For an obviously wealthy Abbey, the meal served out in the refectory to the bedraggled travellers housed in the dormitory was woefully bad: a watery soup of turnips and bitter herbs; stale bread and powdery, tasteless cheese. As I choked down the last spoonful of soup, I reflected that I had eaten worse meals than this on campaign, but not for a good long while: had I grown soft in the past few months at Westbury? After the meagre meal, Robin and I took to our cots, and while my lord appeared to be enjoying a restful sleep, I struggled once again with the discomfort caused by my disguise and my assorted weaponry as our fellow travellers snuffled and snored and farted all around us.
The eye-patch was itching my brow badly, and I seriously considered taking it off – in that dark dormitory, who would see that I had two good eyes? But I resisted the temptation. I did not want to spoil my disguise just because of a little discomfort. We waited for two interminable hours after the last of the Abbey’s guests had retired, and at, perhaps, an hour before midnight, I felt a hand on my shoulder and saw Robin’s pale face looming beside mine. I rose swiftly and we crept out of the sleeping room as quiet as velvet-shod mice. The door creaked alarmingly, but nobody stirred, and once outside, we paused with our backs to the dormitory wall and silently observed the courtyard: deserted, still and utterly silent. A fat, waxing moon, yellow as a buttercup, hung above the stables on the southern side of the yard, but there was precious little other light, except for a faint glow coming from the stained-glass windows of the church. Robin touched my arm and we walked across to the door of the church on the western side. This one opened with only the tiniest squeak, and we were inside that cool, sacred space. I saw that a single thick candle had been left burning in the centre of the nave, a symbol of the eternal light of Our Lord Jesus Christ – and by that light Robin and I approached the altar where we had so recently admired the shining hoard that rightly belonged to Malloch the goldsmith.
The altar was bare, and for a wild moment, I wondered if some thief had beaten us to the reward. But Robin ignored the altar without comment and made his way to the north transept, and to a small door in a wooden panel that marked off the sacristy. I cursed my own stupidity: of course, the canons would not leave a fortune in plain view of the altar, with the church door unlocked, and the Abbey full of vagrants.
Robin fumbled in his robe and knelt before the door handle; I saw that he had in his hands two pieces of wrought iron bent into right-angles, like square hooks, and he was inserting them gingerly into the big lock on the door. He seemed to be having some difficulty, rattling the hooks in the lock and cursing quietly under his breath. I had not known that my lord possessed this skill; the power to unseal locks without the proper key – and it seemed that, in truth, he did not. Thirty heartbeats passed and still, Robin struggled with the door. Then my lord caught my eye; he looked irritated. ‘Do something useful, Alan, and bring me that candle,’ he said crossly, indicating the eternal flame with a sideways jerk of his head.
There was something deeply wrong, I felt, in the act of removing that thick candle from its spiked stand. It occurred to me, in a sudden burst of clarity, that we were robbing a church. A church! Was there any act more contemptible, any sin more vile? But more than that – something in the very air, in the stink of wax and sweat, of people and old prayers, that spoke to me of grave danger. All my senses were telling me that I should grab Robin and run from this place. I am not, I think, a coward, but I felt the cold breath of fear on my neck and I was within a whisker in that moment of turning on my heel and heading for the church door. I took several deep breaths, and with my heart beating like a drum, I managed to master my terror. I forced myself to lay hands on the cool wax of the candle and pull it free from its stand with a jerk. And, just as I approached my lord with the wavering light held in both hands, Robin gave a grunt of satisfaction, the lock clicked, and the sacristy door swung open.
Robin grinned at me, his good humour restored, his silver eyes reflecting the candlelight. ‘Young Gavin taught me that trick: he used to be an apprentice locksmith before his light fingers led him beyond the law.’
I nodded but said nothing – the eye-patch was making the whole of my head itch, it seemed. To take my mind off it, I held the candle high and looked keenly about me as we advanced into that dark room. The candlelight showed me a small square space, with a table and stool immediately to the left, a pole slung at head height from the roof for robes, and an X-shaped chair on the right – but it was clear where the golden hoard must be hidden: in the large chest that squatted near the back wall, secured with a solid iron padlock.
Robin walked forward, bent down and examined the chest, humming very faintly under his breath. He looked at the front of the wooden box, fingered the heavy padlock, and then peered at the lid’s hinges. I expected him to produce his hooks and begin fiddling with the padlock, but he merely whispered, ‘Alan, lend me a hand, will you?’ And I found myself, crouched down by the side of the chest, with the candle on the floor beside me, helping Robin to heave the strongbox away from the wall. It was extremely heavy, and only with some difficulty did my lord and I manage to move it six inches. Then he said, ‘Give me your misericorde, please, just for a moment.’
I handed it over, hilt first, and he inserted the sharp tip of the strong blade between the hinge-plate and the wood at the back of the chest and gave a small shove. The hinge squealed like a scorched cat, and Robin stopped. ‘Shut the door, Alan.’ And when I turned and pulled the sacristy door to, I heard another loud cry of pain from the ancient wood of the chest, then, swiftly afterwards, another. The hinges prised loose, Robin lifted the lid up and over from the back and left it sagging open against the front of the box.
Its contents were now ours.
I picked up the candle and set it on the table and bent down to retrieve my misericorde, which had been casually discarded by my lord, and slid it back into its sheath at my back. I tried to see into the chest, but Robin’s shoulders, head and hands were already deep inside blocking my view. I saw him dip down an arm and emerge with the golden plate, the paten, which he quickly stuffed into a rough woollen sack at his feet; a golden jug followed it in there a few moments later, and the little round pyx, and the star-shaped monstrance. And then Robin had the chalice in his hands – and he looked up and paused, smiling happily at me over the bejewelled golden rim, as if making a toast to my good health. ‘Does this put you in mind of anything, Alan?’ he said, chuckling with satisfaction.
I frowned. The eye-patch was itching like the plague.
‘No?’ said Robin. ‘I had always imagined that this is what the Grail would look like,’ he continued. I knew that ever since he had first heard of the Holy Grail several years before, Robin had wanted to possess it, but this was no time to indulge his madcap fantasies. ‘Hurry up,’ I whispered, ‘we need to be getting out of here.’
And just then, I heard a noise, an unmistakable noise, out there in the dark, beyond the sacristy door. It was a tinny clattering sound, only heard once and unrepeated. But it was the sound of something metallic, a knife or sword perhaps, being dropped on a stone floor.
Almost faster than thought, Robin was beside the candle at the table, and had pinched it dark. In the sudden blackness, my uncovered eye retained an image of my lord: the lumpy woollen sack bunched in one fist, the fingers of his other on the candlewick, his head questing forwards, his mouth a grim line.
We both stood silent and waited.
There were more gentle noises coming from outside: the sounds of men, several of them, trying to be stealthy. Cloth whispering on cloth, the shuffle of leather boots, tiny clicks as metal touched other metal, muffled coughs and even a damned idiot attempting to quieten his fellows with a sibilant: ‘Shhh!’
I felt the heat of Robin’s face close to mine; he breathed in my ear: ‘We must not be trapped in here. Out, to the main gate, then into the woods, fast as you can.’
Then the door opened and the pitch-dark sacristy was filled with a glare of yellow light. A figure entered, a lantern in one hand, a sword in his other: a man-at-arms in hauberk and helm, and not alone. Behind him there were other figures bearing candles, swords and spears. There were men-at-arms crowded in the doorway and behind in the church, a dozen of them or more, their faces glowing with excited triumph.
The lantern man, a scarred sergeant of thirty years or so, advanced into the sacristy, taking cautious half-steps forward, his sword held out before him, the tip stopping a foot from my face. Two more men with drawn swords, and two men with candles, came in behind him. In the doorway lingered a knot of men-at-arms gazing at us from beneath half a dozen raised spear-points, and behind them I saw the face of the dark square-faced knight with the mole on his cheek, looking on and smiling. I lifted my hands in the air, my palms level with my ears, in a gesture of surrender. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Robin hadn’t stirred so much as an eyebrow.
‘I’ve got them; I got them, sir,’ said the sergeant, the foremost lantern man, the man holding a sword up to my chin. And he looked quickly over his shoulder for approval from the square-faced knight behind him. ‘Shall I kill them now?’
With my left forearm I swept the sword-point away from my face and my right hand dipped behind my neck to grasp the T-bar of my lance-dagger. The blade slipped from its greased holster, came up and over my head and I stepped in and punched forward, hard, with the weight of my shoulder behind the blade, plunging it deep into the throat of the foremost man-at-arms. He dropped both lantern and sword, uttering a gurgling scream, both hands fluttering at his neck as I ripped the blade free in a spray of crimson gore. The band of newcomers to the sacristy seemed to be frozen in horrified shock, as I took a long step past the dying sergeant and surged forward, bloody lance-dagger leaping out to plunge into the chest of the next man holding a candle, my left hand groping awkwardly for the handle of my misericorde behind my back. The second man went down, his dropped candle went out, and Robin was there beside me, a long dagger in his hand. He shoulder-charged a mail-clad swordsman, knocking him out of the way, dodged a jabbing spear-point, and twisting his whole body slammed the point of his weapon in a scything overhand into the eye of the second candle-holder. The man screamed, dropped his light and we were all of us plunged into utter darkness.
I knew Robin was to my right, and so I fell to my knees and struck left with the misericorde at groin level, plunging it randomly into the darkness, once, twice. I heard a howl, and somebody blundered against my shoulder, kneeing me in the bicep and deadening the arm. I came up fast and charged forward blindly, heading for where I remembered the door to be, and crashed into a mail-hard body, the blade of my lance-dagger snagging on loose cloth. I tumbled to the floor, I took a hard kick to my ribs, rolled and came up again. In the nave of the church the moonlight coming through the coloured glass of the windows lit the room only very dimly. Yet it was enough to see the black forms of half a dozen struggling men. I heard the thuds and cracks and shouts and hisses of pain, but I was well clear of that blind mêlée. A voice with a strong French accent was shouting in English: ‘Get that lantern lit, sergeant, now. Strike tinder and flint. For the love of God give us some light!’
And a dark form, a familiar shape in a raggedy hooded cloak, was running for the door at the western end of the nave. I was treading on his heels. Robin and I burst out into the courtyard, turned left and raced for the big double doors of the Abbey’s main gate, skidding to a halt in front of their barred might. In less than a dozen heartbeats, the men inside would realize that we were gone, and they would be upon us once more with spear and sword. Worse, the noise of the fight must have awakened the whole community, for I could see lights blooming in the dark cloisters and refectory; the canons would be coming to investigate the disturbance. We needed to run, and now. But Robin was standing by the Judas gate, staring at the lock, examining it closely. I could see by the moonlight that he had already slid back the bolts at the top and bottom of the little door; but the big brass lock had stalled him.
‘For God’s sake, Robin, you are not going to try and pick that, are you? We simply don’t have time!’
‘You have to hold them for me, Alan. Hold them off, come what may, just for a little while and I will get us out. I will get us out, I swear.’
Years of habit, years of obeying Robin’s commands made me turn my back to my lord and prepare for battle. I trusted him, you see, although it was sheer madness. But there was nothing else to do. We were trapped by the main gate, locked inside the Abbey with scores of enemies coming for our blood. A picture of Goody came into my head and I felt a sudden wrenching sadness that I would never hold her again. I slid the lance-dagger back into its sheath between my shoulder blades, and quickly searched in my shoulder bag for the flanged mace my darling had given me.
‘Goodbye, my sweet love,’ I whispered to the image of my beloved, ‘until we meet again in Heaven,’ as the men-at-arms tumbled out of the door of the church in the north of the court-yard, to my left, and advanced towards me. They did not run, but came on slowly, eight of them, I counted, the mole-faced older knight in the lead, his face a picture of frustrated fury. The lantern had been retrieved from the floor of the sacristy and someone had taken the time to relight it.
I had the mace cocked in my right hand, two feet of iron-hard oak with that wicked, bone-crushing, flanged metal head; and the misericorde in my left fist – a weapon designed to punch straight though iron mail and into the soft flesh beneath. I stood equally balanced on both feet, as the men-at-arms advanced, and waited to meet my doom. I had once promised Robin, long ago when I was just a stripling, that I would be loyal to him until death; and now my lord had ordered me to hold off his enemies, so that is what I was determined to do.
I could hear Robin behind me swearing foully; and I snatched a glance at him. He stood by the southern side of the main gate, by the tall crane, and through the gloom I could just make out that he seemed to be tugging on the hemp netting underneath a large barrel, a stout rope in his other hand stretching up into the darkness. But I had no time to concern myself with Robin’s pastimes: the men-at-arms were three paces from me, spread in a half-circle. I turned to face them. To my left was the forbidding black wall of the gate; in front of me were the enemy, between me and the church; behind me Robin was fooling about with God knew what. If I had wanted to run, the only way to go would have been to my right, into the centre of the square courtyard.
But I was not planning to run.
The knight, in the centre of the men-at-arms, said in a reasonable French-accented tone, ‘Surrender your arms, thief, and you shall have a fair trial in a court of law – there is no need for more bloodshed. Hand over your weapons.’
I felt the weight of the mace in my right hand and the misericorde in my left. But my eye was fixed on the knight.
‘Why don’t you come take them yourself?’ I said.
He merely snorted in derision.
Then I said, ‘I’ll fight you, sir, man to man, me and you. Winner goes scot-free.’ Despite my bold words, my eye-patch was driving me to madness: I longed to tear it off, not least because I’d then have two eyes to use in the coming battle. And, oddly, I did not want to die with an itchy face.
The knight made an impatient hissing noise. ‘I do not duel with creatures such as you.’ Then, flapping his hand at the line of soldiers, he said, ‘Kill them now.’
And they rushed at me all at once.
While I had been speaking with the knight, I had heard a curious creaking noise behind me, like the sound of a tree troubled by a gale; and just as the men-at-arms came hurtling at me, I heard Robin shout, ‘Down, now, Alan, get down.’
I instantly dropped to the floor as a huge black shape in the grey night, suspended in a hempen net, and attached by long ropes to the high horizontal arm of the crane, came sweeping through the air at just below head height in a wide semi-circle. The vast swinging object – a mighty barrel of pickled fish, I soon discovered – crashed into the leading man-at-arms, snapping bone and knocking him into the man behind him, and continued its unstoppable looping path to smack dead centre into the Judas gate. The barrel, which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds, hauled five feet up into the air and propelled with all of Robin’s considerable strength, smashed itself to kindling against the gate in a gush of brine and silver herring, wet barrel staves and clattering round iron hoops – and, in doing so, neatly popped the little gate open, like a stopper coming out of a bottle. I was on my feet in an instant, smashing the heavy mace overhand into the skull of a dazed and staggering man-at-arms directly between me and the narrow little door, and dropping him like a stone. Then I was out the broken gate, and running as fast as I could to my right, along the line of the Abbey’s western wall. Without slackening my pace, I jerked my head around and saw that Robin was a mere two paces behind, but struggling with his wind. He seemed to be laughing wildly, almost hysterically, and running for his life all at the same time.
Beyond my lord, twenty yards away, the first helmeted heads were appearing through the wreckage of the gate. And there were white robes and tonsures too, and men bearing torches, spilling out with shouts and oaths, pointing at our retreating backs.
Robin and I ducked around the north-western corner of St James Church, which formed the outside wall of the Abbey and paused for a heartbeat, our backs against the stone wall, panting madly, trying to get our bearings. I sheathed my misericorde and tucked the mace securely in my belt; and pulled the irritating leather eye patch off my face and hurled it into the darkness. We turned and looked east. There was just enough moonlight to make out the bulk of the church to our right-hand side, and a dark smear of forest in front of us. To our left nothing but deep blackness. But the shouted commands and indignant rage were coming closer behind us, and we pushed off the wall and sprinted onwards, due east, following the line of the church wall towards the forest and our friends.
We had not run thirty yards when the torches erupted around the corner of the church; a horde of men, many scores of them, mostly white-garbed canons brandishing simple wooden staves, but a few men-at-arms mixed in too, with swords and spears; a couple of men had crossbows, I noticed. We ran, Robin and I, we ran for our lives. A hundred yards, two hundred, and I tripped and fell headlong into a patch of boggy grass, my face splashing down into foulness. Robin who was a few yards ahead of me came back and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me upright. It was then that I noticed that he still had the woollen sack in his right hand, the sack containing a rich man’s ransom in gold.
‘This is no time to be taking a nap, Alan,’ said my lord, chuckling, dragging me by the elbow as we splashed through a shallow stream and up on to the bank on the other side. ‘We have an appointment to keep.’ And I coughed up a little foul marsh water with my own near-hysterical laughter.
Our pursuers were only fifty yards behind us, and the tree line a scant thirty yards away, when the first arrows began to fly out of the forest. And good shooting it was, too, for night-time. The shafts arced over our heads, fine grey lines in the blackness, and lanced mercilessly into our pursuers, thudding into white-robed canon and man-at-arms alike, and dropping both in moaning, bleeding heaps on the dark grass. The yard-long shafts, mounted with man-killing bodkin tips, skimmed out of the trees as fast as Robin’s men could loose them and thunked relentlessly into human flesh, with the sound of a butcher’s cleaver on a slab of pork, transfixing limbs and piercing mail and thick wool habits with equal ease. The night was alive with the desperate yells of the wounded. One man-at-arms screamed a foul insult and loosed a crossbow bolt at the black wall of the forest in defiance – then the Abbey folk fled, back to the safety of their walls, dragging their hurt with them, and pursued by the pale killing shafts of the outlaws’ barrage.