Authors: Angus Donald
The Iron Castle
Published by Sphere
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © Angus Donald 2015
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
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For my father Sir Alan and my son Robin, who are quite different from their fictional namesakes and much more important to me
I, Brother Anthony of Newstead, take up this quill, this parchment and ink-pot at the behest of my brother in Christ, Alan Dale, in the winter of the Year of Our Lord twelve hundred and forty-five, meaning to set down the tale of his deeds and those of his companions long ago in the time of King John. The words are entirely Brother Alan’s, who for ten years has been the senior monk of our scriptorium here at Newstead Priory and a venerable ornament to our godly fellowship, and I only attempt to transcribe them as faithfully as I can. His fingers can no longer securely grip a goose quill, and his health grows ever more feeble, which is natural at his great age – he is now three-score years and ten, he tells me proudly – and lately his eyes have grown foggy after years of labouring over our precious books and scrolls.
Brother Alan keeps to his cell most days, particularly when the ground is frozen to iron, and he is mostly abed save for a few hours each day, when I lead him out into the garden to allow him to smell the wind and feel the pale sun on his withered cheeks. It was Brother Alan who taught me to make my letters when I first came to Newstead as a novice nine years ago and it is no great hardship for me to take down his testament for posterity, indeed I see it as a debt that I owe him. We work at night, mostly, when my duties in the abbey are done, with Brother Alan speaking slowly from in his cot, swathed in blankets – for he feels the cold in his limbs and his many old wounds ache in this harsh weather – and myself faithfully copying down his words. We manage a few sheets every night before he falls asleep and I pray that his strength will hold out until his tale is done.
This is not entirely for unselfish reasons on my part. Brother Alan’s words are a window on a time before I was born and, although many of the events he relates are shocking to me, I must confess that I feel a most unchristian thrill at these stirring tales of battle and bloodshed, of brave men and bold deeds. It is, indeed, an honour to have even such a small part in their transmission from his memory to this page.
Brother Alan is very near to death now, I fear. He has been sickening these past three years and yet some force, some strange and powerful energy, keeps the flame of life alight in his body long beyond the time when in another man it would have been extinguished. Prior William, our lord and master, says Brother Alan’s longevity is a miracle and has graciously given his blessing to this undertaking, this recording of his long life. I believe he too enjoys the tales as he insists on reading my manuscripts almost as soon as the ink is dry.
Like the Prior, I too long to hear more of these adventures that Brother Alan relates, particularly the tales of his lord, his friend, his brother-in-arms, the Earl of Locksley. For this story is about him as much as Brother Alan – about the former woodland outlaw who used the law to give justice to an unjust land; the rebel who brought a King of England to a table at Runnymede and made him submit to the will of the people, the fighting man who fought for peace, the nobleman that the common folk loved – and feared – in equal parts. The man they called Robin Hood.
The coast of Flanders was a black line across the horizon, the dividing barrier between deep-blue sea and paler sky. I sat in the prow of the snake boat, my sun-scorched face lightly kissed from time to time by cool dashes of spray, and fiddled with a loose silver wire on the handle of my long-sword Fidelity. We had been nearly two days in that damn boat; two days of the sun beating down mercilessly on our heads, the plank boards digging into our buttocks hour after hour, the crack of canvas sails above, the wild cry of wind in the rigging, the rush of live water against the wooden sides. Two days of eating stale bread and leathery salt pork; two days of drinking fishy-smelling ale, pissing, shitting – and vomiting, in rough swell – over the side. But God had been good to us; there had been no great storms to drench us, nor vast waves to dash the ship to pieces and drag our iron-clad bodies down into the deep.
And neither were we alone. On either side of the vessel as far as the eye could see were hundreds of ships like ours: long, low, lean, single-masted vessels crammed with fighting men, weapons, shields, food and stores, as well as bigger craft – galleys and busses, cogs and even a river sailing barge or two making the perilous crossing to the low lands across the German Sea from England. There were nearly five hundred vessels in all, I had been told, and some seven hundred knights, as well as many hundreds more men-at-arms, archers, crossbowmen, servants and squires – even a few women, hardy young trulls and big matrons with forearms like farriers, who followed a host wherever it went and provided the services that fighting men always require: cooked food, clean clothes and a willing body to warm the blankets.
We were a sea-borne army. An armada. And we were going into battle.
I was in fear. I must admit it: indeed, I was terrified. This was not my first time going into the storm of battle, nor yet my twentieth, but the fear had come down on me that bright morning like a vile fog, like an invisible plague drawn inside me with my breath that was now eating away at my guts, gnawing away the strength of my bones. I was convinced that I would be butchered in the coming conflict. I could clearly see the sword cut that would smash through my guard, cut through helm and arming cap and crush my skull; I could feel the prick of the spear as it thrust into my chest, bursting apart ribs, crushing my organs. I could taste the searing pain, the gush of blood, the weakness and wrongness of it all, and the cold, slow, slide into black.
I shook my head, trying to banish these visions of bloody disaster. I was a brave man, I told myself: be brave. But I had never had it as bad as this, never, not in all my long years of soldiering. I had fought many times, I’d won and lost, I’d been wounded and captured, I’d been tortured and condemned to certain death: but I had never felt as plain, ordinary, brown-your-braies frightened as I did that bright May morning off the coast of Flanders as we approached the estuary of the Zwin river and the port of Damme in the year of Our Lord twelve hundred and thirteen.
It must be my age, I thought. For I was no callow lad, I was a seasoned man-at-arms of eight and thirty summers, wise in war and versed in the ways of men – a knight, indeed, with a manor to my name, a dozen fine scars and the beginnings of a belly – not some green sprig going into his first skirmish. I had called upon St Michael, my personal protecting angel, in half a hundred fights, and he had almost always warded me with his long white wings. But where was he this sunny morning? Where was my holy guardian that day as the wind swept us remorselessly across the flat blue sea towards our enemies, the mighty legions of Philip Augustus, the King of France? My spine ached, my belly felt cold and sickly, my left hand trembled, and I had to make a fist to mask the shameful physical manifestation of my cowardice.
I looked to my left at the nearest snake boat, some thirty yards northwards, and took a little comfort in the sight of a huge red-faced man with fat blond plaits on either cheek standing by the mast, one massive arm curled around it. He looked invincible. He wore a knee-length mail hauberk that seemed a little too tight across his vast chest, leather boots and gauntlets reinforced with strips of iron, a long dagger hung horizontally at his waist and a gleaming double-headed axe rested on one brawny shoulder. He saw me looking and cupped a hand to his mouth.
‘We’ll soon be amongst them, Alan, don’t you worry,’ shouted Little John, his words reaching me easily from the neighbouring ship over the howl of wind and sea. ‘It’s going to be a rare brawl,’ he bellowed. ‘Nice and bloody, you mark my words!’
I wrenched up a suitably carefree grin, as befits a man of war, and waved cheerily at him – but my guts were churning and I had to look away from his honest red face. How did John do it, in battle after battle, how did he find such joy in death? He had taken appalling wounds in his time; he had felt the Devil’s stinking breath on the back of his neck. How could he still see this bloody business as a jolly game?
In that brief moment, I hated my old and trusted friend. I wanted to see him humbled; laid as low as I by fear and weakness. Immediately, I chided myself for that ignoble thought. John was John, and in the mêlée I knew he would take a sword blow meant for me – just as I would for him. If only I could master my fear. I glanced behind me and my eye alighted on a youth who
going into his first battle. It must be ten times worse for him, I thought, as he knew not what to expect. But, if he was as afeared as me, he was doing a far better job than I was in concealing it.
He was a handsome lad of eighteen or so, with light-brown hair and a long, lean face. He was dressed in an expensive hauberk of the finest mail and a domed helmet with golden crosses incised into the steel. His weapons, too, long-sword and dagger, were of the finest quality. And his shield bore the fierce depiction of a snarling wolf in gold on an azure field. But it was his face that made me pause every time I looked into it. But for his eyes, which were a rich dark blue, he was the spitting image of his father Robert Odo, Earl of Locksley, the man who was my own lord and master and who had persuaded me to undertake this very voyage into battle.
Miles Odo looked entirely unconcerned about facing mortal combat for the first time. True, he had been trained by some of the best swordsmen and masters-at-arms in Europe, former Knights Templar for the most part, since he was old enough to lift a sword tip off the ground. But, as far as I knew, he had never faced an opponent who was genuinely seeking to kill or maim him; nor had he ever faced a storm of arrows and crossbow bolts that plucked away the lives of the comrades all around you at the whim of Chance. A half-smile adorned his smooth young face, his brow was unwrinkled, though a dimple crinkled his cheek when he saw me watching him; he looked like a carefree young blade on a pleasure cruise – in pursuit of wine and women, not pain and slaughter – and by that placid cast of face I knew that he was as petrified as I was, or perhaps even more so. For he wore exactly the same expression his father had always donned when things were at their worst.