Extract from initial chapter
| It was but four days ago when it started. He was sat oiling his master’s war harness. A weekly chore he greatly enjoyed as it gave him time to indulge his fantasies of knighthood. This particular day his reveries were rudely interrupted, when unannounced the armoury door suddenly swung open. Framed in the doorway was no less a person than his master the chevalier himself. He jumped up, startled by the sudden unexpected entrance. From his lap a veritable sea of straps and buckles clattered to the floor. He looked down in horror at the pile of steel. A squire dropping his knights armour was a sacrilege in itself, dropping it whilst his master looked on was unforgivable. With a look of pure terror Alain hurriedly gathered the mass of metal and leather together, lest its complex strapping became tangled beyond simple rearrangement. Wisely he used the time to gather his wits. “What did he want?” He remembered thinking. “Squires were usually summoned, not visited, whilst about their duties.”
“Easy lad! Soothed his master. “I’ve not come to berate thee. I must need have words with you in private”. He shut the armoury door and lowered his voice.
“Even at fifteen summers I know your worth boy and it greatly pleases me to teach you the skills of knighthood. In fact your undoubted prowess in the martial arts, doth remind me of my old comrade, your father.” He smiled fleetingly. “I ne’er saw finer with axe or blade”. He added, “Forgive me but I now have great need of those inherited skills”.
He paused as if carefully weighing his words before next speaking. “I want you to take four men to the Inn of the White Wing at Tonnay-Charente. There you will find two women one youngish, heavy with child. The other is an old crone with a ready tongue.”
Alain smiled to himself as he recollected those words.
“To prove yourself you must show them this.” He paused to remove a heavy looking gold ring from his finger, passed it to Alain and continued.
“When you have gained their trust, I want you to escort them to the Abbey at Thouars. Once they are safe, you are to return and report to me directly no one else. You are to tell no one of this do you understand?”
“What about the men?” enquired Alain.
“Not even them. Now listen boy.” He growled, grasping the squire’s tunic and drawing him up to face level. “Fail me in this boy and you’ll never live to see another summer” he hissed. Fearful Alain averted his eyes; he was so close he could see the faint flecks of spittle adhering to the Chevalier’s salt and pepper beard.
Dropping the petrified squire, the Chevalier slowly backed towards the door. Trembling, the ashen face the boy watched as he turned and walked away. When he reached the door he spoke again.
“God speed you on your way boy. The women’s safety will depend on your swift action any delay could prove fatal. Now go see our steward Martin; he will help with the arrangements for your departure.” With a last glance around him he swept from the room.
For a few heartbeats the terrified squire stared at the open door. Stunned into immobility, by the Chevaliers words. Gradually as his senses returned he felt the heavy ring, pressing into his right hand. Alain’s white knuckle grip imprinting, the rings seal on to his palm. He turned the hand over, revealing both ring and seal print. He carefully examined the contours of the imprint trying to discern its meaning. The slowly fading mark bore the seal of his master. Eagles quartered with fleur de lys.
The following day and night went by in a blur of preparation for Alain. He found himself carried along in the wake of the hustling and bustling that was Martin the Steward. A fussy little man, with a quick wit and an eye for detail, that quite astounded the bemused squire. Who would have thought that so much preparation would be needed for such a trip? Flint and tinder to light a fire, kindling, clothing, food all of them packed and stowed just so to prevent spoiling. At last with all preparations completed he found himself in the castle courtyard, mounted and ready to go. Accompanying him were four men at arms. Two spare palfreys and a sorry looking pack animal, laden with the fruits of Martin’s labour.
The Chevalier had himself chosen his escort; the four men were all from the knight’s more distant holdings. So were largely unknown to one another. They appeared to be well armed and armoured but wore no livery or markings. No obvious features that would distinguish any of them from the common routiers that pervaded all France at this time. Alain had been introduced to them as they arrived the day before so that he at least, could put names to faces.
The nominal leader of the group was a stocky, fair haired man with a pockmarked face called Aalart le Picart. A practical, no nonsense, veteran; who had survived many a bloody skirmish, by all accounts. The others to were all seasoned men. Denis Laternier, a portly red faced man who if you even believed half of his stories would have appeared to have spent most of his working life propping up tavern bars. Haveron de Gisors a hard faced individual, who never seemed to smile and Perrot de Sergnay the youngest of the four at 22, brash, arrogant, with all the confidence of a man used to bearing arms.
As they turned to leave, Alain remembered looking up towards the castle solar. Framed in the window he could see both the chevalier and his wife they standing together at the shutters watching his departure. The cold light of a pale winter’s dawn; highlighted their faces, against the dark interior. His master backed away slowly, until his face was hidden by shadow. The Mistress however, continued to look on, her face a mask of barely concealed hatred. Surprised, at the woman’s expression, avoiding eye contact Alain quickly looked away. Suddenly anxious to leave the Squire turned his horse and signaled for the party to depart. He left without looking back, wondering lest she had seen him watching.
She had always seemed to him, to be the very epitome of aristocratic womanhood. Showing the castle staff little if anything of her emotions and seemingly oblivious to the lives of those not of her station. Yet he knew that underneath the facade she ran her castle with relentless efficiency and it was often said by the staff that not a pot rattled in the castle, without her knowledge. If thoughts could slay Alain mused, then that normally peaceful courtyard, would have been as a butchers block on a meat day.
The journey to Tonnay-Cherente was blissfully uneventful filled with idle boasting and chatter. Mostly consisting of Denis’s tavern anecdotes liberally laced with Perrot’s lurid tales of his many amorous encounters. If you believed half of them then there was not a virgin worth the taking within 20 miles of Rochefort.