Alys Clare

The Joys of My Life


March 1199

The evening air was still. The day had been unseasonably hot, with a definite hint of summer. Now, as the sun went down beyond the low hills on the far side of the Tardoire River, the temperature was rapidly cooling and it was clear that it was barely spring, let alone summer.

The bareheaded man in the fine woollen tunic stood on a hillock in brooding contemplation of a field whose rich brown earth had been turned ready for sowing. The ploughing had been more than a month ago and still the empty earth lay patiently waiting. Above the field, a mile or so distant, a castle sat upon a slight rise. It was in a state of siege; two trebuchets stood before it, and gaping holes in the soaring walls gave testament to the accuracy and force of the missiles that had been repeatedly hurled from the siege engines’ slings. Nearby, a stoutly constructed wooden structure on wheels stood waiting for the morning, when the sappers would utilize its protective shelter to creep up to the walls and continue the process of undermining them. Back in the besiegers’ encampment lay the scaling ladders, ready for deployment as soon as the castle’s resistance had been sufficiently worn down for a forced entry.

The man in the tunic scratched his head vigorously — he was not much bothered with bathing even at the best of times, and living under canvas with limited access to hot water did not rank anywhere near best — and winced as his dirty fingernails raked off scabs from infected head-lice bites. He sniffed at the sweet evening air, noticing wryly that the stench of his unwashed body easily overcame the scent of fresh young grass, and then raised his eyes to stare up at the castle.

Curse the man! Could he not appreciate that holding out so determinedly was merely postponing the inevitable? And the longer it took, the angrier the besiegers would be when finally they took the castle. ‘I will take it,’ the man in the tunic murmured, ‘and I will do so before any rival claimant arrives to argue about who owns what. I own the lot, and that’s an end to it.’

Abruptly making up his mind, he leaped down — he was congenitally unable to keep still for very long and he had been standing on his mound for all of three minutes — and strode back to the encampment. He hollered for the captain of his mercenaries, waiting impatiently while the man came hurrying out of the mess tent.

‘My lord?’

The man in the tunic stared at him, taking in the strong body and the sense of barely restrained violence waiting for an excuse to break out. The captain’s face was at first glance impassive until one looked into the deep, dark eyes, where ruthlessness was as easily read as capital letters on an illuminated manuscript.

‘I want to reconnoitre,’ the man announced.

The captain of the mercenaries suppressed a sigh. He had accompanied his master all around the castle walls that morning; the only difference now would be that the sappers had dug a little further beneath the walls and the hole beside the left-hand gate tower was slightly larger. The besiegers had not had a great day. ‘As you wish, my lord,’ he murmured. Then, ‘I will fetch your sword and your armour.’

The man waved an impatient hand. ‘There’s no need for that. I’ve rarely seen it so quiet up there.’

‘You must at least wear your helm,’ the captain insisted. Then, because he knew you did not insist with a man of his master’s calibre, he added, ‘Please, sire. I am responsible for your safety and it is not wise to take unnecessary risks.’

‘Oh, very well.’

The man stood tapping a foot in irritation, but the wait was short. Very soon his captain reappeared proffering the heavy iron helm and the close-fitting leather bonnet worn beneath it. The man put them on. Then, picking up his shield more out of habit than from any sense that he would need it, he strode off out of the encampment and along the wide track that his besieging force had made across the pasture.

The castle might well have appeared quiet — the lookout towers and the defensive positions on its battlements seemed deserted, for many of those inside were sitting down to their meagre evening meal, and all of them were complaining because there was less to eat today than there had been yesterday and the meat was rotten — but the tranquillity was deceptive for, hidden behind the stout walls, several men stood up on the fighting platform keeping careful watch on the scene below. One man had his eyes fixed on the pair walking towards the castle, their manner so relaxed and casual that it was an insult.

The man was an archer, his weapon the deadly crossbow, whose bolts were so savage that they had been known to enter a knight’s leg and penetrate deep into his horse’s side so that he was pinned as fast as a man nailed to a cross. He was a fine archer, one of the best.

He watched the two men far below. Despite their nonchalant air, the archer noted with ironic amusement that they kept out of bowshot. They were obviously inspecting the day’s damage. He waited, biding his time. One of the men was helmed and fully armoured, the westering sun glinting off his chain mail and studded gauntlets. The other man bore a shield — the archer strained his eyes but could not make out the device — and he wore a helmet. Otherwise, he did not appear to be dressed for fighting.

A slow anger began to burn in the archer’s breast. He thought grimly, how dare they amble along down there as if the castle had already fallen and its occupants were no longer a threat? They have put us through a miserable and frightening fortnight of siege, and all because of one man’s greed! Well, we have not fallen yet and there is still plenty of heart in us. We shall defend ourselves for as long as it takes.

The two men below, heads together as they talked, had strayed closer to the castle. The archer placed a bolt in his crossbow and, resting the front of the bow on the ground, put his foot in the little iron stirrup and wound the handles that pulled the bowstring taut. Then, raising his weapon to eye level, he stepped back up on to the platform and, leaning on the wall, aimed at the men below.

The armoured man stepped into the archer’s sights but then moved away again. The other man was standing with his left arm raised, indicating something on the wall beside him. For a few precious moments he stood quite still and the archer had a perfect shot. With luck the bolt would enter beneath the upraised left arm and pierce the man’s heart, killing him. Even if luck were not on the archer’s side, there was no chance that he would miss. The crossbow was utterly steady as the archer took aim, drew a calm breath and then, when the moment was perfect, released the bolt. It flew down straight as a die and, finding its mark, buried itself deeply just above its victim’s left armpit.

The archer stood back — instant retaliation was always a possibility and he was better off out of sight — and a grim smile spread across his lean face. That’ll teach them not to wander up to a besieged castle like ladies on a May Day outing, he thought. That’ll teach them not to underestimate an arbalester of my quality! With a swift glance over the parapet — the wounded man was kneeling on the ground, his pale tunic already stained with blood — the archer left his post and went in search of a celebratory mug of ale.

The wounded man was in a great deal of pain. With his captain’s support he managed to get halfway back to camp before the faintness caused by loss of blood overcame him, at which the captain left him lying on the ground while he sprinted for help. He swiftly returned with a horse and cart, and the man suffered agonies while they loaded him up on to the cart and bounced him back to his tent. They begged to be allowed to inspect the wound but, beside himself with pain and fury, the man would not let them.

‘Go and take the castle!’ he roared. ‘Attack and keep on attacking, and don’t stop till it’s ours!’

‘But, my lord-’ began the captain of the mercenaries.

The wounded man turned bloodshot eyes on him. Drawing a ragged breath, he hollered, ‘Get on with it!’

Late that night, the captain tried to extract the iron arrowhead, but it was buried deep and the muscles around it were powerful and firm. The captain’s first attempt succeeded only in removing the arrow shaft, which broke off, leaving the head embedded. Several more attempts were necessary, each one further mangling the torn and bloody flesh, before at last the bolt was out. The man, all but unconscious from shock and blood loss, fell back into an exhausted sleep that was as deep as a coma.

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