than Father Anselm – a young knight of five and twenty years. It is a tale of that old leather flask, and a tale about my friend, the thief, the warrior, the cruel and generous lord – the current Earl of Locksley’s father, whom all the people knew then as the outlaw Robin Hood…
The sound of a screaming horse ripped through the warm, dusty summer air in the hall at Westbury: a raw blast of scalding pain and rage, barely recognizable as coming from a living thing and not some monstrous creature from a sweat-drenched nightmare. I was leaning over the long table at the north end of the hall, with my steward Baldwin, and Father Arnold, the old village priest, frowning over a scatter of parchments and rolls at the tally of rents and dues from the previous year, and building myself a mild headache after several hours of close study.
At the first equine squeal, I jerked upright, turned from the table and sprinted towards the door of the hall, vaulting the central hearth that lay directly in my path and bursting out through the portal into the bright July light of the courtyard. I knew the animal that was making that terrible sound: a gigantic, noble beast, dark as sin, strong as a mountain and worth two years’ revenues from Westbury. It was my destrier, my trusted friend and mount in many a desperate mêlée: it was Shaitan. And when Shaitan was angry, hurt or frightened, he was as lethal as a maddened bull – just as powerful and twice as vicious. As I burst out of the hall doorway, I saw that my warhorse, saddled, bridled and accoutred for a morning gallop, had already taken a toll on the human population of Westbury. A young groom called Matthew lay on the dried mud of the courtyard, whey-faced and clutching an obviously broken arm, his eyes wide with agony. Shaitan was pawing the ground, skittering, capering and snapping his teeth at the centre of a loose ring of my people, men-at-arms, grooms, farm servants and maids. The Westbury folk, all of whom seemed to be shouting advice over each other, were wisely keeping their distance from the vast prancing, kicking, bucking bulk of the horse. All except one: my squire Thomas, a young man of seventeen or so summers, with peat-brown hair and dark Welsh eyes, and an air of oak-hard sturdiness, who had followed me to the wars in France. Thomas had the horse’s leather reins wrapped around both of his fists, pulled taut, his weight leaning back in an attempt to keep the animal at least partly anchored. Shaitan suddenly stopped his weird capering and raised his massive head in one quick jerk, hauling Thomas forward willy-nilly; the horse then let out a massive squeal of displeasure and shook his heavy head, causing Thomas to scuttle to one side, then the other. The animal’s wide shoulders bunched, the head dipped and, like twin black battering rams, his hind legs pounded out, iron-shod hooves slicing the air inches from the face of an incautiously close man-at-arms behind him. It was a manoeuvre that Shaitan had been patiently taught, long before I had owned him – and his ability to do this was part of his enormous value: the backwards double-kick was a deadly strike in the fierce press of battle that could crush an enemy’s skull or stave in his chest, and it was only by the grace of God that no one had been killed so far on this day. Thomas had been dragged to his knees in the courtyard dust by then, and had lost one of the reins. He grimly held the other in both hands; but Shaitan, his chestnut eyes rolling in fury, grunting neighs exploding from his nostrils, clearly resented this slight check on his liberty; the huge black head swooped down, lips peeled back to expose pink gums and big, square yellow teeth, and, fast as a pouncing cat, my warhorse lunged forward and bit down hard on Thomas’s shoulder, eliciting a scream from the young man and a satisfied snort from the beast.
Into this maelstrom of angry horse and anguished squire, shouting folk and weeping, terrified servants, stepped my beloved, my utterly beautiful wife Godifa. She came out of the dairy, a white apron tied around her slim middle, the sleeves of her gown rolled up beyond her elbows, hands slightly reddened with hard work: blonde hair tucked under a neat white cap, pale cream face, sparkling violet-blue eyes – and an air of calm, quiet womanly authority, more remarkable for the fact that she had only recently passed her twentieth birthday. She seemed to glide smoothly towards Shaitan like a swan, her feet invisible beneath the hem of her long blue gown, her arms were held wide, outstretched to make the shape of the cross, and I saw then that she had a short cheese knife in her right hand. She was making a low meaningless noise in her throat as she advanced relentlessly on the destrier, who was now scuttling and prancing crabwise, shaking his back and hindquarters as if trying to wriggle his huge barrel of a body out of his tight riding saddle.