Authors: Angus Donald
I must confess that I had loved Nur once, when I was a callow youngster taking part in the Great Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I had met her in Sicily and taken her with me to Outremer but, at Acre, a great fortress in the north, my enemies had taken her, abused her foully and mutilated her face, cutting off her lips and nose and ears, and I had found to my shame that I did not love her once her beauty had been sheared away. When I first saw her after her humiliation, I cried out in fear, and she fled immediately. I still pray that God will forgive me for that moment of weakness.
When I left Outremer and returned to England, she followed me in secret, a young woman alone and on foot, through all the wild lands of Europe, and her sufferings on that terrible journey, I believe, twisted her mind towards evil. On the day that Goody and I became betrothed, at the celebration feast in Robin’s castle at Kirkton, Nur had made a terrifying appearance and cursed Goody and myself in front of all the guests. ‘I curse you, Alan Dale,’ Nur had said, in a voice rich with hatred. ‘I curse you and your milky whore!’ She pointed at Goody. ‘Your sour-cream bride will die a year and a day after you take her to your marriage bed…’
That poor wretch had repeated her curse since that day; and, in a killing rage at this and other gross provocations, I had taken men-at-arms and attacked the place where she lived in the deep woods and, I earnestly prayed, driven her for ever from my lands with fire and steel. She was an enemy that I had believed was long gone from Westbury: a sad, mad woman with no real unearthly powers, just a hideous face and a savage hatred of all men – and of me in particular. But from Father Arnold’s tale about poor drunken Katelyn, I feared Nur might once again be in our midst.
I told Goody that I suspected that our old antagonist had returned, and she took the news calmly, with a slow nod. ‘Her hatred for us is a lure: it ever draws her, like a moth to a candle, back to Westbury,’ said my wife, who was as wise as she was lovely.
‘I am not afraid of her,’ she continued. ‘I do not believe in her so-called magic. She may try to harm us in many ways, but she will not succeed not through unnatural powers, and we are now forewarned. But, more important than that, I know for certain that our love is stronger than her hatred.’
Our love might indeed have been very powerful, but I like to put my trust in iron and steel. That afternoon I had Shaitan saddled, dressed in a full suit of mail, strapped on my sword Fidelity, and with Thomas and the half dozen men-at-arms who formed the tiny garrison at Westbury, I paid a visit to the copse on the knoll where Nur had appeared before Katelyn. I was determined that I would kill the unhappy woman on sight: I would not wait for her malice to be inflicted on Goody or myself or anyone at the manor. You may think me harsh – but I knew Nur, I knew the rage that drove her, and I knew that she would never cease in her attempts to harm us until she were dead.
In any case, we found nothing that afternoon of Nur or any other soul. And while I ordered Thomas to lead daily patrols around the countryside to search for signs of her presence, we found none. After a week or two had passed, I began to relax. Perhaps the black-clad, skull-faced demon that Katelyn claimed to have seen had been no more than a spectre conjured up by her drink-sodden imagination. Perhaps I’d responded to a threat that did not exist. I prayed that it might be so.
In any case, the threat of witchcraft, real or imagined, was driven from my head at the beginning of September by the arrival at Westbury of a powerful contingent of Templar knights.
The arrival of the Templars, though most unwelcome, was not unheralded. Two days beforehand, Robin himself had ridden up to the gate in the Westbury palisade in broad daylight and demanded entrance. He brought with him Little John, Gavin and a dozen other scruffy-looking ruffians all armed to the teeth.
‘The Templars are coming for you, Alan,’ my lord said casually as we took our ease in the hall with a pot of ale apiece. ‘There is a force of them at Nottingham, my people in the castle tell me; they want to arrest you and take you in for questioning.’
Sir Nicholas de Scras joined us at the table – he nodded at Robin and said coldly, ‘My lord’, and Robin replied with an equally chilly, ‘Sir Nicholas.’
There was an awkward pause, in which I bustled around finding and filling a pot of ale for Sir Nicholas and relaying Robin’s news. These two hard men would never be friends, I realized. Robin considered Sir Nicholas to have been a traitor to King Richard – and, indeed, the former Hospitaller had foolishly sided with Prince John, as he then was, while the Lionheart had been imprisoned. Sir Nicholas, in turn, loathed Robin for his lack of respect for the law and the Church.
‘The Knights Templar are coming here to arrest Sir Alan,’ said Robin unnecessarily, perhaps just to fill the void in the air.
‘Indeed,’ said Sir Nicholas. ‘They suspect him of being a dirty thief. I believe there is a matter of some stolen silver in Paris that they wish to discuss with him.’
Robin straightened his spine, his eyes like flakes of flint. ‘They do not call him a traitor, though, unlike—’
‘I swear I am innocent of this crime,’ I said quickly, looking at both men in turn, and willing them with all my soul to keep the peace with each other, ‘and I will take any oath to that effect. Should I surrender myself to them, do you think?’
Robin laughed. An ugly grating noise. ‘Have you gone soft in the head, Alan? Do you think these God-grovelling hypocrites are interested in justice? They’ve been made to look foolish and they need to show the world that they can punish those who cross them. They would tear away your innocence with red-hot pincers and leave you begging for death. Surrender? Ha!’
I feigned a coughing fit to hide my irritation.
‘I fear the Earl of Locksley is right, Alan,’ said Sir Nicholas, with a sigh. ‘I do not think the Order is looking for the truth; they seek to make an example of you. If you wish, I will ride to Nottingham and speak on your behalf. Perhaps we can talk the matter through peacefully and come to some arrangement.’
Robin cut him off brusquely: ‘They will be here tomorrow or the next day. We can do all the
’ – he gave this word a heavily sardonic emphasis – ‘we want to when they get here. From the safety of the battlements of Westbury.’
Robin was right. We might as well wait for the Templars to come to us. But, if I could possibly help it, I did not want their visit to end in violence. Things were at a bad enough pass with the Order believing that I had stolen their money, without me being responsible as well for the slaughter of a squadron of their men. The Templars were a power in the land, very close to King John. Indeed, he was rumoured to have gone to them for ready money when he came to the throne.
‘We will wait for them here,’ I pronounced. ‘I will not allow them admittance inside these walls; I will speak to them from the gate. And we will fight, if necessary. But I want you to promise me, Robin, that you will not attack them unless I give the order. I do not want a bloodbath on my doorstep.’
‘This is your manor,’ my lord said smiling grimly. ‘You have dominion here. My men and I are entirely at your disposal.’
As so often with Robin, my feelings towards him were several and contradictory. On the one hand, he had arrived with a timely warning about the Templars and with reinforcements for my small garrison at a moment of urgent need, and for that I was most grateful. On the other hand, I knew that he had been the very man who had robbed the Templars of their silver in Paris – and so he was the one who had brought this trouble down on my head. Yet the contradictions ran deeper. He had indeed used a letter of credit made out in my name to rob the Paris Temple, but a good deal of the money he had stolen, he spent on ransoming my French cousin Roland from a brutal mercenary captain called Mercadier, who had taken him prisoner in battle and threatened to blind him.
Robin was as good as his word about ceding authority to me: he dressed himself in rough peasant garb and a shabby hood, and later that afternoon leaning on his tall yew bow and chatting to the other outlaws in the sun-lit courtyard of Westbury, he seemed the very image of an ordinary archer. Sir Nicholas de Scras kept himself busy with Thomas and Westbury’s few men-at-arms, exercising them with sword and shield around the tall paling set in the centre of the courtyard. I looked at my troops: seven reasonably competent men-at-arms, twelve archers, Robin, Little John, Thomas and Sir Nicholas. And me. Twenty-four men. Not much of an army but we were not a company that it would be easy to beat.
The Templars were spotted a good mile off by Kit, one of my steadier men-at-arms, who was on sentry duty. It was a single
; a score or so of horsemen in the black surcoats of Templar sergeants, and two knights in white mantles at the head of the column. Even at that distance, I could make out the glint of iron mail beneath the surcoats, and each man bore shield and spear as well as a long sword. I sent Little John, Robin and his archers to sit up on the walkway behind the palisade on the left-hand side of the main gate. The Sherwood men had their backs to the wall of stout pinewood poles that made up the outer defence of Westbury, their legs stretched out on the walkway. They were hidden from the approaching Templars; and I hoped they would keep silent until I called for them.
My own men-at-arms I placed on the right-hand side of the main gate, also screened from view. I stood upright and visible from the chest upwards above the centre of it, with Sir Nicholas on my right and Thomas on my left and we watched impassively as the column approached. I could feel the first stirrings of rage in my stomach. These violent men were coming for me, seeking to snatch me from my wife and home and imprison me and torture me in unspeakable ways for a crime I had not committed … I deliberately dampened the glow of anger – uncontrolled rage would not help matters today.
They came towards us slowly, walking their horses, looking like peaceful visitors rather than an attacking force. And I was glad; angry as I was, I truly did not want to spill any blood that sunny afternoon. As they came nearer, I began to be able to pick out the individual features of the riders and recognize them. At the head of the column was a man I had known for several years – as both friend and foe – a decent man, I believed, a good Christian and a renowned warrior. His name was Sir Aymeric de St Maur, and he was one of the most senior Templar knights in England, second only to the Master of their Order, Sir William de Newenham. The other knight’s appearance came as something of a shock: he was the French knight from Welbeck. I could even make out the mole below his mouth.
They reined in their mounts before the gate, the white knights in front, the black-clad sergeants ranged behind them, and Sir Aymeric looked up at me, shading his face with his hand against the low sun.
‘Greetings, Sir Alan,’ he said, ‘may the blessings of Almighty God and his only son Jesus Christ be upon you.’
‘God’s blessings on you, too, Sir Aymeric,’ I replied, with as much courtesy as I could manage, ‘and what, may I humbly ask, brings you to my door on this day, armed, mounted and mailed for war?’
It was the French knight who answered: ‘We come with a warrant for your arrest, Sir Alan, signed by the Master of the English Temple Sir William de Newenham himself. He orders us to remove you from this place and deliver your person to London to answer before a special court the charge of a grave felony.’
I remembered his French tones well from our meeting by the gate at Welbeck, and from the close encounter in the forest, but it seemed he did not recognize me as the beggar who had challenged him to fight man to man in the darkness that night.
‘You appear to know my name, sir,’ I replied, coolly. ‘Be so kind as to identify yourself.’
‘I am Gilles de Mauchamps, a knight of France and a member of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, and I belong to the Paris preceptory of our sacred Order. I come to this land to bring you to justice for your crimes by order of our exalted Grand Master, Sir Gilbert Horal.’
I could see that Sir Aymeric was unhappy. ‘Perhaps, Sir Alan, it might be better if we discussed all this calmly in your hall,’ he said. ‘If you would be so good as to order the gate opened…’
I ignored the English Templar. ‘What crimes?’ I repeated, looking down at Gilles de Mauchamps, the fingers of my left hand flexing rhythmically on my sword hilt.
The Frenchman turned in his saddle and plucked a parchment scroll from his saddlebags. He unrolled it carefully and leaning the parchment on the high pommel of his saddle read aloud in a dull, clerkly voice: ‘We know that you, Alan Dale, knight of Westbury in the English county of Nottinghamshire, did visit the Paris Temple on the twenty-eighth day of August in the Year of the Incarnation eleven hundred and ninety-four and on that day you did deposit the sum in coin of three livres of one-tenth debased silver, issued by the mint of Count Bouchard of Vendôme. And on that same day you did receive a letter accrediting you with two pounds one shilling and sixteen pence. And we know that on the second day of September in the Year of the Incarnation eleven hundred and ninety-eight – almost exactly four years later – you did present what purported to be a letter of accreditation to the Paris Temple, but which was in fact a forged copy of the original letter, and you did receive from the knights the sum of five hundred and two pounds, one shilling and sixteen pence in silver coin. We therefore accuse you of the theft of five hundred pounds of silver, and charge you to open your gates and submit to—’
‘Did you say September second, eleven hundred and ninety-eight?’ Sir Nicholas de Scras spoke for the first time, interrupting the French knight in mid-flow.
Gilles de Mauchamps looked down quickly at the scroll on the pommel of his saddle. ‘I did, yes. That is correct. The second day of September, Year of the Incarnation—’
‘Sir Alan was not in Paris on that day,’ said Sir Nicholas. ‘I can vouch for him. He was in fact in Normandy at the Château-Gaillard, where he held the position of Constable under his sovereign lord King Richard of England. I can vouch for him because I was with him at the Château at the time and for several weeks before and afterwards. He could not possibly have been in Paris.’