Vagabond, p.8
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       Vagabond, p.8

           Bernard Cornwell
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  He turned when he reached a stand of hornbeams that guarded the upper path like a rampart. Eleanor was walking stubbornly away and Thomas had an urge to shout to her, but knew she was already too far off and would not hear him. He had quarrelled with her before; men and women, it seemed to Thomas, spent half their lives fighting and half loving and the intensity of the first fed the passion of the second, and he almost smiled for he recognized Eleanor's stubbornness and he even liked it; and then he turned and walked through the trampled drifts of fallen hornbeam leaves along the path between stone-walled pastures where hundreds of saddled stallions were grazing. These were the war-horses of the English knights and men-at-arms and their presence in the pastures told Thomas that the English expected the Scots to attack because a knight was far better able to defend himself on foot. The horses were kept saddled so that the mailed men-at-arms could either retreat swiftly or else mount up and pursue a beaten enemy.

  Thomas could still not see the Scottish army, but he could hear their chanting, which was given force by the hellish beat of the big drums. The sound was making some of the pastured stallions nervous and three of them, pursued by pageboys, galloped beside the stone wall with their eyes showing white. More pages were exercising destriers just behind the English line, which was divided into three battles. Each battle had a knot of horsemen at the centre of its rear rank, the mounted men being the commanders beneath their bright banners, while in front of them were four or five rows of men-at-arms carrying swords, axes, spears and shields, and ahead of the men-at-arms, and crowded thick in the spaces between the three battles, were the archers.

  The Scots, two arrow shots away from the English, were on slightly higher ground and also divided into three divisions which, like the English battles, were arrayed beneath their clusters of commanders' banners. The tallest flag, the red and yellow royal standard, was in the centre. The Scottish knights and men-at-arms, like the English, were on foot, but each of their sheltrons was much larger than its opposing English battle, three or four times larger, but Thomas, tall enough to look over the English line, could see there were not many archers in the enemy ranks. Here and there along the Scottish line he could see some long bowstaves and there were a few crossbows visible among the thicket of pikes, but there were not nearly so many bowmen as were in the English array, though the English, in turn, were hugely outnumbered by the Scottish army. So the battle, if it ever started, would be between arrows and Scottish pikes and men-at-arms, and if there were not enough arrows then the ridge must become an English graveyard.

  Lord Outhwaite's banner of the cross and scallop shell was in the left-hand battle and Thomas crossed to it. The prior, dismounted now, was in the space between the left and centre divisions where one of his monks swung a censer and another brandished the Mass cloth on its painted pole. The prior himself was shouting, though Thomas could not tell whether he called insults at the enemy or prayers to God for the Scottish chanting was so loud. Thomas could not distinguish the enemy's words either, but the sentiment was plain enough and it was sped on its way by the massive drums.

  Thomas could see the huge drums now and observe the passion with which the drummers beat the great skins to make a noise as sharp as snapping bone. Loud, rhythmic and reverberating, an assault of ear-piercing thunder, and in front of the drums at the centre of the enemy line some bearded men whirled in a wild dance. They came darting from the rear of the Scottish line and they wore no mail or iron, but were draped in thick folds of cloth and brandished long-bladed swords about their heads and had small round leather shields, scarce larger than serving platters, strapped to their left forearms. Behind them the Scottish men-at-arms beat the flats of their sword blades against their shields while the pikemen thumped the ground with the butts of their long weapons to add to the noise of the huge drums. The sound was so great that the prior's monks had abandoned their chanting and now just gazed at the enemy.

  'What they do' — Lord Outhwaite, on foot like his men, had to raise his voice to make himself heard — 'is try to scare us with noise before they kill us.' His lordship limped, whether through age or some old wound, Thomas did not like to ask; it was plain he wanted somewhere he could pace about and kick the turf and so he had come to talk with the monks, though now he turned his friendly face on Thomas. 'And you want to be most careful of those scoundrels,' he said, pointing at the dancing men, 'because they're wilder than scalded cats. It's said they skin their captives alive.' Lord Outhwaite made the sign of the cross. 'You don't often see them this far south.'

  'Them?' Thomas asked.

  'They're tribesmen from the farthest north,' one of the monks explained. He was a tall man with a fringe of grey hair, a scarred face and only one eye. 'Scoundrels, they are,' the monk went on, 'scoundrels! They bow down to idols!' He shook his head sadly. 'I've never journeyed that far north, but I hear their land is shrouded in perpetual fog and that if a man dies with a wound to his back then his woman eats her own young and throws herself off the cliffs for the shame of it.'

  'Truly?' Thomas asked.

  'It's what I've heard,' the monk said, making the sign of the cross.

  'They live on birds' nests, seaweed and raw fish.' Lord Outhwaite took up the tale, then smiled. 'Mind you, some of my people in Witcar do that, but at least they pray to God as well. At least I think they do.'

  'But your folk don't have cloven hooves,' the monk said, staring at the enemy.

  'The Scots do?' a much younger monk with a face left horribly scarred by smallpox asked anxiously.

  'The clansmen do,' Lord Outhwaite said. 'They're scarcely human!' He shook his head then held out a hand to the older monk. 'It's Brother Michael, isn't it?'

  'Your lordship flatters to remember me,' the monk answered, pleased.

  'He was once a man-at-arms to my Lord Percy,' Lord Outhwaite explained to Thomas, 'and a good one!'

  'Before I lost this to the Scots,' Brother Michael said, raising his right arm so that the sleeve of his robe fell to reveal a stump at his wrist, 'and this,' he pointed to his empty eye socket, 'so now I pray instead of fight.' He turned and gazed at the Scottish line. 'They are noisy today,' he grumbled.

  'They're confident,' Lord Outhwaite said placidly, 'and so they should be. When was the last time a Scottish army outnumbered us?'

  'They might outnumber us,' Brother Michael said, 'but they've picked a strange place to do it. They should have gone to the southern end of the ridge.'

  'And so they should, brother,' Lord Outhwaite agreed, 'but let us be grateful for small mercies.' What Brother Michael meant was the Scots were sacrificing their advantage of numbers by fighting on the narrow ridge top where the English line, though thinner and with far fewer men, could not be overlapped. If the Scots had gone further south, where the ridge widened as it fell away to the water meadows, they could have outflanked their enemy. Their choice of ground might have been a mistake that helped the English, but that was small consolation when Thomas tried to estimate the size of the enemy army. Other men were doing the same and their guesses ranged from six to sixteen thousand, though Lord Outhwaite reckoned there were no more than eight thousand Scots. 'Which is only three or four times our number,' he said cheerfully, 'and not enough of them are archers. God be thanked for English archers.'

  'Amen,' Brother Michael said.

  The smallpox-scarred younger monk was staring in fascination at the thick Scottish line. 'I've heard that the Scots paint their faces blue. I can't see any though.'

  Lord Outhwaite looked astonished. 'You heard what?'

  'That they paint their faces blue, my lord,' the monk said, embarrassed now, 'or maybe they only paint half the face. To scare us.'

  'To scare us?' His lordship was amused. 'To make us laugh, more like. I've never seen it.'

  'Nor I,' Brother Michael put in.

  'It's just what I've heard,' the young monk said.

  'They're frightening enough without paint,' Lord Outhwaite pointed to a banner opposite his own part
of the line. 'I see Sir William's here.'

  'Sir William?' Thomas asked.

  'Willie Douglas,' Lord Outhwaite said. 'I was a prisoner of his for two years and I'm still paying the bankers because of it.' He meant that his family had borrowed money to pay the ransom. 'I liked him, though. He's a rogue. And he's fighting with Moray?'

  'Moray?' Brother Michael asked.

  'John Randolph, Earl of Moray.' Lord Outhwaite nodded at another banner close to the red-heart flag of Douglas. 'They hate each other. God knows why they're together in the line.' He stared again at the Scottish drummers who leaned far back to balance the big instruments against their bellies. 'I hate those drums,' he said mildly. 'Paint their faces blue! I never heard such nonsense!' he chuckled.

  The prior was haranguing the nearest troops now, telling them that the Scots had destroyed the great religious house at Hexham. 'They defiled God's holy church! They killed the brethren! They have stolen from Christ Himself and put tears onto the cheeks of God! Wreak His vengeance! Show no mercy!' The nearest archers flexed their fingers, licked lips and stared at the enemy who were showing no sign of advancing. 'You will kill them,' the prior shrieked, 'and God will bless you for it! He will shower blessings on you!'

  'They want us to attack them,' Brother Michael remarked drily. He seemed embarrassed by his prior's passion.

  'Aye,' Lord Outhwaite said, 'and they think we'll attack on horseback. See the pikes?'

  'They're good against men on foot too, my lord,' Brother Michael said.

  'That they are, that they are,' Lord Outhwaite agreed. 'Nasty things, pikes.' He fidgeted with some of the loose rings of his mail coat and looked surprised when one of them came away in his fingers. 'I do like Willie Douglas,' he said. 'We used to hunt together when I was his prisoner. We caught some very fine boar in Liddesdale, I remember.' He frowned. 'Such noisy drums.'

  'Will we attack them?' the young monk summoned up the courage to enquire.

  'Dear me no, I do hope not,' Lord Outhwaite said. 'We're outnumbered! Much better to hold our ground and let them come to us.'

  'And if they don't come?' Thomas asked.

  'Then they'll slink off home with empty pockets,' Lord Outhwaite said, 'and they won't like that, they won't like it at all. They're only here for plunder! That's why they dislike us so much.'

  'Dislike us? Because they're here for plunder?' Thomas had not understood his lordship's thinking.

  'They're envious, young man! Plain envious. We have riches, they don't, and there are few things more calculated to provoke hatred than such an imbalance. I had a neighbour in Witcar who seemed a reasonable fellow, but then he and his men tried to take advantage of my absence when I was Douglas's prisoner. They tried to ambush the coin for my ransom, if you can believe it! It was just envy, it seems, for he was poor.'

  'And now he's dead, my lord?' Thomas asked, amused.

  'Dear me, no,' his lordship said reprovingly, 'he's in a very deep hole in the bottom of my keep. Deep down with the rats. I throw him coins every now and then to remind him why he's there.' He stood on tiptoe and gazed westwards where the hills were higher. He was looking for Scottish men-at-arms riding to make an assault from the south, but he saw none. 'His father,' he said, meaning Robert the Bruce, 'wouldn't be waiting there. He'd have men riding around our flanks to put the fear of God up our arses, but this young pup doesn't know his trade, does he? He's in the wrong place altogether!'

  'He's put his faith in numbers,' Brother Michael said.

  'And perhaps their numbers will suffice,' Lord Outhwaite replied gloomily and made the sign of the cross.

  Thomas, now that he had a chance to see the ground between the armies, could understand why Lord Outhwaite was so scornful of the Scottish King who had drawn up his army just south of the burned cottages where the dragon cross had fallen. It was not just that the narrowness of the ridge confined the Scots, denying them a chance to outflank the numerically inferior English, but that the ill-chosen battlefield was obstructed by thick blackthorn hedges and at least one stone wall. No army could advance across those obstacles and hope to hold its line intact, but the Scottish King seemed confident that the English would attack him for he did not move. His men shouted insults in the hope of provoking an attack, but the English stayed stubbornly in their ranks.

  The Scots jeered even louder when a tall man on a great horse rode out from the centre of the English line. His stallion had purple ribbons twisted into its black mane and a purple trapper embroidered with golden keys that was so long that it swept the ground behind the horse's rear hooves. The stallion's head was protected by a leather face plate on which was mounted a silver horn, twisted like a unicorn's weapon. The rider wore plate armour that was polished bright and had a sleeveless surcoat of purple and gold, the same colours displayed by his page, standard-bearer and the dozen knights who followed him. The tall rider had no sword, but instead was armed with a great spiked morningstar like the one Beggar carried. The Scottish drummers redoubled their efforts, the Scots soldiers shouted insults and the English cheered until the tall man raised a mailed hand for silence.

  'We're to get a homily from his grace,' Lord Outhwaite said gloomily. 'Very fond of the sound of his own voice is his grace.'

  The tall man was evidently the Archbishop of York and, when the English ranks were silent, he again raised his mailed right hand high above his purple plumed helmet and made an extravagant sign of the cross. 'Dominus vobiscum,' he called. 'Dominus vobiscum.' He rode down the line, repeating the invocation. 'You will kill God's enemy today,' he called after each promise that God would be with the English. He had to shout to make himself heard over the din of the enemy. 'God is with you, and you will do His work by making many widows and orphans. You will fill Scotland with grief as a just punishment for their godless impiety. The Lord of Hosts is with you; God's vengeance is your task!' The Archbishop's horse stepped high, its head tossing up and down as his grace carried his encouragement out to the flanks of his army. The last wisps of mist had long burned away and, though there was still a chill in the air, the sun had warmth and its light glinted off thousands of Scottish blades. A pair of one-horse wagons had come from the city and a dozen women were distributing dried herrings, bread and skins of ale.

  Lord Outhwaite's squire brought an empty herring barrel so his lordship could sit. A man played a reed pipe nearby and Brother Michael sang an old country song about the badger and the pardoner and Lord Outhwaite laughed at the words, then nodded his head towards the ground between the armies where two horsemen, one from each army, were meeting. 'I see we're being courteous today,' he remarked. An English herald in a gaudy tabard had ridden towards the Scots and a priest, hastily appointed as Scotland's herald, had come to greet him. The two men bowed from their saddles, talked a while, then returned to their respective armies. The Englishman, coming near the line, spread his hands in a gesture that said the Scots were being stubborn.

  'They come this far south and won't fight?' the prior demanded angrily.

  'They want us to start the battle,' Lord Outhwaite said mildly, 'and we want them to do the same.' The heralds had met to discuss how the battle should be fought and each had plainly demanded that the other side begin by making an assault, and both sides had refused the invitation, so now the Scots tried again to provoke the English by insult. Some of the enemy advanced to within bowshot and shouted that the English were pigs and their mothers were sows, and when an archer raised his bow to reward the insults an English captain shouted at him. 'Don't waste arrows on words,' he called.

  'Cowards!' A Scotsman dared to come even closer to the English line, well within half a bowshot. 'You bastard cowards! Your mothers are whores who suckled you on goat piss! Your wives are sows! Whores and sows! You hear me? You bastards! English bastards! You're the devil's turds!' The fury of his hatred made him shake. He had a bristling beard, a ragged jupon and a coat of mail with a great rent in its backside so that when he turned round and bent over he presented his n
aked arse to the English. It was meant as an insult, but was greeted by a roar of laughter.

  'They'll have to attack us sooner or later,' Lord Outhwaite stated calmly. 'Either that or go home with nothing, and I can't see them doing that. You don't raise an army of that size without hope of profit.'

  'They sacked Hexham,' the prior observed gloomily.

  'And got nothing but baubles,' Lord Outhwaite said dismissively. 'The real treasures of Hexham were taken away for safekeeping long ago. I hear Carlisle paid them well enough to be left alone, but well enough to make eight or nine thousand men rich?' He shook his head. 'Those soldiers don't get paid,' he told Thomas, 'they're not like our men. The King of Scotland doesn't have the cash to pay his soldiers. No, they want to take some rich prisoners today, then sack Durham and York, and if they're not to go home poor and empty-handed then they'd best hitch up their shields and come at us.'

  But still the Scots would not move and the English were too few to make an attack, though a straggle of men were constantly arriving to reinforce the Archbishop's army. They were mostly local men and few had any armour or any weapons other than farm implements like axes and mattocks. It was close to midday now and the sun had chased the chill off the land so that Thomas was sweating under his leather and mail. Two of the prior's lay servants had arrived with a horse-drawn cart loaded with casks of small beer, sacks of bread, a box of apples and a great cheese, and a dozen of the younger monks carried the provisions along the English line. Most of the army was sitting now, some were even sleeping and many of the Scots were doing the same. Even their drummers had given up, laying their great instruments on the pasture. A dozen ravens circled overhead and Thomas, thinking their presence presaged death, made the sign of the cross, then was relieved when the dark birds flew north across the Scottish troops.

  A group of archers had come from the city and were cramming arrows into their quivers, a sure sign that they had never fought with the bow for a quiver was a poor instrument in battle. Quivers were likely to spill arrows when a man ran, and few held more than a score of points. Archers like Thomas preferred a big bag made of linen stretched about a withy frame in which the arrows stood upright, their feathers kept from being crushed by the frame and their steel heads projecting through the bag's neck, which was secured by a lace. Thomas had selected his arrows carefully, rejecting any with warped shafts or kinked feathers. In France, where many of the enemy knights possessed expensive plate armour, the English would use bodkin arrows with long, narrow and heavy heads that lacked barbs and so were more likely to pierce breastplates or helmets, but here they were still using the hunting arrows with their wicked barbs that made them impossible to pull out of a wound. They were called flesh arrows, but even a flesh arrow could pierce mail at two hundred paces.

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