At Poictiers

Monday, 16 October 2017

JOHN OF GHISTELLES

He wasn’t scared of dying. That was, after all, always the prospect a soldier faced in battle and being scared of it would be as absurd as a woodworker being scared of wood. And (as he told himself before every combat) if he did die, it would be good to see his father again. Catch up. This morning, though, he mounted his horse and looked across the parched French landscape at so enormous a French army and something quailed within him. Not cowardice, or fear, or even despair, but rather a swamping sense of the pointlessness of it all. He was thirsty, ill-rested, weary of prancing up and down France killing people and burning their towns, and now that matters had finally been brought to a proper battle it would, evidently, all be over very quickly. The French would hammer the English. Their numerousness would wash over like the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians, and that would be that. It was, he supposed, the sense of anti-climax that offended him. So much hardship and horror, and all to end like this.

Still: duty was duty. Honey twat, key manny prance, and so on. He urged his horse on, and the wheezy creature staggered to the left, then plodded forward. Poor old nag, he’d had a hard time of it in France. Not properly looked after, neither watered nor fed adequately, and now wheezy and broken.

Men were readying themselves. That damned thorny hedge was going to be a problem. Would hem them in. He saw men with cuts on their arms and faces from stumbling into it. And here was Old Sir Tom Felton, who had fought at Cressy, and who told everybody all about it every bloody day and twice on Sunday. His horse looked clapped out too. You can’t properly water a horse on wine, after all.  ‘Good morning to you, Sir Thomas,’ he called.

‘I suppose we’re just waiting on your namesake now,’ Old Tom growled back, and went into a spasm of coughing.

‘It’s in God’s hands, Sir Tom.’

A third knight, young and perky, came trotting up: Sir James Audley. ‘Isn’t this sky wonderful? Now that the clouds have cleared away! Mostly. Look at that blue!’ he said, and put his head back. ‘Hello sky! I greet you, clouds! What a great day!’

‘We’re stuck between this thorn-bush on the left,’ complained Sir Tom, interspersing his words with coughs, ‘and that woodland over on the right. It’s will crush us as a vice does.’

‘There are men in the bush you know,’ said Audley, patting his horse’s twitchy neck. The biting flies were buzzing already, though the morning air was cool. ‘How they aren’t scratched to pieces I don’t know.’

John peered at the distant French host, counting banners. There was the oriflamme; there the banner of Duke Charles of Normandy. And there, God curse him, was the flag of that treacherous Scot Sir William Douglas, may haggis tear his heart out. Assuming haggis was an animal. Perhaps it was the name of a girl?

And—suddenly—he is here, he is here, said the bright Monday morning, and the very birds spiralled upwards in an ecstasy of liquid twittering song. The red-and-blue of his padded surcoat was bright in the early light, and the black armour beneath, his yellow hair. ‘Good morning good knights,’ he said in English, and laughed.

‘Your highness.’

‘Highness’

‘Highness’

The lords and nobles who followed behind him looked dour. They, clearly, felt some of that same weight of pointlessness that oppressed John’s chest. ‘Let’s get it over with,’ growled the Earl of Salisbury. ‘No point in delaying the inevitable.’

‘Patience is Victory’s lady-in-waiting,’ returned the Prince. He peered, from the little hilltop, at the sea of men facing them less than a mile away. ‘Is that the Cardinal’s banner?’

‘I believe so, your highness.’

That is poor form. Only yesterday he was going between the two camps suing for peace. He should not be fighting. It’s not proper.’

‘And yet,’ said Salisbury, ‘there he is.’

‘He is a man who likes to be on a winning side,’ coughed Sir Tom. ‘You don’t get wear the Cardinal’s hat without having that instinct.’

‘Brave Sir Thomas,’ laughed the Black Prince. ‘Come now. Were you this glum before Cressy?’

‘I am glad to die, with honour, fighting beside you, highness,’ said the old knight, sitting up straighter in his saddle.

‘Well now, let me see,’ the Prince, casting his eye over the French. ‘At Cressy they charged, and we shot them to rags with arrows. They’ll not make that mistake again, I think.’

‘It seems they have thickened their armour, and added protection to their horses,’ said Salisbury. ‘Highness.’

‘It’s what I would do, if I were in Jean’s gilded leather shoes. Well—Audley?’

‘Sir?’

‘You’ll lead out a troop, go south and swing round. Get at them from the side. I’ll send a larger force north. With God’s help, we shall win this day. Do you know why, Sir Tom?’

‘Why what, highness?’

‘Why we shall win?’

‘Because our deaths will glorify the king your father’s campaign,’ returned the grizzled old knight, ‘and so ensure that the rest of France be captured. In our defeat is our victory.’

At this Edward put his head back and laughed, loud, at the morning sky. ‘God be praised that I have such warriors about me, this day,’ he said. ‘I’d better go and make a speech, I suppose. To the men at arms. But, Audley, you start your feint. Go south, and they’ll think you’re slinking away. And you, Beauchamp, ride to the baggage train. Tell them to cut across land towards the forest, only make sure the French see it. They’ll think we’re retreating in disarray. Sir Tom, bold Sir Tom, you agree with me that the French believe they will win?’

‘Yes, your highness.’

‘And do you hesitate to tell me what all my highest noblemen are too scared to say—that my own men are certain we shall lose this day?’

Thomas looked started at this question, unsure how to answer. ‘Highness …’ he grumbled, and then he stopped.

‘Those men,’ said Edward, peering into the distance, ‘are already living in the morrow. They are already, in their minds, back in their chateaux and farmhouses, boasting to their wives and wenches how bravely they fought and how glorious their victory was. They are not in the here-and-now. Our men are looking only at death, where there is no forward point from which to look back. That means they are fully present, all in the moment and alive with a fierce life. A man will fight harder for his life than for a future twice-told tale. We have our backs against the thorn, and so we will press forward. The French will run at us, but their thoughts are all behind them.’

‘Highness,’ said John Ghistelles, addressing his prince for only the second time in his entire life, ‘may I go with Lord James Audley?’ He spoke French.

‘Speak English, man, English’ Edward replied, grinning at him. ‘This day of all days. But yes, brave sir, of course you may.’

And the next thing John knew he was trotting with Lord James Audley and two dozen fine knights, through bright sunshine and into proper battle. None of your piss-on-the-ground little sieges, or riding through towns chopping down olive-merchants. A full battle. His spirits began to lift. This was why he was here, after all.

They passed a great crowd of English men-at-arms, all clustering around the prince on his horse, listening to his words. ‘…gallantry. You have heard we are fewer than they, and indeed you have eyes in your head, so you can see it. But battle,’ his voice rising, ‘is not decided by the numbers, but by the will of God.’ A great cheer. ‘If we die, then God be thanked that battle will have taken so few from the great army of the king my father—and we shall take many more of them with us! But if we live, and victory is ours, then how much greater the glory, divided between so few! And therefore, brothers and men, fight with me as …’ The words became less clear as John rode off. He still strained to hear: true and knight shouted to the air, and a second great cheer, and then indistinct sound and then Saint George and another cheer. Then the sound of birdsong and the hushing of the breeze, and the hoofs of a dozen horse over dry ground.

They rode down a gentle slope, and the land became slightly marshier. No stream, though. The horses picked a way less surely. Here they came into the positions of four or five hundred archers, who had camped there overnight, holding the southern approach. Audley rallied them quickly enough: they were stiff and tired, having been on guard since Sunday morning without relief. At least a proper fight would be a change, bach, which is as good as rest, see. With many complaints and bad words they stood and shook as much of the stiffness out of their legs and arms as they could. John looked back, and saw the English army forming up. He looked ahead, and saw individual French riders, small as toys, galloping up and down the fore of King Jean’s French lines. They would be doing all that pre-battle flimflam: boasting of what they were about to accomplish, challenging the Black Prince to single combat, all that sort of stuff.

A fly bit John’s horse on its underbelly, and the drunken beast reared on its hind legs, like a preacher, whinnying in outrage. John slid from the saddle and landed flat on his back on the ground. All the wind went out of him, and it took him long minutes to get back up. ‘Alright there, bach,’ said an archer. ‘Never trust a ffycin horse, as my old gran used to say, and you’ve got a right horse, here. A horse in Llaregub bit her littlest finger clean off—clean off look you, from her left hand. My nan, that is. Nine-fingered Lynne, they called her after that.’ I’m alright, John wheezed. I’m. Alright. A second archer joined the first, and between them they got him upright again. It hurt to breathe. To breathe. Hurt to. Had he broken a rib? Damn and dammit, that was poor timing. Couldn’t be helped. Maybe he was just bruised. He took a deep draught of air and it felt like a lance was piercing his side. ‘Fuck,’ he said. The Welsh liked this. ‘It’s not every ffycin English nob will speak like a true soldier, look you’ said the first archer, approvingly. ‘Assist me back onto my horse,’ John said, and they guided his iron foot in the stirrup and helped him haul his iron body onto the beast’s spine again. He sat for a minute, his whole torso humming with pain. Shallow breaths, shallow breaths. But there wasn’t any time: Audley was leading his small cavalry troop away at a brisk walk, the archers jogging alongside. John spurred his horse, and the motion sent horrible jags of agony up his chest and along his spine. When he had caught up he was able to slow to an amble, and that went a little easier on him. Still hurt though—Christ, how it hurt.

Shallow breaths. Shallow breaths.

The French were a blur of men on the horizon, far away, and still far, and then suddenly John could make out individual faces and drawn swords and the great flank of a massive army, turning its steeds to face this puny assault. ‘We’ll go in once,’ Audley was yelling at the men, ‘and come away again, and when they chase us I want you to knock them all over with your arrows. Alright?’

Then the charge was happening. John didn’t even hear the word: they were just in motion, and the fiery glow of pain suddenly intensified in jolting barbs of agony in time to the motion of the horse beneath him. The thicket of French arms darkened and swelled. The pain in his ribs was so overwhelming it pushed the thought of drawing his sword quite out of his head, and then next thing he knew he had ridden hard against a French rider. There was the sudden apparition of a howling helmeted head close to him, and a great jolt as his horse shouldered into the armoured flank of the other beast, and then the other rider disappeared. John’s horse staggered like the drunkard it was, stepped sideways, and started trotting back. John held on, just about, but by the time he realised what was happening he was already on his way back to the archers. Audley and the other horsemen overtook him on this retreat and then the air was full of the serpentine hissing of arrows. He saw these as fuzzed lines, or saw them not at all but only heard them, and then he followed Audley in wheeling his horse about. A thousand mounted French knights came pummelling the turf towards them, and arrows drew lines through the sky and John, gasping, saw them clattering off the armour like peas from a peashooter. Saw them slide and bounce, shafts wobbling, harmless.

‘Christ and his fucking virgin mother,’ shouted Audley, lifting his sword to lead a second charge. John couldn’t breathe. He gulped at air like a carp in a greenscum pond. Couldn’t. Couldn’t catch his breath. Finally got his sword out. Dug his heels in, and his horse danced forward three steps, stopped sharply, throwing him painfully against the beast’s neck, then jumped forward casting him off for a second time.

This time he rolled, and though the collision with the earth hurt desperately he didn’t break anything else. Didn’t think he had, anyway.  Once again footsoldiers reached him, and helped him up. John had no idea if these were the same archers as before. ‘Problem is the ffycin glue, bach,’ one told him. ‘Been so dry, see? It’s parched the glue holding the arrowhead to the shaft, is the ffycin issue, and so the pointy bit is liable to come away, see.’

‘Help me up,’ rasped John. ‘Help me.’ The French had turned and were assembling for another charge. The action of clambering up on his horse again was twice as painful as the last time, but John got back in the saddle, and paused to try and scrape together some breath. The French were coming. He could feel the vibrations through the ground, hear the low thunderous rumble, see the swarm of armed men pouring forward. He lifted his sword, although raising his arm hurt his chest sorely. Away to his right, in the middle distance, he could see a huge body of French footsoldiers advancing upon the main English position.

‘Saint George,’ he gasped and then felt a surge of shame at the feebleness of the noise he was making, shame that felt, oddly, like exhilaration. For fuck’s sake, come on. He tried again: ‘Saint George,’ he screamed, and the action of his lungs was burning fire inside his torso, and the pain was so intense a strange narrowing and paleness descended upon his field of vision, but he ignored this and leant forward and spurred his horse. He was riding. ‘Saint George,’ he cried, a third time. The French were almost upon them. He saw two things, one following quickly upon the other. The first was an arrow, fired from somewhere over to his left, sinking flight-deep into the rear of a French horse, and that horse shrieking and falling, dragging its rider down with it. The second thing he saw was a burly rider heading straight for him, mace held at the end of an outstretched metal arm, looming up at him. John lifted his sword, but the collision of mace and the front of his helmet broke the bones of his face into a cloud of hard particles, and these passed swiftly back through the matter of his brain as a whisk passes through cream to froth it up. He was off his horse. He was horizontal in plain air. He was upside down, vertical, heels-over-head, in plain air. When his body landed, front-first on the dirt, John was no longer a part of it.

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