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The Siege of Hastingues

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“Les maudits anglais,” said Janette bitterly.  The three of them were in Paris.  Nicolas too would have preferred to be closer to the war.  Not that it was particularly active at the moment; but it had been and would be; and he protested, ever more loudly, against the boredom of idly attending court at the hôtel Saint-Pol. LaCroix’s patience with both of them was running thin.  The councils of the King, the Dukes, and the Constable of France would lead to war, he averred.  Soon, indeed, given the impasse in the ongoing peace negotiations in Bruges.  “There is much to be said for knowing which direction to fly when we leave,” he added acidly.

The others lacked his passion for meddling in the intrigues of mortals.  Nicolas wanted the joys of battle.  Janette simply wanted blood … preferably English.  A few years earlier, they had followed John of Gaunt’s Grand Chevauchée; and, for all she had revelled in the slaughter, she hated the devastation of the countryside.  It was all very well for LaCroix to declare that vampires held no allegiance save to their own kind; but she had discovered in herself a dawning sense of nation.  If they themselves chose to prey on the French that was one thing; she found that she objected, oddly strongly, to a foreign army doing the same.

In the event, when LaCroix finally decided it was time for them to depart, he took them south to the plains of Poitou so that they might shadow the French army on its march along the Dordogne valley to the English-held lands of Aquitaine.  Still, it was not long before he wondered, if only to himself, if he had made a mistake—if he should, instead, have led them to Normandy or Calais, or even across the Channel, where the French fleet harried the English ports.  From a vampire perspective, the Duke of Anjou’s campaign was most frustrating.  The army was recapturing lands that Charles V considered part of France; so their commanders refused to give the soldiers free rein to rape and plunder.  As LaCroix’s family moved laterally to the army, night by night, they observed its progress with mounting frustration.  Peasants simply fled from their villages upon the rumour of armed approach.  They could be picked off for dinner; but this provided no sport.  As for the many small fortresses, they put up no more than token resistance while negotiating surrender.

For a while, the vampires had hopes of more at Bourdeilles, where the garrison held out for a few days in the octagonal keep of the castle.  Nicolas saw this with satisfaction, and thought to unpack his armour.

“Don’t fool yourself.  They too will treat for terms,” said LaCroix.  “Anjou follows the precept of his brother the King:  what you can buy with money should not be paid for in blood.”

“I want blood,” Janette said.  She pouted; Nicolas patted her arm consolingly; and LaCroix raised his brow.  When, a few days later, suitable compensation had been determined and the gates of Bourdeilles opened to the French, Nicolas raged in disgust and Janette snarled her hunger for an English throat between her teeth.  LaCroix decided it would be prudent to assert his authority as their master.

Thus, when the army moved on, down the valley of the Dordogne, towards the town of Bergerac, the vampires did not shadow them.  (So they missed that battle; but such are the fortunes of war.)  LaCroix had instead taken his family yet further south.

 


 

The Abbey of Sainte Marie d’Arthous lies deep in Gascony, not many miles from the great English stronghold of Bayonne, which vies with Castile for naval command of the Bay of Biscay.  The travellers came to the Abbey by road, well mounted, with outriders and servants picked up in Armagnac.  There were two pack mules loaded with armour and one with just Janette’s gowns.  It was, growled Nicolas, a wonder that they were not burdened with a train of wagons; yet he knew—they all knew—that, if one wishes to be treated as nobility, one must travel as such.  They had spent two days in Peyrehorade, on the other side of the River Gave, left just before sunset, well muffled against the final rays, and arrived at the Abbey while it was still sufficiently light for the gate not yet to be barred.  They dismounted and were greeted with honour.

Though their servants went to the common hall, the Lord LaCroix’s family were housed in the abbot’s guest chambers.  Food was brought from the kitchen and trestles set up so that they might dine in privacy.  They feigned to eat, of course; and the platters were empty when cleared.  Then, timing their flight between the services of Nocturns and Matins, they hunted, killed, and fed outside the walls of the Abbey, before returning to be found in their rooms in the morning.

It was shortly after Nones that the messenger arrived.  Janette was doucely apart in her room, accompanied by Nicolas; but LaCroix was conversing with the precentor when the hosteller entered, almost precipitously, to warn him that their party might prefer to remain guests at the Abbey for a while longer.

“A band of English,” he explained.  “No better than routiers most of them; but these perhaps come from the garrison at Bayonne.  They are camped only a few miles away, outside the bastide.  It would be wise to remain safe here at the Abbey,” he urged, “especially since you travel with the lady.”

“Yes, indeed,” agreed LaCroix.  Janette, he was sure, would be delighted.

That night, therefore, they flew out early to espy the neighbourhood beyond the Abbey lands.  They rose high above its half-timbered buildings with their pitched roofs, the outer courtyard and cloister, and the tower of the church; set course beyond the good fields where the Abbey’s cattle were grazed; and navigated the woods and farmland along the bank of the River Gave until they came to the small fortified town of Hastingues, which had been built upon the ruins of a Roman site.  Ancient earthworks laid the foundation for the modern fortifications that surrounded the town; and those, in turn, were surrounded by the fires and tents of the besieging band of English.

Followed by Nicolas and Janette, LaCroix flew at a distance round the circuit of the walls, being careful not to fly across the face of the moon.  There was a great gate, shut and barricaded, set in a tall stone tower.  Yet, though fortified, Hastingues was no fortress.  The ditch surrounding the rammed earth embankment was partly filled with foul water and rubbish.  The fortification that should have topped the bank was incomplete.  To bridge the gaps, a thin brick wall had been thrown up to block the passages between houses; but—soldier that he was—LaCroix judged it inadequate (and knew that Nicolas saw the same weakness).  While the makeshift defence might serve against bandits, it would hardly hold against an army.  The houses were half-timbered like the buildings of the Abbey.  They will burn well, thought LaCroix.

One large house in particular, part stone-built, drew his eye.  Shutters covered most of the windows; through the chinks, glimmers of light indicated that there were still some people awake.  He frowned, but said nothing to catch the attention of the others.  Still, he marked it.

There were heartbeats audible in the still of the night—not the slow, steady beat of sleeping men, but the urgent pulse of guards along the wall and posted on the parapet of the tower.

In other towns, the vampires might have landed on a rooftop to talk; but, given the watch, they flew over the river to a copse on the far bank.

“They will fight!” said Janette with a fierce pride.

“Well, they are not yet ready to surrender,” admitted Nicolas (and LaCroix concurred).  “But they cannot hold the town against the force we saw.” And Nicolas gestured with his chin towards the English encampment.

“They will fight,” averred Janette

“Then they will die.”  LaCroix spoke with flat certainty.

Janette clearly did not want to accept this.  “We can hunt the English,” she declared, and looked from one man to the other with entreaty.  “I want to kill them.”

“Well, as to that,” and LaCroix smiled, “if you wish to dine in the open air tonight … I see no problem there, my child.  It will not change the outcome—there are too many for us to slaughter without question—but….”  His eyes flashed orange.

Janette’s matched his, her fangs dropped, and she leapt to the air.  The others followed.

 


 

During the following week, the canons of Arthous remained nervous at the proximity of the enemy.  They brought their herds close to the walls, barred the gate well before sunset, and kept their own keen watch.  However, the English did not risk dividing their forces.  So Lord LaCroix, his daughter, and his aide stayed prudently at the Abbey.  No one suspected their true nature.  They kept to themselves; and none wondered, for doing so was an expected mark of their higher status.  Each night, they flew silently from the guest chambers to the campfires of the English, marked for their prey any soldier who rose from his sleep to go to the latrine, or picked off one of the guards on the horse pickets.

Janette would have done more; but LaCroix forbade it.  Drawing the attention of mortals was too risky.  To distract her one day, he took them back to the bastide.  From the central square to the straitest alley, from cellar to loft:  as the townsfolk slept, the vampires prowled, learning the lay of the town in sufficient detail to guide their hunt should the siege turn to sack.  A cat should know every mousehole.

Save one.  Somehow they never went near the large part-stone house that had caught LaCroix’s attention on their first visit.  At one point, Nicolas turned that way; but their master directed him to the far side of the square.

The following night, they landed on the roof of a mercer’s shop, and stood looking out into the night.  The campfires burned—too far for even vampire eyes to make out features; but the figures of guards were clear in the glow.

“There are wounded in the town,” said Nicolas, stating the obvious (at least from a vampire’s perspective), since the faint smell of blood lingered.  “I think there was a sortie at some point yesterday.”

“Shortly after Terce,” said a voice behind them.

The younger vampires whirled; but LaCroix turned more slowly, showing no surprise.  “I wondered if you’d show yourself,” he said.  “Should I say ‘Well met’, Aristoteles?  It has been … centuries, if I mind right.”

“Antioch,” said the other man, coming closer.  The light was bad; but vampire eyes need little light for clear vision.  “In the Year 712, as they count dates in these times.”

Janette turned to her master, with speculation.  Nicolas’s right hand, which had dropped instantly to the hilt of his sword at the sight of a stranger, fell to his side.

“You know each other,” he said.

“Yes,” said LaCroix with inhuman calm.  “Let me introduce you to an old friend.  Whether he is the philosopher of antiquity is a matter he has never quite made clear; but I know him as Aristoteles.”

“Aristote in this era,” put in the other.

“And these are family of mine—as you may have detected.  Nicolas and Janette.”  To them, LaCroix added, “As I’m sure you both have noticed, this gentleman is one of our own kind.”

“Gentleman?” said Nicolas, in a tone that betrayed some contempt.  “He looks like a clerk.”

This was true.  Aristote wore a drab fustian gown that was respectable enough; and the shirt underneath was of good linen, and seemed well washed.  However, he was a short man, unremarkable in feature, slight of build, of more than middle years.  Moreover, he bore no arms, unless one counted a belt knife; even more, a pencase hung from his belt.

“He has never been a man of war,” said LaCroix.  “His strengths are otherwise; and, mark you, he is a survivor of more conflicts than even I have seen.”

“One must,” said Aristote mildly, “have some vocation in life.  And even more in unlife.  I dislike sleeping in caves; and burying oneself to hide from the day does pall after a while.”  For a moment, there was a twinkle of humour; and then it left his face, and he eyed the younger vampires closely.

“Are you for France or England?” asked Janette.  “Did you come with them?”  She jerked her head at the camped soldiers.

“And are you for France or England?”  Aristote echoed.  He looked at her, curious to hear the answer.

“I am French,” she said, in her newfound pride of nation.

He looked questioningly at Nicolas.

“No, I do not care one way or the other,” the knightly vampire responded.  “I am from Brabant.”

“Well, Sieur ‘de Brabant’,” said Aristote dryly, “when you are a few centuries older—”  He looked at Janette.  “And you, too, Milady of France.”  His eye caught LaCroix’s, and the two elder vampires shared their amusement.  “—you will know your allegiance lies to yourself, and to your master, and perhaps to family.”

“LaCroix says that,” muttered Janette.

“As for myself,” went on the old vampire, “I have been here in Hastingues for a year or two (and yes, as a clerk); and I dare say it is time I thought of moving on.”  His eyes travelled to the view outside the walls.  “Not, I think, before a final feast.  We who live outside the day … we desire our little pleasures, don’t we?”  And he licked his lips, just a little.

 


 

Over the next few days, there were further cursory exchanges between the defenders and the English.  The latter had no artillery.  If they had bothered to bring up a culverin or ribauldkin, or taken the time to build a trebuchet, then the walls could have been flattened in hours; but they had not thought to find such resistance.  Their initial sorties were therefore more a token of their determination not to retreat or bypass the bastide; they were intended to bring the garrison and town to treat for terms.  There was, however, no parley; and the siege dragged out for a full fortnight before a handful of fleeing townsfolk brought the news to the Abbey that the English had attacked near dawn.  Scaling ladders had been set to the brick walls between the houses; and the attacking soldiers had poured over into the town before the guard on the tower had spotted them and sounded the alarm.  The garrison had turned out in full force, such as it was.  The townsmen had grabbed arms and joined them.  Still, they had been unable to drive the English out.  The militia had scattered, seeking their homes and families.  The French soldiers had retreated to the gate-tower.

It was a frustrating wait till sunset, and beyond.  Not until the canons settled after Vespers was it possible for LaCroix and the others to slip away.  On the way into the town, they intercepted the handful of fleeing French defenders.  The garrison had also used the night as cover.  They had escaped through a postern, buoyed with the hope of reaching refuge in French-held lands to the east.  Janette, furious at their failure, took great pleasure in thwarting that hope; and the others joined her in slaughter.  The blood they drank was sweet with despair and defeat.

After that, though, the vampires did not return to the Abbey.  Hastingues lay open to them, as much as to the English.  That night they sated themselves.  Twice, in passing, they felt Aristote; but they did not seek him out, nor did he come to find them.  Then, as the sky lightened, they sought refuge in a cellar underneath one of the inns.  There were tuns of wine; and once or twice during the day English soldiers came in search of drink.  Instead, they were drunk themselves, to the very dregs; so, from the vampires’ perspective, the day was not as boring as it might have been.

As the sun dipped towards the horizon, they left the darkness and climbed the ladder to the inn.  The shutters had been torn open; but the window was small, and it was easy to avoid the bar of light gilding the flags.  The door was ajar, but faced east.  Nicolas ventured close and looked out.  The inn fronted on the central square.  Outside, there were a pair of soldiers sharing a leathern bottle back and forth.  One was festooned with a length of velvet, flung round his shoulders to draggle on the ground behind him; the other had wound a gold chain round his helmet.  Drunk as they were, they still had their weapons.  As Nicolas continued to look, silently, he heard sounds from the house opposite; then a small group of soldiers came out of the door of another building, hauling with them a middle-aged woman.  Her hair was uncovered and hung down her back; and the skirt of her gown was badly torn.

Somewhere to the north, there was a flare of light.  Then a scream.

“I smell smoke,” said Janette.

“Don’t come out,” said Nicolas, keeping his voice low and drawing back into the room, “in case someone catches glimpse of you through the door.  There’s no sense in drawing attention that might bring an alarm—well, not until it’s full dark and we can go in safety.”

“Oh,” she said, with a wicked smile, “I don’t want to leave here.  Not yet.”  But she added, “I see your point.  For now.”

LaCroix touched her sleeve; and she turned, nodded, and followed him softly to the rear of the room.  The inn had been well ransacked; still, any of the English might come inside hoping to find something that might have been overlooked.

“I wonder where Aristote is,” she murmured.

LaCroix shrugged.

 


 

 

The sun set; but few stars came out, even though the sky darkened.  Terrified townsfolk rushed from the fire with anything they could carry, down the streets and alleys as fast as they could run, any direction that offered escape.  Drunk soldiers, armed to the teeth, ignored the havoc and plundered even as the buildings burned.  The attack had been planned; but there was nothing orderly now. The scent of fear and death should have roused appetite; but, by this time, the vampires had drunk too much to be hungry. And the flames spread.

“I think it is time to depart this town,” said LaCroix.  It was not quite an order.  Janette turned, as if to protest; but he simply nodded northward.  If, streets away, anyone—from either side—tried to rally people to fight the flames, there was no sign of it from the inn.  To burn alive was … terror.  Instinct said to fly; but there were too many people around.  Caution had been trained into them hard by their master.  Neither Janette nor Nicolas took to the air, not in town; but they followed as LaCroix headed for the main gate.  When a soldier reeled forward to drag at Janette’s arm, she whipped round and sank her teeth in his throat.  Then she released him, to bleed to death at her feet as she walked on.

Aristote was forgotten.  Even as they passed the half-stonebuilt house where he had clerked, they did not think of him.

Then, blurred with speed, he ran out of the door and leapt for the sky.

Behind him followed three English soldiers.  No doubt, they too had been looting; but they were sober, or reasonably so.  As Aristote flew, silhouetted against the light of the flames, one of them strung his bow, knocked an arrow, and let fly.

The strength and accuracy of the English longbowmen is legendary.

As Aristote tumbled, the other archers also sent shafts into the air.  Then, seeing where he would fall, they ran to intercept him, drawing their swords.

Nicolas drew his own.

“Leave it be.”  The words halted him in his tracks.  “It is none of our business.”

“What?  No!”

“It is time to leave,” said LaCroix calmly.  “Aristotelus has his own fate; we have ours.”

Nicolas looked at Janette; but there was no help in her face.  She shifted slightly closer to LaCroix, who shook his head.  Then, “No,” said Nicolas quietly; and he was gone.

LaCroix sighed softly.  “Come,” he ordered Janette.

“But Nicolas—?!”

“He will meet us, or he will not.  We cannot stay for him.”

When, an hour later, Nicolas arrived at the Abbey carrying the half-conscious Aristote, Janette flung her arms around him in relief.  LaCroix was silent in his dignity and said nothing, neither of praise nor reproof.

That day, Nicolas came to her bed; and Janette shared his blood and saw his memories—how he had flown to Aristote’s aid, swinging his sword with vampire might, carving limbs and heads.  Pierced through thrice with clothyard shafts, the other man was alive only because none of them had quite found the heart.  Nicolas had lifted him in his arms, arrows and all; and, heedless of who might see, had flown with him over the roofs and city walls, laying his burden down in a farmer’s field just long enough to draw the wooden shafts that staked the other vampire’s flesh.  Then he had given him a draught of his own blood to help revive him.

Aristote, recovering in LaCroix's room, matched the tale.

“It is a doughty deed,” murmured Janette.  “You are a true knight.”

“I don’t know what LaCroix will say of it all,” said Nicolas ruefully, as he lay beside her.  “But I do not see what else I could have done.”

“He knows,” said Janette.  She sat up in her shift, and looked down at him.  “I do not say that he is happy that you risked yourself so; but … he knows you.  And you—being you—could have done nothing less.  Of course, you went to battle.”

“A vampire against three mortals?” said Nicolas.  “That is hardly a battle, ma chérie.  Barely a skirmish.”

“The Battle of Hastingues,” she murmured.

And he laughed.