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 James Aitcheson Knights of the Hawk Prologue

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James Aitcheson

Knights of the Hawk
James Aitcheson  Knights of the Hawk  Prologue Knights-of-the-Hawk-500px-194x300


A man always remembers his first kill. In the same way that he can recall the time he first felt a woman’s touch, so he can conjure up the face of his first victim and every detail of that moment. Even many years later he will be able to say where it took place and what was the time of day, whether it was raining or whether the sun shone, how he held his blade and how he struck and where he buried the steel. He will remember his foe’s screams ringing in his ears, the feel of warm blood running across his fingers and the stench of voided bowels and freshly opened guts rising up. He will remember the horror brought on by the realisation of what he has done, of what he has become, and those memories will remain with him as long as he lives.

And so it was with me. Rarely have I ever spoken of this, and even among my closest companions there are few who know the whole story. There was a time years ago when my fellow knights and I would spend the evenings sitting around the campfire and spinning boastful yarns of our achievements, but even then it was never something I cared to speak of, and I would often change the details to suit what I thought those listening would prefer to hear. Why that was, I’m unsure. Perhaps it is because it didn’t happen in the heat and thunder of the charge, or in the grim spearwork of the shield wall, as many might wish to think, and for that reason I am ashamed, although many of my fellow warriors would undoubtedly have a similar story to tell. Perhaps it is because all these events that I now set down in writing took place many decades ago, and when I look back on my time upon this earth there are far nobler deeds that I would rather remember. Perhaps it is simply because it is no one’s business but my own.
What happened is this. I was in my sixteenth summer at the time: more than a boy but not quite a man; a promising rider but not yet proficient in swordcraft, and still lacking in the virtues of patience and temper that were required of the oath sworn knight I aspired to be. Like all youths I was hot tempered and arrogant; my head was filled with dreams of glory and plunder and a foolish belief that nothing in the world could harm me, and it was that same foolishness that caused me to cross those men that summer’s day.
We had that afternoon arrived in some small Flemish river town, the name of which I’ve long since forgotten, on our way home from paying homage to the Norman duke. I had been sent with a purse full of silver by the man who was then my lord, Robert de Commines, to secure overnight lodgings for our party. It should have been an easy task, except that it happened to be a market day, and not only that but it was also nearing the feast of a minor saint whose name I was unfamiliar with but whom the folk of the surrounding country revered, which meant that the streets were crowded and each one of the dozen inns I visited was already full with merchants and pilgrims who had come to sell their wares, to worship and to attend the festivities.
Weary from my wanderings, eventually I found a corner of the main thoroughfare where I could sit upon the dusty ground and rest my legs. Leaning back against a wall, I wondered whether it was better to return to Lord Robert, tell him of my failure and risk his displeasure, or to keep looking, though it seemed a fruitless task. My throat was parched and I drank down the last few drops from my ale flask to soothe it. The pungent fragrance of the spice monger’s garlic filled my nose, mixed with the less palatable smells of cattle dung from the streets and the carcasses of poultry hanging from the butchers’ stalls. Once in a while my ears would make out a few words in French or Breton, the only two worldly tongues I was familiar with, but otherwise all I heard was a cacophony of men and women calling across the wide marketplace, dogs barking, young children shrieking as they chased each other in between the stalls, prompting annoyed shouts from those whose paths they obstructed. Oxen snorted as they drew wagons laden with sheaves of wheat and casks that might have contained wine, or else some kind of salted meat. A young man juggled coloured balls and some of the townsfolk crowded around to marvel at his skill; from one of the side streets floated the sound of a pipe, accompanied by the steady beating of a tabor.
And then I saw her. She sat on a stool on the other side of the wide street, behind a trestle table laden with wet glistening salmon and herring. Her fair hair was uncovered, tied in a loose braid that shone gold in the sun and trailed halfway down her back, a sign that she wasn’t yet wed. By my reckoning she was about as old as myself, or perhaps a year or so older; I have never been much good at guessing ages. She had a fine featured face, with attentive, smiling eyes, and a friendly manner with the folk who stopped at the stall to ask how much those fish were worth and to argue the price, before grudgingly and at length handing over their coin.
A more beautiful creature I had never laid eyes upon. None of the girls with whom I’d stolen kisses in the woods of Commines or on our travels could match her. The sight of her was like the sweetest, strongest wine I had tasted, and I drank deeply, letting it go to my head, making sure to take in every smallest detail, from the way her eyes narrowed in concentration as she worked a blade between the two halves of an oyster shell, to the deftness of her knife work as she prised it open, and the quickness of her fingers in scooping out the silver shining meat contained within and placing it in a wooden bowl beside her.
How long I sat there watching her shell oysters, entranced by her beauty and her skill, I cannot say. It must have been some while, for eventually I realised that she was looking back at me, an odd expression upon her face. Heat rose up my cheeks. Others might have chosen that moment to avert their gaze, and I almost did, but instead, almost without willing it, I found myself getting to my feet and making my way through the crowds towards her, making my apologies to a stout armed woman carrying a pail of water in each hand, who berated me after I almost collided with her. At least this seemed to amuse the girl, who greeted me with a broad smile when I reached the fishmonger’s stall.
‘I haven’t seen you before,’ she said. ‘You’re not from here, are you?’
She spoke in French, although with a slight accent, as if it were not her first tongue, which meant we had something in common. Her voice was light and full of warmth, exactly as I had imagined it would be.
‘We arrived a few hours ago,’ I said by way of explanation, and wished I had something more interesting to offer by way of conversation, but I was enthralled by this precious jewel. An idea came to me, and I drew from my knapsack a small, bruised pear I’d purchased earlier from one of the fruit sellers who plied their trade by the wharves on the river.
‘For you,’ I said, and held it out as I met her eyes, grey blue like the open sea. How I ever thought to win a girl’s affections with such a paltry gift, I wasn’t sure, but I was young and stupid, and that was all I had to give as a token of my admiration.
At first she hesitated, regarding both myself and the pear with a quizzical look as if it were some sort of trick, but after a moment she reached out to accept my offering.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and gave that smile again as she raised it to her lips, but at the same moment a firm hand grabbed her wrist and she gave a yelp of surprise. A shadow fell across us and I glanced up to see a man as wide as he was tall, with thinning hair, a bloodstained apron across his round belly, and a curved blade gripped tightly in his hand.
‘You,’ he barked at me. ‘Who are you?’
So startled was I by the question and by his sudden manner that no words arrived upon my tongue.
‘Do you wish to buy some herring?’
‘N no,’ I replied, confused, as I looked up at him. No one would ever have described me as short, but even when I drew myself up to my full height this man still had the advantage of at least a head over me.
‘A basket of oysters, perhaps?’
Even at sixteen summers I recognised the smell of ale on a man’s breath, and I caught a great whiff of it then. I shook my head.
‘So it’s my niece you want to buy, then? You want to have your way with her, like all the others who’ve had their eye on her. That’s right, isn’t it?’
It had been a glance and a smile and a few words exchanged, nothing more. How could he take insult from that?
‘I didn’t mean anything by it,’ I replied, with as much defiance as I could muster as I remembered who I was: a knight in training in the service of the famed Robert de Commines, and more than a match for this brute.
One hand still held his curved knife, but with the other he snatched the pear from the girl’s hand. She gave a squeak of protest, but he ignored her.
‘I know your kind,’ he told me. ‘You take a fancy to my Joscelina and think you can tempt her with presents as soon as my back is turned. I didn’t take her in and feed and clothe her all these years just to see some filthy lice ridden beggar take her from me.’
‘Uncle ’
Whatever Joscelina had been about to say, she was silenced by a slap across the face. The fishmonger let go of her wrist and she gave a cry as she fell awkwardly on to the muddy street.
He turned the pear over in his hand, examining it with disdain. ‘Is this how much you think she’s worth?’ he asked. ‘This worm ridden thing?’ He tossed it into the gutter where the fish heads lay.
By then a handful of the other stallholders had come to see what the commotion was about. They were men of all shapes: some tall and wiry; others built like the girl’s uncle, with strong shoulders and swollen guts and weather worn faces that bore stern expressions.
‘Are you making trouble for Gerbod, lad?’ said one of them as they began to form a ring around me.
What I should have done then was see sense and make my apologies, or else try to run before anything further happened; there was no doubt that I was quicker on my feet than these men. That was what instinct told me was the right course, but something else held me there. My blood had been stirred; it ran hot in my veins as anger swelled inside me. It wasn’t that the fishmonger’s words offended me, for in my life I had been called many worse things than a beggar, and bore such insults lightly. Rather what angered me was the way he’d struck his niece when she had done nothing to deserve it, and even though how he chose to treat her was none of my business, in that moment my head was filled with visions of myself as her stalwart defender, in the manner of the knights of legend, the ones praised by the poets in their songs.
‘What are you waiting for?’ asked the fishmonger, the man they’d called Gerbod. He waved his bloodied fish knife in my direction. ‘Get gone from here before I bury this blade in your gut.’
But I wasn’t listening. Instead I slid my own knife from its sheath and brandished it before me, clutching the hilt so tightly that it hurt my palm as I turned to face each one of them in turn. The weapon had been given to me by Lord Robert when first I’d entered his service, and I treasured it above all my other possessions, often spending long hours by light of sun and moon honing its edge with whetstone and polishing the flat of the steel until my own reflection gazed back at me. Of course I’d been in fights before, both in the training yard and outside of it, but rarely with anyone but the other servant boys in Lord Robert’s household, and certainly not with full grown men such as these, who looked as though they had seen more than their share of tussles over the years. Including Gerbod, there were six of them. Even many years later, when my sword skills were at their sharpest, when for a while my name was among those sung by the poets and my deeds were known far and wide, I would have thought twice about trying to fight so many by myself. To think I could do so then, when I had not even sixteen summers behind me, was the height of folly, but arrogance had blinded me. That, and a desire to prove myself, to show the girl, her uncle and his friends that I was no craven.
A couple of them drew their own weapons; the others simply laughed.
‘Don’t be stupid, boy,’ the fishmonger snarled from the other side of his stall. ‘You can’t fight us.’
Behind him the girl was getting to her feet, rubbing her wrist and elbow, and there were tears in her eyes.
‘Put your blade away and you won’t get hurt,’ said Gerbod. He came around the table where the fish lay in their neat rows, and strode towards me, gutting knife still in hand.
I glanced about, facing each one of those who were surrounding me and starting to wonder whether this had been such a good idea. With every beat of my heart my confidence and resolve began to ebb away, until, almost without willing it, I found my weapon hand returning to the sheath at my belt and sliding the steel back into the leather.
Gerbod grinned, displaying a row of broken, yellow teeth. He took another step closer to me so that his ale reeking breath filled my nose, then, after eyeing me carefully, he laid both his hands upon my shoulders and shoved me. I wasn’t expecting it and stumbled backwards, into the path of one of the fishmonger’s friends, who tried to send me back the way I had come. My feet couldn’t keep up with the rest of me, however, and suddenly I found myself sprawling forward, limbs flailing, landing on my side in a puddle to the laughs and jeers of the men. Before I could even think of getting up, something connected sharply with my ribs, and I yelped.
‘That’s for threatening me,’ I heard the fishmonger say. He kicked me again, closer to my groin this time. ‘No one crosses me and walks away freely.’
Wincing in double agony, I clutched at my chest as he bent down beside me and in one swift move cut through the leather thong that tied the coin purse with which Lord Robert had entrusted me to my belt.
‘What’s this?’ he asked. He hefted the pouch in his hand, feeling its weight and listening to the clink of silver inside, before opening the drawstring. His eyes gleamed as he upended the contents into his palm, letting a stream of coins pour forth.
‘He must have stolen it,’ said one of his companions, a thickset man with lank hair and a large wart on the tip of his nose. ‘I reckon he was looking to rob you too, until you caught him.’
‘Rob me of my Joscelina, indeed,’ Gerbod murmured. He tipped the silver back into the purse and glanced down at me. ‘That’s right, isn’t it? Do you know how they punish your sort here?’
‘I’m no thief,’ I said. ‘That silver belongs to my lord, Robert de Commines.’
But the fishmonger did not want to listen to my protests. He landed another kick to my gut before, at his signal, the lank haired man stepped forward and dragged me to my feet. I might, I suppose, have shouted out for help, but it seemed the cowardly thing to do, and in any case how many of the market goers would want to involve themselves in something that was none of their business? Far better, in their eyes, to let things take their course than to risk injury and perhaps worse. And so it was then. Dazed and blinking to keep the tears of pain from my eyes, I glanced around, trying desperately to meet the eye of anyone, man or woman, who might come to my aid, but they all kept their heads bowed low as they hustled past. The pipe and tabor still played; elsewhere merchants continued to call out the prices of their wares. To them it was just another day, another street brawl.
Eventually my gaze settled once more on Gerbod, who stood in front of me. In his left hand he clutched the purse that contained his spoils, while in the other he held the curved knife, and it was with that one that he grabbed my collar.
‘This silver is mine now,’ he said, and spat in my face.
My arms were pinned behind me, and I could not lift them to wipe away his spit, let alone reach for my knife hilt, for all the good that would do me. The breath caught in my chest as I glimpsed the glinting edge of his blade, mere inches from my neck. One slip of his hand was all it would take.
‘It belongs to Lord Robert,’ I said in a small voice. It was useless to argue, even if it was the truth. But the truth was all I had to offer, and no other ideas came to mind.
‘Suppose that it did,’ the fishmonger said as he clutched tighter at my collar, ‘tell me this: where is he now to claim it?’
‘Closer than you think,’ came a voice from somewhere behind me, and a wave of relief broke over me, for it was a voice I knew well. A look of surprise came over Gerbod’s face, which quickly changed to a frown as he let go of me and faced the newcomer. A shiver came over me and I breathed deeply as the knife left my throat. I tried to turn but the lank haired one still held me. Even when I twisted my neck to look over my shoulder, all I could see was a shadowy, indistinct figure, for the sun was in my eyes.
‘This isn’t your concern, friend,’ said the fishmonger.
The figure shouldered his way through the ring of men around me, his mail chinking. With every step the shadow resolved, until I could make out familiar features: his well trimmed beard, of which he had always been proud; and his thick eyebrows, which lent him a stern appearance. He was then a little less than thirty in years, and while he was neither especially tall nor imposing in stature, he nonetheless had a manner and a way of speaking that always seemed to command respect, not just from those in his employ but from others too. Silver rings adorned both his hands; he was clad in a newly polished hauberk that glistened in the light, while hanging from his belt was a scabbard decorated with enamelled copper and gemstones of many hues.
‘I rather think it is my concern,’ he answered. ‘My name is Robert de Commines. The boy is one of my retainers.’
He did not meet my eyes as he said this. Instead he fixed his gaze upon Gerbod, who could only give a snort in reply, for the first time seemingly unable to think of anything to say.
‘Let him go,’ Lord Robert said. ‘The rest of you, sheathe your weapons. If any of you should so much as lay a scratch upon him, you will have my blade edge to answer to.’
He rested a hand upon his silver worked hilt as if in warning. The other men exchanged nervous glances with each other. They remained six against our two, and probably had a good chance of overwhelming us if it came to blows, the fact that one of us was armed with mail and sword notwithstanding. Yet running through their minds at the same time would have been the knowledge that to begin a fight in this place would not go unpunished. If they drew blood they would be hunted down and forced to pay the fine, and if they could not pay the price required by law, they would be outlawed at best and hanged at worst. None of them wished such a fate.
None of them, it seemed, except for Gerbod.
‘Why should I listen to you?’ he asked as he advanced upon Robert until there was barely an arm’s length between them. It was an impertinent question to ask one of such obvious wealth and status, but ale dulls a man’s wits even as it quickens his temper, and a great deal of it must have passed the fishmonger’s lips that day. He jabbed the finger of his left hand – the one holding the coin pouch – towards the other man’s mailed chest, but Robert was too quick for him, and snatched hold of his wrist.
‘Touch me and it will be the last move you make,’ he warned, lowering his voice as he tightened his grip and met the large bellied one’s stare. ‘Now, return the money and tell your friend to unhand the boy.’
What possessed the fishmonger that day, I will never know. Perhaps the sight of so much silver had blinded him, or else he was simply used to getting his way and did not much care for being challenged. I have come across many of his kind over the years, and always it has ended badly.
Without warning he stepped forward and in the same sharp movement brought his head down upon Robert’s brow, sending him staggering backwards. While my lord tried to regain his footing Gerbod came at him with his knife, but his slashes found only air.
‘Lord!’ I yelled as I struggled to free myself from the grip of the one who held me, though it seemed he lacked the same appetite for a fight as his friend the fishmonger, since he made little effort to stop me. Nor did the rest of those who had gathered, who were turning tail. They sensed that no good would come of this and wanted no part of any bloodshed.
‘Stay back,’ Robert shouted when he saw me running to his aid with naked steel in hand. He ducked beneath a wild swing aimed at his head, but couldn’t avoid Gerbod’s shoulder charge, and was knocked to the ground. He lay on his back, blinking as he pressed at the spot on his forehead where he had been struck, whilst the fishmonger stood over him, eyes gleaming.
Roaring without words, I hurled myself at Gerbod. My blood was up and I was blinded by hatred and a wild feeling I’d never before known: a feeling that in the months and years to come would grow ever more familiar; a feeling to which men at different times have given different names and which I would come to know as the battle rage.
Gerbod heard me coming. With surprising deftness for a man of his girth he stepped out of my path and that of my knife edge. Smirking, he raised his curved steel to bring to bear upon me. I froze, not knowing what to do. My feet seemed to take root where I’d planted them, and in that moment my rage turned to fear; in the gleam of his weapon I glimpsed my death. I could not tear my eyes from it, could not move or think, and I was still watching it when from behind him came the sound of a sword being drawn, followed an instant later by a flash of steel as the flat of Robert’s blade connected with the back of the fishmonger’s head.
He gave a grunt and staggered towards me, and I had just enough wit remaining to thrust out my blade to defend myself. He tumbled forwards, collapsing on top of me like a block of marble fallen from the back of a stonemason’s cart, bringing us both down. The street was muddy and there was cattle and horse dung everywhere, but even so I met it hard, and my head must have hit a stone, since for a few moments everything went hazy and I did not know where I was. Someone was calling my name, but it seemed far away. A great weight pressed down on my lower half, pinning me to the ground so that I could not move, and the only thing running through my mind was the question of where my knife was, the one that Lord Robert had gifted to me, for it was no longer in my hand.
My hand, which was covered in something warm and sticky and glistening. That was when I came to properly and saw the fishmonger lying there, his arms splayed out, his head laid upon my chest, his mouth wide, his eyes open but unseeing. The stench of shit mixed with fresh spilt blood filled my nose and I wanted to retch, but nothing would come. All around us people were shouting and pointing and running and screaming, but I could not speak or move or do anything at all. Then Robert was beside me, rolling the fishmonger’s corpse off me, and holding out his hand to help me up. His face was red from exertion and there was a panicked look in his eyes as he looked about.
Only when I was on my feet did I see the steel buried in Gerbod’s chest close to where his heart was. It took but a moment for me to recognise the blade’s hilt and see that it belonged to me, and to understand what had happened. The breath left my chest and a chill ran through me.
‘Run,’ Robert shouted, and then when I did not move, he laid a firm hand upon my shoulder. ‘Now!’
But I would not leave without my weapon. I scrambled to retrieve it, closing my eyes and trying to keep the sickness from rising in my throat as I jerked it from the wound, feeling the flesh tear and the edge scrape against bone. Without pausing to clean the blood from it, I returned it to its sheath, and then I was on my feet again, only to meet Joscelina’s gaze. I’d all but forgotten her. Desperately she screamed for help, though of course there was nothing that could be done. Her voice and her eyes were filled with anguish the likes of which I’d never before seen or heard, though I have known it many times since.
I had taken her uncle from her: the man who was her keeper and her sole protector in the world. With my own hand I had done this. His blood was upon me.
Once more Robert called my name. That was when I noticed the coin pouch lying just beyond the reach of Gerbod’s outstretched fingers, as if even in death he clutched at it.
‘What about the silver?’ I asked Robert.
‘Leave it!’ he said. ‘It belongs to her now. Now, run!’
But Joscelina had no interest in the money. Even as I stood there, she rushed to her uncle’s side, kneeling down beside him and hugging his bloodstained chest tightly to her own, her cheeks streaming with tears. Swallowing to hold down the bile rising in my throat, I tore my gaze away and broke into a run as I followed Robert through the gathered crowds, fleeing that place of ill fortune. No one dared try to stop us.
We left the town that same hour, riding hard along the tracks towards the woods to the south to escape any of Gerbod’s friends who might pursue us and try to bring us to justice or take their revenge. That it had been an accident, that it had been he who attacked us and that we were only defending ourselves would count for nothing in the eyes of those who passed judgment. Although in years to come Robert’s star would rise and mine with it, at that time he was still far from rich, and possessed little influence that he could use to sway them. Thus we had no choice but to flee the town. I remember glancing back and watching the houses and the walls disappearing behind us and coming to the realisation even then that, for me, nothing thereafter would be the same.
And that was how it happened. It is strange how the names and faces return so easily to me, when many of the companions and sword brothers with whom I once shared bread and fought shoulder to shoulder in battle have long since slipped my mind. Strange, too, how vivid it all remains in my memory, although it was but a minor street scuffle rather than a glorious battle, and over in moments besides. Still, it marked a turning point in my life, for that was the day I became a killer and my journey began. Men who previously had looked down on me as stable hand and cup bearer and serving lad started to see me differently and to hold me in greater regard, as if I were a new person altogether. What Robert told them and what they believed took place that day, I never learnt. Certainly I never said anything to them, nor did they ever question me regarding the truth of the matter, and that was probably for the best.
The boy had proven himself a warrior, and in so doing had taken his first steps upon the sword path; that was all that counted. Of course his lord was hoping that he would grow into a good enough warrior that that kill would become merely the first of many, and so it proved in the years that followed. But the truth is and always has been that no matter how great a man’s prowess with spear and sword and shield, or how much silver and gold he may acquire, or how many fine horses he owns, or whether by his deeds he forges himself a reputation to last until the day of judgement, still that first time he took a life will be the one he remembers most clearly.
I should know, for I have walked that path. My name is Tancred, and this is my tale.
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James Aitcheson Knights of the Hawk Prologue
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