Sunday, 29 June 2014

Gentlemen of Pitchfork - Excerpt I

            In the growing darkness king Henry’s camp boiled with preparations for the attack. Retinues of John Holland and the Baron of Pitchfork took position along the stockade. The eastern part of the camp was obscured by smoke from the heavy bombards and handguns. Before the attack the gunners doubled the efforts to make way for the cramped men-at-arms and archers. The latter were frantically checking up arrow fletchings and putting strings on their yew and ash bowstaves. The soldiers were glancing upon the walls, nervously grasping their halberds, spetums, glaives* and partisans*. The King rode onto the back of the awaiting troops. His suite spread behind him. Mounted on the grand steed, he looked majestic. On the tabard he had arms quarterly: 1 and 4 azure three fleurs de lys or, 2 and 3 gules in pale three lions passant guardant or – the coat of arms of the reigning house.  Henry was sitting straight in his high-bowed saddle. He did not put the helmet on and his noble, proud face was clearly visible in the camp’s lights. A long scar ran across his right cheek – a strong accent in his aristocratic features. It was a souvenir from the battle of Shrewsbury. On the king’s right hand rode Edward, the Duke of York  - Henry’s uncle. On the king’s left hand rode Humfred, the Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Henry IV and the elderly, yet highly experienced king’s counsellor – Sir Thomas Erpingham. All of the king’s closest companions wore full plate armour and helmets.
            “Sons of England!” Henry’s words broke through the artillery’s turmoil. “The walls have been crumbled! Harfleur welcomes us! Please accept its hospitality tonight and abandon the comforts of your tents! I invite you to my home, Normandy, as you are now standing on its porch!” The king spoke louder and louder and the warriors’ eager cries echoed him. “You are at home here, you just need to drive away the intruders who invaded your household. Attack in the name of Saint George!”
            A collective cry rose in the air. Sir John Holland shut the visor of his basinet* and twirled his high-raised sword. The English knights, spearmen and archers poured out from behind the stockade. The latter were the most numerous and they were the first to start the bloody craft. The bombards went silent and the night’s sky sizzled only with arrows and bolts.
            Sir Robert ran, leaning slightly, with his visor closed. In front of him he could only see his father’s back covered with a plate. The baron of Pitchfork ran close to him, grasping with both hands his favourite weapon – a poleaxe* over 6 feet long.
            “Gregory, stay close!” Robert yelled to his panting squire. “And I will keep close to my cousin”, he thought.
            The first wave of the attackers reached the rubble. It once was a deep moat, naturally carved out by the river Leur. Holland and his knights started climbing down, accompanied by the clanking of armour. The spearmen clambered after them. The archers were stopping every once in a while trying to spot the defenders on the walls.
            When the first wave descended to the moat, they were showered with bolts and stones.
            “Halt!” cried Sir Ralph.
            The second wave caught up with Holland’s men, who had not yet managed to climb down the rubble.
            “Scatter and take cover until there’s place for us!” Sir Ralph shouted to the cramped knights.
            “Take cover and await the command!”, the Baron of Pitchfork echoed him in a deep voice.
            Robert pushed the squire toward the nearby pile of charred wooden stakes – the remnants of the fortifications. He crouched himself close by. Still not all of Holland’s men managed to get down to the moat. Robert saw his father and his cousin hiding behind a heap of stones. In the background he spotted crossbowmen looming on the walls. Although they were at a considerable distance, he would swore he heard an order in French. An instant later two of Arthur’s men fell to the ground. One, tossed with convulsions, was holding his stomach. The other lied unnaturally still. A trickle of blood flowed from under his kettle hat*.
            “Crossbowmen, behind you!” cried Sir Robert and pointed at the walls.
       Sir Ralph glanced towards the barbican and cursed. With growing anxiety Robert watched the first wave run through the moat. Why are they moving so slowly? He glanced back at the knights surrounding Arthur and Ralph. Just in time to see a bolt hitting the head of Sir Thomas Crawley crouching on the edge of the group. His father’s friend cocked his head and fell dead, face down. Robert felt suddenly that none of this is real. Fear made him stop thinking and start acting upon instincts. He only saw a couple archers come to aid the knights. They covered the French crossbowmen with arrows at an incredible pace. Finally he rose to his feet and rushed through the filled up moat. He did not hear the cries or commands. He just ran and didn’t even notice joining Sir John Holland’s men fighting in the crowd. The few images that he later remembered of the assault was the second wave of men-at-arms breaking through the torn ramparts to meet the wall of French halberds. His last memory was of a muffled clatter, when the mighty strike of a pole-arm knocked him, unconscious, to the ground.

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