Read an Extract
SQUIRE FOR ME
That night, his mind astir, Robert prayed for another vision of Alice.
Instead he beheld, again, the old adversary: Edmund of Rutland. In all these years, the boy had made his regular appearances at the bedside. Sometimes the dreams were disjointed and horrifying; now fewer and farther between, as if the spectre were grown weary.
Yet he’d chosen this – of all nights – to return, when Robert Clifford’s thoughts were filled with marriage and the retaking of his lands in England and the past seemed at its most irrelevant, the phantom heralding a nostalgic and word-perfect re-enactment of that dread December day ten years ago. Accurate, even in the flooding emotion: triumph.
As he slumbered, Robert found himself once more beside John on Wakefield’s wintry killing ground. The Clifford brothers were swaggering, cock-a-hoop at their victory over the vainglorious Duke of York. They’d wallowed in hot bloodshed. The day was closing; they thought the war was, too.
As the dream opened, the two brothers were heading from the field of battle towards Wakefield town in pursuit of fugitives, when – by a stroke of appalling good luck – they happened upon Edward of York’s brother, young Edmund of Rutland, as the youth was hastened away over Wakefield Bridge by his master-at-arms, a knight who’d seen better days.
The two renegades – Rutland and his veteran escort – were swiftly brought to bay and separated, and then began the fair fight: Robert, a steadier soldier than John, stepping up, sword drawn, slowly circling the master-at-arms. John stood at his ease, his arm heavy across Rutland’s shoulders, now and then passing comment on the encounter for the boy’s benefit, pointing and gesturing. Robert did not expect the youth to profit much from the lesson. Not at this late stage.
Robert measured his opponent. The old knight had lost his sword on the field, though he’d acquired a flail in its place: a superb weapon against a heavy-armoured man if you were well-assured with it, which apparently he wasn’t. He had the principles right enough: dagger in the left hand to exploit his adversary’s weak points as they came exposed, trying to move in hard and fast. He must have expected Robert to be hampered by his sword, not the weapon of choice against a man in full harness; or at least, not some men’s choice. But Robert was massive enough to use his sword as a crushing weapon to deadly effect, and for now he played along, ducking or swaying to avoid the flail’s heavy swings.
Robert heard his elder brother, away to the side, call down censure on their adversary; for the knight was not wielding the flail as he should – as if it were a mace – but allowing the weapon’s wicked tail to slow him. Turning, Robert could see a few of the men laughing, silently, at John’s expression, so sincerely vexed. Rutland, too, was concentrating hard, an intense frown upon his handsome face, twitching reflexively, and rocking with the blows.
In the dream, Robert Clifford watched himself taunt the older man, buffeting him with the flat of the sword and joking with the watching soldiers while he parried the weapon, idly, even while his eyes were off his man. And then, abruptly, and before the spectators could lose interest, he stopped playing with the fellow and killed him, ending it quick and clean. The knight didn’t make a sound.
Then it was Edmund of Rutland to whom they turned.
By now, the light was waning and some of the men-at-arms had melted away, perhaps to continue the chase, or because the quick dispatch didn’t promise much sport. Perhaps those who remained were rewarded for their curiosity. Or they may have regretted it – he never knew. Smirking now, John was folding his arms; he was leaning upon the frost-bound bridge; he was waiting.
Rutland was a tall lad, barely short of John’s height; at seventeen, he may still have been growing. He was at that point coolly composed, remarkably unshaken, expecting to fight Robert Clifford as his master-at-arms had done; probably expecting to die, bravely. John had something different in mind.
“Squire for me, Brother.”
And so, at John’s direction, Robert acted the squire, stripping the youth of his beautifully wrought armour, plate by plate, sending each one spinning over the stone parapet into the river, banked by snow and in full and noisy spate, the colour of old ale. In the dream he heard again the protests of the watching men: the boy’s armour was useful, and expensive; they should be keeping it by. But the gesture was satisfying.
As the dream sped on its dark way, Robert cried aloud and groaned, restless, trembling. Beside him, Loic half-stirred from slumber and reached with gentle fingers, murmuring his drowsy comforts. Even as he slept, Robert pushed aside the hand. There was to be no peace. From afar, John was summoning him. Reluctant now, he returned to the figments who waited, patient and immobile, for his presence to animate them once more.
And so it resumed.
Robert took Rutland into his arms and strove to hold him still while John commenced. At an early stage, the boy’s composure deserted him and he started to plead. A little more, and he was shaking uncontrollably. And soon enough, screaming. John was using his sword as it should be used: against an unarmoured man. He was slicing, not smashing as Robert had done earlier, small pockets of flesh detaching and flying with vigorous ease.
At one stage, while the boy was still able to struggle forcefully, he managed to spin his captor just as John’s sword was descending, and the blade struck Robert’s armoured shoulder, hard enough to jar, badly, and he staggered and cursed in surprise. John pinned the point of his sword in the icy ground and leaned on the pommel, just as they were always taught not to. After a moment, Robert rolled his shoulder and laughed, and they could commence again. The screaming went on far longer than one might have expected, but eventually the sound lapsed to low grunts.
Finally, all was done, and then they walked away and left it there, heaped, an ignominious pile, steaming into the crisp air. It was said that someone took the skull after and sent it to the city of York to be mounted on the gates beside the head of the lad’s father, the old Duke, but it wasn’t them.
There was a perfect little chapel upon the bridge, overhanging the water, and naturally, in they went, breaking down the door, for the priest had fled. It was pledged to St Mary the Virgin, a wondrous sign, for Robert venerated the Virgin most particularly, even then, and ever after. The Clifford brothers prayed awhile, and embraced, and then headed on into Wakefield in the gathering dusk, probably with more to do, but the dream ended there, and he couldn’t, in fact, remember how they’d finished the day.