Read Tom Swan and the Head of St George Part One: Castillon Online
Authors: Christian Cameron
Tom Swan and the Head of St George
Part One: Castillon
Tom Swan – Part One: Castillon
There’s something very . . . historical, about writing an historical serial for e-publication. If it’s been done recently, I haven’t heard about it, and yet it has impeccable historical credentials – before we had the epub, we had the magazine, and in that format Dumas did it, and Conan Doyle, and a host of other authors with magnificent credentials; Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, and Charles Dickens.
It’s a fine format. Instead of a single pulse of seven hundred manuscript pages, the author can write in blocks with independent storylines that may still have an arc and a complex interweb of characters and motivations. I was resistant – but not for long.
So here is Tom Swan, my first serial character. Tom is firmly based in history; Italy was full of itinerant Englishmen, especially soldiers, throughout the period, and so was Greece. I confess that the man who forms the basis for the character was not English but Italian – Cyriac of Ancona, sometimes known as the ‘Grandfather of Archaeology,’ who roved the Levant in search of antiquities and manuscripts that he could beg, borrow or steal for the Pope and other rich clients in their burning zeal to rediscover the ancient world. Ancient manuscripts were then, and remain, incredibly valuable; recent re-discovery of a complete text of Archimedes in a
shows that such manuscripts are still out there, and give us an idea of the kind of treasures for which Tom Swan – and Cyriac of Ancona – searched.
If this serial has some success, I’ll write more – the format, as I say, is fun, and allows me to explore some nooks and crannies of history – and even some characters that I’d love to take to greater depth; Philokles, in the Tyrant series; Archilogos (Arimnestos’s Ionian adversary) in the Long War series; Geoffrey de Charny in the late Middle Ages – the list goes on and on. And I’ll add pieces rapidly – perhaps even one a month.
Readers of my other books are aware that I’m a passionate re-enactor and also a military veteran, and that these experiences inform my writing. Those who are new to me deserve the following reassurance – I’ve worn the clothes and armour, and shot the bows, and rowed, and even ridden some of the horses. In the process of working as an intelligence professional, I met people who exercise real power every day, and I got an idea of how they work – and how history works. But I don’t do this in a vacuum and I receive an amazing level of support from friends, fellow re-enactors, veterans, academics crafts people and artists. In those last categories, I’d like to thank Dario Wielec, who drew the illustrations; he has a passion for historical detail that delights me every time I see his drawings, from any period, and you can see more of his stuff at
. Finally, the ‘covers’ for the Tom Swan series are provided by
, who are, to me, the premier manufacturers of accurate replica swords in North America. I use their products every day. How many people can say that – about swords?
Toronto, June 2012
Tom Swan – Part One: Castillon
For good or ill, Thomas Swan had been one of the first men into the French gun positions and one of the last to be taken. So he was on the right of the line of captives as the blood-maddened crowd of peasants and foot soldiers killed Englishmen.
Swan was too tired to struggle. He thought about it. By the time he’d watched them kill a couple of men-at-arms worth far more than he was worth, he realised that they were all going to die.
He took a breath and wondered somewhat idly how many he had left. A Frenchwoman killed an archer by cutting off his penis with an eating knife. The archer screamed, utterly wretched, and the crowd cheered her. Swan took another breath.
It was his first battle – his first campaign in France. His first time out of London. But he’d heard enough from his mother’s brothers to guess why the Frenchwoman had killed the archer.
A big man – a really big man – shouted at the French mob in French. Swan’s French was quite good. The man didn’t even sound English. He heckled them, and when two French gunners came for him, he picked one up. The man stabbed at him with a long knife. The big man shrugged after the Frenchman put a knife in him, and threw him into the crowd.
Off to the right was a party of men on horseback. They were pushing through the line of wagons that guarded the back of the gun emplacement.
The big man was still fighting. The Frenchmen had scattered, and one was loading a handgun. Another aimed a crossbow and pulled the lever, but his aim was poor and the arrow killed a third Frenchman, a
at the edge of the crowd.
Swan felt the Frenchman behind him shift his weight, and hunched for the blow. He couldn’t help it. He thought of twenty wrestling tricks his uncles had taught him to take the man’s sword, but he could barely raise his arm. He’d fought . . .
Talbot was dead.
It was all unbelievable. He thought,
Damn it, I’m here to make my fortune! I’m only eighteen!
He took another breath, and waited to die.
The horsemen pressed into the crowd, swords drawn. Armoured knights. And a cardinal. Swan knew what the round red hat meant.
grabbed an English archer, tore his shirt, and then beheaded him in three gory strokes of their short swords. The knights did nothing to stop it, and Swan’s hopes died.
The crowd bayed like a hunting pack and pushed towards the latest killing, and the cardinal was almost unhorsed. He shouted at them, and the crowd moved again – two of the knights pulled their horses up on either side of him, protecting him. The nearer of the French knights reached out and cut a French soldier with his sword. The man flinched away.
Swan pushed through his despair. It couldn’t hurt. It might even help.
Kyrie eleison, Pater! Kyrie, Agie Pater!
’ he shouted in Greek.
All that learning ought to be good for something.
The cardinal’s head snapped around, his eyes searching.
A Frenchman’s fist crashed into Swan’s head.
Now and in the hour of our death. Amen
He was hit again, fell to the earth, and . . .
Thomas Swan awoke to crisp linen sheets and light.
His whole body
Good Christ, I
. . .
‘I’m alive!’ he said aloud. And felt like an idiot, but he was very much alive. Certain parts were insisting they were alive.
He looked around – there were palettes laid on a wooden floor, and whitewashed walls. A monastery, then.
‘One of the English devils is moving!’ said a woman’s voice in French.
A burly monk appeared with a staff. Swan bowed. He was naked, which put him at a disadvantage.
‘Tom Swan, at your service,’ he said. Then switching languages, he said, ‘
,’ in good Gascon French.
The monk pointed one end of the staff at Swan and called, ‘Help! Help!’
It might have been funny, except for the real possibility he was about to be killed. Swan bowed again. ‘My interests are entirely in food, friends,’ he said.
Other men on palettes of straw and clean sheets were stirring. Swan had to assume that the big man in the bandages was the Fleming who had fought the Frenchmen. The man wasn’t moving. He had one arm out over his sheet, and that arm was covered in massive bruises.
He counted sixteen. Sixteen men.
‘Good Christ,’ he said.
The burly monk continued to threaten – ineptly – with the butt of the staff. He shouted for help again, and there were distant footsteps.
A slim man – older, but with angelic blond hair and a less than angelic face – appeared from behind the monk. ‘You are the barbarian who speaks Greek?’ he asked.
It’s difficult to appear dominant or even charming when you are naked and covered in dried blood and bruises. Swan shrugged. ‘Greek. French. Italian. English. Latin.’ He smiled in what he hoped was an ingratiating manner because he really wanted to live.
The blond man nodded. ‘Come with me, then,’ he said in Latin.
Swan spread his hands as if to indicate his nudity.
The blond man was dressed foppishly like an Italian – tight hose, tight short jacket, a tiny hat perched on his curls. He had a very effective sneer. ‘His Eminence has seen a naked man before,’ he said. ‘Perhaps not as gamy as you – but still. Move.’
The fop drew a dagger from behind his back.
Swan considered the possibility of taking the man’s weapon and running. He didn’t have the bone-weary feeling of defeat – his joints ached, he had bruises, but he could fight.
The slim blond man looked as if he knew what he was about. He kept his empty hand between them, and the dagger well back.
Swan walked along the brightly lit corridor. A nun saw him and turned her back. Then she moved quickly down the corridor and shouted ahead that a naked man was coming.
She turned back and looked at him. And spat.
He almost laughed.
He took a deep breath. They were at a closed door.
The thin man stepped out of the way. ‘If you do anything I do not like, I’ll put this in your arse,’ he said, flicking the point of the dagger from side to side. ‘Understand, Englishman?’
‘Say something in Greek for me,’ the man said. His grin wasn’t friendly.
Oinos, o phili pais
,’ Swan said. He smiled.
‘Eh,’ the other man said. ‘Not the way Greeks say it, but still. In you go.’
Swan was ushered through the door.
Every monastery has a room for receiving rich or noble visitors – panelled in wood, lined in tapestries, sometimes with precious silver and gold in a cupboard carved with lives of the saints. This House of God was no exception, except that the cupboard had no carved doors. And no silver.
The cardinal was sitting in the sun. Swan shrugged. ‘I’d like something to wear,’ he said. ‘Your Eminence.’
The cardinal nodded. ‘You speak Greek?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ Swan answered, in French.
‘What in heaven’s name suggested that you should call out to me in Greek?’ the cardinal asked.
Swan fingered his beard and tried to think. ‘You’re a cardinal,’ he said. ‘From Italy.’
The cardinal raised both eyebrows.
‘People in Italy study things in Greek. My Greek master was Italian.’ Swan was suddenly babbling. ‘My sword master was Italian, too, but—’
The cardinal barked a sharp laugh. ‘As it happens, I am Greek,’ he said.
Swan took a deep breath, racked his brain for the Greek for ‘to save’. ‘
Σας ευχαριστώ που με έσωσες, αγιότητα σας
. Thank you for saving me, Eminence.’
‘I am very pleased to have saved such a young scholar. Are you – hmm – someone important? Worth a fine ransom?’
It occurred to Swan to tell the truth, but he couldn’t risk it. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘My father will pay a thousand ducats for me.’
The cardinal nodded. ‘I told Alessandro you were a nobleman’s son. He doubted me. A thousand ducats? Excellent. I’ll see you well lodged, then. I’m going to Paris. Do you have friends in Paris?’
Swan shrugged. ‘I had hoped to go to the Sorbonne,’ he said. ‘It didn’t work out.’
‘Do you read Hebrew?’ asked the cardinal.
Swan had to shake his head. ‘No,’ he said with real regret.
‘Have you read Plato?’ asked the cardinal.
‘My Greek master had a copy of Aristotle’s
. And Xenophon’s
. That’s really all I’ve read.’ It was an astounding piece of truth, for Swan. But Bessarion was difficult to lie to.
‘You’ll enjoy Paris,’ the cardinal said, and waved his hand. As Swan turned to leave, he said, ‘Don’t do anything . . . hasty. This place was burned by the English. Some of the nuns were raped. All the silver taken. Yes? You understand? They would like to kill you.’