Simon is appointed Viceroy of Gascony to subdue King Henry’s rebellious baronial subjects in his French dukedom.
The land was parched yellow and gently rolling, with three low hills like the swells of waves. Riding ahead with Barres, Simon saw the dark mass of a grove of stunted pines and brush on the slope of the western, furthest valley.
“I could hide fifty horsemen in that thicket and attack the enemy’s rear guard once they’ve passed,” Barres suggested.
“You would prevent them from fleeing back to their ship,” Simon smiled. “Take fifty men. But don’t show yourselves until the Gascons meet our main force in this middle valley.”
With Barres’s ambush in place, Simon stationed a lookout in a lone pine tree to signal when the enemy entered the far side of the middle valley. When they reached the valley’s lowest ground he would attack. He deployed his men upon the slope just over the hill and out of sight of the valley that would be the trap for the Gascons and Bearne’s army.
The morning became bright and beating-hot. Locusts sang a steady droning as heat rippled in the breezeless air. The lookout sat staring at the far hill where it curved over the crest of yellow grass. The valley where Barres waited in ambush was out of sight beyond the next hill after that.
There was a flap and jingle now and then as a horse shook it mantling. As time passed, the riders held their reins loose so that their mounts could graze. The heat was stifling. The sun, blazing upon the steel, made ovens of the knights’ helmets. One after another, the men untied their laces and took their helmets off, wiping their red, sweat-soaked faces with their surcoats. They did not put their helms back on. Now and then a knight dismounted to piss or talk in low tones with his foot soldiers.
Hours passed. The heat, the stillness, the steady hum of insects dimmed the senses. As they waited, and waited, battle tension sank.
The sun dragged past noon.
“My lord, it’s possible they’ll camp for some time on the beach,” Arnaud Otton suggested.
“If they’ve not come by nightfall, we’ll send forward another scout. But I would rather meet them here where the land gives us advantage.”
Then suddenly the lookout shouted, “Lord earl, a knight is coming on at speed!”
“Probably come to tell us they’ve made camp,” the knight John Harcourt sighed to Simon.
“Perhaps…” But Simon was perplexed. His mind dazed by the heat.
In the time it took to cross the valley at full gallop, the rider appeared, dashing over the hill’s ridge. His horse was swift and soon he cut across the field directly toward the viceroy. “My lord,” he gasped, reining his mount and turning it so hard its rump collided with the viceroy’s horse, “My lord, the Gascons have captured us! Someone betrayed our ambush! The lord of Bearne is coming on to give you battle!”
At that moment the lookout in the tree began waving and shouting, “They are come! They come on quickly!”
Simon was jolted from the heat’s lethargy. “We’re waiting here too long!” he cried to his trumpeter. “Sound the advance!” He laced on his helmet and put spurs to his horse.
At the horn call, the archers and the mounted infantry and knights fumbled with their gear and helms and hurried to remount.
Simon galloped to the top of the hill. The wind blew from the south, carrying sounds away toward the sea, but Simon’s horse was tense, alert to the shaking of the earth from the hoof beats of the army coming on.
In the valley below, the army of the enemy was moving at a swift trot down the farther slope, the vanguard was already crossing the valley’s floor. Knights from Barres’ company were dotted among the forward riders, hunched figures disarmed and tied to their horses, their slumping posture apparent even at a distance.
Squinting hard through the eye slit of his helmet, Simon could make out among those in the fore a rider with the barred blue and white surcoat of Barres. Squeezing vision from his nearsighted eyes, he saw the riders flanking Barres broadly gesturing. They seemed in high spirits. Barres cringed away as one struck him in the head.
The earth trembled and a din like thunder came up with the breeze as the viceroy’s army on the far side of the hill began moving forward at speed.
For the Gascons, the sound was lost amid the rumble and jingle of their own advance. But Barres looked up and his glance caught d’Albret’s attention. What they saw upon the slope was a single knight in black chain mail and helm, with the red lion mantel of Montfort. D’Albret and Bearne stopped their talk and stared, dumbfounded, as the rider came at them alone at full volant.
“My spy must have gotten the viceroy’s horse,” Gaston de Bearne remarked at the amazing sight.
“He rides as though the hounds of Hell were after him,” d’Albret observed.
“Or with him,” said Malemorte. The archbishop, his rotund body in chain mail although his horse wore the caparison of a holy day parade, drew up beside d’Albret.
Bearne motioned for the march to halt.
The knight neared without reining in his horse. He drew his sword. Gaston quickly turned from his way. The blow fell on d’Albret’s shield with all the force of the oncoming gallop, carrying the Gascon and his mount back. Simon was beside Barres.
“My lord?” Barres gasped in disbelief as Simon’ sword slashed through the cords that bound his hands and neck. Gaston de Bearne was closing. Simon stopped the blow with his shield. But now d’Albret was moving in again. And the Archbishop Malemorte, unhooking a studded morningstar from his saddlebow, was swinging it for aim. Barres kicked d’Albret’s horse, spoiling his aim at Simon as the viceroy met Gaston’s next stroke with his sword. The Archbishop’s morningstar came down on Simon’s horse’s flank. The animal reared, stopping d’Albret’s second blow with its neck. The white mantel spurted red. D’Albret and Bearne closed over Simon as his mount staggered and sank under him.
Barres tackled the morningstar out of Malemorte’s grip. Mightily swinging the chained ball right and left at d’Albret and Bearne, he shouted, “It is only right I rescue my rescuer!” He battered the horses and swung at the riders’ backs and caught Gaston de Bearne a blow between the shoulder blades. Gaston fell forward, coughing blood as his horse pushed from the fight.
As Gaston moved out, Barres could see Simon kneeling, crouching against the body of his dying horse. His shield was hacked and broken but still covering him. “My stirrup’s free! Climb up!” Barres shouted, catching d’Albret’s blade with a swing of the morningstar and wrestling the chain-wound sword as the studded ball swung wildly. Simon climbed up behind Barres’ saddle.
Now the viceroy’s army was pouring over the hill. Bearne’s army charged to meet them. Barres let go the handle of the morningstar and dug his spurs into his mount. The heavy-laden horse reached out its legs and galloped for the slope, passing between the oncoming riders.
“Is the viceroy hurt?” the knight of Vernon called out.
Simon waved his sword and shouted cheerfully,” Not scratched! Lay on to the devils for me while I get another horse!”
It was not true he wasn’t scratched. In his tent at camp, the squire Peter carefully removed his master’s chain hauberk and sleeves, and his bloody pourpoint shirt. He gently dressed the cuts on Simon’s shoulders, neck and back, packing the deepest wounds with boiled lint.
Simon saw his son watching him with wide eyes. He grinned at the boy. “Don’t think too much of it, Henry. It doesn’t hurt. At least not till the battle’s done.” He was exhilarated, even merry.
Barres sat nearby on the cot. “I never before saw anything so mad as that!” He ran his hand over the bald spot at the top of his head. “It was like a wild man! You came down the hill and took on the whole army by yourself!”
Simon laughed. “My brains must have been baked.”
“For certain! I’ll wager your father the Crusader never led a charge a full mile ahead of his men! It’s God’s own work you’re still alive.”
Young Henry listened, and looked at his father in wonder.
Bandaged, dressed and armed again, Simon took a sturdy roan horse that had no mantel, and went back to the battle. As he and Barres rode out, he called to his son, “Henry, come and watch the battle from the hill. Learn what battle is. That’s why I’ve brought you.”
Henry ran fast to his palfrey, mounted and rode up the hill.
The field was full of disordered action. Foot soldierswho had followed the charge as best they could now clustered around their knights, fending off with their short swords blows aimed at the horses. The knights above them traded blows and parries with their long two-edged swords. Pairs of fighters and larger, struggling knots of men and horses, were scattered all over the field. But as many as fought, that many and more, mounted and on foot, stood looking around. Here and there a downed horse lay thrashing in the grass, straining to get up. Wherever a man was fallen, men on foot hurried to him, sometimes with a horse to carry him away.
Some of the wounded came up the hill, passing Henry on their way back to the camp. At the outskirts of the battle there was a constant flow of men coming and going, though more going than coming. The baggage of the Gascons and Bearne’s army’s supplies were in wagons drawn up on the field’s far side. Like a magnet gathering metal filings from a heap, this Gascon camp drew most of the departing riders. They arched their way around the battle to disappear among the wagons and their grazing, hobbled oxen.
Now and then the glimpse of a familiar mantel drew Henry’s attention to a particular knot of the battle. He had learned the Gascons’ arms when he and his father were at Castillon. And those of the Norman knights he had studied well on their trip south from Paris. He could just make out the blows exchanged as the lord of Vidame fought Raymond de Fronzac. He could see the arms of Noailles and Harcourt engaged with the Rudels. But chiefly he looked for the roan horse with no mantel, whose rider wore black chain mail. Toward him the battle clustered. Henry peered at the shifting struggle around the speck of black that disappeared and then appeared again, always in the midst of the densest fight.
The breeze shifted to the north, blowing across the valley toward the hill where Henry stood. The boy’s palfrey snorted. The air brought up the sounds and smells of battle; the acrid smells of sweat, horse dung and blood; the unintelligible din of voices, clashing metal and jingling harness, through which sometimes a shout rang clear. Then the breeze dropped. But the shadow play went on, thinned by incessant draining at the edges. Henry saw riders leaving from the Gascon camp by twos and threes on fresh horses that galloped away at speed.
The warm light of late afternoon was gilding the grass. The battle slowed. The tired figures seemed to move with the deliberation of a dance. The golden light, the slowness of the movement would have made the scene seem beautiful, but for the dying horses struggling to rise and the bloodied bodies being carried from the field.
Gradually the slow motion of the battle came to halt. There was a final burst as men darted away. Then there was milling movement. Those remaining on the field divided, some coming up the hill toward Henry, the rest going toward the barons’ baggage camp.
Henry strained to see the knight on the roan horse. He thought he caught a glimpse of him moving toward the Gascons’ camp. But figures and colors were becoming indistinct. The failing light was turning the whole scene to blue. Henry searched for the roan, then gave his palfrey a kick and started down the hill.
Among those coming up the slope was the knight John Harcourt. He took off his helmet as he saw Henry. “We won the day!” he shouted. “Your father’s gone to take possession of the Gascons’ baggage train.”
Henry gave a cry of joy and dug his heels into his horse, galloping down the slope and onto the field. He skirted the hard-trampled ground littered with gear and the bodies of horses. There were men there too. Men crushed under the haunches of their horses. He forced himself to look at their gaping mouths and staring eyes as he rode by.
He reached the baggage camp and found his father, smeared with dirt and drying blood, sitting exhausted on a wagon wheel. His knights stood or sat around him on the grass, in council. Shyly, Henry found a space among them and sat down.
“When the lord of Barres has made a full list of the prisoners, the wagons, their contents and the horses, we shall divide the ransoms and the spoils by lot,” the viceroy said.
Some of the Gascon barons had escaped. Among them were Gaston de Bearne and Amanieu d’Albret. But the victors held most of the knights of Aragon and Navarre, and many of the rebels.
“Did anyone see which way Bearne fled?” the viceroy asked.
His son spoke up timidly, “I saw him with some other riders leaving from this camp. They all went that way,” he pointed to the east, the opposite direction from Oleron.
Simon nodded to his son approvingly, then said, “We will return to our camp for tonight, and follow them tomorrow.”
In the deepening blue light the oxen of the Gascons’ baggage train were hitched to their wagons and were driven across the battlefield, over the hill and into the viceroy’s camp. The captured foot soldiers walked in file, tied by their wrists to long ropes strung between the wagons. Prisoner knights and the archbishop rode tied to their horses, their horses’ legs hobbled so that they could move only slowly.
It was night when the slow-moving prize cavalcade crept over the hill’s crest and crossed the little valley into the camp. There, bright fires were lit. The squires had helped themselves to sheep grazing nearby, slaughtering a hundred of the animals and roasting the carcasses on spits. The victors were feasting.
The viceroy, his son and Arnaud Otton had ridden back to their camp as soon as the council was ended.
Henry noticed that his father rode stiffly. He clearly was in pain though trying hard to conceal it. When they reached the red and white striped tent, Henry jumped from his palfrey and held his father’s stirrup, helping him dismount.
At his son’s worried look, Simon gave a strained smile and said softly, “After the battle’s done, it can be troublesome.” He spoke in an undertone so no one else would hear and be alarmed.
Henry did not dare help him, but walked beside him as he went into the tent.
Cautiously, the squire Peter drew his master’s hauberk and chain sleeves off again. He applied a clean rag soaked with wine to the blood-caked pourpoint shirt, then gently peeled it back from the wounds. The bandages beneath were torn, a mass of cloth and blood, and there were new bruises and large open cuts. With more soaking, Peter cut and peeled the ruined bandages away.
Sitting on a campstool, Simon took gulp after gulp of Otton’s Armagnac from a goatskin flask. Henry saw his father becoming very drunk. But Peter was both gentle and expert, and finally the bandages were removed. Blows from blades not sharp enough to cut through mail had battered and split the skin. Peter daubed away the blood and packed the larger wounds with lint, but whole areas were purple and swelling.
Bleary, Simon looked to Henry, “You had better bring me something to eat.”
“Better not, sire. Eating now will make you sick,” Peter warned.
“I’ve had too much to drink already,” Simon said thickly. “And I’m going to drink more. I want something to eat.”
Henry looked to Peter. The squire rolled his eyes upward and shrugged. Henry went to fetch some roasted mutton.
As he went through the camp, everyone asked how the viceroy was. “He’s not seriously hurt,” Henry assured them, wondering if it were true, he had so many hurts. But he sensed from his father that he must lie if need be.
He came back with a thick piece of meat. Simon ate it hungrily, Then almost at once threw it up, with much of the Armagnac. Peter looked on coolly, holding a shaving basin as his master retched.
His head clearer, Simon lay down carefully, prone, on his cot. “It hurts,” he grumbled as he let Peter spread great quantities of an herb unguent. The squire laid clean bandages over his salved back, then, having him sit up, he spread more unguent on the cuts on his chest, shoulders and neck, laid on more bandages, and wound long strips of linen around his back and chest. Simon lay down prone again, the pain subsiding, and he fell asleep.
“Is he really going to be all right?” Henry asked in a whisper.
“The worst will be the headache that he has in the morning from all he’s drunk,” the squire answered hopefully.