Chapter One – Simon 1229
Simon arrives from France to claim his father’s lapsed titles Earl of Leicester, Steward of England.
He was tall and slender, at that time in life when the body in a sudden rush to adult height becomes long limbed and angular. He was dressed in white. His hair was dark, his skin was fair but his eyes had the stern frown of acute nearsightedness. He stood on the quay at Dover peering for his baggage among the cargo tossed by the ship’s crew to the landing. Mist and sheaves of sleety rain swept across the harbor, blending the gray air into the cold, slate-colored sea. It was February of the year 1229.
A superb white horse with a fine bridle and high-cantelled saddle was hoisted up from the ship’s hold. As the animal got its footing on the quay, sailors unfastened the hoist-cinch from its belly and the youth in white claimed it. Leading his horse to the heap of baggage, he pulled out a weighty leather sack. Rummaging further through the heap, he retrieved a pot helmet and a shield as plain and white as his clothes, for he was a new-made knight not yet in liege to any lord.
With his sack lashed behind his saddle, his helmet hooked to the saddlebow and his shield slung over his shoulder, he mounted and was on his way in the foreign, English countryside where his future lay before him. He didn’t mind the rain for he was happy. More than happy, he was towering as only the young first stepping into life can be.
His family was Norman and noble, balancing between power and genteel poverty and on the downside now. But they could trace their lineage from William the Conqueror. His father,for whom he was named, had been a hero of the Third Crusade in Palestine and leader of the war against the Albigensian heretics in France. The crusader died at the siege of Toulouse, struck on the head by a stone hurled from a mangonel. In the eleven years since then the family’s fortunes had disintegrated.
The hero’s widow, in her grief, had spent her love upon this namesake son, her youngest child. She was deeply devout and, though she too died before the lad was eight, she imparted her religion to him. Every thought, word and deed was to be held up to the light of faith and balanced. Nor was this a forced mental exercise for him. It was fed by his deepest feelings. His mother, the Virgin, the Church all blended to a rich amalgam in his heart, an alchemy the heady fumes of which infused his every action with a sense of divine purpose. Though he might doubt the rightness of his acts, might bitterly revile his failings, he never would doubt himself, doubt that his responsibility was of the highest order.
This earnest faith, and his family’s services to the Crown of France, led Queen Blanche to choose the crusader’s orphan as companion for her son. The boy had grown up at the Court in Paris beside the child-king Louis IX, who was later to be Saint Louis. With Louis he was educated in theology and logic, history, Latin grammar and rhetoric, and the military arts from the techniques of the two-edged sword and jousting at the quintain to the deployment of armies in the field. In the scholarly subjects he had proved a good student. But in the military arts he had excelled.The youth trotting through the wintry Kentish countryside was thus a special mix: of scholarship and courtliness, of spiritual devotion and of military skills as yet untried.
As he ambled along the rain-soaked highway the sound of hoofbeats coming on at speed broke into the youth’s daydreaming. A rider caught up with him and drew rein.
The lad looked narrowly at this imposed companion. He was a burly man, red haired, in his mid-forties and wearing chain mail armor. His surcoat and his shield were black crisscrossed with gold: the arms of Maltraverse, well known on both sides of the Channel. But over the gold pattern a red swallow was painted, the mark of a landless son.
Maltraverse smiled genially. “I see I be well met on the road,” he said in the provincial dialect of French spoken in England.
The youth was not glad for his company but returned the greeting civilly.
“Poitouvin?” the knight in black asked, hearing the crisp accent. He was at a disadvantage, the youth’s white shield told nothing but its newness.
“French,” the youth replied, distinguishing himself as from France proper, not one of England’s dukedoms on the continent.
“French, Poitouvin, they’re all the same to me,” Maltraverse shrugged. “You go to Westminster?”
“Come to make your fortune from us, eh? Take service with the king? Henry favors anybody so long as he’s not English.” His tone had bitter edge beneath his smile.
The Frenchman didn’t answer. For a while they rode on in silence through the dreary, rain-drenched countryside. Broad, empty fields spread to the horizon with only a small, dark mass ahead to mark, in the youth’s weak eyesight, a hut or modest inn.
Maltraverse put his hand on the white horse’s rump. “Fine horse. French too?”
“Yes. My brother raises them.”
“Let’s have a joust for it.” The challenge was in earnest with nothing of sportsmanship in it. The challenger was no more than a well-born highwayman intent upon the easy prey of a novice knight.
The youth squinted toward the hovel ahead but doubted any help would be found there. “How can we joust? We have no lances.”
“I will provide,” Maltraverse gave an ironic bow from his saddle.
As they approached the shabby thatch-and-wattle inn, the innkeeper emerged. It was clear at once that he was party to the black knight’s highway ventures. Seeing Maltraverse, he nodded then waddled into his stable, emerging with two long poles of ash wood sharpened to lethal points.
The youth had jousted in lesson tourneys beyond number but he had never faced real combat before. He peered at Maltraverse’s horse. Its hipbones jutted, sliding back and forth like shuttles underneath its skin. He knew his horse was heavier by far. In jousting, the weight and speed of the horse and its rider’s skill counted for more than a knight’s own bodily strength. The highwayman was a powerful brute but the novice thought that he might beat him.
There was no choice in any case. His own armor and his sword were in the bag behind his saddle, but clearly Maltraverse did not intend to give him time to arm himself. He unhooked his helmet from his saddlebow and laced it on, unslung his shield from his shoulder, slipping his left forearm under its leather strap, and took the lance the innkeeper was handing up to him.
The knight in black turned his horse into the field across the road. The white knight followed. They rode away from each other until some two hundred yards lay between them. Then they turned and faced each other.
At this distance the novice could see no more of his adversary than a dark shape melting at the edges into the gray rain. In his practice jousts he had learned to be quick at the last instant as he closed with his opponent. And at close range his eyesight was excellent. He adjusted his shield, then lowered his lance, couching it along his right arm.
Maltraverse stood with lance lowered, then spurred his horse forward. The youth touched his spurs to his mount’s flanks. His horse leapt forward, stretching its strong legs out to the swift volant.
The English horse reluctantly ambled from trot to gallop.
Streaking across the ground, the novice met his adversary well into the Englishman’s half of the field. His lance struck the black shield hard. The black knight — horse and rider — hurtled to the mud.
Maltraverse scrambled from his downed and kicking beast.The youth reined his horse and turned back, pointing his lance at the downed man’s chest.
“Cursed jade slipped in the mud!” the Englishman grumbled.
Smiling broadly with pride in himself, the young Frenchman raised his lance. “Would you try again?”
Maltraverse’s horse and armor were his, won fairly, but for him this wasn’t business yet. Jousting was still fun.
The highwayman stared, incredulous, then accepted the offer with a shrug. He found his dented shield, caught his horse, which had gotten to its feet and wandered a few paces, and he remounted. Both man and horse were caked with mud.
The white knight and the mud knight dashed toward each other. Now the mud knight’s lance smeared the white shield. But the novice caught the highwayman so squarely with a blow that he was lifted from his saddle and sent flying — while his horse went on. This time there could be no question of the horse slipping.
Maltraverse lay sprawled in the wet earth, inert for several moments.
The youth caught the straying horse, dismounted and did what he could to wipe the dirt from it. He retrieved the battered black and gold shield and fastened it to the saddlebow of the horse he had twice won, then he remounted. Leading his prize by the rein, he rode back to the highwayman.
The mud knight raised himself up on one elbow, pulled off his helm and rubbed his head. “You’re as fine a knight as any, lad,” he grinned as he handed over his helm.
The young Frenchman smiled broadly at the praise. “My name is Simon de Montfort. I shall be at King Henry’s Court. You can ransom your horse and armor there.”
Leading his booty horse, Simon went back to the road, brimming with this bright omen of his arrival.