Monday, 7 July 2014
Gentlemen of Pitchfork - Excerpt III
Lord Arthur sat looking at the chessboard. His face was strained. In his long velvet houppelande he looked like a dressed up statue. His robe’s pleats lay folded under the stool. While the opponent was thinking, Robert once again examined the less than impressive dining room of the Port Cock Inn. The stony interior was cosy, yet modestly arranged – there were no decorations except for simple dishes aligned on wooden shelves. The room was empty except for the two knights. The servants and the inn keeper were bustling about the whole abode, busy with kitchen duties and cleaning. Only one maid, seventeen year old Mathilde, peeked into the main room from time to time to make sure the knights didn’t need anything. They did not – the clay jug with Breton wine was still half full. Robert glanced indolently at the chessboard, touching his head bandage with the right hand. In accordance with his expectations nothing had changed. He was still four rounds from putting his cousin's king in check mate. His opponent did not seem to notice this despite his meditation worthy of a philosopher. Arthur finally budged and the ringed hand moved the rook. The younger knight answered momentarily following his long-planned scheme. It convicted him for long minutes of boredom. Luckily the irreplaceable Guillaume came to the rescue.
“Greetings”, he called from the door and bowed slightly.
Robert nodded his head.
“I would not want to disturb, but I am looking for Sir Ralph… is he in his room?” Guillaume asked shyly.
“He did not leave it today”, the smile on the Baron’s face left no doubts on how to take the hint.
“I get it”, Guillame replied grimly and marched towards the stairs leading to the first floor of the inn. Arthur looked at Robert.
“Well, well. I must admit your uncle’s stamina is impressive for his age.”
Robert decided that the discussion was leading towards uncomfortable ground.
“I guess so”, he murmured and shrugged.
“Oh no, my dear cousin”, Arthur would not be discouraged so easily. “It does deserve much more than a mere shrug. You should be content and proud”.
“If you say so Arthur… but what should I be proud of, actually?”
“Why?” Lord Pitchfork was surprised. “Your father’s masculine strengths of course. And it should fill you with joy that as it passes from father to son, you must be as mighty in bed as him. Maybe you just have not had an opportunity to prove yourself?”
Robert turned away from his cousin’s beady eyes.
“Look, Guillaume is back. Father must have sent him away again”, he tried to change the subject.
“Do not think you can put me off so easily”, said Arthur. “And please understand that I do not mean to upset you. I care for you as if you were my trueborn brother.”
Guillaume crossed the room shaking his head and left the inn. Arthur was about to start over when the door of the Port Cock opened again and Guillaume stepped back inside. He walked up to one of the tables and sat heavily on the long bench. He was sitting there silent, impatiently pattering his fingers on the table.
“Are you waiting for my father, Guillaume?” Robert called to him.
“Yes, though I honestly do not know why. I could just go to Saint Martin’s church and watch the maids or play dice with the guards at the Montvillier gate. Actually, I could just as well find some gambling companions in Montvillier itself, knowing your reverent father and his lewdness.
“Guillaume, isn’t that a French name?” Arthur opted for a casual conversation over the game of chess greatly relieved at this distraction.
“Indeed, m’lord. Wilhelm, in our tongue. It’s because of my late mother, Helen, who came from La Rochelle in Guyenne. My father was an Englishman though and fought under the banners of the Black Prince.
“Well, well”, called Arthur. “Your father must be an elderly man, if he served in those times. Can it be that he was at Poitiers in that fateful year, when John II the Good was captured and the sacred Oriflamme fell under a pile of French corpses?” The Baron’s voice showed excitement.
“No, my lord. Not that elderly. From those times he could only remember the smell of his dirty swaddling-clothes and the lullabies of my late Grandmother Elisabeth”.
The squire did not disclose any further details of his family life, as the beaming Sir Ralph appeared on the stairs.
“Here I am, Guillaume!” he called. “Show me these brave men”.
“They are waiting outside, my lord”, Guillaume walked toward the door, straightening his hood.
“Greetings my dear nephew. Greetings to you, my son”, Sir Ralph turned to the young men. “Would you be wasting your time on chess, while so many fine girls are looking for a company of young knights?”
“Greetings uncle! It is true we played a game, but in my defense I must say I already have a date for the night. The game only helped me to pass the unpleasant waiting time away.”
Sir Ralph gave him a broad smile and turned to his son. Robert turned away and glanced at Guillaume, who was looking attentively at Sir Ralph. Finally the old knight followed the gaze of his son. The squire stood impatient at the door.
“They are waiting outside, m’lord”, Guillaume said.
“I know where they are waiting”, replied Sir Ralph. “I just do not know what my son is waiting for”. With these words Lord Moorow, much less beaming, left the room. Arthur and Robert followed.
A group of archers stood on the cobbled bank of the Leur river, where the Port Cock was located. They were dressed in simple soldier clothes. Most of them wore hose and light, woollen blouses. On their heads they wore hoods with long liripipe* falling on their backs down to their buttocks. All of them carried short weapons – swords, falchions and various daggers tucked behind their belts. The common element was a red cross of different sizes sewn on their clothes – a symbol of Henry’s troops. A bearded man with deep dark eyes was leading them. An ugly scar ran through his shaved head. The knights stopped before the five archers.
“How do they call you”, Sir Ralph asked the man standing in the front.
“And the family? How do they call your family?”
“Ball, m’lord. I am Will Ball, at you lordship’s service”, the archer gave a courteous bow. Way too courteous, thought Robert standing behind his father’s back.
“Hmm… I must have heard it somewhere… where are you from?” Sir Ralph continued.
“From Moorow, my lord”, the man smiled, showing his yellow, rotten teeth.
“My man!” Sir Ralph said cheerfully. “Do you recognize him from somewhere, Robert? We visit Moorow quite often”
“Why, it is the yearly winner of the Easter archery competition in our estate”, said Robert suddenly remembering where he had seen the man.
“Well, that explains a lot!” said sir Ralph. “Hah! You have proven yourself during the assault, my good man.”
“Who are these people?” Arthur asked, annoyed he did not fully comprehend the situation.
“They, my dear Arthur, saved our skin during the assault at Harfleur when we were stuck on the back of Holland’s men. They shot down the French crossbowmen, who had killed my faithful companion, Sir Crawley”.
“Did they now?” Arthur raised his eyebrows slightly that gave him illusively perspicacious look. “Then we owe you lads our gratitude”.
“Indeed”, admitted Sir Ralph. “I reckon as well, that the Baron’s thanks won’t end on kind words, which albeit please the dames, are of little use to a simple soldier”, Sir Ralph smiled with impertinence and glanced at his nephew.
“But of course…”, assured Arthur after brief consideration. He reached for the bulging pouch hanging from his knight’s belt covered with small square pads. The archers began grunting with content. “But first… I am curious to whom precisely we owe rescuing from oppression… present your people to me, Ball.”
The archer gave a wry smile and stepped aside. With a theatrical gesture he pointed at the first man on his right.
“This is Thomas Smith”, he announced. “A remarkable archer, despite his inconsiderable posture. This strapping fellow next to him is Big Will. We call him that to tell him from myself, but also because he was generously equipped by Mother Nature”, Ball pointed at the nature’s gift and the archers chortled. The knights smiled slightly, but that was all their social status allowed for.
“This is Small Tom”, the archer eagerly continued. “Tommy for short but let it not deceive you my lords. That’s how we tell him from Thomas Smith. There is nothing more to it, isn’t that right Tommy?”
Tommy seemed embarrassed which proved the contrary and inspired another wave of laughter among his companions.
“Finally I present to you, my lords, Matthew of Moorow”, Ball kept on speaking. “Although an elderly veteran, he is young at heart, as all village girls from Plymouth to Dover can attest”.
“Thank you for this detailed presentation and… upon your hands, Ball”, Arthur put a handful of silver in the extended hands of the soldier.
“We are thankful to you, my lord and remember us in the future. We are always keen on helping House Neville…”, with these words Bell patted his chest, where a metal clip showed a standing bear chained to a tree trunk.