This is the story of a traitor. Not me, no. I was loyal to my oaths. But I stood by and watched the day my Lord made the decision to betray his oaths of fealty. I stood by and watched the French inundate our country. I did nothing to the men that shot the king in the eye like he was a perjurer. This is the day, an ordinary day, that I chose my destiny, to say nothing in the face of adversity. To stand by my Lord no matter what he is.
I woke that morning and watched the thin beam of sunlight creep from my window across the stone floor of my chamber. As I pulled my blankets tighter around me, I could see the dust motes floating in the patch of yellow sun. The minstrels in the great hall last night had been excellent, but such a late night made too early a morning. My body ached as I fought to open my eyes. I pushed back the wool covers from my bed and put my feet on the cold stone floor. It was time to relieve the other Knights on duty, the ones who had been manning the walls all night under the cold, starlit sky.
A chair stood in the far corner of the room, simple and wooden with a rope seat. Flung across the back were piles of blue, brown, and cream. I pulled my linen shirt over my head and tied the waist of my braies tight. Next I reached for my brown tunic, the wool rough between my fingers, as I pulled it on, followed my blue supertunic, whose weight settled on my shoulders like the heft of duty. I slung the quiver of arrows, reposing at the foot of my bed, over my back, grabbed my bow and leather breastplate, and pushed open the wooden door.
My first stop was the ganderrobe for a piss break. The small room was undecorated, and boards lined the walls, holes cut into them, leading to darkness down below. The smell was an eye-opener in the morning.
When I was finished, I thought I’d see if I could sneak into the buttery without anyone noticing. There is nothing better on a cold morning than swig of ale, especially when it’s contraband. I peeked into the kitchen, and there were people everywhere. Men and women in crude wool chopped vegetables, turned spits over the fire, and carried buckets of water back and forth. The butler was nowhere to be seen, which meant he was probably inventorying the ale. The small room would be filled to the ceiling with stacked barrels, a spigot stuck in one or two. I thought about trying to sneak in anyway, but when I looked at the people everywhere, I decided to forget the idea. Previous exploits like the one in which the butler chased me out of the pantry with a very hard, empty, metal flagon, had taught me when to try and when to leave it. Instead, my mouth still wishing for the acrid, watery taste of ale, I walked through the empty great hall. Red and gold banners flew overhead from the brown beamed ceiling; the coffered paneling on the walls caught the morning sunlight. There was no trace of the raucous minstrels who performed the night before, nor the feast that accompanied it. It was wide and vast, and my heels echoed as I walked across the stone floor.
I pushed open the door to the barbican, moving past the walls of the Chemise before my feet reached the vast field of barbican grass. To my left, the keep rose high in the morning sun, a beam of light making the white tower appear in black relief over the bright morning sky. I strode across the grass, entered the guard tower, and began to climb the stairs.
When I opened the door to the barbican gatehouse, the bright light of morning greeted my eyes again, and a slight breeze tickled my face. Giles and Hobart were already there. Giles was stretched across the floor of the guard house, his back supported on the crenellation wall, its stone teeth, merlons, rising above his head. Hobart looked out on the village. He leaned on his elbows, propped between two merlons. Both turned to look at me as I opened the door, the hinges squeaking as I stepped through.
“Well, there he finally is.” Giles said, “Last one here, as usual. What kept you this morning?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” I winked. Both of them grinned back at me.
“Don’t get too cozy with that serving maid,” said Hobart. “Word is, we might be moving out soon.”
“What?” I leaned my bow against a merlon and sat down next to Giles.
“Yeah, Saul was in the Solar when the message came,” said Hobart.
“What was Saul doing in the family’s private quarters?” I asked.
“It’s his turn for Guard Duty. But what’s important is, it looks like King Harold got a demand from William of Normandy to pay homage to him. I don’t think that’s happening any time soon, and apparently neither does Harold. He’s amassing an army, and we’ve been called to go.”
Giles and I looked at each other.
“Don’t you care that we’re finally going to be seeing some real action?” said Hobart.
“I, for one, am thrilled,” Giles interjected. “It’s been too long since I’ve felt that bone-crunching, teeth chattering high of battle.” He gave a satisfied sigh.
I was looking forward to it too. I could see the whole thing in my mind’s eye. The troops mounted on horseback, gathering on the green grass of the bailey, great seas of red and yellow banners streaming in the wind. The men bobbing slightly as their horses shifted positions, their metal armor glistening in the sun, surrounded by the white walls of the enceinte. The king would give the order, and then we would all be off, wending our way through the gatehouse, the pointed ends of the portcullis looking down on us like spears. We would ride down the drawbridge to glory. It was a breathtaking idea.
“You said Saul overheard it, right?” I asked. “That means it’s not real information yet. The Lord hasn’t called us to mount up.”
“What of it,” said Hobart. “It happened, we’re being called.”
“I believe you.” I told him. “I’m just saying, don’t depend on it until it’s happened. I’ll be excited about it when we ride.”
Giles slapped me on the back. “By God, you are a realist” he told me. “I’m with Hobie there. I’m itching for anything that isn’t eat, sleep, and sit, all day every day.”
Hobart turned, “don’t go spreading it around. I told Saul I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
Giles winked at me. “Don’t worry, you’re secret’s safe with us.”
I stood up and placed my hand over my heart. “On my honor, Good Sir.”
Hobart rolled his eyes and went back to watching the road.
We sat in the barbican gatehouse all morning, until the sun had risen high over the treetops, to the middle of the sky. The view was beautiful. Around us, the glistening blue moat paralleled the white walls of the castle. The village stretched below us to the left. To the right, there was nothing but treetops, waving in the breeze. The cold breeze didn’t penetrate through the wool of my tunics, and the light of the sun was pleasant. It baked the stone under my body like bread, newly removed from the oven. It almost made a morning without ale worth it.
“Hey! Look alive, you two.” Hobart finally called. “There’s a group coming up the road.”
Giles and I both stood up and peered through the crenellations. Four men were riding up the road, their massive black horses standing out in stark contrast to the green of the countryside. None of the men wore livery.
“Pull the Portcullis down” I told Giles. “We don’t know who they are.”
Giles reached for the lever and lowered the iron grate across the opening of the gatehouse. The men rode slowly closer, and as they approached, we could see the golden lions on their red collars. They weren’t completely without livery, it seemed. Still, the heraldry was unknown to me. Neither Giles nor Hobart had seen it either.
As soon as the men were within shouting distance, Hobart let out a yell. “What Ho!” He shouted.
“What Ho!” The men shouted in return. “We come en Paix.”
“Don’t raise the portcullis yet.” Hobart said. Giles nodded.
“That was not English.” I said. “Well, maybe it was English, but it wasn’t Englishmen’s English.”
“I think they’re French.” Giles said. “It sounds like the accent.”
I grabbed my bow and notched an arrow onto the string, although I didn’t draw.
When they rode closer, we could see that Giles was right. They stopped just outside the range of the Meutrieres. They must have known they were in no danger of boiling oil. After all, they were not an attacking army. Still, they stood clear, just out of the range of my arrow.
“Bonjour,” the man at the head of the group called to us. His supertunic was read, and his tunic yellow to match the colors of the lions on his collar. A pointed beard reached down his chest and a sword lopped over the right side of his saddle. He held up his black gloved hands as he spoke, dropping his reins and letting his gigantic horse to its own devices. “There are only four of us poor travelers. Would you give us lodging for the night?” He asked in a heavy accent.
“You are not on a pilgrimage.” Hobart told him. “We know from your accent that you are French. What brings you to our island?”
“I am willing to explain everything to your Lord,” the man said. “We are but poor travelers seeking hospitality. Is it not the nature of your country to welcome strangers?”
Hobart looked at the four of them for a moment. “With whom am I speaking?” He asked.
“Christophe of Normandy,” he answered, “and these men are Bruno, Alaric, and Roche, also of Normandy.”
“Giles,” Hobart said quietly, “go ask for hospitality for them.”
Giles quickly swung the door to the tower open and then slammed it shut again. The tapping sound of his boots on the wooden stairs faded into the distance. Soon, we could see him running across the green grass of the ward and into the hall.
Hobart and I looked at each other, the unspoken word hanging in the air between us: Normandy.
“We must be sure we have room for you all.” Hobart called down to them. “It will be just a moment.”
“We will wait.” Christophe said. “We do not wish to inconvenience you. Still, I believe you will find it to your advantage to give us bed and sup tonight.”
“We are only the poor gatemen.” I said. “Our Lord decides what is to his advantage, we only guard the door.”
Christophe bowed. The four men below us began to talk amongst themselves, but we couldn’t hear them from our perch on the wall.
When Giles came back, he didn’t even bother to climb the tower stairs. “Let them in!” he called. “The Lord says to let them in.” He was out of breath.
I turned to the group and cupped my hands over my mouth. “Sir Christophe! We welcome you to Warwick Castle.”
The four black horses rode up the drawbridge as Hobart and I pulled the portcullis back into its usual position above the gatehouse. The hooves of the horses clicked and echoed as they trotted through the gate and into the ward beyond. By the time they had trotted to the stables, Giles had made it up the stairs. The three of us watched as they dismounted and strode inside the hall.
Within a few hours, the four strange men were saddling up again. They waved their hands to us as they galloped past the Curtain Walls, and disappeared into the trees like black streaks.
Hobart smiled for the first time in hours. “They were out of here quick, dirty Frenchmen. Just you watch, Lord Thorkell will announce it at dinner. We’ll be saddling up by the end of the week.”
I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t want to argue. The afternoon sun made the shadows long across the ward. It was too nice a day for a fight.
We were relieved of our duty a few hours before dusk. I went back to my room to wash my face and hands before dinner. The room was filled with the soft, warm light of afternoon. I threw my leather armor to the foot of my bed, and propped my bow and quiver on the wall beside it. On a small table next to the bed, a pitcher of water stood next to a brown ceramic bowl. The water was cold as I splashed it over my face and quickly washed the dirt out of my fingernails. When I was finished, I made my way back to the great hall.
I could hear the noise before I entered the room: a general hum of people talking, a laugh breaking out over the din. When I stepped through the door, the scene was completely different from this morning. Torches lined the wall, throwing their flickering light across the golden coffers of the walls. Tables lined the room, forming a square around the perimeter. At the top end of the hall stood a raised platform. The table was festooned with lavish tablecloths, and cushioned chairs. Gold and glass gleamed at each place setting. Banners draped the walls behind it. In each red banner, a muzzled bear stood next to a sapling, and yellow crosses lined the sides. The center seat was empty; the Lord had not arrived.
At the lower end of the hall, the tables were of crude, rough wood. A single wooden truncheon appeared at each place setting. Each servant sitting at that end had provided their own wooden mug to drink out of. Behind them, carved wooden screens hid the opening to the kitchen, pantry, and buttery beyond.
I took my place on the right side of the hall, about half way down the benches. I stepped over the long, sturdy, wooden bench to sit down next to Saul and Hobart.
Just then, Lord Thorkell entered the room. He walked to the front of the Dais and held his hands up to speak. The embroidered sleeves of his orange supertunic swayed.
Lord Thorkell’s voice boomed through the hall, echoing across the diners. “As some of you may have heard, there are rumors that King Harold is amassing an army to repel a Normand invasion. I am here to tell you that there is no threat. There will be no French invasion.”
Beside me, Saul made an angry movement. “What?!” he whispered.
“That is right.” Thorkell continued. “I have privileged information. I say it again. There will be no French invasion. You all will not worry, and you all will continue about your normal routine.” He lowered his hands. “The meal may now begin.”
Servers began pouring out from behind the embroidered screens, each carrying a dish of steaming food. Platters of meats drowned in heavy sauces made their way to the top of the dais first, and then boiled vegetables. Next, a roast was placed in front of me. The last servers brought out pots of porridge for the lower table as I cut a hunk off the roast and began to eat.
Beside me, Saul did not reach for the meat. Instead, he sat staring through the hall.
When dinner was finished, I made my way back to my room. I opened the door and gave a start. Saul sat on my bed, staring out the window in the darkness. His hands were folded across his lap. A traveling pack and his bow were propped next to him. He turned as I entered.
“Good God, man! You scared the daylights out of me.” I told him.
He stood up. “You are an upstanding man, are you not?” He asked me earnestly, as if he had not heard me.
“I like to think of myself that way.” I said.
“I need to confide in someone.” Saul said, “Someone who will keep a secret. I know Hobart told you about what I overheard yesterday.”
“Be calm, man.” I said.
He looked me straight in the eyes, his face full of seriousness. “I cannot be calm, and nor will you when you hear what I have to say. I was on Solar duty again today. I heard what those Frenchmen said. They promised Thorkell lands if he did not go to King Harold’s aid and let them invade. Our Lord is a faithless liar.”
I stared back at him in horror.
“I cannot stay here,” he said. “I cannot stand by an oath of fealty to a man who does not value fealty. I am leaving to offer King Harold my allegiance instead. I am here because I wish you would come with me.”
I did not know what to say. “Saul,” I began, “I… I don’t know what to tell you. I understand your feelings, I wish you well.”
“You will not join me?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“We must leave tonight. We can’t risk anyone finding out that we are leaving.”
“I… Can I think about it?” I finally asked him.
“Think fast. I hope to sneak out the postern gate at midnight, and travel until dawn. If you decide to come, meet me there. I hope you will decide to come. If more men are like Thorkell, Harold will need all the help he can get. You are a good fighter. If we travel together, we will be safe on the roads.”
“Thank you for your offer, Saul.” I told him gently. “I will think of it. If I decide to come, I will meet you at the Postern.”
Saul nodded his assent, picked up his belongings, and walked out of my room. I flopped down on the bed.
What do I do, I asked myself. Saul was right, Thorkell did not value his oath to me as I valued mine to him. I thought about this for a long time, until the moon rose high through the frames of my window. And then I decided. I did value my oaths. I valued them enough to stand by a faithless liar, as Saul had called him. I valued my oaths enough to thrust the visions of banners and glory from my mind and sit in the gatehouse for another boring day.
As I drifted off to sleep, I heard the hinge of a gate squeak, and the soft whinny of a horse. I wished Saul well.
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