Extract From Bestselling Novel
THE GREATEST KNIGHT
Published by Sphere in Paperback
ISBN 0 7515 3660 1
Also now published by Sourcebooks in the United States.
Based on the true story of William Marshal, one of England's greatest heroes.
The below is copied and pasted from the manuscript on my PC, so not a precise copy of the finished version - but close enough.
Fortress of Drincourt, Normandy, Summer 1167
In the dark hour before dawn, all the shutters in the great hall were closed against the evil vapours of the night. Under the heavy iron curfew, the fire was a quenched dragon’s eye. The forms of slumbering knights and retainers lined the walls and the air sighed with the sound of their breathing and resonated with the occasional glottal snore.
At the far end of the hall, occupying one of the less favoured places near the draughts and away from the residual gleam of the fire, a young man twitched in his sleep, his brow pleating as the vivid images of his dream took him from the restless darkness of a vast Norman castle to a smaller, intimate chamber in his family’s Berkshire keep at Hamstead.
He was five years old, wearing his best blue tunic, and his mother was clutching him to her bosom as she exhorted him in a cracking voice to be a good boy. ‘Remember that I love you, William.’ She squeezed him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. When she released him they both gasped, he for air, she fighting tears. ‘Kiss me and go with your father,’ she said.
Setting his lips to her soft cheek, he inhaled her scent, sweet like new mown hay. Suddenly he didn’t want to go and his chin began to wobble.
‘Stop weeping, woman, you’re unsettling him.’
William felt his father’s hand come down on his shoulder, hard, firm, turning him away from the sun-flooded chamber and the gathered domestic household, which included his three older brothers, Walter, Gilbert and John, all watching him with solemn eyes. John’s lip was quivering too.
‘Are you ready son?’
He looked up. Lead from a burning church roof had destroyed his father’s right eye and melted a raw trail from temple to jaw, leaving him with an angel’s visage one side, and the gargoyle mask of a devil on the other. Never having known him without the scars, William accepted them without demur.
‘Yes, sir,’ he said and was rewarded by a kindling gleam of approval from John Marshal’s one eye.
In the courtyard the grooms were waiting with the horses. Setting his foot in the stirrup, John Marshal swung astride and leaned down to scoop William into the saddle before him. ‘Remember that you are the son of the King’s Marshal and the nephew of the Earl of Salisbury,’ his father said as he nudged his stallion’s flanks and he and his troop clattered out of the keep. William was intensely aware of his father’s broad, battle-scarred hands on the reins and the bright embroidery decorating the wrists of the tunic.
‘Will I be gone a long time?’ his dream self asked in a high treble.
‘That depends on how long King Stephen wants to keep you.’
‘Why does he want to keep me?’
‘Because I made him a promise to do something and he wants you beside him until I have kept that promise.’ His father’s voice was as harsh as a sword blade across a whetstone. ‘You are a hostage for my word of honour.’
‘What sort of promise?’
William felt his father’s chest spasm and heard a grunt that was almost laughter. ‘The sort of promise that only a fool would ask of a madman.’
It was a strange answer and the child William twisted round to crane up at his father’s ruined face even as the grown William turned within the binding of his blanket, his frown deepening and his eyes moving rapidly beneath his closed lids. Through the mists of the dreamscape, his father’s voice faded, to be replaced by those of a man and woman, arguing in a tent.
‘The bastard’s gone back on his word, bolstered the keep, stuffed it to the rafters with men and supplies, shored up the breaches.’ The man’s voice was raw with contempt. ‘He never intended to surrender.’
‘What of his son?’ The woman asked in an appalled whisper.
‘The boy’s life is forfeit. The father says that he cares not - he still has the anvils and hammers to make more and better sons than the one he loses…’
‘He does not mean it…’
The man spat. ‘He’s John Marshal and he’s a mad dog. ‘Who knows what he would do. The king wants the boy.’
‘But you’re not going to…you can’t!’ The woman’s voice rose in horror.
‘No, I’m not. That’s on the conscience of the King and the boy’s accursed father. The stew’s burning, woman; attend to your duties.’
William’s dream self was seized by the arm and dragged roughly across the vast sprawl of a battle camp. He could smell the blue smoke of the fires, see the soldiers sharpening their weapons and a team of mercenaries assembling what he now knew was a stone throwing machine.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
‘To the King.’ The man’s face had been indistinct before but now the dream brought it sharply into focus, revealing hard, square bones thrusting against leather-brown skin. His name was Henk and he was a Flemish mercenary in the pay of King Stephen.
Without answering, Henk turned sharply to the right. Between the siege machine and an elaborate tent striped in blue and gold, a group of men were talking amongst themselves. A pair of guards stepped forward, spears at the ready, then relaxed and waved Henk and William through. Henk took two strides and knelt, pulling William down beside him. ‘Sire.’
William darted an upward glance through his fringe, uncertain which of the men Henk was addressing, for none of them wore a crown or resembled his notion of what a king should look like. One lord was holding a fine spear though, with a silk banner rippling from the haft.
‘So this is the boy whose only value to his father has been the buying of time,’ said the man standing beside the spear-bearer. He had greying fair hair and lined care-worn features. ‘Rise, child. What’s your name?’
‘William sir.’ His dream self stood up. ‘Are you the King?’
The man blinked and looked taken aback. Then his faded blue eyes narrowed and his lips compressed. ‘Indeed I am, although your father seems not to think so.’ One of his companions leaned to mutter in his ear. The King listened and vigorously shook his head. ‘No,’ he said.
A breeze lifted the silk banner on the lance and it fluttered outwards, making the embroidered red lion at its centre appear to stretch and prowl. The sight diverted William. ‘Can I hold it?’ he asked eagerly.
The lord frowned at him. ‘You’re a trifle young to be a standard bearer, hmm?’ he said, but there was a reluctant twinkle in his eye and after a moment he handed the spear to William. ‘Careful now.’
The haft was warm from the lord’s hand as William closed his own small fist around it. Wafting the banner, he watched the lion snarl in the wind and laughed with delight.
The King had drawn away from his advisor and was making denying motions with the palm of his hand.
‘Sire, if you relent, you will court naught but John Marshal’s contempt…’ the courtier insisted.
‘Christ on the Cross, I will court the torture of my soul if I hang an innocent for the crimes of his sire. Look at him…look!’ The King jabbed a forefinger in William’s direction. ‘Not for all the gold in Christendom will I see a little lad like that dance on a gibbet. His hellspawn father, yes, but not him.’
Oblivious of the danger in which he stood, Aware only of being the centre of attention, William twirled the spear.
‘Come child.’ The King beckoned to him. ‘You will stay in my tent until I decide what is to be done with you.’
William was only a little disappointed when he had to return the spear to its owner who turned out to be the Earl of Arundel. After all, there was a magnificent striped tent to explore and the prospect of yet more weapons to look at and perhaps even touch if he was allowed – royal ones at that. With such a prospect in mind, he skipped along happily at King Stephen’s side.
Two knights in full mail guarded the tent and various squires and attendants waited on the King’s will. The flaps were hooked back to reveal a floor strewn with freshly scythed meadow and the heady scent of cut grass was intensified by the enclosing canvas. Beside a large bed with embroidered bolsters and covers of silk and fur stood an ornate coffer like the one in his parents’ chamber at Hamstead. There was also room for a bench and a table holding a silver flagon and cups. The King’s hauberk gleamed on a stand of crossed ash poles, with the helmet secured at the top and his shield and scabbard propped against the foot. William eyed the equipment with longing.
The King smiled at him. ‘Do you want to be a knight, William?’
William nodded vigorously, eyes glowing.
‘And loyal to your king?’
Again William nodded but this time because instinct told him it was the required response.
‘I wonder.’ Sighing heavily, the King directed a squire to pour the blood-red wine from flagon to cup. ‘Boy,’ he said. ‘Boy, look at me.’
William raised his head. The intensity of the King’s stare frightened him a little.
‘I want you to remember this day,’ King Stephen said slowly and deliberately. ‘I want you to know that whatever your father has done to me, I am giving you the chance to grow up and redress the balance. Know this; a king values loyalty above all else.’ He sipped from the cup and then pressed it into William’s small hands. ‘Drink and promise you will remember.’
William obliged, although the taste stung the back of his throat.
‘Promise me,’ the King repeated as he repossessed the cup.
‘I promise,’ William said, and as the wine flamed in his belly, the dream left him and he woke with a gasp to the crowing of roosters and the first stirring of movement amongst the occupants of Drincourt’s great hall. For a moment he lay blinking, acclimatising himself to his present surroundings. It was a long time since his dreams had peeled back the years and returned him to the summer he had spent as King Stephen’s hostage during the battle for Newbury. He seldom recalled that part of his life with his waking memory, but occasionally, without rhyme or reason, his dreams would return him to that time and the young man just turning twenty would again become a fair-haired little boy of five years old.
His father, despite all his manoeuvring, machinations and willingness to sacrifice his fourth born son, had lost Newbury, and eventually his lordship of Marlborough, but if he had lost the battle, he had rallied on the successful turn of the tide. Stephen’s bloodline lay in the grave and Empress Matilda’s son, Henry, the second of that name had been sitting firmly on the throne for thirteen years.
‘And I am a knight,’ William murmured, his lips curving with grim humour. The leap in status was recent. A few weeks ago, he had still been a squire, polishing armour, running errands, learning his trade at the hands of Sir Guillaume de Tancarville, chamberlain of Normandy and distant kin to his mother. William’s knighting had announced his arrival into manhood and advanced him a single rung upon a very slippery ladder. His position in the Tancarville household was precarious. There were only so many places in Lord Guillaume’s retinue for newly belted knights with ambitions far greater than their experience or proven capability.
William had considered seeking house room under his brother’s rule at Hamstead, but that was a last resort, nor did he have sufficient funds to pay his passage home across the Narrow Sea. Besides, with the strife between Normandy and France at white heat, there were numerous opportunities to gain the necessary experience.. Even now, somewhere along the border, the French army was preparing to slip into Normandy and wreak havoc. Since Drincourt protected the northern approaches to the city of Rouen, there was a current need for armed defenders.
As the dream images faded, William slipped back into a light doze and the tension left his body. The blond hair of his infancy had steadily darkened through boyhood and was now a deep hazel-brown, but fine summer weather still streaked it with gold. Folk who had known his father said that William was the image of John Marshal in the days before the molten lead from the burning roof of Wherwell Abbey had ruined his comeliness, that they had the same eyes, the irises - deep grey, with the changeable muted tones of a winter river.
‘God’s bones, I warrant you could sleep through the trumpets of Doomsday, William. Get up you lazy wastrel!’ The voice was accompanied by a sharp dig in William’s ribs. With a grunt of pain, the young man opened his eyes on Gadefer de Lorys, one of Tancarville’s senior knights.
‘I’m awake.’ Rubbing his side, William sat up. ‘Isn’t a man allowed to gather his thoughts before he rises?’
‘Hah, you’d be gathering them until sunset if you were allowed. I’ve never known such a slugabed. If you weren’t my lord’s kin, you’d have been slung out on your arse long since!’
The best way to deal with Gadefer who was always grouchy in the mornings, was to agree with him and get out of his way. William was well aware of the resentment simmering among some of the other knights who viewed him as a threat to their own positions in the mesnie. His kinship to the chamberlain was as much a handicap as it was an advantage. ‘You’re right,’ he replied with a self-deprecating smile. ‘I’ll throw myself out forthwith and go and exercise my stallion.’
Gadefer stumped off, muttering under his breath. Concealing a grimace, William rolled up his pallet, folded his blanket and wandered outside. The air held the dusty scent of midsummer, although the cool green nip of the dawn clung in the shadows of the walls, evaporating as the stones drank the rising sunlight. He glanced towards the stables, hesitated, then changed his mind and followed his rumbling stomach to the kitchens.
The Drincourt cooks were accustomed to William’s visits and he was soon leaning against a trestle devouring wheaten bread still hot from the oven and glistening with melted butter and sweet clover honey. The cook’s wife shook her head. ‘I don’t know where you put it all. By rights you should have a belly on you like a woman about to give birth.’
William grinned and slapped his iron-flat stomach. ‘I work hard.’
She raised a brow that said more than words, and returned to chopping vegetables. Still grinning William licked the last drips of buttery honey off the side of his hand and going to the door, braced his arm on the lintel and looked out on the fine morning with pleasure. The peace of the moment was broken by the sound of shouts from the courtyard. Moments later the mail-clad earl of Essex and several knights and serjeants raced past the open door towards the stables. William hastened out into the ward. ‘Hola!’ he cried. ‘What’s happening?’
‘The French and Flemings have been sighted in the outskirts!’ a knight panted over his shoulder.
The words hit William like a bolt of lightning. ‘They’ve crossed the border?’
‘Aye, over the Bresle and down through Eu. Now they’re at our walls with Matthew of Boulogne at their head. We’ll have the devil of a task to hold them. Get your armour on Marshal, You’ve no time for stomach-filling now!’
William sprinted for the hall. By the time he arrived his heart was thundering like a drum and he was wishing he hadn’t eaten all that bread and honey for he felt sick. A squire was waiting to help him into his padded undertunic and mail. Already dressed in his, the Sire de Tancarville was pacing the hall like a man with a burr in his breeches, issuing terse commands to the knights who were scrambling into their armour.
William pressed his lips together. The urge to retch peaked and then receded. As he donned his mail, his heartbeat steadied, although his palms were slick with cold sweat and he had to wipe them on his surcoat. Now was the moment for which he had trained. Now was his chance to prove that he was good for more than just gluttony and slumber, and that his place in the household was by right of ability and not family favour.
By the time the Sire de Tancarville and his retinue joined the earl of Essex at the town’s West Bridge, the suburbs of Drincourt were swarming with Flemish mercenaries and the terrified inhabitants were fleeing for their lives. The smell of cooking fires had been overlaid by the harsher stench of indiscriminate burning and in the Rue Chausée a host of Boulonnais knights were massing to make an assault on the West Gate and break into the town itself.
Eager, nervous, resolute, William urged his stallion to the fore, jostling past several seasoned knights until he was level with de Tancarville himself. The latter cast him a warning glance and curbed his destrier as it lashed out at William’s sweating chestnut. ‘Lad, you are too hasty,’ he growled with amused irritation. ‘Fall back and let the knights do their work.’
Flushed with chagrin, William swallowed the retort that he was a knight and reined back. Glowering, he allowed three of the most experienced warriors to overtake him but as a fourth tried to jostle past, William spurred forward again, determined to show his mettle.
Roaring his own name as a battle cry, de Tancarville launched a charge over the bridge and down the Rue Chausée to meet the oncoming Boulonnais knights. William gripped his shield close to his body, levelled his lance and gave the chestnut its head. He fixed his gaze on the crimson device of a knight on a black stallion and held his line as his destrier bore him towards the moment of impact. He noticed how his opponent carried his lance too high and that the red shield was tilted a fraction inwards. Steadying his arm, he kept his eyes open until the last moment. His lance punched into the knight’s shield, pierced it and even though the shaft snapped off in William’s hand, the blow was sufficient to send the other man reeling. Using the stump as a club, William knocked the knight from the saddle. As the black destrier bolted, reins trailing, William drew his sword.
After the first violent impact, the fighting broke up into individual combats. Nothing in his training had prepared William for the sheer clamour and ferocity of battle but he was undaunted and fed upon the experience avidly and with increasing confidence as he emerged victorious from several sharp tussles with more experienced men. He was both terrified and exhilarated; like a fish released from a calm stewpond into a fast-flowing river.
The Count of Boulogne ordered more troops into the fray and the battle for the bridge became a desperate crush of men and horses. Armed with clubs, staves and slingshots, the townspeople fought beside the castle garrison and the battle swayed back and forth like washing in the wind. It was close and dirty work and William’s sword hand grew slippery with sweat and blood.
‘Tancarville!’ William roared hoarsely as he pivoted to strike at a French knight. His adversary’s destrier shied, throwing his rider in the dust where he lay unmoving. William seized the knight’s lance and urged the chestnut towards a knot of Flemish mercenaries who were busy looting a house. One man had dragged a coffer into the street and was clubbing at the lock with his sword hilt. At a warning shout from his companions, he spun round, but only to receive William’s lance through his chest. Immediately the others closed around William, furiously intent on dragging him from his mount.
William turned and manoeuvred his stallion, beating them off with sword and shield, until one of them seized a gaff resting against the house wall and attempted to hook William from his horse. The gaff lodged in his hauberk at the shoulder, the lower claw tearing into the mail, breaking several riveted links and sinking through gambeson and tunic to spike William’s flesh. He felt no pain for his blood was coursing with the heat of battle. As they surrounded him, trying to grab his reins and drag him down off the horse, he pricked the chestnut’s loin with his spurs and the stallion lashed out. There was a scream as a shod hind hoof connected with flesh and the man dropped like a stone. William gripped the stallion’s breast strap and again used the spur, forward of the girth this time. His mount reared, came down, and shot forward so that the soldiers gripping the reins had to let go and leap aside before they were trampled. The mercenary wielding the hook lost his purchase and William was able to wrench free and turn on him. Almost sobbing his lord’s battle cry, he cut downwards with his sword, saw the man fall, and forced the chestnut forwards over his body. Free of the broil of mercenaries, he rejoined the bulk of the Tancarville knights, but his horse had a deep neck wound.
The enemy had forced the Drincourt garrison back to the edge of the bridge. Smoke and fire had turned the suburbs into an antechamber of hell, but the town remained unbreached and the French army was still breaking on the Norman defence like surf upon granite. Bright spots of effort and exhaustion danced before William’s eyes as he cut and hacked, no longer any finesse to his blows. It was about surviving the next moment and the next…in holding firm and not giving ground. Every time William thought that he could not go on, he defied himself and found the will to raise and lower his arm one more time.
Horns blared out over the seething press of men and suddenly the tension eased. The French knight who had been pressing William hard, disengaged and pulled back. ‘They’re sounding the retreat!’ panted a Tancarville knight ‘God’s blood, they’re retreating! Tancarville! Tancarville!’ He spurred his destrier. The realisation that the enemy was drawing off, revitalised William’s flagging limbs. His wounded horse was tottering under him but undaunted, he flung from the saddle and joined the pursuit on foot.
The French fled through the burning suburbs of Drincourt, harried by the burghers and inhabitants, fighting rear guard battles with the knights and soldiers of the garrison. William finally ran out of breath and collapsed against a sheepfold on the outskirts of the town. His throat was on fire with thirst and the blade of his sword was nicked and pitted from the numerous contacts with shields and mail and flesh. Removing his helm, he dunked his head in the stone water trough provided for the sheep and making a scoop of his hands, drank greedily. Once he had slaked his thirst and recovered his breath, he wiped the bloody patina from his sword on a clump of loose wool caught in the wattle fence, sheathed the blade, and trudged back to the bridge, suddenly so weary that his shoes felt as if they were made of lead.
His chestnut was lying on its side in that ungainly way that told him even before he knelt at its head and saw its dull eyes that it was dead. He laid his hand to its warm neck and felt strands of the coarse mane scratch his bloodied knuckles. It had been a gift at his knighting from the Sire de Tancarville, together with his sword, hauberk and cloak, and although he had not had the horse long, it had been a good one - strong, spirited, and biddable. He had expended more pride and affection on it than was wise and suddenly there was a tightening of grief in his throat.
‘Won’t be the last you’ll lose,’ said de Lorys gruffly, leaning down from the saddle of his own dappled stallion which had several superficial injuries but was still standing, still whole. ‘Fact of war, lad.’ He extended a hand that, like William’s, was bloody with the day’s work. ‘Here, mount up behind.’
William did so, although it was an effort to set his foot over Gadefer’s in the stirrup and swing himself across the crupper. The cuts and bruises that had gone ignored in the heat of battle now began to strike him like chords on a malevolently plucked harp, especially across his right shoulder.
‘Wounded?’ Gadefer asked as William caught his breath. ‘That’s a nasty gash in your mail.’
‘It’s from a thatch gaff,’ William replied. ‘It’s not that bad.’
De Lorys grunted. ‘I won’t take back the things I’ve said about you. You’re still a slugabed and a glutton…but the way you fought today – well that makes up for everything else. Perhaps my lord Tancarville has not wasted his time in training you after all.’
That night the Sire de Tancarville held a feast to celebrate a victory that his knights had not so much snatched out of the jaws of defeat, as reached down the throat of annihilation, dragged back out and resuscitated. Badly mauled the French army had drawn off to lick its wounds and for the moment at least, Drincourt was safe, even if the neighbouring county of Eu was a stripped and pillaged wasteland.
William sat in a place of honour at the high table with the senior knights who feted him for his prowess in his first engagement. Although exhausted, he rallied beneath their camaraderie and praise. The squabs in wine sauce, the fragrant, steaming frumenty and apples seethed in almond milk went some way to reviving his strength, as did the sweet, potent ice-wine with which they plied him. His wounds were mostly superficial. De Tancarville’s chirugeon had washed and stitched the deeper one to his shoulder and dressed it with a soft linen bandage. It was sharply sore; he was going to have the memento of a scar, but there was no lasting damage. His hauberk was already in the armoury having the links repaired and his gambeson had gone to the keep women to be patched and refurbished. Men kept telling him how fortunate he was. He supposed that it must be so, for some of the company had left their lives upon the battlefield and he had only lost his horse and the virginity of his inexperience. It didn’t feel like luck though when someone inadvertently slapped him heartily on his injured shoulder in commendation.
William de Mandeville, the young earl of Essex, raised his cup high in toast, his dark eyes sparkling. ‘Hola, Marshal, give to me a gift for the sake of our friendship!’ he cried so that all those on the high table could hear.
William’s head was buzzing with weariness and elation but he knew he wasn’t drunk and he had no idea why de Mandeville was grinning so broadly around the trestle. Knowing what was expected of him, however, he played along. The bestowing of gifts among peers was always a part of such feasts.
‘Willingly my lord,’ he answered with a smile. ‘What would you have me give to you?’
‘Oh, let me see.’ De Mandeville made a show of rubbing his jaw and looking round at the other lords, drawing them deeper into his sport. ‘A crupper would do, or a decorated breastband. Or a fine bridle perchance?’
Wide-eyed, William spread his hands. ‘I do not have any such items,’ he said. ‘Everything that I own – even the clothes on my back are mine by the great charity of my lord Tancarville.’ He inclined his head to the latter who acknowledged the gesture with a sweep of his goblet and a suppressed belch.
‘But I saw you gain them today, before my very eyes,’ de Mandeville japed. ‘More than a dozen you must have had, yet you refuse me even one.’
William continued to stare in bewilderment while a collective chuckle rumbled through along the dais and grew in volume at William’s expression.
‘What I am saying,’ de Mandeville explained, between guffaws, ‘is that if you had bothered to claim ransoms from the knights you disabled and downed – even a few of them – you would be a rich man tonight instead of an impoverished one. Now do you understand?’
A fresh wave of belly laughter surged at William’s expense, washing him in chagrin, but he was accustomed to being the butt of jests and knew that the worst thing he could do was sulk in a corner or lash out. The ribbing was well meant and behind it, there was warning and good advice. ‘You are right, my lord,’ he agreed with de Mandeville. The shrug he gave made him wince and brought a softer burst of laughter. ‘I didn’t think. Next time I will be more heedful. I promise you will receive your harness yet.’
‘Hah!’ retorted the Earl of Essex. You’ve to get yourself a new horse first, and they don’t come cheaply.’
On retiring to his pallet that night, William lay awake for some time despite his weariness. His mind as well as his body felt bludgeoned. The images of the day returned to him in vivid flashes, some, like his desperate fight with the Flemish footsoldiers repeating over and over again, others no more than a swift dazzle like sharp sun on water, there and gone. And through it all, running like a thread, needle-woven into a tapestry was de Mandeville’s jest that wasn’t a jest at all, but hard truth. Fight for your lord, fight for his honour, but never forget that you were fighting for yourself too.