Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Gentlemen of Pitchfork - Excerpt II

A raised hand in an archer’s glove halted the riders. Ball stopped his horse and looked around. The road they were crossing was densely cut with horse hooves. The oldest of the archers, Mathew of Moorow, scratched his unshaven jaw and shook his head. He leaned over his saddle, blew his nose strongly with his left hand and said:
            “We won’t cross here for sure.”
            “What’s going on there, Ball?!” shouted the Baron with impatience.
            “It seems m’lord an army passed here not long ago!” Came a reply.
            Arthur and Robert drew closer to the group of archers and took a look at the highroad running in front of them.
            “Not good. Can you tell when they passed?” Lord Pitchfork was slightly annoyed and no one would dare to ask whether it was caused by the danger or, quite the contrary, by them missing the French.
            “Thomas...”, said Bill pointing at the road.
            The obese archer slipped off his horse with an effort and distrustfully looked around the thicket separating them from the road. He bent down a few times examining something, scratched his head covered with a hat and turned back.
            “Speak”, Arthur commanded.
            “So then, m’lord...”, the fat man muttered. “No more than four days ago it was. Must be the army.”
            “Can it be they passed only recently?” Robert joined in the conversation. “In other words, is it possible these are the traces of the avant-garde or the main forces and that we can be swarmed with Saint Michael crosses any time now?”
            “Well, it may be so as well”, said Thomas. “We rode through the forest and it’s hard to tell how heavy the rain was. If it rained same as now, the traces would not wash away so quickly. If it rained harder, then these traces might be much fresher.”
            Robert and Arthur looked at each other.
            “We return to Sir Godfrey and Sir Ralph and discuss where to ride”, Arthur responded.
            “I do not mean to question your will, cousin, but wouldn’t it be better to move west through the forest along the highroad and observe it from the safe distance?”
            “What purpose would that serve, dear Robert?” Arthur wondered. “Sir Godfrey and Sir Ralph might come across the enemy unaware and they would not know where we are.”
            “Then let us send one of the archers to tell them what we have decided”, suggested Robert. “We won’t waste our time on discussion and we will see whether we risk meeting the French rear-guard.”
            Arthur puckered his forehead, straining his mind. Robert started to fear that this noble consideration might take as long as his chess moves, the Baron however quite quickly made up his mind due to an illumination or simple impatience.
            “Agreed, cousin”, he said. “Let’s ride along the highroad. Little Thomas shall inform Lord Moorow about it.”
            “You’ve heard the lord, Tommy. Move on”, Ball commanded.
            The young archer kicked the horse on the sides and rode north through the forest.
            They moved according to the plan, not losing sight of the highroad but keeping their distance. The rain fell continuously, but that wasn’t the problem – quite contrary to deciding whether to cross the road or not. They rode in silence, pondering on the dilemma, until finally their thoughts were interrupted by two sounds coming from the direction in which they were heading. The first, murmuring of the water, did not alarm the riders in particular.
            “Oh! We reached the river Bresle”, commented old Mathew curtly.
            The other sound provoked a much more lively reaction. A woman’s scream. The horses pricked up their ears and Arthur instinctively stood up in his saddle to get a better view. He could not spot anything through the thick curtain of pine trees though. Then they heard another scream.
            “There”, said Ball listening and pointed in some general direction to the left of their course.
            The majority of the men looked around at themselves with questioning eyes. Lord Pitchfork however did not intend to ponder over something so obvious. He just drove his horse hard in the direction indicated by the archers’ leader. Robert blinked looking after his quickly disappearing cousin.
            He rode towards the highroad... he will cross it shortly, he thought. If the French are there, then we are doomed. If only the French are there...
            Robert did not finish his last thought. Instead he yelled from the bottom of his lungs:
            “Follow me!”
            Not entirely realizing that he was forcing his horse to a breakneck gallop through the woods, not knowing why he was doing so, Robert rushed after Arthur. Archers joined their lords, saying their silent prayers.
            Sir Arthur flashed across the highroad without a thought and bolted into the forest on the other side. Soon after the trees ended he found himself on the riverbank. On the other side he spotted a galloping black steed, on his back a lady in man’s clothing with wind-blown bright hair. In other circumstances the Baron would certainly give himself to fantasizing, but another scream did not allow him to forget his knightly duties. Four men dressed in chainmail and half-plate armour galloped behind the woman. They did not look like devoted admirers that the lady had invited to a courtly game. They rather looked like bandits or marauders. Arthur, being a man of action and not cold calculation, took out his sword and, not waiting for his men, rushed across the river with a savage battle cry.
            “The time has come!” He bellowed as his mount splashed around the foamed water with his hooves. As soon as Lord Pitchfork’s family call reached Robert’s ears, the young knight comprehended it was his end. While crossing the road he only wondered how he would die and passing through the roadside thicket he asked God for an easy death. When the river finally appeared before his eyes –he froze. He saw Arthur charging at three thugs riding toward him. Suddenly another woman’s scream rang out to the right. Robert glanced just in time to see a petite female figure fall off a huge horse’s down into the water. A mounted armoured man closed on her. The young knight rushed his horse in that direction producing his sword and murmuring pater noster in a crusader’s fashion.
            The man leaned over in his saddle to grab the woman. He didn’t make it though and the current carried away the unconscious body. Suddenly he realized his mount was standing on the brink of a ford. He tried to move back and only then he spotted the charging Robert. The young knight struck a sweeping but inaccurate blow and only cut the padded jack on the stupefied man’s shoulder. In an instant he ran slam-bang into him and both men found themselves in deep water.
            Sir Robert , losing interest in his recent opponent, rushed swimming after the lady carried by the current. The icy water made the wounded man lose all will to fight and he desperately pummelled around with his arms. Robert, not looking back, swam as fast as he could. He was so absorbed, that he did not notice a group of foot soldiers appearing on the riverbank. Neither did he see Ball’s archers jumping off their horses on the other side, putting on bowstrings taken from under their hats and hoods.
            One of the soldiers riding toward the Baron raised his swords for a sweeping cut. He exposed himself a bit too much. The Baron struck from the right and cut the man’s eye and temple with the point of the sword. The weapon fell off the stiff hand. Meanwhile the horseman that got to Arthur from the other side cut backhandedly aiming at the unprotected head. The knight would manage to parry the blow, but not manage to block the last rider’s attack. He risked a dodge. The blade passed right over his head. The Baron, blocking the strike on his right leg used the momentum to forcefully push away the opponents arm. He reined in his horse and with a curt returning move hit the attacker in the temple with his shod reins and a steel gauntlet. Blood gushed from the crushed ear. Arthur pressed the wounded man swaying in the saddle with his horse and hit him in the forehead with the sword’s pommel. When the man was falling off the horse Arthur hit him again on the back of the head.
            Upon seeing that, the last of the three riders decided to retreat and rushed his horse toward the bank. Arthur moved after him just when a dozen foot soldiers poured out from the forest. Having spotted them, the fleeing rider changed his mind and turned his horse around. He did not expect the knight was right behind him and paid for this oversight with his head. It fell into the river as Arthur made a wide slash from his galloping horse's back.
            Arrows swished in the air and three incoming soldiers fell into the river. Ball skilfully reached to his linen quiver tucked behind the belt and took out another arrow. He aimed for a few seconds and released it. The bowstring slid smoothly over the leather covered fingers. There was a swish. One of the running soldiers fell on his face when the arrow pierced him through. Its thin head stuck out of the man’s back. A chainmail armour within fifty steps from the English longbow gave no protection at all. When the bowstrings of Big Will, Thomas Smith and old Matthew rang out, Ball was already putting on another arrow. Seeing the bodies of their companions falling into the water, the other soldiers took to their heels in unison. Arthur rushed in between them and started hacking around with a long sword sending them to the stony bottom.
            Robert, much less interested in the course of battle than in the fate of the woman carried away by the river, swam with all his might. Finally he grasped a soft calf of the girl and pulling her to himself started the laborious fight against the current. On his way back to the ford he passed by a body which was being carried in the opposite direction. He congratulated himself silently for not wearing armour that day. Utterly exhausted he finally felt the bottom and stood with the woman in his arms. The fight was almost over. Ball and his archers mounted back and galloped after the fleeing soldiers – they did not need any witnesses of their expedition. Even the insignificant Picardian marauders.
            Robert realized suddenly that the water was icy cold. He clasped the numb female body. The soaked clothes were nicely pasted around the soft skin. Robert felt an incoming wave of heat reaching his abdomen. He looked at the face of the rescued woman and saw what until now had been only a dream: a pale, delicate complexion, closed eyes with long eyelashes and perfectly shaped lips. This view entranced him so that he nearly lost his balance.
            “My countess… from a dream…my Lady of the River…”, he whispered feverishly.(...)

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