tagRomanceMen at Arms

Men at Arms

byoggbashan©

Copyright Oggbashan December 2017

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons. This story is set at the time of the Hundred Years War.

Conversations are assumed to be in the English and French of the 14th century retold in modern English.


+++

"Halt!" I ordered.

On the crest of the hill ahead, silhouetted against the setting sun, I could see Raoul riding fast back towards us. He was one of the four scouts ahead. There were others to our left and right and a small rearguard.

The carts slowed. The men on foot were grateful for a rest. We had been travelling for two days since the English army had been defeated by the French. Our lord, Sir Henry, had been injured with both legs crushed in the melee of cavalry charges. My role, as his Sergeant, had been to protect part of the army's baggage train with our small body of elderly archers and men at arms. That we had done despite the defeat. The small group of French who had attacked us had all died under a hail of arrows. We were slowly making our way back to the English base at Calais.

Normally we wouldn't have been in the field this close to Christmas. The winter was for rest and regrouping but the French had been besieging an English-held castle. Against many leaders' better judgement our army had set out to relieve the siege. We had driven away the besiegers, reinforced and resupplied the garrison. The French army had set a trap as we withdrew. They had won, we had lost, but most of the English army had been able to withdraw in good order. The French were pursuing, reluctant to force another battle.

The part of the baggage train that was my responsibility was too slow to keep up with the retreat. On Sir Henry's advice we had taken a different route that was easier for the heavily laden carts. His orders were very clear. If we were attacked by a superior force we were to abandon the baggage, and him, carried on a cart. If captured he could be ransomed. Archers and men at arms had no value and would be slaughtered.

I was being very cautious. If we were to have any chance of escaping from a French attack we needed enough time to get clear of the slow moving baggage train. My scouts were half a mile ahead.

Raoul reached me and brought his horse next to mine.

"There's a village about half a mile beyond the crest, John," he said, "but it's alight. Many of the buildings are on fire. A few armed men ran away when they saw us. Who...?"

I signalled for the carts to start moving again, urging speed.

"It can't have been English soldiers," I suggested. "The King would punish them. They must have been French or their allies. Any sign of soldiers?"

"Except those running away? None. All I could see were women, children and a few old men. I didn't get too close just in case there were enemies around. But if they are there they aren't helping to put out the fires."

"Did you see anywhere we could use?"

"Next to the church there's a large stone built barn. That might do if it isn't full of villagers burned out of their homes."

"Thank you, Raoul. We need to stop for the night. It is the Saturday before Christmas. It would be best if we all rested until Christmas Day. Even the goddamed French wouldn't attack on Christmas Day."

"I hope you are right, John."

"It doesn't really matter. Tired as we are we are in no state to defend ourselves effectively, or to run away. Walk, stagger? That we and the horses might manage but running is beyond us."

I followed Raoul back to the crest of the hill.

"Send Giles down there," I ordered. "He's better than any of us in the local patois. Tell him -- go bareheaded and sword sheathed."

"But he's only a boy," Raoul protested.

"Boy? He's twenty-one. He may be the youngest of us by a long way but he's a proven fighting man. His baby face won't frighten them."

I was right. As Giles approached the village he was surrounded by a small group of women. They raised their hands to him as if in prayer. Suddenly he turned his horse and galloped back to us.

"Sergeant! They're in real trouble. Their grain store is on fire. All their buckets have been smashed, even the one in the well..."

"And we've got buckets, plenty of buckets."

I shouted my orders. Several mounted men grabbed a few buckets each and rode fast down the hill. The carts started moving as men at arms grabbed buckets and ran ahead.

By the time the carts arrived in the village the fire in the grain store had been doused, without damaging the grain. Our men are all villagers. They know what is important.

The local priest emerged from a house beside the church. He was leaning on two women. He came towards me as I was directing more fire fighting.

"Sir," he said, "Thank you for your aid, but this is a French village. Why?"

"It is a village," I replied. "Whose village is unimportant when disaster strikes. What happened?"

"It was Genoese crossbowmen. They are mercenaries hired by the French King. They complained that they hadn't been fed or paid..."

"That's probably true," I interrupted.

"But they said they would take our food and valuables. Our few younger men are away. The men who were here and objected were killed. They beat me. They took everything we had, set fire to many of the buildings. They laughed as they smashed every bucket they could find. They told me to pray to God for buckets."

"And God has provided, Priest," I said. "Buckets and men to use them. Thank God for our arrival."

"I will. But you are our enemy. Again I ask. Why?"

"Priest? You should believe in the power of prayer. It is nearly Christmas, the time of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. We will help you as much as we can. But we would appreciate some help too. Our lord is injured. Many of our men are tired. We need somewhere dry to sleep tonight. Is that barn available?"

"My barn? Of course, Sir. It is empty now. The Genoese took our food stores from it."

+++

By an hour after dusk every fire was out. Except for sentries we were all, including the carts, inside a dry barn. Two hours later the rain started and turned to sleet. By early morning it was snowing hard. At dawn there was a thick layer of snow covering everything and more snow falling.

It might be a Sunday and nearly Christmas but I put the men to bury the village's dead. The priest could just about stand to perform the burial services. Once the funerals were over we set to work to patch houses as best we could. Sir Henry, who had been running a fever the day before, was conscious but weak. He approved of my actions in the village. He ordered that we should stay put today, attend Mass, and possibly stay until the snow had gone. We still had several days' travel to get to Calais. It would be difficult and much slower through deep snow.

We had to carry Sir Henry into the church for Mass. Most of the local congregation were women. There was a handful of old and frail men and very few children. That was the situation in most of the villages close to the fighting between the French and English. The men had gone to war and most had been killed. Those left behind were older, too old to fight.

The men at arms spoiled the children giving them presents from their battlefield acquisitions. The villagers had never seen so many coins. If we had won the battle and not the skirmish by the baggage train? Every man of arms would have been heavily laden with gold and silver. They still had their gains from a summer of successful campaigning.

Our men were pleased to be inside the barn and not on the march. Except for Giles, on his first campaign as Sir Henry's clerk-at-arms, all of us are old campaigners. We are now too old for the main battle but not too old to defend a baggage train. The married men who still had wives had been left at home in England. Our younger men were with the main English army which was perhaps already inside Calais. If it was? The French army might withdraw to their winter quarters and no one would be hunting us.

After the Mass the men were talking with the women. Why not? They can make themselves understood in French even if they are not as fluent as Giles who has a French mother. The women were grateful for the work being done to repair the village. I suspected that the gratitude might extend further than a few hugs and kisses I had seen. Our men might be lighter by a portion of their coin hoards when we left -- not because the women were whores but because the men would be grateful.

+++

Two days later on Christmas Eve we had erected a palisade around the village. It wasn't much of a defence. Our longbows were our most effective arm. The palisade might impede a cavalry attack but not massed soldiers. I had sent out small patrols into the countryside. They reported signs of the Genoese and other small groups but none large enough to be a real threat.

I considered the layout of the village. The palisade wasn't much. If we going to stay longer we needed better defences. The village was on a platform well above the river's flood plain. The road we had been following ran between the village and the river. Behind the village was a rocky knoll rising a hundred feet above the church tower. There was a small disused hermit's cell at the summit. I put a sentry there as a lookout. The water mill on a tributary of the river was the most exposed position. It was stone built and sturdy. I had asked one of our men, who had been apprenticed to a miller, to see if it could be made to work.

Including the cart drivers we had fifty men. That was enough to defend the palisade against small groups of raiders such as the Genoese, but not enough if even a small part of the French army came this way. I hoped that the cold weather would deter them from sending out patrols.

As I went around the perimeter changing the sentries Giles asked me if he could talk to me in private. I asked him to follow me until I had finished.

"Sergeant," Giles said, "Marie told me something today."

Marie, a younger widow, had taken Giles into her cottage. Most of our men at arms were staying with the women of the village. It was more comfortable for them than the barn.

"What?" I asked.

Giles looked around to check there was no one who could hear.

"The Genoese crossbowmen?" he whispered. "They weren't Genoese. They were French. They told the villagers to say they were Genoese, otherwise they would come back to kill everyone. Why would they do that -- burn their own village?"

"We burn French villages, Giles. They burn villages in parts ruled by the English. Sir Henry doesn't like doing that. Nor do I. But we do what we are told to do by our leaders. Why? There are several reasons. The first is to show our enemies that they can't protect their own people. A second is that a destroyed village can't pay taxes and wars cost money. Third? To draw the enemy into battle to protect villages."

"I didn't mean that, Sergeant. I meant why would French crossbowmen steal from their own village and burn it? It doesn't make sense."

"Oh. Yes, Giles. The reason might be what they said. They hadn't been paid. They wanted something and most soldiers just don't care about peasants..."

"Sir Henry does."

"Yes. He does. He is an English landowner, a good one. He looks after his people. He can't see any difference between English peasants and French ones. He thinks, as the King thinks, that behaving well is important even to villagers. If we are to retain lands in France we need the people where we are to see us as protectors, not enemies. If we burn villages? We let the people go first. The French will kill villagers and burn the village as a funeral pyre. Both are wrong. The villagers we displace might starve. Even if they don't they are a drain on the French who have to feed them. Why did the crossbowmen burn this village? Perhaps to cover up the thefts. People would believe the worst of Genoese mercenaries."

"What does Sir Henry think about what happened here?"

I sighed.

"Sir Henry isn't well. His injuries aren't healing as they should. Most of the time he is sleeping and when he's awake he isn't always aware of his surroundings. He has told me to stay in this village as long as I can, and to send a messenger to Calais when the weather improves. Until then? I and we should protect this village as if it is ours."

"So that's why we put out the fires and repaired some houses?"

"No, Giles. We did that because of who we are. We are all villagers. Just as you responded by rushing back to us, we reacted by dashing in with buckets. We may be soldiers. We were villagers before we became soldiers and will be villagers again when we stop being soldiers. Now we are in a village. We are helping the people here and..."

"And they are expressing their gratitude?"

I slapped Giles' shoulder.

"And I know how Marie is thanking you."

He blushed. I think Giles is the only one of us who still can.

"She's wonderful," Giles said.

"Your first always is, Giles. You'll remember Marie for the rest of your life."

Giles was about to protest that Marie wasn't his first. He stopped himself and grinned.

"Off you go, Giles. Forget what she told you. Go back to your Marie."

I thought long and hard about what Giles had said. If the raiders had been French that meant there was indiscipline in the French Army. That could be useful information. When I sent a messenger to Calais he would have to tell someone senior. But I wouldn't put it in writing in case the messenger was intercepted.

+++

Giles surprised us at the Christmas Day Mass. As well as the normal service the villagers put on their traditional Nativity Play. Giles appeared as Joseph with Marie as the Virgin Mary. Marie was carrying one of her cousin's babies as the infant Jesus. Giles, playing Joseph, was looking at Marie as if she was the love of his life. She is his first, perhaps not his first puppy love, but certainly the one with whom he lost his virginity.

As they left the church, Marie had returned the baby to its mother. She was hugging Giles as if she didn't want to let him go. He looked stunned but happy.

That worried me. Not just Giles but many of our men were living with the local women. It had only been a few days but the men were enjoying female company and home cooking. The so-called Genoese had taken almost every piece of meat but had left heavy vegetables and the grain saved from the fire. If we were going to stay much longer we would need more food, particularly meat. The villager's livestock was that kept for breeding. If we killed and ate them the village would die.

Sir Henry had been taken in by Agnes, the widow of the village headman, who had been killed by the crossbowmen. She, her sister Grace, and her daughters were making him comfortable and tending his wounds better than we could.

I asked some of the older village men about hunting. They couldn't hunt because the game belonged to their overlord. Hunting deer would have meant hanging at worst or having a hand cut off for a first offence. I laughed.

"Your overlord is French and my enemy. Hunting his deer? He would kill us if he could. He can't do more even if we do kill deer."

The men suggested that Charles, a very old crippled man, might be able to help. He had been a forest keeper decades ago. He would know where the deer would be.

Charles was delighted to be asked. He had felt useless since his legs had ceased to carry him. His advice was invaluable. A day later I sent three of our bowmen out hunting deer. Within hours they were back with several deer each. They had to take a cart to bring back their trophies. We had meat.

The miller's apprentice, helped by a couple of carpenters, had managed to get the water mill back in operation. The local lord had insisted that all the village's grain had to be ground in that mill. He banned the women from owning hand querns but there were a couple of illegal ones. They weren't enough to make bread for all of us.

When I next went to talk to Sir Henry, Agnes was with him.

"Sergeant," she said, "your actions are worrying me. You are killing our Lord's deer, running our Lord's mill. What will he do to us when you leave?"

Sir Henry and I laughed at her.

"Agnes," Sir Henry said, "You can blame the ferocious English soldiers who forced you to eat venison and bread. How can you resist? The village has women, children and a few old men. You are captives of fifty dangerous Englishmen and you can't do anything."

"Can't we?" Agnes retorted. "Every night you are alone in this house with me, my sister and my daughters. We could tie you to your bed and smother you."

"But you wouldn't, Agnes. While we are here you are safe from raiders and wandering soldiers."

"We are, Sir Henry. We're grateful but you are the enemy of our country."

"Enemy? Possibly all soldiers are enemies of villagers. We need you to produce food for us. If you don't? We take it. But all of us don't want to be soldiers. We are old, tired and want to settle down. The wars have gone on long enough. For noblemen like me it can be a game. If we get captured we are ransomed. For the men at arms it is kill or be killed. For villagers and villages the tide of war can mean death and destruction. If only our Kings could live in peace?"

"It doesn't really matter to us who our King is, Sir Henry. Our lord is more important. A good lord looks after us. A bad one just squeezes us dry. The mill is one example. We would pay to use it but not as much as the lord expects. Grinding our grain by hand takes so long and so much effort. The mill can do more in a single day than we women could do in a couple of weeks."

"John and I won't ask to be paid," Sir Henry said. "The mill will help to feed all of us."

"Sir," I interrupted, "the mill also has a saw. We could saw timber in a couple of days' time."

"We could? That will be useful. The houses need repairing. If we are here for a few more days we could make a start."

"You're leaving?" Agnes was startled.

"I'm sorry, Agnes," Sir Henry said. "We're part of the English Army. We should be in Calais. John? Have you sent a messenger yet?"

"No, Sir Henry. The snow is too deep. If there is a hard frost a messenger might get through. If the snow melts..."

"That's unlikely," Agnes said. "We're high up. Once we have this much snow it tends to stay until March."

"March? I wonder," Sir Henry said. "John. Could we stay here until March?"

"Yes sir. Now we can hunt deer for meat and have the mill in operation -- unless the mill race freezes..."

"It won't," Agnes interrupted. "It is fed by a thermal spring. The mill race never freezes."

"Then, yes, we could stay until March, Sir Henry. I'd like better defences. What we have are good for the time we have been here, but for months? I'd like stronger barricades backed by stone or earth."

"Start on the defences, John. Send a messenger when we can. Assume we're here until March."

I was pleased to get clear orders. The men were getting too accustomed to living in warm houses with warmer women.

+++

Over the next week we used the short daylight hours to fell and drag trees to the mill. The trimmings began to build up a store of firewood to replace that lost when the crossbowmen set fire to much of the village.

Our hunters found and killed some wild boar. Hunting boar is dangerous if done as a sport. Expert longbowmen could kill them at a hundred yards or further. Soon almost every house was curing bacon and ham. The women and children were happier now they had regular supplies of good food.

Ten days after Christmas there was a hard frost. I sent Raoul to Calais with Sir Henry's written message, dictated to Giles, and a verbal message from me about the crossbowmen. I was unhappy that even Raoul knew that they were French. I shouldn't have been. I could trust Raoul, and all the villagers knew the crossbowmen were French even if they kept insisting they had been Genoese who attacked the village.

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