From Chapter Thirteen
The rain fell like the Biblical deluge – on a day such as this, even Noah, snug in his ark, would have looked at the sky and been convinced that God’s wrath would never end. Thomas had had the foresight to bring thick oiled-wool cloaks for us, but they were sopping wet and heavy as lead copes before we had gone fifty yards. It was like walking under a waterfall. We stepped gingerly down the very edges of the Rue St-Denis towards the Grand-Pont, marvelling at the black river of refuse that poured down the centre of the street – muck, leaves, rags, old shoes and bones; I even saw a dead dog tumbling past me in the thick, dark porridge-like flow. The shops of the city had closed their counters when it became clear that the rain had set in for the day, and all honest householders were indoors warming themselves by their hearths. The streets were almost entirely deserted. It was hard to believe that it was August – high summer; it felt more like January – and though it was only mid-afternoon the dark clouds overhead made it feel as if dusk had fallen. We walked slowly down the Rue St-Denis, watching our footing on the rain-greased paving slabs and saw hardly a soul . . .
Thunder cracked, and a bright stab of lightning illuminated the rain-battered road with an eerie blue glow. Fifty yards ahead, on the far side of the road, I saw four figures lurch out from the shelter of the porch of the church of St Leufroy and into the fury of the storm; they began to forge up the sloping street towards us. They were dressed in beggarly rags, hooded and very wet – and yet they seemed to be remarkably well-fed and able-bodied beggars, and the way they walked, with a springy purposeful stride, suggested men at the peak of fitness. I grabbed Thomas’s shoulder and pushed him behind me, between my body and the stone wall of a large house, then I drew Fidelity. I blessed God that I had chosen to wear my sword that day, reasoning that, as I was visiting my noble relatives, I should make the point that I, too, was a knight.
The beggar-men spread out and crossed the street, coming directly towards me: I could see weapons in their hands now: cudgels, knives, and one man had a short mace – all weapons that could be easily concealed beneath their rags, for who has ever seen a mendicant beg for alms with a long sword or a spear at his side? Four soldiers – for they were very clearly soldiers – against one man and a boy whose voice had yet to break. They were not good odds, but I had faced worse and survived. The anger that I felt at the house of the Seigneur d’Alle was still lapping in my belly. The four men, their young, bearded faces peering at me intently from beneath their dripping hoods, paused for a moment, at a distance of five paces or so, spread out in a line in front of me, hemming me in against the wall behind. I did not wait for their attack but shouted: ‘Come on then!’ in English and leapt into battle.
I blocked a cudgel blow from the man on the extreme left with Fidelity, whirled and hacked the sharp blade into the calf muscle of the man next to him – and he was down, his right foot all but severed. I ducked a mace blow, bobbed up again and killed the man wielding that iron bludgeon with a lunge to the throat. Two down. Out of the side of my rain-blurred eye, I saw that a knife-man had lunged past me, grabbed Thomas, wrapped a brawny arm around him and was holding the blade to his throat. I jumped towards Thomas, slipped on the wet stone-paving slabs, skidded, and had barely managed to regain my balance, my arms waving wildly out on either side, when a cudgel slammed into my lower back, at the level of my kidneys. If it had been a sword, it would have cut me in half – instead, the explosion of pain drove me to my knees. My long wet hair was in my eyes, and I sensed rather than saw the next blow from that great oaken club, and swayed my head just enough to avoid it. The cudgel crashed down on to my shoulder with numbing force, though I believe the thick sodden wool of my cloak saved me from a shattered joint. I tried to rise, slipped on the wet road again, and found myself on my back; my left arm was useless, the man with the cudgel was standing over me, his knotted club raised to strike again. Still down, breathless with pain, I jerked my torso off the wet ground, and lunged up with my sword, spearing Fidelity’s sharp point hard into his groin and beyond, deep into his lower bowels. The cudgel-man fell to his knees, mouth wide, blood draining from his face; he dropped the club, hands cupping his privates, and blood pissing through his fingers, instantly washed away by the driving rain.
Beyond him I could see Thomas in the arms of the fourth man, who was looking about madly, unable to believe that none of his three comrades still stood. Regardless of the sharp blade at his collarbone, Thomas reached up and behind him with both hands, and took a bunch of the man’s wet rags in his fists. My squire twisted his shoulders, bent forward suddenly and pulled hard, and the knifeman – to his considerable surprise – was thrown over the boy’s shoulder and crashed on to the slick paving slabs, flat on his back. Thomas leapt on his fallen foe, his own small eating knife in his fist, and the boy began to savage the prone man with a speed and ferocity that more than made up for his lack of skill. Within a few moments Thomas had plunged the knife a dozen times into the man’s face and neck, the blade sinking deep, the gore jetting upwards, and as the man lifted his hands to his face to protect himself, Thomas’s dagger punched and sliced into fingers and palms, too, in his fear-spurred killing-rage.
By the time I had regained my feet, my squire was weeping and panting, spent and still kneeling over the body of a man whose upper regions had been transformed into a mash of chopped meat. Thomas’s hands were red to the wrists, as if dipped in paint; but the blood was not his, God be praised.
All four men were down. The fight from first to last had taken only a couple of dozen heartbeats. The first man I had struck down had tried to crawl away from the fight and now sat half a dozen paces away, facing away from me, howling in agony, clutching his half-severed foot as it pumped blood to join the black flow in the centre of the street. I shambled across to him, growling, my left arm completely numb, and took his head off with one low hard sweep of Fidelity. As I stepped back from his squirting neck stump, and watched his head roll bumpily into the torrent of filth in the centre of the road, I realized that my anger had led me into making a mistake: I needed information. Turning, I saw that the second man, whose throat I had skewered, lay sprawled on the paving slabs, the rain falling relentlessly into his still open eyes. The deluge was beginning to wash the blood from Thomas’s victim, but the knife-mangled neck that was revealed made it clear he would never speak again. The cudgel man whose bowel I had pierced was still alive, but only just. His face was a waxy yellow, knotted with pain, and he was breathing in short, hard gasps. I knew he too had only a few moments left in this world – and I badly needed him to talk to me. I knelt beside him and gently smoothed the wet hair from his forehead, out of his eyes. The rain fell like spears. I put my mouth to his ear. ‘What is your name, sir?’ I said quietly in French. ‘And why did you seek to attack me?’
He seemed not to notice my questions, although his breathing slightly louder this time, giving his shoulder a gentle shake. And this time, he managed to turn his head and look at me. ‘Forgive me,’ he panted.
‘Tell me your name, and whom you serve and I will forgive you,’ I said. ‘Tell me now.’
‘For . . . forgive me,’ he forced out again. ‘We had our orders from the Master. You had . . . to die. But I ask your forgiveness, Sir Alan . . . for the sake of Our Lady, Our Mother, the ever merciful Queen of Heaven, forgive me.’
For all that he had been trying to kill me a few moments before, I did feel pity for him. I was moved by his unusual way of begging for forgiveness. He slumped against my body, his breathing ragged, pumping, the pain riding him. I said: ‘I forgive you; but tell me whom you serve? Who is this Master you speak of – and why does he wish me dead?’
The man gave no reply but let out one long shuddering breath. He twitched once, his head fell forward, chin on breast, and his immortal soul left the cage of his body.
I laid him down as gently as possible in the street, made the sign of the Cross above him, and looked over at Thomas. He was still kneeling beside the corpse he had made, the rain splashing in the gore puddles around him. I levered myself to my feet, my back and shoulder shrieking with pain.
‘Come, Thomas, we must go. Before long the Provost’s men will come and we are strangers here, and foreigners to boot – we will be seen as enemies. I do not want to answer questions in the King’s dungeon about these men’s deaths; questions that I cannot answer. Let us leave their souls to Almighty God, and their bodies to the Provost’s men.’