Jumping o'er Times
...turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass
The workshop was large and round, set high in a tower in the chateau of Fontainebleau, and all its windows were firmly closed against the chill night air. Lamps and flickering firelight illuminated it, and gave an eerie half-life to the many objects which cluttered it; here were crucibles on their stands, there an orrery; in a corner, in deeper shadow, was a statue, robed and bearing a horned staff.
A man in a scholar's gown moved among the work-benches and shelves, gathering together the necessary elements of the great work that was to be accomplished here tonight. Flasks, parchments closely written; bowls of white and gold and blue, filled with earth. His Pisan lead-founders had brought three hollow figurines to the tower this morning, and then gone forthwith. And here was the key to it all, the talisman that would set the spell working.
'Tommaso.' The learned man looked round. He had hoped the young lordling would not appear, tonight of all nights. But there he was, slipping in through the door that he had not dared to lock, muffled in a dark cloak and smiling slightly, well aware of Tommaso's discomfiture. 'How goes your great endeavour?'
'All is in train, my lord,' replied Tommaso shortly. He knew that he meddled with dangerous forces, but all for the greater good. This spell was the most potent he had yet attempted, but the magnate who had commissioned it (one among many manoeuvring for position as the court slipped towards anarchy under the mad king) had spoken softly, persuasively to him behind closed doors, had given him rich reward already, and promised more; and now he was in too deep to withdraw. And truly, he himself wished to see the invader driven from France; the sudden new player in the game who would bring down magnates, sorcerers and all. His patron had paid for everything, and Tommaso knew that if he could succeed in this night's work his fame would spread across Europe and he would henceforth be able to choose his own masters and name his own price.
But this boy, slight, handsome, and with hair so black it was almost blue, had got wind of the scheme, heaven alone knew how, and had begun to haunt Tommaso's footsteps and then to visit his workshop, always with that knowing look and secretive smile. And since Gilles was a scion of the great noble houses of Rais and Laval himself, Tommaso had not dared to drive him away, but answered his questions as shortly as may be, and kept his books securely locked up; but he had begun to feel that he was caught between two masters. For the boy's questions had taken a darker turn than Tommaso liked; such matters had barely been touched on even in the university at Bologna, but Gilles, young as he was, already seemed to know almost as much about them as Tommaso himself, and his questions had hinted at less savoury interests still.
'I'll stay to watch, if it will not disturb so mighty a sorcerer?' Gilles smiled, secure in the knowledge that Tommaso could not refuse the pretended request.
'Your lordship is most welcome to stay, but I would ask that you do not interrupt. This is a most complex spell, three-fold and of immense power.'
How had he known what was planned for tonight? Tommaso would not give him the satisfaction of asking; he simply checked over the ingredients of the spell again, and then opened the window that would look out onto the night in the direction he wanted. There hung Sagittarius, the brighter for the moon's absence. He turned back from his friends the stars, and found Gilles stepping back from the work-bench, looking at Tommaso with a self-satisfied smrk. Tommaso ran his eyes quickly over the bench, but nothing seemed to be missing. He said, with sudden authority, 'If your lordship will be seated,' and indicated a tall, carved, throne-like chair, from which he was accustomed to address the spirits he summoned from time to time.
Gilles inclined his head, and went over to sit in the great chair. Tommaso closed his eyes for a few moments, took a calming breath, and then, in the light of Sagittarius, began to speak the words of the incantation, which had been long-rehearsed. 'By the power of earth and air, and earth and fire, and earth and water…' Still declaiming, he turned to the nearest figurine and filled it with earth from the first of the bowls, putting inside it also a sheaf of the spell-written parchments and one of the lesser talismans.
And then, that done, he took up a stylus and scored, so deeply that his hand shook with effort, into the figurine's breast a single name: HENRICIUS.
Part One: See you these Monsters
The winds had been contrary from Southampton, and instead of coming in to Calais as planned, the fleet had made for Cherbourg. Here, with some relief, the royal party had disembarked, and once ashore and more or less dried out, they made ready to complete the journey to Troyes on land rather than wait for favourable winds.
Montjoy had all the distaste of the French for the sea, and heard of this decision with more relief than most of his fellow-travellers. He found his horse Reynard among the dozens on the docks, and when, after some organisation of the retinue and its baggage-carts, they set out across the rain-soaked landscape of Normandy, he was of lighter heart than he had been for some days.
Sent to the English court, presently at Winchester, to set in train the arrangements for the signing of the treaty, he had found himself in sombre mood as he stood before Henry to give him details of his own king's agreement to attend a conference under the dubiously-neutral aegis of the Duke of Burgundy. Every member of the three warring factions knew what the outcome would be; England in the ascendant, Burgundy biding his time, Princess Katherine offered to Henry as his queen, but the forms had to be observed. Henry, to give him credit, showed no sign of triumph. He had never done so, even in the aftermath of the battle; had always had the look of a man doing his duty. But there had been a brief half-smile of welcome in his eyes as he saw Montjoy again, for the first time since that wretched day.
Then, the journey to Southampton where the fleet lay; two days of riding in Henry's retinue through the English countryside, followed by a rough crossing. Henry had boarded his ship with an apparently perfect confidence which the rest of the English dutifully shared and Montjoy did not. He had always much preferred being sent to courts on the mainland of Europe – except, of course, that there was no ruler in Europe quite like Henry of England.
Who appeared now on the grey horse which had carried him in the battle, his head turning at the last moment as he rode past Montjoy; and he gave a small nod. Then he was gone, to the head of his retinue, and Montjoy prepared to follow him out of the gates of Cherbourg and into pacified Normandy.
The roads were in poor condition, the weeks of rain having taken their toll. It was miserable riding in the blustery weather, but, Montjoy reminded himself, better than being at sea. Showers chased each other across the sodden farmlands. Here and there the road fell into disrepair and the party had to wait while the horses and baggage wagons picked their way round small landslips, or negotiated swollen fords.
'Herald Montjoy, your country doesn't wish us here!' observed the Duke of Exeter, hair plastered over his eyes; over the last week or so the ice had been broken, a very little, between some of the English and the party's sole Frenchman; and Montjoy, patting Reynard's neck, tried not to agree too wholeheartedly.
Caen was their first objective, and after two nights on the road they set off under grey skies from Bayeux, the English garrison escorting the retinue a little way along the road before turning back. The green landscape stretched before them, intersected with little rivers, swollen with brown water and scuds of foam. They always approached the bridges with care, sending archers out beforehand to check for ambush; but the ambush, when it came, was not the sort which scouting archers could have anticipated.
Another bridge, the road slanting down the riverbank towards it; willows and reeds below the road, and an embankment with coppiced hazels above. The retinue, filing down towards the bridge, came to a halt as they saw another small landslip. The embankment had slumped across the track, recently by the looks of it.
Montjoy, seeing pebbles rolling down the earthy slope towards Henry, called out ''Ware stones, your majesty,' and then gave a startled cry as the whole embankment slumped and a human figure fell onto the roadway in front of the king. Then he realised that it was neither man nor corpse as he had first thought, but a crowned statue, and to his horror he saw that its hands were tied behind its back.
The horsemen drew back, some of them reaching for weapons, because the nearest among them could see the name carved across the statue's breast: HENRICIUS.
For a moment there was a silence, the scene transformed into a tableau. Henry himself, shocked, looked back at Montjoy, who stared, sickened, at the unpleasant figure on the ground for a moment before glancing back up into the king's eyes.
'We should...' he began, but whatever he had been going to say was lost as a sudden sharp light flared across the sky, gone before they knew it. There was an abrupt vertiginous feeling, as if they stood on the edge of a cliff, and it seemed that the world tilted and they were toppled into an abyss, a great wind rushing past them, a long dizzy fall into shadow that when it suddenly ended left them reeling.
The horses staggered, and surged about, neighing as they tried to flee to safety. Their riders clung to their backs; Montjoy cried out to his God for aid, and heard others do the same –
'Stay together!" Henry's voice rang out sharply above the noise, and Montjoy mastered Reynard's attempts to rear and bolt. All around him the English were doing the same, and then the confusion cleared and eighty men on horseback were staring wildly at each other and at the landscape around them... Far more open than before, road and bridge and river all gone. In the light of a cold clear dawn all they could see were scattered, windblown trees, ferny growth between them, and the bare stones and dust of a hillside rising away towards the east. Behind them, the slope fell away into a deep valley, the trees growing denser there, and more slopes beyond, and nothing at all that they recognised.
'String your bows,' shouted Sir Thomas Erpingham, and the archers threw themselves from their horses, flinging reins to their comrades who were still mounted, and obeyed with all haste.
'Form harrow all round!' Another command, from Henry, and the fighting men rushed into position, archers a little way in front with arrows on string and bows half-bent. The men-at-arms, a few paces behind and with shields up, made a solid defensive wall for the archers to retreat behind. The carts were in the centre of the formation, and Henry was outside it. Montjoy stared in disbelief, but Henry's head was turning as he searched the landscape for threats, his horse still sidling nervously.
'Does any man see an enemy?'
'I see none!' Bedford's voice answered from the other side of the formation, and from another quarter, rather shrill, Gloucester, 'Nor I!'
'Nothing here, my liege,' Exeter called, and silence fell again and they waited long minutes out.
But nothing happened. No attack, no sign of movement, no noise but for the soughing of a cold wind. The sun, just rising over the ridge off to their right, climbed higher. Henry made a slow circuit of the harrow, the hoofbeats of his horse sounding clearly in the greater silence, and conferred with Exeter. Bedford and Gloucester, his younger brothers, anxiously rode forward to meet them.
'Sir Thomas, have half your archers stand down.'
There was a ripple of relief, for the men had been strung tighter than their bows waiting for a threat that had not materialised. The King and his three kinsmen were still talking, Gloucester pointing at the higher ground, Bedford apparently urging caution.
Montjoy, now that the first shock of the change was passing, was feeling rather dull and detached, and a headache was beginning. He rubbed at his forehead. Other men were doing the same, and talk was slow and desultory. The horses were hanging their heads. He dismounted, and found himself sitting on the ground, still holding Reynard's reins.
There was a stir of movement among the royal party. Henry turned his horse and addressed them, 'We will climb to the ridge, and see what may be seen. Stay together, trust in God and in each other; we have fought our way out of tighter corners than this! Uncle Exeter, take the lead with me. My brothers will guard the rear. Dismount and walk that the archers may be ready to shoot.' And with no further ado, he and Exeter moved to take the lead.
For all his confident words, Montjoy could see the strain on his face as he passed, but he felt the bracing effect of his words, and so did all the men around him. He climbed to his feet and prepared to make the ascent.
The ridge looked close at hand, and they should have gained it quickly, but it turned out to be a painful business reaching it. He found himself staring at the ground as he plodded in Henry's wake, his head throbbing. How the soldiers managed the climb, carrying bows or looking out for danger, he did not know; but of course they had fought and won a great battle in little better case. Then as his breath grew short, he forgot to wonder, and the placing of one foot in front of another was all that mattered. The carts, lumbering along in the centre of the party, had the worst of it, though the slope was smooth and not steep. Hardier men than he were helping them along, and he found himself with Reynard's reins looped over his shoulder, leading two other horses while their riders heaved at the carts. He felt ashamed of his weakness.
Then, at last, they halted. Lifting his head, he saw a small party, mostly archers, go warily ahead, and of course Henry was among them. Why did the king have to risk himself so? They would be lost without him. He watched anxiously as they crested the ridge, and paused, and straightened, gazing about them. Their attitudes spoke of surprise rather than immediate alarm.
'Come up, but leave the carts with the rearguard!' A shout had them on their feet, and a man passing them on the way down said, 'There's no people to see, no sign of habitation; it's like the sixth day of creation up there,' but his eyes were a little wild, and he hastened on to speak to Bedford and Gloucester.
Montjoy found the climb easier this time. His headache was passing, and he was able to look around him as he went. Fir and pine, and other trees that he could not recognise, dotted the hillside around him. Reddish shaley soil crunched underfoot, and the air was sharp and clear. He reached the crest, and stared round.
Another valley fell away before him, of much the same kind, bare soil and single trees all around, and mountain-sides beyond. But the nearer slope was bathed in early morning sunlight, and there were shapes on the ground of which eye and mind could make no sense at first. Grey or bluish, bulky and motionless, they looked like boulders at first, and then he saw something that might be a creature's leg, and perhaps the line of a jaw...
Creatures such as he had never seen before. Dozens of them, the size of plough-oxen, lying prone on the ground, long-tailed, with huge crests like sails on their backs. His gasp was echoed by many of the men around him, and several snatched glances around to check for danger on either hand. Henry's archers were standing tense and ready.
'What place is this? What creatures?' That was Erpingham, voicing the question in all their minds. There was no answer. Even Henry made no response.
The perplexed silence stretched out, and then before it could become too awkward, Montjoy said diffidently, 'Your majesty... In atlases, I have seen pictures of crocodiles. These look similar, except for the crests. But crocodiles come from Africa.'
The thought hovered that no-one had dared speak, that this was sorcery, but Henry seized on this statement, and said decisively, 'So, however we got here, we might be in Africa. I've heard tell that much of the land there is empty. But we might encounter paynims; we should be ready for that. We must all be wary. And we must find water, and forage for the horses; send scouts out, but well-armed, and not out of earshot, and not alone. A place to camp while we take council. This ridge will do, if we can find a spring. Uncle Exeter, do you find us a defensive position; Sergeant Bates, take men down to the carts and send the rearguard here with my brothers; then to find provisions. Sir Thomas, you and your men to stay here. You too, Montjoy.'
The men, relieved to be given employment, hurried to carry out Henry's orders. He watched them go, while Sir Thomas' men took up positions on the ridge, bows still at the ready. Then he looked back once more over the valley of the monsters. His shoulders slumped slightly, and then as if he felt Montjoy's eyes on him, he straightened again, summoned him with a gesture, and took him a little aside.
'Montjoy. Tell me what you know of this. You were going to speak, just before the flash in the sky at the bridge.'
'Nothing, sire. Guesses. I have never seen a crocodile, except in pictures. But these creatures are like nothing else, except maybe dragons, and they have no wings. And dragons are solitary beasts, if the tales are true.'
'Dragons crossed my mind too, but that's not a thought I want the men to have. I was glad of your suggestion. What of the figure in the earth?'
'That's sorcery. It must be.' He knew his distaste and fear showed in his voice. 'Your majesty knows our king is sick in mind and body. There are ambitious men at court. I heard strange tales a time or two.'
'Tell me of these tales.' Henry's voice dropped, so low that Montjoy had to move closer to him. Henry was still looking out over the valley, his expression grim.
'There are men who claim to be diviners and astrologers...'
Henry's face turned contemptuous. 'And but a short step from there to the dark arts.'
'Most of them are harmless enough, sire. But others see it as a way to advance at court, and others still...'
'A means to get rid of the English, would you say?'
'I am not one of those who would say it,' said Montjoy sadly. 'We had not the discipline to oppose you. We suffered the consequences.'
'I don't imagine that you were involved in this. I saw your face when you looked at that figure. You were revolted, as any right-thinking man would be. And you are here with us, which to my mind suggests you had no hand in it... Tell me, Montjoy.' His voice dropped still further. 'Do you honestly believe we are in Africa?'
Montjoy pulled his cloak closer about him; now that he was no longer climbing, the air felt bitterly cold. 'It is not easy to believe that, but if not there, then where..? Though if any traveller had seen creatures like those, we would surely have tales of them.'
'No more do I think it likely. But I had to have something to give the men. You will pretend, for now, that Africa is where we are. And you will bend your thoughts to a find a way of getting back to France.'
One did not complain at the unfairness of a king's commands. One simply tried to carry them out, however impossible. 'Your majesty, I will do my utmost.' And then he found himself saying, 'I should perhaps go back to the place where we arrived, and see what may be seen. There may be some small indication there of what happened.'
And the King gave him a half-smile and a nod of approval, and then added, 'Wait till the first scouting parties are back, and I have a defensible camp established here. I'll have Erpingham send a guard of archers with you. No-one should be alone in this place.' The guard, Montjoy realised, would not be entirely for his protection, but that was understandable. 'Can you use weapons?'
'Not well, sire.'
'You should have them, even so, and some form of armour. Sir Thomas!' He called across to the old knight, who was directing the cutting of stakes from the surrounding trees, and when he came over to them across the ridge, said, 'See that Herald Montjoy is given with suitable weapons, and what armour we may have to fit him. Then he may aid you with cutting stakes until we have a secure place to camp.'
Thus dismissed, Montjoy bowed formally, wondering how it was that he had agreed to help the invader return to France, and left Henry turning once more to look out over the valley of monstrous beasts and to the slopes beyond.
A while later, feeling both slightly ridiculous and greatly reassured, he was outfitted with dagger, halberd and a leathern coat from one of the carts. His own outer clothes he folded and stowed away carefully, and he followed John Bates, one of Erpingham's men, to take his inexpert part in sharpening stakes.
Even this simple exertion made him sluggish, and the men around him were feeling the strange tiredness too, judging by their comments, made with great freedom when Sir Thomas was out of earshot. But they all kept doggedly at their task. They might need the stakes at any moment.
Long before noon, the camp was well established, and Sir Thomas came over to Montjoy and said, 'The King tells me you think it worthwhile to go back down the hill, to see what may be seen there.' Montjoy looked up from contemplating his blistered hands, and nodded. 'I'll send a guard of archers with you, and you'd best ride, though spare the horses as much as you can. John Bates! Take your archers and escort the Herald to the place where we arrived; the King's command.'
John Bates cast aside his mallet. 'Ay, Sir Thomas.' He called his men over, and they picked up their bows while Montjoy collected Reynard; and then they rode slowly back down-slope, following their own tracks, for there was no sign of a path. In short order they arrived back at the gateway to this world. Here they all dismounted and John Bates set his guard, while Montjoy quartered the trampled soil slowly. He had no idea what he expected to find.
Glancing up, he saw the men for the most part staring outwards, alert for danger, but John Bates was watching him, would-be casually, but he also had an arrow on the string. Fair enough. He gave the man a half-nod, and resumed his search, and then a shard of metal caught his eye. He stooped and picked it up. It was heavy, and dull grey. John Bates came over casually.
'That looks like lead,' he remarked.
'And in the shape of a floret. I think it comes from the crown on the figure of the king that we saw, just before –'
'It happened. Are there more pieces?' They both stared round, and Montjoy spied another piece, and John Bates another. In the end they had a double handful of shards, one with signs gouged into it that Montjoy vaguely recognised as occult. But he could not interpret the symbols.
'Well, there's nothing more to be found here. We should get back to the camp.' He put the heavy lumps of metal into the satchel which also held his writing materials, and waited while John Bates called in his guards, and then they made their slow way back up the slope. This time the horses were better able to manage the climb, and they were able to ride.
Reporting back to Sir Thomas, he left the shards of lead with him, and then took Reynard over to the horse-lines, where a pile of fodder had been cut. It was unusual foliage, almost like fern but not quite, and there were branches of strange leaves from the trees. The horses were nosing at the unfamiliar foliage, but in the end they settled down to eat steadily. Montjoy began to brush Reynard down, and while he was doing so, another man came to fetch him to the king.
Henry was sitting on a fallen log under a pine-tree, and several of his kinsmen were with him.
'Montjoy.' Henry motioned him to sit further along the log. 'What do you make of these pieces of metal that you found?' He passed one of them across.
'That they are from the figure of your majesty that we saw just before we were translated,' he replied. 'Further than that, I cannot go.' He turned the shard in his hands, rubbing at a spot where a crust of earth had lodged. He felt completely inadequate; Henry was looking to him for answers, and he had none. Exeter emptied out a bag containing all the other shards, and Montjoy spread them out on the log, trying to fit them together, more as a way of avoiding Henry's eyes than with any real expectation of finding something useful. Then he bent more closely over them, and picked one of the shards up. Henry made a slight sound of expectation, and waited. Montjoy's thumb polished away more soil.
'Here.' He pointed at a tiny device scratched into the metal. 'This coat of arms. It's twisted by the force which destroyed the figure, but I can still make it out. Those are the arms of Pisa.'
'Pisa? I was no threat to the Pisans. Why would they cast a spell against me?'
'There's one man who might. He's court astrologer; Tommaso da Pizzano. An ambitious man. He used to boast that he could drive the English out of France, and no-one believed him – though it seems that someone took him at his word. He had a workshop at Fontainebleu where he'd allow no-one to go. If he was making this figure I can understand that.'
He put down the shard, picked another up, and examined it closely too. 'Here are fragments of Latin. I cannot read what it says...'
Henry looked up. 'Master Stephen.' A man in cleric's robes came across, and Henry passed the shard to him. 'What do you make of it?'
Master Stephen, small and grey-haired with ink-stained fingers, peered at the sign. 'I would need more of the text to understand it.'
'We may infer a plot, though. What more do you know of this Tommaso, Montjoy?'
'Very little. I was travelling most of the time, and paid him no heed. But I know his daughter, Christine de Pizan. She's a scholar and a writer, a most unusual lady.'
'Would she have been involved in this?'
'I ... think not. She would deem it unchivalric.'
'So, maybe just a few men involved in the conspiracy,' said Henry slowly. 'But that leaves us nowhere, unless you and Master Stephen can unravel the spell between you. We should stay here, though, near the place where we arrived, rather than travel widely in this land. The camp is made, and we have water; it will be no hardship to stay here for a while. Master Stephen, will you put Montjoy's finds safely away now? I would rather such devils' tools in a churchman's keeping. Safer for us all.'
'Of course, your majesty.' Master Stephen did not seem very enthusiastic at the charge, but he gathered the shards into a box lying open at their feet, and took his leave. The nobles stood, Montjoy with them, but Henry signed for him to stay when they left. Montjoy waited, rather apprehensively, for what the king had to say to him in private.
'Montjoy, there's another matter which puzzles me.'
'This spell was directed at me. I can understand why the Englishmen with me were swept up in it. But here you are, a Frenchman, with us.'
'I... was with your majesty's party. Perhaps the spell simply took hold on whoever was close to the figure.'
'Then how would Tommaso have set the spell and got away safely? And his helpers? That metal is lead, heavy. He could not have buried it alone.'
'I ... cannot tell. I will consider it. Perhaps I should go back down the hill tomorrow, maybe with Master Stephen, and look again. Majesty, I am sorry, but I cannot think of anything else to do.' He looked at Henry, hoping that he would accept this.
A half-laugh. 'I can understand that. Take John Bates and his men when you go. He's got a head on his shoulders.'
Montjoy bowed his head in assent, and took his leave before Henry could pursue the matter of why a Frenchman had been affected by the spell. For of course he could not admit that, for a long while now, a small corner of his heart had, most treacherously, been Henry's.
In the afternoon there was movement among the sail-backed creatures; they began to browse on the trees and clumps of fern, even tossing their heads and stamping at one another. Muted roars and snorts filled the air; the effect was almost one of a herd of cattle, if one took care not to look at the blue-and-grey monsters or the gold tracery on their sails. But they seemed harmless enough, not at all inclined to climb up to the ridge. Nor did they seem afraid, or more than dimly aware, of the men in the camp.
This was fortunate, for they were all weary beyond measure by sundown. The evening meal, served out from the carts, was consumed in near-silence. The air was bitterly cold. There was no shortage of dry wood, but Henry was wary of lighting fires until he had seen that there were no lights anywhere beyond the camp. Montjoy's mind tried to tell him that this was not unexpected, but it was just another peculiarity to add to all the others, the monstrous sail-backs, the ultimate strangeness of their translation.
He huddled into his cloak. All around him the other men were clustered together, groups of friends keeping each other's spirits up, warmed as much by each other's company as by their campfires. Beyond the flickering firelight the world was huge and dark and empty. He was a solitary Frenchman, his only companions recent enemies, in a world beyond his comprehension.
He had never felt so alone in his life.
The sound of a step beside him roused him from his introspection.
There was a hooded, cloaked figure looking down at him. Dazzled by the light of his small fire, he did not realise who it was at first.
'Montjoy,' and then he knew, and made to scramble to his feet.
'No, stay there, said Henry, and then, 'May I share your fire for a while?'
'Your majesty. Please,' said Montjoy, and there were more things he could have said, such as I need company, I'm glad it's you, but he shifted across slightly so Henry could sit down on his patch of clear ground if he wished.
'A cold night,' remarked Henry, and spread his hands to the fire. There were other men, other fires close by, but Henry had chosen his to sit by.
'We're lucky there's so much firewood close at hand.' He could talk to this man. He could.
'We've been fortunate, all things considered.'
Henry was trying to put him at his ease, to make him feel included. It was incumbent upon him to respond. 'I have been trying to think back for any mention of such a thing happening to other people.' Henry made a movement beside him and the hood slipped back slightly. He actually looked interested. 'There are stories in Brittany of the hollow hills...'
'Not quite the same, for we've not encountered the Fair Folk... and we've already drunk water from this place... but yes, I'd forgotten those stories. We used to hear them in Wales, too, when I was a child. And the people in them came back in the end.' He picked up a broken branch, and fed it into the flames. 'Do you think that means Tommaso had knowledge of the old tales?'
'Maybe. But I don't know how that can help us.'
'Oh, it helps us. You've helped us. We've been here less than a day, and you've found out who did this, and you've shown me a way to stop the men panicking, and now you're giving me hope that we might get back again. Who knows what you'll do tomorrow?'
Montjoy laughed, as he was obviously meant to do. 'Your majesty places too much confidence in me.'
'No, I don't. I have soldiers aplenty, but you – well, you seem to notice things that other men miss.' His voice became persuasive. 'I'll need your help for as long as we're here, I think. If you can join forces with an Englishman for a while, of course.'
Another half-laugh. 'We are a long way from England and France, sire, and I want to go home too. What little help I can give is yours.'
'Good.' Henry stood up, and Montjoy rose too; the interview was over and he would miss this man's presence by his side. 'Come along with me. My other counsellors are all by the main fire. I would have you all together. Maybe we can find an answer between us.' Montjoy, bemused, hastily banked up the fire, picked up his bag and satchel, and fell into place beside Henry. 'My brother Gloucester's a bookish man, and you should talk to my chaplain, Master Stephen; he's a scholar too, but his first care must be to tend to his flock.'
They made their way between the campfires, Henry stopping now and then to speak to this man or that, always addressing him by name, 'Court, we will need a song of you at service in the morning... Pistol, I have my eye upon you... Sergeant, I trust you to keep discipline in the ranks.' Each time he brought Montjoy to stand in the firelight, so he could be seen.
Henry was making sure his men knew the Frenchman was in his confidence.
They passed the horse-lines, and Montjoy stopped briefly to speak softly to Reynard. Henry watched him for a moment, and then said, 'Bring him with you. You may as well have him handy in the morning. You can tether him with Cloud.'
'Thank-you, sire.' Cloud, the king's great charger. Montjoy's head spun a little, but he picked up Reynard's harness and then found that he had no hands to spare for the horse, standing for an instant unsure whether to come back for the gear. But then Henry, seeing his difficulty, untied Reynard's tether and asked his name, stroking his neck before leading him away towards the pine tree. Montjoy, who felt this was perhaps the most extraordinary thing that had happened all day, followed the king up the hill. They passed more campfires, Henry stopping occasionally to talk to his men, and Montjoy, who was slightly encumbered by his baggage, was glad of the opportunity to catch up.
Near the pine-tree they came to the place where the nobles' horses were tethered. Henry tied Reynard next to Cloud, as he had promised. The grey whickered softly at the sight of his master, and then put his ears back at the interloper and snapped at his neck. Reynard danced away, but was brought up short by Henry, and Montjoy dropping his baggage went to his head. 'Oh, mind your manners, Cloud,' said Henry, and cuffed him lightly across the nose, while Montjoy got Reynard safely quieted. Cloud, his authority over the newcomer established, graciously accepted his presence.
'Well, horses are horses,' said Henry, and took Montjoy up to the camp-fire near the tree where his kin were sitting. The men looked up as they approached.
'Herald Montjoy will be joining our fire,' stated Henry, and sat down in the space which had been left for him. He gestured Montjoy to sit next to him. There was not quite enough room for two; Exeter gave him a little space, and Montjoy found himself crammed in between him and the king.
It was a cold night, and he spread his hands to the blaze, feeling completely awkward and out of place, but no longer alone. The moon – surely bigger than it should be? - and a sky full of strange stars glittered down on them, but the fire was warm. And the king's shoulder was warm against his, and his heart was warm too.
'How are the men, sire?' asked Exeter.
'Nervous, but they're keeping discipline. We will all have to reassure them as best we can. Do you all take care to walk round the camp and speak to them. Reassure them that we know what has happened, and while we might not make a swift return we are not helpless. Gloucester, Master Stephen, confer with the Herald in the morning about what he has found for us; we will need all our learned men to solve this riddle.' They nodded to him across the circle of men. 'And now, my friends, we should sleep, if we can, for it's been a long day, and will likely be a longer one tomorrow.'
In the general shifting and rearrangement of men as they found blankets and wrapped themselves in their cloaks Montjoy found that two burly Englishmen had somehow separated him from their king, which was reasonable enough. But the memory of those few minutes in the warmth of Henry's touch, impersonal though it had been, made him smile to himself in the dark.
There were no alarms in the night, though he was dimly aware of sentries passing around the camp, the horses shifting, and the soft murmur of voices now and then. In the morning, driven into activity by the piercing cold, they rose (Montjoy groaning quietly as he did so, for it was a long while since he had slept on the ground) and Master Stephen led them in worship.
Montjoy, and almost everyone else, he noted, decided to forego shaving; the cold was so bitter that he felt the need of the protection of a beard. He went to see to Reynard, took his blanket off him, brushed him and made sure he had enough fodder; and when he returned to the pine tree there was an impromptu council in progress over breakfast.
'I saw no fires other than our own all last night,' said Exeter, as close to worried as Montjoy had ever seen him, 'this land seems to be empty but for us.'
'No roads or buildings either. Which means no threat that we know of. We have food and water here, firewood and a defensible position.'
'We must keep the men busy.'
'We must give them hope, too...' and here Montjoy found that Henry was looking at him.
His heart sank. 'Sire, with your permission I will go back down the hill to look for more traces of the spell. We were in haste yesterday, and tired, and may have missed something.'
Henry nodded. 'Go, and take Bates and his archers with you; Sir Thomas, see to it.'
Going back down the trail that had begun to form, Montjoy found himself wishing that he could speak to Henry quietly and alone to tell him that he had no idea what to do, no plan for their return. Then he acknowledged to himself that Henry was in the exact same case, and felt a pang of sympathy for the poor king who carried the weight of responsibility for them all, as well as his own fears.
Bates beside him distracted him by asking a few questions about the significance of what they had found the day before, and when they dismounted, he set half his men to combing the ground while the rest kept guard. But they found little else besides a few more shards of metal, and Montjoy took charge of them, looking at them with distaste before putting them away, and then they surveyed the site dispiritedly.
And then Montjoy, used to taking swift notice of the details of an enemy's dispositions while carrying out his duties as a herald, saw something. 'The ground is swept almost bare,' he said in surprise. It's as if there had been a sudden wind, but' – he looked around – 'it's all coming from the one spot. Where we arrived.' There were no twigs or dried fern-fronds in the patch of ground, but plenty a little way away, caught in trees or against boulders. 'Did you feel a wind rushing past us, as we were sent here?' He had not thought to ask others about this.
'Yes, I did - as if it was carrying us along... So anything lighter than the lead would have been blown some distance away, perhaps.'
'Paper or parchment, maybe... John Bates, we will need to search a little further afield!'
'Sergeant!' came a call from one of the archers, and they turned to see a party of horsemen coming down the trail towards them. Henry was among them. Abandoning their conversation, Montjoy and Bates waited for him to arrive.
'Well, Herald, Bates, have you found anything for us?'
'More fragments of the figure, sire, but I believe it may be worthwhile extending our search. We have only found shards of lead on the ground, but anything lighter may have been swept away in the commotion of our arrival.'
'So.' Henry smiled a little, took a look around at the twisted trees and the ferny growths on the ground, and dismounted. 'Where do we begin?'
They had a handful of parchments by the time the search was finished, plucked out from bushes or clumps of fern. They were stained and torn, but Montjoy could make out strange characters close-packed in twisting lines; here and there was a blank space or a few words in Latin or Greek. He bent over them, and then sighed. 'I cannot read these,' he admitted, looking up at Henry. 'Master Stephen may be able to. They must be important; we will have to understand them before we can go any further.'
'Keep them safely, then.' Montjoy stowed them carefully away in his satchel. Henry took one last look round, and then said, 'We've done all we can here, I think. We'll get back to the camp before evening falls.'
They mounted up, and rode back to the ridge, going slowly, for the horses were lethargic. There was no grass for them, only the branching ferny growth; moreover the very air seemed to sap the energy of both men and beasts. Henry waited some moments at the trailside while Montjoy came up the slope, and then brought Cloud up beside Reynard.
'Montjoy, do you have writing materials in that satchel of yours?'
'Yes, sire.' Paper, and ink, and quills.
'Then I would have you copy those papers. We must not lose them. Why, what's wrong?' For Montjoy had drawn in a sudden breath, and was wondering that he had not seen it before –
'Sire. I have quills to write with, plenty of them. But when they are all gone – I have seen no birds.'
'No birds.' Henry twisted on Cloud's back, gazed around him and into the sky. He of all people would know what that meant. 'I've seen none, either, nor any sign of them. No feathers for our arrows. What is this place?' He looked at Montjoy for a moment, as if expecting him to produce an answer.
'My lord ... I have never heard of a place where there are no birds.'
'I'll give the order that the arrows must be saved. You may make a record of that, too.'
The next day, one of the sail-backed beasts was shot, with a view to eking out the food from the wagons, and William the cook was butchering the carcass, muttering to himself as he carved his way among the unfamiliar joints. Then a sudden commotion just beyond the camp brought everyone to full alert. Two more such beasts were making a rush towards the pile of meat. William shouted, threw stones, and brandished his cleaver, but still the beasts came on. There was rush of men to their weapons. William fell as he turned to run, and one of the sail-backs scrambled over him, he cried out and his mates yelled in anger. Moments later, the beasts had been stopped by a few well-placed arrows. Montjoy cast around him for his halberd, which he had left lying on the ground by the pine tree. By the time he had found it the dust had cleared and everyone was staring round, looking for further attackers. But there was no sign of further movement among the beasts.
'Dr Colnet! Fetch the doctor!' Court was bending over William.
He was on the scene quickly enough, black bag in hand, a lean man with a kindly, competent manner, and knelt beside the groaning William.
Bedford, with a few archers, went out to insect the new carcasses, and came back shaking his head.
'Not much to choose between these and the other sail-backs, save these are more green than blue, but when you see them close to, these have got teeth like hunting dogs. We've grown careless. Every man, look to your weapons.'
Montjoy, mindful of Henry's instructions that he should keep a record of all that happened, shouldered his satchel and went over to inspect the dead creatures. Close up, they were bigger than he'd thought at first, and the larger had a long gash down its side, only partly healed. He pulled out his pen and ink, made a small sketch of the beasts showing their hunters' jaws and the green-and-ochre patterns on their sails, and then another of the more placid kind. After Bedford's observation, he could see the difference between the teeth of the two kinds, but felt that this would only become apparent when it was almost too late... Some of the men came to hack the fangs from the creatures' jaws as trophies. He left the carcasses to William's assistant, the cook now being bandaged up by Dr Colnet, and returned, thoughtful, to his study of the fragments of the spell.
A shadow fell across the scraps of paper, and he looked up to find the king standing next to him. He stood quickly.
'Well, Montjoy, what have you found?'
'Sire, there is a great part of the spell here, I believe; what Latin text there is runs on from one page to another with no loss of sense. But I cannot understand these signs,' and most of the parchments were covered in them, 'and so I do not see how we can counteract the spell. Master Stephen can pray, but if prayer alone would work, surely it would have answered by now?' He realised that he sounded tired and dispirited, and though how unfair it was that he should burden Henry with his misgivings. 'I will speak to him over dinner; maybe he can find a way that I have missed.'
Henry sat down, gesturing for him to sit also, and looked at the fragments of paper, weighted down with small stones, that had him in such perplexity. 'I have never found that prayer alone suffices; one must act,' he observed. 'This is a copy of the spell, by the looks of it?'
'Yes, my lord, and I've given the original to Master Stephen for safe-keeping.'
'Make a copy for my brother Gloucester too. He may recognise a phrase or line here or there... How much paper do you have?'
'Enough to last a while yet.'
'Master Stephen surely has some by him, or if the worst comes to the worst we may take some pages from his books.' Montjoy flinched at the thought of such a thing. Henry patted his shoulder comfortingly. 'Need must, Herald. God will not begrudge us a few pages from His books in such a pass as this.'
As always, Henry's presence was acting on Montjoy's thoughts; he wanted, so much, to lift the burden of leadership from him a little. He turned from the sheets of paper, and looked at the man sitting next to him, the workaday clothes and fair hair besprinkled with dust; Montjoy could see the weariness in his eyes. They had not been so close by daylight since the battle, and Henry had been equally tired then; Montjoy had been hard put to it not to touch him, to cross that unthinkable gap. His impulse now was to say 'You should rest, my lord; you drive yourself too hard,' but of course that could not be said. Instead he asked, with a thought of keeping Henry sitting for a while, and with a memory of his conversation with Sergeant Bates the previous day, 'Sire, do you remember the moment of our translation?'
Henry gave him a surprised look. 'I had not thought about it; there's been so much to do.' He reflected a while, and then continued slowly, 'I heard you call your warning, and then that damned figure fell out of the hillside and into the road. Everyone pulled back away from it. We were all frightened of it, and with good reason... The rain had stopped. I caught a glimpse of your face; you looked as sickened and surprised as the rest of us. There was a flash of light in the sky – not the sun, more like a shooting star, but many times magnified. I thought we fell, for a long time, and feared we would be broken in the landing. And then, when my eyes cleared, we were there down the hill, and everything was strange but we were alive, and all I could do was shout out orders and try to protect the men... that's all I've been doing since, for truth to tell I've no idea what to actually do...' His voice trailed off, and he smiled, a little ruefully.
'We would have been lost without you,' said Montjoy firmly, giving voice to the thought which had occurred to him as they reached the ridge. 'We still would be.' Henry glanced at him, and smiled slightly in acknowledgement. 'Sire, may I question the others as to what they may have seen or heard in those last few moments? That flash of light, it must have been the spell taking effect, but someone may have noticed some little thing which may help us.'
They sat silent for a few moments, gazing at the torn pieces of paper.
'Herald?' Montjoy looked back at the king. 'We'll ask my kinsmen what they saw. The men, too. And keep having these ideas. I come to you when my spirits are getting low, and you've never failed to give me hope.'
'Sire... there's little enough I can do, but I'll do it gladly.' Henry was relying on him more than he had realised; was in fact treating him as a friend. He smiled at him, and Henry smiled back.
'Come, the meal's almost ready; let's go and see what these creatures taste like,' and Montjoy put his papers away safely and followed him to the pine tree.
Over the meal, Henry told his kinsmen that Montjoy would be asking them about those last moments in France. One or two of them seemed inclined to start talking immediately, but Henry, after a glance at Montjoy, stopped them, saying that it would be best not to blur their memories by sharing them. This met with approval, and then Henry added that the men would have to be interviewed too, each by his own commander, for Montjoy could not do it all alone (and Montjoy appreciated that he did not add, that they might not speak so freely to a Frenchman.)
But as he spoke to each of the commanders the next day, his heart sank; none of them remembered much more than he and Henry. As they went one by one to speak to his own men, his spirits fell; and then Bedford appeared with the most villainous-looking member of the party in tow, a shabby, pock-marked figure, one of the rank-and-file of Henry's following.
'Montjoy, this is Aunchient Pistol.' Bedford's voice was so studiedly neutral that Montjoy immediately thought, There is a story to be told there; but he nodded pleasantly to Pistol, and waited.
'Pistol, tell the Herald what you have told me.'
'Sir Herald, soon after we set foot upon the shores of France, and before our most sorcerous translation...'
Montjoy tried to grapple with this man's speech.
'... whilst I and my companions were refreshing ourselves in a hostelry scant distance from the port of Cherbourg...'
He'd gone to a tavern.
'...by chance, or by a kindly Fate's intervention, I fell in with another traveller, of goodly garments and speech most fair...'
'... who departed in some haste. Too late did I become aware that he'd misplaced this hour-glass.'
He exchanged glances with Bedford, who gave the tiniest of shrugs, and produced the stolen hour-glass. It glittered in his hand; crystal and gold, or so it seemed. No wonder Pistol had appropriated it. Bedford gave it to him, and it was lighter than he'd expected; it was not gold, but brass.
But Pistol had not finished.
'...on the dusty soil, where, astonished at our enchantment, we were taken all aback...'
Montjoy shifted his feet slightly.
'...this depiction of mighty Jove and Phoebus.'
This time it really was partly made of gold, and partly of some silvery metal; a small disc fractured into three parts, with Jove and his eagle on one side and the sun-god in his chariot on the other. Around the edge were tiny markings, and there were similar markings on the brass frame of the hour-glass.
'Did you find anything else, Aunchient Pistol?' he asked mildly, and overcoming the urge to reply in like vein.
'Nay, Sir Herald, for my duty's to the King, and since he requites me well, I'll not neglect it.'
Bedford gave the slightest of sighs, and handed Pistol a coin. 'You've done him good service this day, Pistol.' The man smiled, in simulacrum of surprise, and the coin disappeared with magical speed into his scrip.
'This wayfarer you met, Aunchient.' Montjoy said. 'Can you tell me aught of him?' The man's style of speech was catching, no doubt of it.
'Sir Herald, his apparel was all of black, and he spoke in the Italian tongue,' and here, astonishingly, his voice took on the exact cadence of that language.
Another glance exchanged with Bedford. Tommaso da Pizzano, surely.
'Thank-you, Aunchient Pistol. You've done well, and the king will not forget it. If you should remember anything else, be sure to tell us.'
''Tis but my duty, and you'll never find Pistol lacking in that,' and with a courtly bow he departed.
Montjoy turned amazed eyes to Bedford, who simply said 'It's the king's story to tell, not mine... What do you make of these things?'
'I hardly know, but they're important, I can see that. We may all have cause to be thankful to Pistol yet.'
Days passed; Henry kept the men busy with scouting-parties going out on foot (for the horses were losing condition) along the ridge, or hunting and smoking meat. There was daily archery practice; Montjoy glanced up at this from time to time and marvelled that his countrymen had ever imagined that armoured knights could defeat longbow-men. Once he tried to draw Bates' bow; he could not get the string even half-way to his ear, and handed the bow back to Bates with a rueful smile, but the rest of the men in the squad clapped and grinned nevertheless, and he glanced beyond them to find that Henry was watching approvingly. From time to time Bates, or Erpingham, or one of the king's kinsmen would try to train him in the use of his borrowed weapons. He improved, a little, but only a little.
He was woken from a deep sleep late one night by a rumble and deep groan, which seemed to be transmitted through the earth as much as the air. He raised his head groggily, and heard men stirring all around him. Across the camp-fire there was a surge of movement as Henry sat up.
'No sign of attack, sire, but that sounded like cannon-fire.' A swift reply.
The noise came again. Henry was gone, to the edge of the camp, and his kinsmen with him. Montjoy checked round for his satchel, and found his halberd. The archers had their bows strung. Every man was still now, staring out into the night.
But nothing else happened for a while, and then perhaps a quarter of an hour had passed, there was another, louder, explosion. But there was no flash to be seen, and the noise seemed to come from a long way off.
'Mines?' said someone doubtfully, and someone else said, 'There's nothing to undermine, here.'
'No-one giving orders, no lights or camp-fires...'
All was quiet for a while, and then more distant thuds in rapid succession. Someone muttered, 'How many guns must they have, to keep up that rate of fire?'
Henry could just be seen, a dim shape in the light of an old moon, conferring with his commanders. Then the order came 'Guards to be doubled; the rest of you to sleep while you can.' But the king did not return to the camp-fire, and Montjoy wondered whether he would find time to sleep himself. He suspected not.
In the morning there was still no sign of activity to the east, but the sound of the barrage continued intermittently. Montjoy and Stephen redoubled their efforts on the closely-written parchments, Gloucester appearing in the late morning to hear what they had learned. But the intricacy of the symbols continued to baffle them.
Montjoy returned to his task of transcribing the spell, and then suddenly he found himself thinking, 'Oh yes, that's Sagittarius,' and the extent of his own idiocy became plain to him. He gave a low cry of disbelief, and across the fire Stephen looked up, and Montjoy rushed across to him.
'Here, and here and here,' Montjoy pointed to the repeated symbol, 'my birth-sign, Sagittarius, the traveller. Why didn't I see it before?'
'There are so many signs there,' replied Stephen, scanning the sheets, each covered with tiny script. 'We didn't know if it was a code or cipher... but if Tommaso is an astrologer, yes, it makes sense...' They stared at the parchment.
'He was trying to make us travel,' said Montjoy slowly.
'And succeeded,' interjected Stephen.
'But why the hour-glass? Unless...' He stared at Stephen. 'No, it can't be true.' Then he suddenly scrambled to his feet. 'I must speak to the king.' He cast hurried looks around him, spied Henry organising the strengthening of the camp's defences, and made haste to join him.
The king looked round as he approached; the urgency in his manner had obviously caught his attention. After a brief exchange of glances, Henry spoke quietly to Exeter, and left his side to come over to Montjoy.
'Sire.' Montjoy was slightly breathless, whether from nervousness or speed he did not know. 'I think I have understood da Pizzano's spell. At least, it all makes sense, of a sort, but it seems impossible...' He lowered his voice. 'I must speak with you where we cannot be overheard.'
Henry gave him a concerned look; 'Not good news, then,' he said quietly, and led Montjoy to an outcropping of rock that jutted out from the ridge. There they sat, and Montjoy looked out for an instant at the hillside where they had arrived, dotted with the fantastical sail-backed monsters. Then he braced himself, and faced the king squarely.
'The spell is an astrological one. All those signs – they're for the planets and stars, and for conjunctions and aspects between them. I don't recognise most of them, and that's why it took me so long to realise it, until I saw my own birth-sign. But, sire... the crystal hour-glass. It's the most unusual object of all that we've found. I think it's important to the spell. And it's a symbol of time. And that made me think of that statue of you. It's made of lead, and lead is ruled by Saturn. And to an astrologer, Saturn represents time. The past. And limitations, boundaries.' He drew in a shaky breath, frightened more than ever now that he was speaking the preposterous idea aloud.
'Herald. What are you saying?' Henry's expression was grim.
'Sire, I think we've been sent back into the past.' He snatched a quick look at Henry, and then plunged on. 'It might explain why there are no people, if we're in the morning of the world. And I think he's tried to trap us here. That's why the spell has fractured into pieces – like the statue, and the token of Jupiter and the sun.' He swallowed, gripped his hands together in his lap, and stared out across the empty landscape.
There was a short, heavy silence. Then Henry said, 'Have you talked of this to anyone else?'
'I was with Master Stephen, and thinking aloud. I mentioned Sagittarius, which signifies travel, among other things. And then I said "why the hour-glass?" and the answer came to me, and I went straightaway to find you. He may have realised by now what I was thinking.'
'I'll speak to him. He's no fool. He won't spread this around.' Another pause. Now it was Henry who was gazing bleakly out at the land sloping away in front of them. He exhaled, a soft sound of frustration or dread. Then his jaw set. 'Listen, Montjoy. If this is true, it is a blow, I'll not deny it, and it fits together all too well. But now we know what the spell signifies, we have a better chance of reversing it, do you hear?'
'Yes, sire. But ... I do not see how we can reverse it. I only know the astrology that any Frenchman at court would know – the most superficial things. I recognised that sign only because it's my own birth-sign. This would have been a spell of terrible power. I don't know where to start with it...'
'I'll call a council tonight. And you're not the only learned man among us; Master Stephen will help you, and my brother Gloucester was a scholar before ever he was a soldier. I don't expect you to do it all by yourself.'
Henry was taking the weight of the discovery onto his own shoulders, easing the burden for Montjoy, looking for the positive. He felt suddenly ashamed of himself; he had rushed to the king and spilled out his fears, in however unintentional a fashion, while he had told him of his suspicions. Now he had to take some of that burden back.
'My lord, may I tell Stephen what I've just told you? We can go over the parchments together before the council tonight, and perhaps begin to see a way through the problem.'
'That's a good thought. Tell him to keep silence, though. The men mustn't know of this yet.'
'Aye, my lord.' He paused; he wanted to say I'm sorry and you've helped me and I wish, but when Henry glanced across at him the words would not come. He had been equally tongue-tied in his presence once before, and this was not something that should happen to a herald; but as on the eve of Agincourt, with an equally determined King Henry before him, he tried to put everything he felt into a very simple expression: 'Thank-you.'
And as he had at that encounter, Henry seemed to understand what was unspoken. He gave the ghost of a smile, and a nod, and then he got up and said 'I should get back to the defence-works. We still have those explosions we heard to think of. You and Stephen – just talk it over for now, yes?'
'Yes,' said Montjoy, softly, because suddenly he could not trust his voice for normal speech; and bowing his head slightly took his leave.
Under the pine tree as the frost of evening set in, a worried circle of men considered the news. Montjoy, Stephen and Gloucester found that they were carrying most of the discussion; the others listened resignedly to their talk.
Unexpectedly Bedford, sitting next to his brother the king, put in his thoughts. 'There's a story in the Canterbury Tales about a magical horse made of brass that could carry his rider anywhere he wished. I remember our grandfather telling me how Chaucer read the story out at court. The characters were actually planets and stars, and the horse was an astrolabe. When he reset the astrolabe the story came to an end. It was a kind of key to the tale.'
'Where did he get the idea for the story?' Henry looked at him with reluctant interest; all this talk of astrology made this most practical of kings uncomfortable.
'No, I don't know that, though it's set in the East, at the court of Genghis.'
For some reason they were all turning to Exeter.
'Uncle Geoffrey didn't say what his sources were. He used to try the stories out on us children before telling them to the court, but we never asked about the background to them,' said that formidable warrior.
Montjoy sincerely hoped that his surprise had not shown on his face. He had quite forgotten that the wise poet had been married to the Duke's aunt.
'Though, if he had the idea from the East, there may be some grain of truth in it; they're unequalled as scholars of the stars,' put in Erpingham, 'your grace's father and I saw that when we went to Jerusalem.'
'We've found no astrolabe,' said Montjoy suddenly, 'but the hour-glass is made of brass.'
There was a sudden pause in the talk, in which the hiss and pop of the flames in their camp-fire, and the voices of the men at the other fires, could be clearly heard. Then Stephen reached into the chest which was lying open on the ground before him. He pulled out a small packet of cloth, unwrapped it, and held up the hour-glass. They all stared at it, at the gradations marked on the brass, at the crystal bulbs.
'The key to the spell,' said Henry.
He held out a hand; Stephen rose and gave it to him, and as he took it into his hand he gasped suddenly, and fumbled, almost dropping it before catching it in an iron grip. 'Oh!' It was such an uncharacteristic thing for him to do that they were all astonished.
'What's wrong, nephew?' barked Exeter.
'It seemed to stir in my hand, almost as if it were alive, trying to get away from me.'
Exeter snatched it from him, and held it. 'I feel nothing.'
Again a silence, and then Stephen said, 'Sire, you are the king. You have an especial power under God.'
Montjoy had never seen Henry so thoroughly disconcerted, but this statement seemed to reassure him slightly. 'I should not touch it again, perhaps, until we know more of it,' he said slowly. Exeter nodded agreement, as did many of the men around the fire. 'Master Stephen, you must take charge of it for us. But don't leave it in the chest. Wear it, from now on.'
'Of course, my lord.' Stephen accepted the glittering thing back and wrapped it again, and then slipped it onto the chain which bore his crucifix.
There was another heavy pause, and then Henry spoke. 'So. This is an astrological spell, and we have the key to it. But those parchments are the clue we must unravel, and how to do that? None of us are scholars of the discipline.'
'None of us at this fire,' said Gloucester, suddenly animated. 'But Dr Colnet works with the stars' influence in the course of his duties. Might he be able to help us?'
A stir of hope ran round the circle. 'Send for him!' said Henry, and when the physician had been brought from the next fire down-slope, he put the matter to him.
'Why, yes, your majesty. In fact, I have an almanac in my bag. It tells me all I need to know of the stars. Shall I fetch it now?'
In the morning, when there was light enough to study it, they struggled through the crabbed handwriting of the almanac. The section on astrology was not well-used; Dr Colnet had his preferred remedies and tended to keep to those, only using the reference section for the more unusual ailments. But here was a list of the glyphs that had so baffled them; here a catalogue of the stars and planets, their attributes and influences. They fetched a collective sigh of relief. Stephen and Gloucester turned to the parchments, while Montjoy made a minutely detailed drawing of the hour-glass before giving it back to the priest.
It was a slow business; several days of hard work, and they all suffered from headaches and were irritable by the evenings. Dr Colnet recommended that they not spend all their hours in study. So every so often one of them would get up and walk around the camp or see to his horse, though riding was no longer possible; the ferny growth that they were being fed on was no adequate substitute for good green grass. Henry continued to go about the camp, in conference with his men, or organised hunting parties that went out and brought back meat to be smoked. Once Montjoy showed a group of men how to extract pine seeds from their cones, as was done in the south of his own country, to add variety to their diet.
The barrage in the east continued intermittently, but no direct threat appeared to trouble them. The weather turned hazy after a while, and a fine dust began to fall.
After a week of intense effort the scholars had a clearer idea of the nature of the spell, and a conference was called that evening under the pine tree, and Montjoy baldly summed up what they had learned to the ring of worried men.
'We were sent out under the sign of Sagittarius, the wanderer, with Saturn and Mercury lending their influence. The crystal in the hour-glass is charged with their light. How we were sent here, in particular, is something that I cannot tell... '
'Can you reverse the spell?'
'In theory, yes. There are constellations and conjunctions which represent homecoming. But, my lord, the stars are different here, though the moon and planets seem the same. I do not know how we can work our own spell without the influences we need. And it was a spell of several layers, I fear, extremely difficult to cast, or it would be used much more often. Something happened to give it an uncommon power.'
'But we know that the hour-glass fears your majesty's touch,' put in Stephen, 'and it may be that this is a reason for us to hope.'
Henry sighed. 'What is the constellation that we need?'
'Cancer, for the home.'
'A water sign,' said Dr Colnet musingly. 'There may be herbs that look to it, though most herbs are ruled by the planets.'
Gloucester picked up the almanac again, and looked through the lists at the back. 'There are hundreds of herbs listed here. We'll have to check through them all.'
'We know so few plants here, though,' said Montjoy. 'Pines, and firs. Even the ferns are not quite the same.'
'How else might we represent the sign?' Henry, despite his discomfort with the idea of astrology, doggedly brought them all back to the point.
And Gloucester, leafing through the almanac, said 'There are the glyphs, and the beast itself, the crab. There are the planets that rule it, and gems for each - '
And then Montjoy sat up straight, and interrupted without thought. 'A talisman! We could make our own!' Blank stares all round; he rushed on, 'They are fashionable at court, for riches, or health, or luck. I've seen some of them; jewels carved with signs of the Zodiac, made out of the correct metals and stones. The astrologers charged high prices for them.'
'We've no astrologer or sorcerer here,' said Henry, frowning.
'No, Sire, but you're the king, and the hour-glass tried to escape you. You have a power that no-one else here has. And, Master Stephen,' he turned to him, 'you're a priest, you have power of a different sort. The two of you could surely match any astrologer's strength!'
'I have some store of herbs in my bag, and holy water would perhaps serve for water signs,' put in Dr Colnet, and there was a babble of voices as a flood of new ideas was released. Montjoy began to take notes in a small hand.
Henry called him aside when the rest had gone their ways, and took him to the outcrop where they had sat before. 'Herald. This will be a cobbled-together spell at best. Bits of plant, and metal, and the light of distant planets – how can it work?'
'Sire, I do not know,' said Montjoy; he was floundering himself. 'But I have heard tell at court of a kind of soul of the world, an anima mundi, that wishes to be whole, and that may work to our advantage. I have no other answer for you, though, save that we know how Tommaso made his spell. And the hour-glass feared you.'
'Not half so much as I feared it!' said Henry, with a sudden self-deprecating grimace. 'That was not a comfortable feeling, having it wriggle in my hand like a live thing.'
'I saw no movement,' said Montjoy in perplexity.
'I felt it, so strong I feared it would tear me away from you all. Do the talismans you've seen have that same effect?'
'I've never heard of such. But our king is sick, and lives retired much of the time. If only kings have that power over them - '
'Then you could not know of it.'
'No.' Montjoy sighed. 'Sire, I am sorry I have nothing better for you. Someone else might think of a different plan. You should not rely only on me.'
'Oh, I've talked it over with the others, when you've not been there, and none of us could come up with any other answer. And they all end by saying "Listen to Montjoy." They're baffled, and they admit it. You keep thinking, and noticing things, and you'll make us think too.' He smiled a little, sidelong. 'You and Pistol between you might save us yet.'
Montjoy made an indeterminate sound, half amusement, half acknowledgement. 'Sire, he's a far better thief than I am an astrologer!'
'Then we must all study to match his expertise... Tell me again what you will need for this counter-spell.'
'There must be a way of capturing the light of the planets. Herb-salves, if Dr Colnet can find the right ones. Gem-stones and metals for the constellations and planets.'
'Now that's something I can help with,' said Henry, with relief. 'We'll see what we can find in my strong-box.'
And so they found themselves sitting in a cart with the strong-box between them, the almanac open on Montjoy's lap, while they sifted through Henry's regalia to find what they needed. And looking back on the day, Montjoy reflected that this was one of the oddest things that had happened so far, for never had he imagined that he would find himself sorting through a treasure-chest with a king, tossing gold and precious stones back into the chest as worthless and keeping silver, and pearls, and moonstones for their use. Henry, too, seemed to find it amusing, for every so often his mouth twitched up at the corner. There were moments when, but for the new golden beard, he looked like nothing so much as a little boy playing at kings, and by the end of the session they were both smiling, and went cheerfully enough to their evening meal.
Now there was a new air of purposefulness about the camp. John Melton, the king's guide by night, when consulted, threw them all into angry gloom by saying that the conjunction they needed, of Venus and Mercury with the moon, might not occur for years. Then a few minutes later he cheered them all again with the proposal that they isolate the light of each planet separately, directing it onto the gems of their talismans.
Montjoy spent a day sitting drawing out small, precise designs for the armourer, Allbright Mailmaker, to trace on the new talismans, and as he did so he remembered the office, high up in the Louvre, where as a young pursuivant he had painted coats-of-arms in the heraldic rolls. He had glanced out of the window from time to time, over the curtain wall to the Seine and its washerwomen and reeds and skiffs, at the courtiers promenading on the embankment with their little dogs at heel. Beyond the river the fields spread flatly out. Small figures of peasants toiled at their tasks; crows and magpies followed the sower, whose arm swung, regular as a pendulum, casting the seed in an age-old rhythm.
Homesickness took him; he rarely felt it, but now he was so far from home. Under the cold bright sun of the land of the sail-backs, he traced the sign of Cancer, of the home. And then, in a sudden incongruous flash, he remembered the scarecrow in those fields; dressed as an archer, its longbow held stiffly out to one side. He looked up, and round at the camp, so full of archers, and at their leader, who was somehow becoming his friend. He smiled, and bent once more to his task.
On the other side of the camp-fire John Melton, Allbright and Richard Berry the saddler were in conference with Gloucester. Berry was holding a leathern tube which he and Allbright had contrived, and they were demonstrating how it could be used to isolate the light of the various planets which they needed.
Melton was worried again; 'My lord Duke, the Moon's simple enough, and Venus will hardly be more difficult, but I have not seen Mercury yet. It could be weeks before he's visible, and we don't know yet whether it will be at sunset or sunrise.'
'Well, we will have to contrive. The other planets are in plain sight. We'll use them to make trial of the tube in the meantime.'
Up at the outcrop, Bedford was supervising the building of a platform and frame to steady the tube. Henry and Exeter were once again at the margin of the camp, listening to the barrage, which had started up again. But the mountain-sides to the east were empty, and the noises were no nearer than they had ever been.
Montjoy paused in his drawing, and made a note to himself to find out the birth-signs of as many of the men as possible. If they could find several men born under Cancer...
And at some point Henry would have to touch the hour-glass again.
They did this one bright noon, with Stephen standing on one side of Henry and Exeter's protective bulk on the other. Stephen had heard his confession and administered the Sacrament; he had all the safeguards they could give him.
With set face, he reached out and took hold of the hour-glass. He gave a low cry, and tightened his grip; Exeter supported him with an arm around his waist, but his legs gave way and he sank panting to the ground. Pale-faced, and with sweat filming his face, his hands, his wrists, he clung on to the bewitched thing. They were all on the ground now, Montjoy scanning his notes frantically and feeling worse than useless. What if he had misinterpreted the spell, miscalculated the malevolence of the hour-glass? Henry might be badly harmed by the thing and it would be all his fault –
Henry grunted, his fingers jerked open, and he let the hour-glass fall. It spun to the ground and lay there, glinting, seeming-innocent. Stephen snatched it up, while Henry slumped against his uncle; Dr Colnet, who had been waiting silently in the background, hurried forward and began to examine him. Montjoy found himself making a half-move to touch, to comfort, but of all the eighty men in the party he had the least right to do that. His eyes fixed on Henry's face, he sank back into his place again, and then -
'I'm all right,' gasped Henry. Montjoy slumped slightly on an exhaled breath and his eyes closed briefly. Then he resumed his anxious watch. Dr Colnet was giving Henry a cup of some draught, and wiped his face and hands.
'It tried to escape me again,' Henry said. He sounded exhausted. 'Then it fought back. Sent me a flood of evil visions, tried to poison my heart and mind. I don't want to think about how it was made. But I mastered it, in the end. It was a long battle - '
'Sire, it took only minutes,' said Exeter.
'Seemed like an hour.' Henry tried to sit up. 'God. I'm as weak as a kitten.'
'Rest, then, nephew.' Exeter leaned him back against the fallen log they normally sat on, pillowing him with blankets and cloaks. Henry lay there for a few moments, and then said, 'Herald.'
'Aye, my lord.' His voice was shaky.
'You had the right of it. That was the key to the spell. But it's clear of the taint, now. It's just crystal and brass. You can use it as you see fit.'
'Sire, I wish there had been another way...' and he knew his distress was plain for all to hear.
'But there wasn't. Duties of kingship, Herald, you know all about those,' there was a wan smile, and then he said 'I would rest, now,' and Dr Colnet sent them all on their way with a single look.
Later, Montjoy, still subdued, asked Stephen whether he felt any difference in the hour-glass. 'It feels - lighter?' He shook his head in bafflement. 'I've seen the ritual of hallowing before, but this was something altogether greater, and more costly to the king. But he's won us a notable victory.'
'I hope the cost to him has not been too great.' He cast a worried glance over his shoulder, to the little tableau under the pine tree; Henry, lying down now, and Dr Colnet sitting beside him.
'Whatever the cost, he'll expect you to keep working at the counter-spell,' said Stephen, with a slight smile.
'Yes, the counter-spell, of course,' and Montjoy fished in his satchel and took out his notes again, but found he was reading them without comprehension. For appearances' sake, he kept leafing through them, but Henry's pallid face kept intruding between him and the paper. He got up, went and spoke to Allbright Mailmaker, and took charge of the carved stones and graven silver that he had ready. Then in the end he walked would-be casually past the pine tree, and from a little way away he saw Henry sitting propped up once more.
Dr Colnet came over to him. 'He would speak with you, Montjoy. Do not tire him.'
He could not even answer, but gave a brief nod, and went to stand quietly before the king.
'Well, Herald, you had the right of it.' Henry smiled slightly, and pointed at the log, an invitation to sit.
What could he say about his fears and self-reproaches? He had already burdened Henry with them enough. He sank down on the log. 'I don't think we need trouble you to do anything like that again, my lord. We can do the rest ourselves, now. See, here are the talismans Allbright has made.' He opened the white leather bag that Sir Thomas had given him for the talismans, and tipped out the engraved moonstones and the silver and the pearls. Henry took them from him, cautiously at first and then with increasing confidence.
'I half-expect anything of a magical nature to hurt me now,' he said. 'I was always dismissive of astrology and magic, and it's a blow to my pride to find myself so vulnerable to them.'
'But the hour-glass was vulnerable to you, my lord, and no-one else, and you were the stronger.' Montjoy looked at him, unconsciously twisting the bag in his hands.
'Another battle won, and I suppose it shows that I'm the true king...' Henry's voice trailed off, and he picked up a moonstone, and a pearl set in an engraved silver ring, and studied them with bent head. 'These things are beautiful, and they feel wholesome. Allbright made them, you say? ...But I think you designed them.'
Startled, Montjoy could only nod. How had he known? All the skill in drawing that he had learnt as a pursuivant had come back to him, and he had put his heart into the making of these talismans. Had Henry sensed that?
'There's naught for me to fear there,' said Henry, smiling a little. 'What will you do now?'
'Charge them with planet-light, and herbs of the moon and Venus – Dr Colnet has some small store - and Stephen will bless them. The hour-glass, too. We will have to devise a way to use that to the best effect, and to make a circle to limit the counter-spell. We don't want to take any sail-backs along with us when we go...'
Henry gave a surprised half-laugh. 'No, indeed!' He looked down-slope to the herds of browsing monsters; mostly blue-grey, but from their vantage point they could see a green and ochre hunter making a stealthy approach to one of the plant-eaters. 'Herald, you think of everything. I will leave it all in your very competent hands. Here,' he gathered up the remaining talismans, gleaming softly on the trodden earth, and gave them back to Montjoy with a small air of ceremony; who took them with an equal formality, and put them back into the bag.
'My lord,' he said as he rose to take his leave, 'I am glad to see you in better health.' That was a small phrase to contain all his feelings, but it would have to suffice, and it seemed Henry understood, for he smiled once more; and so they parted.
Bedford came down from the outcrop just before sunset one evening, and handed the leather bag to Montjoy. 'John Melton has found Mercury!' The satisfaction was plain in his voice; everyone around the fire sat up straighter and there were pleased exclamations.
'So we have caught all the planet-light we need?' asked Henry.
'Yes, and I'll be glad not to spend any more evenings up there in the cold... But sire, there's another thing.' The murmur of talk stopped abruptly. 'The men know we are out of our own time.'
'How?' A single word, rapped out.
'Easily enough,' sighed Bedford. 'The moon was slightly out of phase, and once Melton started looking for the planets, he realised that they were all wrongly placed with regard to each other. I think the men may have known as long as we have.'
There was an embarrassed silence.
'They've all been very calm about it.' Henry's voice was a strange admixture of pride in his men and discomfiture at their own slowness.
'Sergeant Bates and Allbright have been telling them that we've got a plan.'
Faint, incredulous laughter ran around the fire.
'Why, so we have!' said Henry robustly, but there was a grin in his voice. 'Well, next time we'll take them into our confidence, and maybe they can tell us what to do. But now, Montjoy,' but then there was a series of dull explosions from the east, and they all turned their heads and listened intently. This time the noise built up instead of dying away, becoming an almost continuous thunder.
'Montjoy,' he continued. 'How close are you to completing the counter-spell?'
'A day or two yet, my lord,' he said anxiously. 'We have to write out our own spell-sheets fair, and coach the men who will speak them. Your grace needs to hallow the new talismans, a true circle must be drawn...'
'Do those things, then. Brother,' he was looking at Bedford, 'Uncle Exeter, Sir Thomas, we'll make ready for an evacuation. Sleep if you can, my friends; we'll be busy tomorrow.'
'Sire, will you wear our talismans tonight?' asked Montjoy diffidently. 'We may need them at a moment's notice, and if you had already hallowed them...'
'Ah, yes,' said Henry, and hung a pendant inscribed with the Ship around his neck, with Canopus picked out with a diamond; but looked askance at the hour-glass. 'Master Stephen, keep that for me for tonight. It would give me unquiet dreams even now, I think.'
'Of course, your majesty.' Stephen tucked it back under his robe.
Henry pushed the rings of silver and moonstone and pearl onto his fingers. The pale, glimmering things looked incongruous on his square soldier's hands, but he showed not a sign of hesitation about putting them on. And then of course he did not settle to his rest immediately, but went on a round of the camp-fires first, and, as always, Montjoy wished that he could go with him. But when they rose at first light, Henry gave the talismans, warm from his body, back to him with a smile, and he looked remarkably rested and alert, as if he had slept unusually well.
To the accompaniment of an almost-continuous barrage they went about the business of packing up the camp, and Montjoy, Stephen and Gloucester, along with Bates and his men, and four men born under Cancer, went down from the ridge to the gateway. Here they drove in a peg, to form the centre of a circle big enough to take eighty men and horses and the carts too, found the four cardinal points and marked them with blocks of stone. He explained to each of the four men what their role must be; one to burn his spell-sheet, one to bury his, one to tear his up and cast it into the air, and one to pour water on his. Thus they hoped to harness the power of the elements; and the moon and Venus were to be invoked with silver and copper.
'Clockwise, remember, Stephen,' said Montjoy, possibly once too often, for Stephen replied in a sing-song voice, 'The way the sun moves round the sky,' and Montjoy made a hasty apology.
They climbed back up to the ridge, and found the camp packed and ready and a large meal waiting for them. A dense haze was creeping across the evening sky. Then the crescent moon rose, out across the valley of the sail-backs, and it was tinged almost blue.
Exeter stared at it, and muttered something about the explosions. He and Henry got up, and went to look out over the valley of the sail-backs, while the camp waited in tense silence. After a while, Henry and his uncle came back.
'Still no sign of an attack, and it's too dark to move now. But be ready at first light. Master Stephen, a prayer, I think.'
Every man in the camp knelt for the prayer, and when it was over, Henry did the rounds of the camp-fires again, while the blue moon floated higher among the strange stars. Montjoy repeatedly ran over the counter-spell in his mind, and checked the contents of the white leather bag. Everything was there, sure enough... There was not enough light to re-read the written spell, but he and Stephen and Gloucester had been through it several times and found no fault with it; Moon and Venus in a square, under the sign of Cancer... He lay down, and signs and planets danced a stately round in his mind as he tried to sleep.
When they were awakened, the moon was setting, still blue, and light was broadening in the east. All the sky was hazy now, and dust was falling, thick and soft, all around, and the stars were no longer visible. And when the sun rose, it also was blue.
There was a flurry of movement as every man crossed himself, and a murmur of voices. Henry rose quickly. 'We will stay no longer. Back down the hill. We will leave as soon as may be.'
Under the strange light the men harnessed the horses and uprooted the stakes; Montjoy collected Reynard and joined the long line that was winding down the trampled path. His heart was beating fast. Suppose they cast the counter-spell, and nothing happened? He found Stephen walking next to him, and they exchanged a strained look, but neither of them could think of anything to say. Gloucester was in the lead, and he halted the column when they reached the stones and peg they had placed yesterday.
'Everyone within the stones,' called Gloucester crisply, and they complied, filing in good order into the space, the archers, each with his bow and stake, at the periphery, the horses standing quiet, heads hanging, in the centre. There were a few subdued remarks; tension filled the air, and the blue sun climbed visibly higher above the ridge.
Stephen was uncoiling a long line, and then tied a bow-stave to it. Montjoy handed out sheets of paper and talisman rings to Dr Colnet, at the northern stone, and the three other men born under Cancer. To Colnet he also gave a silver penny, and to Guy, at the west, one of the archers under Bates' command, a copper penny. Then he took each of the four to one of the cardinal stones and double-checked that they had the right sheets.
With the point of the bow-stave, Stephen was tracing their circle. 'Clockwise,' he muttered as he passed Montjoy, and handed him the hour-glass. Men and horses were stepping over the line, stretched taut between him and the central peg, as it swept on round the circle. The carts were trundled over the top of it. There were bursts of coughing as clouds of dust were stirred up into the cold air. Montjoy went back to the peg, where the king was waiting; Henry reached out and took hold of the hour-glass for a brief moment, and then gave it back to him. Kneeling on the ground, Montjoy opened a small bottle of salve that Dr Colnet had prepared, and put a sheet of close-written paper, taken for this solemn purpose from one of Stephen's prayer-books, on the ground.
All the men were silent now, and even the horses had caught the tension in the air, standing stock-still. The barrage in the east could clearly be heard over the ridge, and that strange sunlight flooded down on them. The spell-sheet showed blue.
'The circle's closed,' called Stephen, and returned to Montjoy: Bates and Erpingham were already standing, surely not by accident, one on either side of him. Henry was on his way to its eastern edge; his kinsmen were at the other cardinal stones.
'Is everyone within the circle? All in position?' Montjoy asked, and Erpingham glanced round, and replied, 'All set, Montjoy.'
He drew a shaky breath, dipped his fingers into the salve, and smeared it over the hour-glass. 'Ready,' he called, in his herald's voice. Then he set the hour-glass down squarely in a blank space in the centre of the sheet. 'Raphael. St Christopher,' and the blue light suddenly receded very far away into an ocean of blackness, and fragmented into tiny sparks, and went out.
Part 2: No Tyrant
This time there was none of the sheer panic of their first translation. The horses startled, and milled around, but the men reassured them, in voices high and tense to be sure, but the group held together in good order.
Henry called out, 'Report! Are we all here?' and then he coughed, and Montjoy became aware that the air, though warm, was acrid, smoke and something else he remembered from years ago, but could not place. He blinked away involuntary tears, swallowed to ease the sting in his throat, and heard Henry's brothers and uncle respond, 'All here, sire!'
Erpingham was marshalling his archers with speed and efficiency, but without that desperate haste which had marked their arrival in the land of the sail-backs. From behind their yew hedge the travellers scanned their surroundings anxiously.
'Does any man see a threat?'
And the responses came back 'No, my lord.'
Again they waited, and at last Montjoy had the leisure to be relieved that his counter-spell had worked. Now he could take stock of his surroundings. The air, though it had that bitter tang, was warm and moist. There were tall, prickly trees, dark crumbly soil underfoot, mist wreathing gently around them, and a chain of snowy peaks visible in the clear air above. One or two of them had plumes of cloud – or smoke? – drifting from their summits.
'Sire.' And Montjoy made his way to the King.
Montjoy had, once again, a brief sense of unfairness which he instantly suppressed; Henry's task was far worse than his. But the demands Henry made on him had their usual effect, and his mind rose to the challenge.
'My lord, there are birds!'
Henry followed his pointing finger, and sure enough there was a flock wheeling through a clearing a little distance up-slope.
'So, feathers for our arrows, and pens for our scholars, and a fine meal or two. What else, Herald?'
He stared around desperately. 'Flowers,' red ones, on some of the bushes. 'We saw none of those before. Those mountains...' He coughed. 'I have seen their like before, in Italy, and the air smelled the same there, smoke and – brimstone? This is closer to home than the last place, I think. But I'll need to look at the ground hereabouts. See what may be seen. More fragments of the spell, perhaps.'
'Good. Uncle, we'll make camp in the clearing there. Keep the men away from this spot until Montjoy has searched it.'
'Aye, my liege!' Exeter was grinning, spirits apparently high; Montjoy, astonished at this reaction, hung back with Bates and his guard as the rest of the men filed past.
Stephen stayed for a moment. Montjoy dismounted and spoke to him privately. 'Well, we made the translation. I was not sure that we would.'
'Best not to let the others hear you talk like that! We're all relying on you to get us home.' Stephen gave a sly grin at his appalled expression.
'It was purest chance!'
'The King doesn't think so.'
Montjoy groaned faintly, bowed his head and ran his hand through his hair, and then straightened up. 'Stephen, all I do is flounder, looking for I know not what, trying to do the impossible...'
'And doing it very well. Don't despair, Montjoy, we're all at sea here, the King and his kin as much as anyone. They're all pretending, too. It's our job to back them to the hilt.'
'Ah, you're right. Don't mind me. We should get on with searching.' For he could not tell Stephen of how the King had almost admitted to doubts, had seemed to seek him out for reassurance and support. Or perhaps as Henry's chaplain he already knew of Henry's fears?
It was none of his business to wonder that. His business was to search the site of their translation, if only to be seen to be working towards their return. As the last of the men filed away through the trees, he took a final look at the head of the column, where an upright, confident figure on a grey horse could be seen through the thin mist; and then he turned back to the task at hand.
'The soil's dark, so it's difficult to see the fragments. But this is what we've found so far.'
The new camp was on gravelly grey soil that looked like cinders. A few plants grew here and there, but for the most part it was bare earth. The open space snaked away in a broad swath on either hand, and further up-slope, it turned into a meander of dark smooth rock.
Henry was seated on a large boulder; his men were driving in stakes to form a stockade, or cutting and carrying fodder. There was a quiet murmur of voices. People sounded cheerful, in spite of the occasional bursts of coughing, and everyone seemed to have more energy than in the land of the sail-backs.
Montjoy spread out the lead fragments they had found, and he and Henry looked hard at them.
'My brother should see this,' said Henry, for gouged into the soft lead of one of the largest pieces were the letters IOHAN. He picked up the other shards and turned them in his hands, looking for the rest of the letters, but there could not find them. Montjoy pointed to the arms of Pisa, scratched on another fragment.
'No parchments that I could see this time. I'll go back and look among the trees and bushes now –'
There was a shout from a lookout. Men snatched up their bows; Henry stood, hand going to his sword-hilt. Montjoy looked round for his halberd – he was always putting it down and forgetting it – and then stared, his mind refusing to accept what he saw.
A huge grey creature, the size of a cottage, was crossing the river of dark rock before them. Two smaller ones followed it, then three more of the same size as the first. Almost like elephants, but squatter of build. And he had not heard that elephants grew to such gigantic size, and these creatures had horns above each eye and a strange crest like an aventail reaching back to cover the neck.
'Save arrows,' called Henry, and the archers waited tensely.
The leading creature turned its head towards them, and gave a monstrous snort. The others, alerted, swung round and stared, the youngsters darting in amongst them. The horns threatened. Then the creatures, seemingly deciding that they were no threat, resumed their course and barged into the forest beyond the bare rock.
'Gloucester, do you take a party and see what may be seen.' The men went warily towards the sound of breaking branches.
The work of the camp resumed, but with an air of increased watchfulness. Henry turned back to Montjoy. 'Where's your halberd?' he asked sharply.
'Sire, I left it on one of the carts.' He knew he was flushing.
'Do you see now why I wanted you to carry it?'
'Aye, my lord.' The blush would not go away. He looked down.
'Ach. As well ask Stephen to use a longbow. I'll give you one of my spare swords. Better to have a weapon with you at all times, even if you can only half-use it.'
Montjoy looked up. 'Sire, I'm sorry...' Henry's understanding was more distressing than anger.
'You will be, if I find you gored by one of those creatures!' Henry's mouth turned up a little at the corner, and Montjoy had to smile in response; it was an entirely inappropriate time to notice the man's dimples. 'Now. There's food to be had, and it's warm, and there must be water around for all these plants to grow... We'll be able to camp here. When Gloucester gets back, you can take Bates and his men and go and search for more fragments of the spell. But first - ' he stood, and gestured Montjoy to follow him. 'That sword.'
They went over to the carts, and Allbright Mailmaker being summoned, Henry looked among his spare swords, and found one, long and of relatively light construction, that he thought might serve. Montjoy, feeling rather a fool, drew it and made a few experimental passes.
'Good, that one will do. Allbright, a sword-belt for the Herald.' The belt was put round him, and the two men stood back and surveyed him.
Henry gave a half-laugh. 'All those buckles will have to come in a few notches.' Montjoy's hands went to one of them, but Henry batted them out of the way. 'Here, let me.' He gave an expert pull on the biggest buckle, then went round to Montjoy's side to deal with the doubled belt from which the scabbard hung. Muttering under his breath, he made the adjustments, while Montjoy tried not to stare down at the blond head bent so close to his shoulder. But this only resulted in him becoming more aware of the competent hands busy at his waist and hip, undoing the sword-belt and then fastening it tighter. His heart began to thump so strongly that he thought Henry must hear it, and he bit the inside of his lip hard. Then Henry twitched the belt back into place, his arms going briefly almost round Montjoy as he did so, and he stepped back.
'Now, draw it again,' and Montjoy, shaken to the core, complied. It came out smoothly, and rather to his surprise, he did not lop off any limbs... 'Good. Wear it always in daytime, sleep with it by you at night, and get John Bates to give you some practice.'
Allbright was returning the rest of the swords and belts to the chest in the cart. Perhaps he had not seen that fleeting moment when the French herald had stood in the English king's embrace. But beyond the cart were Erpingham and Exeter, and they exchanged a sober glance before turning away to watch the scouting-party make its cautious way up the rock-river.
Well, no matter. 'Sire, I should go back and search the gateway again – if any of those horn-faced monsters were to trample it -'
'Yes, that's a good thought.' He raised his voice. 'Sergeant Bates!' and when the man came hastening up, he said 'Take your archers and go with Montjoy. Extra vigilance, no-one to stray far. We were lucky with the sail-backs, they were asleep half the day, but this place seems different.' He nodded dismissal, and turned his attention to Gloucester's party, now entering the forest half a mile away.
'What are we looking for, Herald?' asked Bates.
'Whatever we may find, as before. Pieces of parchment may not have blown so far as last time because of the undergrowth, but we'll have to search thoroughly. Anything which looks as though it doesn't belong here... And I am to ask you for practice with this' – he touched the scabbard self-consciously – 'but when we have time, I think.'
Bates cast a look at the weapon. 'Aye, back in camp would be best.'
The first hasty search had turned up most of the lead fragments, but with the help of ten of Bates' archers Montjoy and Stephen found several more. Then, with extreme care, they began to search through the bushes. Some of the plants had a reassuringly familiar look about them; there were scrubby oaks and something that looked like beech. A scrap of white caught Montjoy's eye; he was making towards it through the bushes when a sudden hiss and flash of movement sent him leaping back a couple of feet. He was staring at a coiled snake. Frightened half out of his wits, he stayed as still as he could, and then his hand crept, as slowly as if it were itself made of lead, towards his sword-hilt. But the creature darted away through the tangled undergrowth, and Montjoy called out ''Ware snakes!' and stamped his feet a few times before making to retrieve the parchment.
'Best stick together, sir, we don't know what dangers might be lurking,' said Bates firmly, appearing at Montjoy's side and laying a hand on his arm.
'There,' and Montjoy pointed at the parchment, suddenly rather relieved not to have to fetch it.
'Off you go, lads,' said Bates, and Griffith and Court shouldered off noisily through the undergrowth.
'And look out for snakes!' Montjoy called after them.
The camp was complete when they returned to it a couple of hours later. A trickle of a stream provided barely water enough for their needs. William had prepared a meal from their dwindling stores. Henry, seated on his boulder, was in close conference with Gloucester. Montjoy put his finds carefully away, and went to join the king's group.
'Those horn-faced beasts don't seem dangerous if they're not provoked,' Gloucester was saying. 'They're more like giant cattle than anything else. We saw them eating leaves and ferns, and breaking down young trees,' he paused as if in astonishment, 'but they didn't seem aggressive. So we circled round, and came back from the other side of the gateway.' He nodded briefly at Montjoy, who gathered that this was now seen as his especial province. 'Away beyond it the forest thins out, and you can look down on an open plain, and those volcanoes are on the other side of it. Snow on them, even the ones that are smoking. They're too far away to be any danger, though the plain is half-covered in ash and stones. But the creatures there - ! Huge, much bigger than the horn-faces, grazing on the plants and scrub. We could hear them calling to each other – well, trumpeting would be nearer the mark. Something had killed one of them, and there was a pack of small creatures, acting like wolves but that they walked on their hind legs, squabbling over the carcass. I don't know what could kill such an enormous beast. But,' he paused, looking a little wild about the eyes, 'I've seen the bones of creatures like those before, back at home.'
This produced a mild sensation. Everyone sat up straighter; Gloucester had their full attention.
'Speak on, brother,' said Henry.
Gloucester drew a breath. 'You know how the cliffs near Hastings are unstable, and after a big storm or heavy rains they'll collapse onto the beaches? There's a place not far from the harbour where it happens quite often. We walked out there one morning because the locals had found dragons' bones, huge ones, in the exposed cliff. Or so they thought. They were all made of stone. But they could have come from those very same creatures on the plains.' He made a gesture of bafflement, and fell silent.
'How could they have come to be in the rocks?' Bedford voiced all their thoughts.
Montjoy found that they were all looking at him. 'I... cannot tell.'
'Things get buried, over time,' Gloucester sounded hesitant, as if thinking aloud. 'I've seen it, in the mines. But how creatures from this place could end up on the Sussex coast...'
There was a perplexed silence.
'At any rate, we're closer to home now than we were before,' said Exeter, bluff as ever, 'there was precious little in that last place that we recognised.'
There was a murmur of vague assent, and they ate their meal, set a watch, and after prayers settled down for the night.
They were searching the next day for more parchments, and had just retrieved another one, hidden in a bush with glossy green leaves and big white blooms that almost looked like parchment themselves, when a distant roar sounded from the upper slopes of the forest. There was a cracking and crashing of timber, maybe half a mile distant. A dozen horn-faces suddenly burst out onto the rock-river, and careered down the long open space towards them. Bates seized Montjoy's arm, and Griffith and Guy appeared at a run. All around men were converging on the camp; Montjoy's guard swept him along in their midst and deposited him at Henry's boulder before running to the stakes at the perimeter.
'Stephen, where're the rest of the spell fragments?' he shouted, as the chaplain came hurrying up.
'In the cart with the food,' panted Stephen.
'We must keep them safe,' and Montjoy doubled back to the cart, drew his sword, and stood ready to protect it.
Stephen, in frantic haste, snatched up the box with the talismans; the chest with the lead was simply too heavy to move. Montjoy settled his satchel more securely over his shoulder, and they waited.
The roar sounded again from the depths of the forest, and the horn-faces re-doubled their speed towards towards the camp, bellowing. On their aventails, strange markings like staring eyes showed clearly. Dust flew up in clouds and mingled with the mist. Montjoy could feel the thunder of their approach even through the ground. Then there was a shout from Henry; bows twanged, and a horn-face that had been coming straight for the camp faltered, stumbled and fell headlong. Another slammed into it, but recovered; the herd split into two streams and galloped madly past the stakes of the perimeter.
Cloud was rearing and neighing challenge. Two of the horses broke loose and stampeded through the camp, scattering bag and baggage.
No more arrows flew. Why was there no order to shoot again? And then Montjoy realised that Henry simply wanted the creatures safely past the camp. And this seemed possible, until three of them tried to get through the gap together, and the nearest barged against the line of stakes, and caught one of the carts a glancing blow with its shoulder. The cart toppled, and crashed onto its side, and the horn-face charged on, and the last of its herd-mates with it. Another distant roar sounded from the forest, and they stared through the dust towards the sound, but nothing more emerged from the trees.
A knot of men converged on the horses, and one was sent sprawling in his turn. Two more men sprang after the horse and got it under control; Dr Colnet was already running towards the prone figure.
The noise of the stampede diminished down the slope, and a strained silence settled on the glade.
They listened with all their might.
Henry sprang up onto his boulder. 'Report!'
Bedford, from behind Montjoy and Stephen, called, 'We see no danger here, sire!' He and ten archers had been acting as rearguard. Montjoy had not even realised that they were there.
Exeter and Gloucester, on either flank.
The small sounds of the forest began to start up again.
Henry sheathed his sword. 'Good work, lads, that's as cool a piece of shooting as I've ever seen. We'll have a fine feast tonight to celebrate. Gloucester, take your guard and William and get that creature butchered!'
That was Henry all over. Montjoy sheathed his own sword with a sudden exhalation of relief, and from the corner of his eye saw Stephen lay down a mace which he hadn't even seen him snatch up. But most of his attention was on the King, for as he drew near he saw the strain on his face. He gave a smile, straight into Henry's eyes, which told of his own relief, and Henry turned a little aside from his path towards them, and then seemed lost for words.
'Now I understand why you wanted me to be armed,' offered Montjoy, breathlessly.
'Little use a sword would have been against that lot, but there's not much can stand against longbows,' replied Henry, and then seemed to realise his lack of tact, for he ducked his head and touched Montjoy's arm. 'I didn't mean...'
'It's all right, sire, and it's true enough,' and Montjoy knew he had meant it as a simple statement of fact. They were all a little giddy with relief in the aftermath of the horn-faces' charge.
Stephen was climbing down from the cart, and Henry gave Montjoy's arm a pat before letting it go, giving him a grateful look the while. Then he turned to assist the chaplain down, 'Well, Master Stephen, so you are ready to take up weapons in a good cause!'
'Montjoy here said "guard the spell," so that's what we did,' replied Stephen. 'One cannot expect God to do all the work.'
Now that the present danger was over, they had time to stare round at the damage the charge of the horn-faces had wrought on the camp. The fire had been scattered in the rush to the perimeter, the food spilled. And he could hear distant crashings at the bottom of the slope as the herd made its way out onto the plain. But they were safe for now, it seemed.
A couple of men were still on the ground, and Dr Colnet was bending over one of them. He opened his bag, paused, and pulled a roll of linen out of it. Allbright and Thomas Matthew, the carpenter, were inspecting the overturned cart, and William was getting the fireplace together again. Henry went to the perimeter, his brothers with him, to look intently through the trees. There was no sign of what had terrified the horn-faces, but there was no doubt that it was the creature that had made those distant roars.
'We must move to a more defensible position than this,' stated Henry as they sat round the council-fire that evening. 'I don't wish to meet with whatever panicked the herd. Brother… that tunnel-cave you say you found, further up the hill. Would it be suitable, do you think?'
Montjoy had already heard the news through Bates' men that there was a natural fort close at hand, like a long stone earth-house snaking its way down the hillside and ending above a low cliff. The men were already packing their gear to make the move; in this, it appeared, they were ahead of their leaders once again.
Gloucester nodded decisively. 'The only drawback is the distance. A mile away, perhaps, and we would have to cut a track through the forest to get the carts there. And there are boulders inside the cave, but we can shift enough of those to make the place habitable.'
'We'll go at first light, then, but must be able to come back at short notice as soon as the counter-spell's ready. A heavy guard for our searchers,' and he looked meaningly at Montjoy, 'since our forces will be divided.'
Dr Colnet arrived, fresh from tending the wounded; 'Your majesty,' he said, quietly, but something in his voice silenced them all.
'Yes, Doctor? Is anyone badly hurt?'
'Nothing serious, sire. But my bag was in the cart that overturned. Some of the bottles were smashed. One of them was the adder's-tongue salve. There's nothing of it left.'
The salve made from the herb of Cancer, the sign of home; the salve they had used to smear the hour-glass. There were low groans from around the fire. Another set-back among many. Henry sighed, and then he said; 'We'll need to find other herbs to use instead. Tomorrow, when we've made the move. Talk with our scholars, Doctor, and see what you can find.' Dr Colnet bowed, and returned to his patient.
When he had gone, Henry's shoulders slumped for a moment; he muttered 'If I had given orders to shoot all those horn-faces, and risked them overrunning the camp in their panic…'
Exeter said, straight away, 'And if they had overrun the camp, we would be in far worse case now. No, nephew, you made the best decision you could at the time.' And every man among them nodded agreement, but Henry's introspective expression did not change.
Erpingham stirred suddenly. 'Speaking of difficult decisions, my lord, one thing more, if I may.' He looked uncomfortable. Exeter shifted where he sat. A new subject was going to be discussed that he knew about. Montjoy had no idea what it was, and from his look, neither did Henry.
'We've been away from home for some weeks now. Away from women. And there are two of the men – Guy, the marksman, and Griffith the Welshman, who seem to be becoming fond. Now the Church would no doubt wish us to forbid this,' and Montjoy glanced round for Stephen, and found that, unusually, he was absent. 'But we are in very unusual and trying circumstances, and who knows how long it will be before we see women again?'
Montjoy felt his face go slack with surprise. What Erpingham seemed to be suggesting was startling, to say the least. But it seemed that Stephen had known of it, and thus had stayed away, for he could not be seen to overlook this, although given Henry's rumoured history, his confessor could hardly be condemnatory of such matters.
Bedford and Gloucester were nodding, though looking down at the ground.
Henry had an arrested expression on his face. 'It's unusual to publicly condone such things.'
'Oh, there are precedents. The Greeks of old… and we look to them for inspiration in so many things,' Gloucester mumbled.
'Sire, this is good counsel.' This from Exeter. 'We've all been on long campaigns, we know what can happen. Let it be known that we have no objection to such pairings, and if the men can draw strength from each other thus, we'll all be the safer.'
There was a murmur of agreement from the other men.
'Well, we're in the past, so we believe – maybe in the time of Achilles and Patroclus, or even before them… and there's no suggestion that they were wrong in how they felt about each other. Or David and Jonathan, if it comes to that.' Henry was staring into the fire, its light touching his face with its own colour. He seemed to be thinking aloud, laying a gloss of reason on what surely seemed natural to him. Then he looked up. 'What's your opinion, Montjoy? You've seen more of the world than most of us.'
He was momentarily dumbfounded. He had not expected to be consulted in such a matter. And they were all watching him closely, and none more so than Henry… Then he found his voice. 'My lord, I've seen enough of such matters, even at the courts of' – he almost said kings – 'emperors, and popes too, to know that there's no harm in it. If both parties are willing, and sincere.'
'And that might be said of congress of any kind,' pointed out Exeter. A ripple of approval, or relief? 'With your permission, sire, we will let it be known that we will wink at such matters.' They were lifting the actual decision from Henry's back, hurrying it past him.
'How do you propose to do that?' Now Henry seemed almost amused. At least, he was smiling.
'Guy and Griffith are in different squads.' Erpingham again. 'I'll tell them that they can change around, so they can be together, if they like. And let them know that if anyone else wants to do the same, they have only to speak to me. Word will get round fast enough.'
They had thought this through in some detail. Well, they had some experience of keeping their men cheerful. Montjoy could only appreciate the way they had introduced the topic, and slipped it past the king's approval, without ever alluding directly to his own affair. And he himself could remember a time, long ago in Rome, nights of wine and laughter with dark-eyed Taddeo, the natural son of a cardinal. They had ridden out to Hadrian's villa one afternoon, with a few of Taddeo's like-minded friends, and the pairs had split up to spend a night of love among the ruins… Where was Taddeo now? It had been a pleasant interlude, though it had been a time apart, a passing fancy. Such feelings had not stirred in him again for decades – until, to be exact, he had walked into the presence of an enemy to deliver a gift of tennis-balls.
'Let it be done, then, Sir Thomas. And now to our rest. We'll move first thing tomorrow.'
Montjoy settled rather sadly to his sleep. At least Henry seemed to want his friendship, and that he could provide, and with all his heart.
As the first rays of sunlight slanted between the grey tree-trunks, some of the men were loading the carts; others were taking up positions around them, ready to act as guards. Most of the retinue were walking to spare the horses. The column moved off, up the slight slope, the cartwheels grinding slowly through the gravel and ash, and then onto black rock that was smooth, but twisted and folded like draped fabric. Mist wreathed around them as they entered the forest on the other side of the river of stone.
It was perhaps half a mile to the tunnel-cave, a slow journey, as the men had to cut a track through the undergrowth. Its long, low shape loomed up through the tree-trunks, and they made straight for the opening in its side with its jumble of boulders, weapons at the ready. Bedford and Gloucester, each with a squad of men, scrambled up onto the roof and began dropping lighted torches through small sky-lights. There was a sudden barking, and several beasts rather like badgers scurried out of the opening and made for the forest. Erpingham began to organise the clearing of a trackway through the boulders.
'Furred, not scaled,' observed Guy, looking after the badger-dogs. Montjoy made a mental note to put a brief entry in the journal. These were the first furred beasts that they had seen in their travels.
The tunnel-cave being pronounced safe, the column filed slowly inside. The air was cool, a welcome relief after the warm damp closeness of the forest. Water trickled down the walls here and there.
'It will serve,' pronounced Exeter in satisfaction, and went to organise the erection of a barrier of stakes across the entrance. Erpingham was supervising the carts as they were brought in to the widest part of the tunnel. The horses were being led in too, their hooves clip-clopping on the stone floor. In the dim light Montjoy found his way past a bend in the tunnel up-slope to where the sleeping-quarters were being set out, and dropped his bag and cloak with a sigh.
'I feel a lot safer here,' he confessed to Stephen, who agreed wholeheartedly.
The business of settling in went on all afternoon, but Montjoy took the almanac out into better light and seated himself on a convenient rock beside the entrance. Guards were patrolling on the roof of the tunnel-cave; William had lit a cook-fire and was setting up a spit. The place had taken on the air of a small fortress. He opened the almanac and began to read.
The index was less than helpful. Some few herbs were listed with a mention of their ruling sign, among them the adder's tongue fern that they had used in their second translation. He peered round at the entrance to the tunnel; there were ferns growing there, but were any of them the right ones? Dr Colnet had shown no interest in them. Unlikely, then. He turned to the main section on herbs, and began doggedly to read through the close-written text. Here and there a constellation was mentioned, but it never seemed to be the right one. Quill and ink-pot lay beside him, unused.
They ate their evening meal outside the entrance to the tunnel, in the light of a most glorious sunset, its scarlet and gold a glowing backdrop to the line of volcanoes. Half the sky was alight. Then, as dusk began to fall, they saw a spark arrowing down out of the darkening sky.
'Time we turned in,' said Henry briskly, before anyone could talk of portents or bad luck, and in the general movement and dowsing of the fires, the shooting-star was forgotten.
They slept more soundly that night, in the cool safety of the tunnel-cave, and were up with the dawn. Montjoy and many others found time to shave; the warm, damp atmosphere of this forest made their beards uncomfortable. John Melton climbed up onto the roof of the tunnel cave, stared round briefly, and came down shaking his head and talking of finding a vantage-point to find the planets, to re-charge their talismans. 'I'll hope to find Mercury at dawn,' he said, 'these sunsets are too bright to see him in the evening,' and he went off up the hill with a guard of ten archers to find a good spot. Other men were bringing the horses out and tethering them in the open space that was already beginning to form as they cut fodder for them. Thomas Matthew began to construct a ladder to give them quick access to the plains, and when it was done a squad descended it to hunt.
Towards sundown, Montjoy laid aside his pile of notes and stretched his back. The words were dancing before his eyes. It was useless to continue his study of them for now. He spoke a few brief words to Stephen, who was sitting nearby combing through Tommaso's parchments once more, and made his way down past the horse-lines towards the brink of the cliff, about the height of a town-house, some fifty paces away.
Court and a couple of his mates were on duty at the cliff's edge, looking out across the plains. Below and to their right lay the bones of a young horn-face; the hunters had done their work well and there would be a good meal for them tonight. He said to Court, 'Is anything happening?' and at his 'Not a thing, except a few more horn-faces went past,' nodded and went a little way towards the mouth of the tunnel-cave to sit on a boulder with his chin on his hand. The sun was dipping towards the horizon, and the western sky was a mass of pink and gold clouds. Beautiful, if one was in the right frame of mind to appreciate it.
There was a murmur of voices on his left hand. He glanced round. Henry was talking to the guards, no doubt asking the same question that Montjoy had. He resumed his contemplation of the sky, leaving them to conduct their business, and a few minutes later there were approaching footsteps: Henry, come to join him. He rose to his feet.
'No, stay there,' said Henry, and took a place on a jut of rock close by. He turned his face towards the brilliant sky. 'That's a beautiful sunset.'
'I've been watching it to try and clear my head. I'd got to the point where I couldn't think at all. But I should get back to it.'
'No, stay for a while. You can't be working all the time, and you'll give me an excuse to sit still for a few minutes, too.'
Montjoy settled back on his boulder, and found himself smiling at Henry, who had just admitted to a human trait for once. He turned his gaze once more to the sunset. If Henry wanted to talk, he was very willing to take the part of confidant, if that would give him comfort.
So he was rather surprised when, instead of unburdening himself of his problems, Henry said, 'Do you know, I still don't know your proper name? I asked you once, and you gave me your title, and that's how I've thought of you ever since. Montjoy, the Herald of France. But you must surely have a Christian name, and you know mine, after all.'
A light response, to divert his attention from his cares. 'And you know mine, also.'
'I do?' Henry cocked an eyebrow at him, entering into the spirit of things.
'Why, yes. It's the same. It's Henri.'
And the King laughed in surprise, and Montjoy laughed with him, the small coincidence suddenly a matter for delight, and perhaps the sunset glowed a little brighter. 'Well, I can't call you that,' said Henry. 'I will just have to carry on calling you "Herald", if that would be acceptable.'
'It would please me,' and it had always seemed more intimate than perhaps it should have done, coming from Henry; who looked pleased in his turn. But then his face sobered again as he looked out once more across the plain. Maybe he was remembering that other Henry, the lord of Masham, widely reported to be his lover, who had betrayed him. Montjoy barely had time to worry about this, to envy the man who had shared Henry's bed and maybe his body too, before Henry looked back at him. He seemed to have shrugged off his momentary sadness, for the smile that always caught at his heart was there again. 'So, Henri. Herald. Tell me about yourself.' And Montjoy, looking into his eyes and finding real warmth and interest there, sat and told him, while the sunset flared gloriously before them.
Early next morning, one of the archers came hastening up from the cliff-edge, and his manner put a stop to the business of bringing the horses out into the clearing.
'What is it, Walter?' The king was quick to notice his expression.
'Sire, the biggest volcano has begun to put out a lot more smoke.'
Henry's face took on a brief expression of resignation. An eruption was just another thing to worry about. Montjoy paused in the act of unpacking his quills and ink. 'My lord?'
Henry looked round at him, and with a nod invited him to speak.
'I've seen eruptions before, in Italy. With your permission...' and he gestured down-slope.
'Go,' said Henry, and Montjoy followed the archer across the clearing and towards the cliff-edge. The stir of unease that had run through the men at Walter's words was already settling. It was good to feel that that was his doing.
'When did you first see the smoke?' he asked Walter, as they followed the snaking line of the tunnel-cave through the trees.
'It was there at dawn. It's been going on for a while, by the looks of it.' Walter was scanning the forest as they went, his bow ready in his hand. Not for the first time, Montjoy felt inadequate in the face of an English archer's preparedness.
They came out onto the cleared platform at the cliff's edge, and Montjoy saw instantly what had perturbed the guards there; the volcano across the plain to the south had put up enough smoke to stretch halfway along the horizon. It had flattened into a long grey cloud, at half the height of the mountain, and haze had begun to creep across the plain. He stared at it for long moments, not quite sure what to say; how did one appraise the danger of a volcano?
'Was there any noise?' he asked.
'No, none at all, sir. That's why we were surprised when we saw the smoke.'
'So there were no flames?'
'No. We'd have seen those, right enough.'
'Anything from the other volcanoes?'
'Nothing that we could see...'
'Hmm.' He glanced at the other peaks in the chain; smoke drifted lazily from their summits, but there was no doubt which volcano had awoken in the night. 'I don't think there's any immediate danger. I should get back, but you'll send for me if anything else happens, won't you?'
'Of course, sir,' and Montjoy made his way back towards the cave-entrance.
'Well, Herald?' Henry had just been shaved; apparently he saw no need to let a volcano interfere with his morning routine. But his eyes, to someone who was standing as close to him as Montjoy, showed signs of worry. Several of the men around them paused in their tasks to listen.
He found himself answering without thought, Henry's need as always bringing the words straight out of him.
'Sire, it seems quiet enough for now. I'll confess I've never seen the eruption of such a big volcano. But there was one in Sicily, years ago, and I heard about it – in quite some detail - from an old nobleman, at the court there. Two of his villages were engulfed by the molten rock.' He had seemed to take it as a personal insult. 'But he said there were earthquakes, small ones, for days beforehand.'
'How did it happen?'
'A fissure opened in the flank of the mountain, and the rock – lava he called it – flowed down-slope from there. He pointed out the place, one day when the court was riding north from Catania. It wouldn't even reach half-way across this plain.' There was a faint air of relaxation from the men around him. 'But no-one went near while it was going on.'
'Hm. I don't blame them.' Henry took a long look through the trees; the snow-clad slopes were visible between them, and the creeping haze. 'You've seen other eruptions, though?'
'Yes, from a ship as we were making for the Straits of Messina. There's a volcano there that's been erupting for centuries now, they say. They call it "the lighthouse."'
Henry gave a snort of laughter. 'We perhaps needn't worry too much about this one, then.'
'Maybe not, my lord. But then there's Vesuvius, to the north – that killed many thousands, back in Roman times. I've read Pliny's account of it, but I can't remember many details. There was a great cloud that descended on the towns, and that did the worst damage...'
'Ah, of course.' Henry's face sobered again. 'Talk to my brother and Stephen about it. They may have read Pliny's account, too.'
As well as doing this, Montjoy had enlisted the help of Dr Colnet, and they were making their way slowly through main entries for herbs in the almanac. In the end Montjoy had a list of half a dozen, some of which he would not recognise if he saw them. Daisies and honeysuckle he would know, but had not seen. And there was one plant whose English name he knew not at all.
'Duckweed?' he asked Dr Colnet. 'It sounds... watery.'
'Yes, and therefore a plant of Cancer. It floats on still water, covers ponds and makes them look like solid ground.' He peered out through the thin screen of trees and across the rocky plain, where a herd of horn-faces was making its way towards a hazy smudge of forest to the south. 'Those beasts must drink from time to time, and we've seen no rivers.'
'It may be our best hope,' said Montjoy. 'The thought of looking for daisies in this forest...' They looked the other way, at the unfamiliar trees, the thick undergrowth and the ashy ground.
'Well, we can ask the foragers to keep a look out for what's needed, and maybe the king will want to send out a party to look for ponds.'
Montjoy closed the almanac with relief, and handed it back to Dr Colnet. 'At least there are flowers in this place,' he observed, 'we saw never a one in the land of the sail-backs.' He looked round at the forest floor. There were a few herb-like plants there, with insignificant flowers, but not the ones they needed. 'What will you do about the medicinal herbs?'
'It was only the water-based salves that were spilled,' said Colnet. 'The ones that look to the water-signs.'
'The ones that we were most likely to need,' said Montjoy resignedly.
'Quite so. The thicker ointments, conserves and the like are all still safe.' There was a moment's pause, but neither man even felt it worth commenting on the sheer unfairness of this. 'For the rest,' he continued, 'we may yet be able to replenish my supplies of the water-herbs.'
'Duckweed,' finished Montjoy. 'We will ask the king to consider it.'
Henry was standing, with Exeter and half a dozen archers, at the brink of the cliff. The lower end of the tunnel-cave debouched over it. Here the bones and offal from their meals were pitched over, to reduce the stink and keep scavengers away from the camp
Griffith was pointing something out urgently to the king.
Half a dozen lean, long-tailed creatures were approaching the carcasses. They were moving in short rushes, and when they paused their heads tilted as they searched for danger. Their alertness made Montjoy think of birds, as did their two-legged stance. But they were the size of wolves, and their long jaws were full of fearsome teeth.
'Yes, shoot them,' said Henry, and the archers made short work of them. The men lowered their bows, but continued to look out across the plain, occasionally scanning the forest behind them too, despite the presence of the sentries on the tunnel-cave's roof. They were taking no chances.
Catching sight of Montjoy, standing silently waiting, Exeter said, 'We must pick off the hunters while we can. Have you seen their claws?'
Montjoy peered down at the still-twitching bodies. Each of the hind feet was armed with a sickle-like claw, of fearsome length, held up and back from the foot. He said, slowly, 'Could it have been these creatures that frightened the horn-faces?'
'Maybe. Maybe not. But they certainly frighten me,' said Exeter genially. It was patently untrue; he was grinning savagely down at the beasts.
'We'll keep a guard up here, and pick off the scavengers as they arrive,' said Henry. 'The more we kill the safer we'll be. Good work, lads. Yes, Montjoy?' he enquired, turning away and catching sight of the herald, while behind him a conversation started up in undertones about the possibility of salvaging those wicked claws.
'I fear it may be necessary to mount an expedition,' said Montjoy as they made their way back along the low mound of the tunnel-cave. 'Of all the herbs of Cancer, duckweed seems to be our best chance...'
'Duckweed!' Henry laughed aloud at the sheer incongruity of it.
'Yes, and the easiest way of finding it would be to look for standing water.'
Henry cast a look behind him at the ashy plain. 'All we've found are trickles, barely enough for us to use. I've seen no sign of lakes or pools.'
'Dr Colnet believes that all these creatures must drink somewhere...'
'Well, the huntsmen among us may be able to tell us where best to go. We'll bring it up in council tonight. But it will be a dangerous duty.' A thin streak of light sped across the sky to the east, another shooting-star; Henry made no comment, but his lips compressed and they made their way back to the entrance in silence.
The council late that afternoon considered their latest problem once more.
'Can we manage without the herbs?' was Henry's first question.
'We believe not,' said Gloucester reluctantly. 'We will need to re-charge our talismans,' for the salves they had used in the rings had crumbled to powder in the course of the translation from the land of the sail-backs. 'And they are most necessary for the hour-glass. The weapon-salves our forefathers used, to heal a hurt by salving the weapon that made them, were our model, and if the tales are true, they worked...'
'Not only that, but we have yet to find a token like that of Jove and Phoebus that signified your majesty.' Montjoy felt obliged to point out how few components of the spell they had assembled.
'How is John Melton getting on with finding the planets?'
'He has found every one except Mercury, but says it's only a matter of time.' Bedford sounded dispirited.
'We would need to divide our forces, then,' said Henry. 'A large company to go out to search for this – duckweed,' his voice betrayed his sense of the incongruity of their need, 'and the rest of us to work on the other parts of the spell here.' There were nods all round. 'And the searchers will have to go on foot. There's not enough fodder for the horses. Particularly on that plain.'
A stir of dismal assent. 'Well, I'll lead the expedition,' said Henry briskly.
'No.' Every man around the camp-fire spoke at the same time, Montjoy included. He looked down, hoping that no-one had heard him tell Henry what he should do.
'My duty as king.'
'Your duty as king is to lead us all, my liege. We will undertake the smaller tasks.' Exeter was the only one with sufficient standing to argue directly with Henry.
'I cannot stay here in safety while others are running greater risks.'
It seemed that a debate was about to be joined, but Gloucester cut through it by saying 'By your leave, sire, I will lead the expedition.'
That brought them all up sharp, and he added, 'I know – a very little – about the creatures we might encounter. I've seen their bones in the cliffs of the South Coast. I've read travellers' tales... And I desire the honour.' He looked around challengingly.
An appeal to honour was difficult for such men to refuse, and it was true that his smattering of learning in such matters was more than anyone else could boast of. Henry sighed. 'Then take the leadership, brother. You may have your pick of the archers, and all the help we can give you.' Bedford and Exeter patted Gloucester's shoulders. Neither looked in any doubt as to the danger of the task awaiting him.
Gloucester and Richard Calder, a huntsman of Macclesfield Forest, rose before dawn and spent next day at the lip of the cliff. Henry made his way there in the mid-afternoon, bringing Montjoy and the rest of his counsellors with him, and they all stood watching a straggling herd of Hastings-beasts make their slow way across the plain. They were banded in light and dark greens, and had a most strange call, a trumpeting or honking, and there was an undertone of dull rumbling. Erpingham said 'Almost like elephants, if one didn't look at them.'
'I've heard tell that elephants can be felled by arrows...'
'Oh, yes – we spoke to men in Jerusalem who had done just that.'
'Then if my brother encounters nothing worse, he will be safe enough.' But Henry's heavy expression did not lighten.
'You'll have to look out for Jenny Greenteeth, though, if you're going looking for duckweed!' Bedford, trying to lighten the mood.
'Jenny Greenteeth?' Gloucester took his attention from the plain long enough to give Bedford an enquiring glance.
'My nurse used to tell me stories of her. She lurks under the surface of ponds covered with duckweed, and pulls children under if they venture too close.' He made a mock-grab at Gloucester's arm.
'We'll keep an eye out for her, then, eh, Richard?'
'We surely will, my lord,' a dutiful response, but Richard only spared the briefest of moments for this frivolity before turning his attention back to the herds.
Gloucester's party of thirty men was making ready later that afternoon, overhauling their equipment, setting small barrels to fill, and going to Stephen for confession. Richard Calder, standing at the council-fire, said 'All the creatures are going south, beyond a fold in the plain a few miles out. There will be water there of some kind, but how far and of what sort I don't know. I am sorry, masters.'
'No need, Richard,' said Henry, with a soothing gesture. 'We are all at sea here, but following the herds is the best plan we have.' The huntsman bowed, and went back to his mates.
Montjoy was writing out a list of plants that would serve their purpose; duckweed and daisies, adder's tongue, loosestrife, and a few others at a pinch. There were countrymen in the party who might recognise such herbs, but the plants they had seen so far were all very different from those of home. Lowly duckweed was their best chance.
Unexpectedly, Henry announced, 'My lord of Exeter will be joining my brother Gloucester's expedition, to add the weight of his experience, and his strong arm. My brother Bedford, and Sir Thomas, will stay here with us.'
'Woe betide any beast that crosses you, my lord,' said Erpingham gravely, from his seat on a comfortable boulder, and Exeter grinned fiercely. A small ripple of amusement ran round the circle as each man envisaged a duel between Exeter and any of the creatures they had encountered so far.
Another shooting-star fell, and there was a brief uneasy murmur from the men. 'We'll have the rest of the spell ready for you, brother, when you return, God willing,' said Henry confidently.
Montjoy watched Henry make ready to go round the tunnel-cave and clearing, as he did every evening, and went over to wait by the entrance. 'Sire, a word, if I may.'
'Of course, Montjoy.' Henry led him a little to one side. 'Well?'
Montjoy drew a breath. 'With your leave, my lord… I think I should join the expedition, too.'
Henry was rarely at a loss for words. But if he was anyone other than a king, he could be said to be gaping. Then he collected himself, shut his mouth, and took them over to a couple of boulders. He sat down, and motioned Montjoy to do the same. 'Go on.'
'From what Richard says, the route they will take is likely to go close by the volcano. I'm the only one here who has seen an eruption, and I've talked with people who have seen others. If it should become more active, I may see signs that others might miss.'
'Oh,' on an exhalation of understanding. He took a look westwards, to the line of snow-covered peaks and their canopy of cloud, and was silent for long moments. 'It's a noble offer, Herald. And it does make sense. But you have work to do here, as well. We need two of you, I think.'
Mock-solemnly - 'With more study of magic I may be able to do that, my lord, but not today;' when had he ever joked with kings before? But if that was what Henry wanted… 'We have Tommaso's parchments, and the spell-sheets are all but ready. What we need now are the practical things. The token for his grace of Bedford has not been found. John Melton needs to capture planet-light. And we need the duckweed. Your own men can do the first two. And I can help keep the expedition safe.'
Henry turned back to him. 'And your own safety? It might be a hard march for a man not trained as a soldier.'
'Thank-you.' Montjoy glanced at him, and smiled. If another man had had the same concerns, he might have been offended. With Henry, it was different. 'But I'm used to long journeys, though not on foot I'll admit. In my youth, though, I once made the pilgrimage to Compostela. That was when I knew I wished to travel.'
'Compostela! So a little expedition of a week or two would trouble you not at all.'
'It was many years ago, of course. And there were no volcanoes, or giant beasts, I grant you. But I've never lived a soft life at court, for all that I'm no soldier.'
'I have soldiers aplenty, and I value every one; but only one astrologer-sorcerer, and I cannot afford to lose him,' a sidelong smile, and then he sobered again. 'Well, Montjoy, I suppose you have the right of this. If you are determined on it, you should go. I would ask you not to take unnecessary risks. And I will pray for the expedition's safe return.'
'Thank-you,' said Montjoy again. 'And I will try to do as your majesty commands.'
Henry gave him a final serious look, and then got up; Henry went on his way around the camp, and Montjoy returned to his sleeping-place, unsure whether to be pleased or sorry that his offer had been accepted.
In the misty dawn of the next day they took the sacrament, breakfasted and picked up their packs; food for several days, small barrels of water slung between two men, weapons and twenty arrows for each archer. Their first objective was an island of forest several miles across the plain.
Every man in the retinue who was not on duty elsewhere came to the top of the cliff to see them off. Stephen was there to bless them; the doctor and Allbright and others with whom Montjoy had worked wished him well. Henry clapped his brother on the shoulder in leave-taking. Gloucester was first down Thomas Matthew's ladder, and waited by its foot, followed by Exeter and the archers. Montjoy was the last to descend, and when his boots crunched on the ashy ground, turned to survey the landscape. It all looked much bigger from this viewpoint.
The last of their baggage was being lowered to them. Everyone shouldered their packs; now the column formed up and, with Gloucester at its head, prepared to move off. Montjoy took one last look back up the cliff. There was a flagpole, with a cross of St George hanging from it, to guide them back to the camp when all was done. Wisps of smoke from the fires mingled with the morning mist. Close to the brink was Henry, looking out anxiously across the plain. Then his eyes dropped to his men and met Montjoy's for a moment, and he gave a fractional nod. Montjoy responded in like manner, smiling very slightly. Then Gloucester raised an arm in farewell. A call of 'Godspeed' from above, and they turned their faces towards the task awaiting them, and set off across the plain.
The going was easy enough, the soil underfoot being part gravel, part ash, compacted by the trampling feet of the herds, and covered in places with low plants like stonecrop. Away from the forest the air was less stifling, though there was haze in the air, and more smoke trailing slowly from the summits of the volcanoes beyond the plain. Groups of massive beasts made their slow way across the landscape, grunting and grumbling in distant cacophony.
Before morning was half done they had almost reached the first island of trees. 'Too much to ask that we'd find our duckweed there, I suppose,' Gloucester remarked to Montjoy, and Exeter overhearing responded 'Yet it's worth a try, my lord.'
It was indeed worth a try, and Gloucester called 'Arrows on string,' drew his sword and led the way under the canopy. Richard Calder was at his side, looking intently at the ground and the bushes around them. Small birds chirped in the trees, but there were no alarm calls. They made their cautious way across the patch of greenery. There was no sign of standing water or even a spring, just a welcome shade, and they came out on the other side to look out towards the smoking mountains.
'Well, we had to try,' observed Exeter.
'Yes. It looks as though we'll need to follow the herds. But a rest and a drink first, while we're in the shade.'
Exeter nodded approval, and the party took a few minutes to few minutes to sit and refresh themselves. Then they went on across the ash-field, giving a wide berth to a herd of Hastings-beasts that was grazing on the scant vegetation, and trudged up the slight rise over which they had seen the herds disappearing the day before. There they paused again.
'That's... odd, my lord,' said Exeter.
'It is indeed. Montjoy, Calder! What do you make of that?'
While the huntsman was coming up to stand beside them, Montjoy gazed down into the depression lay before them, tree-fringed, filled with thin steam. There was an evil-looking pool in the hollow, and all around it were dead animals. A reek of carrion hung, thick and sweet, in the air. 'I've heard tell of something similar, in Italy. People bathe in the hot mud springs, for their health. But I wouldn't want to bathe in that.'
'I don't like the look of it either, sirs, with all those dead creatures.' The rest of the archers were snatching glances at the scene, while keeping a sharp look-out for danger.
'We might have to go closer, though. Can you see any sign of duckweed, or any of the other plants?'
Richard stared down into the hollow. 'None that I can see, my lord. It all looks – poisoned.' Greyish-white water, fumes drifting gently from it, and the occasional bubble breaking the surface. Montjoy had a powerful desire to stay well away from it.
'We'll go round, then, but keep a eye open for the plants. Guy,' Gloucester raised his voice, 'signal the camp that we're going on,' and the marksman pulled a flag out of his pack, attached it to his bow-stave, and flourished it through the air. The banner on the distant cliff dipped in response.
'Onward, then,' said Gloucester, and with barely concealed relief the column followed him, Montjoy and Calder now in the second rank behind him. Exeter was a reassuring presence, bringing up the rear, and no doubt casting darkling glances at the tainted pool.
They paused again at the edge of the fringing trees, and then struck out once more across the ash-field. Ahead, the land rose towards the foothills of the volcanoes. These had been their main objective all along; the snow-melt there would surely feed rivers and lakes, and the herds would lead them to the right place. But now the sun was well past noon, and the ever-present brimstone reek in the air was growing stronger. They trudged on, and in late afternoon arrived, half-way up the further slope, at a scatter of boulders that looked likely to give some protection against the dangers of the ash-fields. Exeter moved up through the column; 'As good a place as we'll find,' he remarked to Gloucester.
'Yes.' Gloucester stared round.
Up ahead the volcanoes were outlined against another gaudy sunset. In the other direction they could see clearly as far as the poisoned pool, and could just make out the first island of greenery that they had come to, but the cliff and flag-staff were lost in the haze. Above the line of hills, the sky was dimming towards night.
'Well, we won't get much further tonight,' Gloucester decided, and raised his voice, 'make camp!'
The evening was an uneasy one. Montjoy felt their isolation keenly; the tunnel-cave seemed like a well-loved home now. Out there across the dark was Henry, and a secure refuge, and here was nothing but a small group of men for whose presence out on the ash-plains he was partly responsible. But they were far from helpless, for among them were the best archers in the retinue, which meant in the world, and a soldier-scholar leading them and the formidable Exeter as his second-in-command. Montjoy settled down to sleep as best he could. He would need to be fresh tomorrow.
And was startled awake, hours later, by a commotion and a chorus of bellows, down in the valley to the east. He grabbed for his sword and struggled to his feet. There was just enough moonlight for him to see Exeter's stocky figure next to Gloucester's slender one at the edge of the camp. There were bellows and snorts further down the valley, and then a squealing which slowly died away. The commotion subsided; by the sound of it, a herd was moving off to the south.
'Whatever it is, it'll be busy feeding for a while; I shouldn't think it will bother us;' Exeter, in a low voice.
'We'll stay here. We can defend this camp, and stumbling around in the dark won't help matters.'
'Aye, my lord.' A polite nod to Gloucester's authority, though it was obvious that advice had been offered and taken. Montjoy smiled to himself in the dark. Exeter was a rock for his nephews to lean on.
When dawn cast long shadows across the ash-fields, they could see the cause of last night's alarm. A carcass, of a young horn-face by the looks of it, lay in the dust, and beside it were the scavenging shapes of sickle-claws, darting in amongst the ribs to snatch at the meat still adhering to them.
'Too far to shoot,' muttered Gloucester, staring down at the creatures, 'we'll be on our way.'
The march resumed. The view widened as they climbed higher up the ridge, and beyond its crest as they climbed higher, trees and crags began to appear – the foothills of the volcanoes.
They neared the ridge-top at last, moving cautiously so as not to appear on the sky-line. Gloucester sent out a screen of archers, he and Exeter taking either end. Everyone was breathing hard by now; the warm, damp air and the sulphurous fumes catching at their lungs made the ascent hard work. But when they reached the crest there were exclamations of relief, for below them lay a wide valley, its slopes forested with tall trees, and in its midst a lake with a sandy shore. After the long trek across the ash-fields it looked like a vision of Eden, though on the further bank they could see the skeletons of dead trees.
Gloucester was staring down into the valley, searching for danger, as Henry had done on their first morning in the land of the sail-backs. 'My lord Duke! Montjoy! Calder!' and he met up with them in the midst of the party. 'Well, what do you make of it?'
Exeter said, 'Looks safe enough, apart from those bones down by the shore, but the water looks too clear for duckweed,' for the wind rippled the surface of the lake. The bones were scattered and bleached, obviously not from a recent kill.
'Richard, your thoughts?'
'Sirs, there are tracks down there in the sand, all leading south. We can follow them further still, if we don't find the herbs we need here.'
'What about the volcano?' and here he was looking at Montjoy.
'It may have killed those trees across the lake, but there's no sign of recent burning or ash-fall. I think it's safe enough for now.'
'Down to the lake then, and keep watch all around. If nothing else we can get more water.'
A slow, careful descent between pines and firs which became steadily taller as they drew closer to the lake. They spied a small herd of horn-faces, but did not stop to hunt, for they had smoked meat for several days in their packs, but the sight boded well for future meals. At last they came out onto the lake-shore, glad to be free of the trees, and took careful stock of their surroundings. 'I'll go down to the water's edge, with your leave, my lord,' said Exeter, with formal correctness, and Gloucester replied, 'Yes, go.'
Exeter took his squad down to the shore, while the rest kept a sharp look-out, and Griffith knelt to taste the water. 'Fresh,' he called out, and everyone relaxed a fraction.
'Fill the barrels and your bottles, but be careful,' ordered Gloucester.
This took some minutes, and it was while they were going back up the beach that an enormous flying creature angled down across the lake; many times the size of the biggest eagle, naked rather than feathered – 'Form harrow!' shouted Gloucester urgently, and his voice was rather higher than usual, but he didn't seem to care and neither did anyone else. Every archer had his bow bent, and was waiting for the creature to come within range. Montjoy stared anxiously across the water, heart thumping – but surely even a dragon could not withstand their arrows? How far could it flame, and would they be safer in the forest or would it set light to the trees? They could not out-run it, for sure...
The men were muttering quick prayers around him, but these died away into astonished murmurs as the creature swept low over the lake again. Its long head dipped, there was a slight flurry of water, and it soared off with a fish held in its bill. It took not the slightest notice of the group of men on the shore.
'What the devil was that?' Exeter was staring after it with a disbelieving look on his face.
'A fishing-dragon!' said Guy. There was nervous laughter, hastily stilled. Montjoy was shaking with the aftermath of dread; no-one looked to be in much better case. Exeter and Gloucester glanced at each other, and Gloucester ordered quickly, 'Make ready to march! South along the edge of the trees. And keep a sharp look-out!'
'Aye, we'll do that, my lord,' said someone in a low but heartfelt voice, and with little regard for dignity, they left that place.
Montjoy, remembering that several of the herbs they had come to find were waterside plants, began to go over the list again in his mind. Adder's tongue and daisies, duckweed and loosestrife; alder and honeysuckle if all else failed. He said to Griffith, who had come on this expedition because he had grown up beside a river, 'Have you seen any sign of those plants? Trees in the distance, or the kind of places where they might grow?'
'Nothing so far, Herald, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled, believe me.'
'Oh, I know.' Montjoy made a self-deprecating gesture. 'Just looking for a reason to hope, that's all.'
'We all are, me included!' And Griffith grinned at him as they made their way along the shore.
All the rest of that day they marched south, following the tracks of the herds. Across the lake, the volcano loomed higher. The haze grew denser, its sulphurous reek catching at their throats and eyes. The trees began to look more sickly; now there were more dead trunks on this side of the water. At nightfall they made their camp on a slight ridge that marked the end of the lake. Below, the land fell away to a region of marshes and standing pools.
'This looks more promising,' Exeter, standing on a slab of rock at the lip of the slope, was in good humour, 'wouldn't you say, Montjoy?'
'Very much so.' Montjoy surveyed the watery landscape. The lurid light of sunset turned the pools red – he pushed a memory of Agincourt from him – and showed where they lay, leading off to what might have been an estuary in the distance. But the plant life around them looked a little sickly, no doubt from the fumes of the volcano. He could only hope that, if they found the duckweed they were searching for, it would be suitable for their purposes.
'Well, we'll find out tomorrow.' Exeter turned away from the scene. 'Time we settled down.'
They had camped some way back from the main trampled route of the herds, but there were no natural defences to the site. There was a double guard set, and Montjoy took his turn some time past midnight. He walked quietly around the perimeter, with the sleeping men on one side and the unknown dark on the other, and was glad of the presence of Richard close by. The night was full of soft sounds; the murmur of a small stream flowing down from the lake, the breathing of the men; distant snorts and grunts of the herds floating up from the lowlands. All these seemed only to emphasise the vaster stillness.
Montjoy shivered. He glanced up at the volcano, its snow-covered upper slopes showing pale in the hazy light of a half-moon. Tommaso's parchments had included the symbol for fire. Was this the fire he was referring to? A huge eruption, after the manner of Vesuvius? He resumed his pacing, with a new worry added to an already long list. And then he told himself that they had felt no earthquakes and they would surely have some warning of any such danger.
An arrow sang past him, and there was a heavy thud and a threshing sound fifty yards away. Richard came running up to him as he stood, foolishly immobile, and bent his bow again.
'What... was it?' The words would hardly come out.
'Don't know, don't mean to go and look. I just caught sight of a movement, that's all.'
'I saw nothing!' Montjoy felt stupid and useless.
'No, sir, and I just caught a glimpse of it. When you've been a huntsman as long as I have...' Richard was glossing over his inadequacies as a sentry; Montjoy was grateful.
'I can't see anything moving now – can you?' Peering into the dark, Montjoy was conscious of nothing much else besides the thudding of his heart.
'No. Whatever it was, it's finished, and it's got no pack-mates, I think.'
'You must have been a good huntsman...'
'I had my moments.' There was a smile in Richard's voice. 'Best get back closer to the camp, sir. I'll keep watch here.'
Chastened, Montjoy thanked him and made his way back almost to the rest of the men, some of whom were briefly stirring; and finished his watch in a state of heightened vigilance.
The next day he felt obliged to confess all to Gloucester and Exeter, and commended Richard to them; it had been a sickle-claw that he had shot in the night. 'Montjoy, you were never trained as a soldier,' was Exeter's comment. 'That's our work. Yours is to find a way out of this maze.'
'I should stand watch with the rest of you...'
Exeter and Gloucester glanced at each other. 'Within the camp, then, if you must,' said Gloucester, 'but your turn will not come again for a few nights. Now, we must be off.' He looked down over the ridge to the lowlands. 'These marshes look promising. If we can find our duckweed today we can be on our way back to the King by evening.'
The King. Montjoy felt a sudden warmth at his heart as he thought of Henry, doubtless striding around his camp, keeping his men busy and showing no sign of misgiving or uncertainty. He found that he was smiling as they turned away to collect their belongings.
The lowlands spread away into the haze, a wide expanse of dark earth, patchy forest and glinting water. Here and there were small groups of horn-faces or Hastings-beasts, pulling noisily at the trees or drinking from the streams and pools. Their calls and trumpetings floated up to the watchers on the ridge. There were patches of bright green at the margins of some of the nearer pools, which raised hopes of finding what they needed; so, after a careful survey, Gloucester and Richard led the way down a wide gully, worn by the passing feet of generations of herds, and liberally bespattered with their dung.
A couple of quick-slinking shapes appeared above them, on the lip of the gully: sickle-claws, doubtless the pack-mates of the one that Richard had shot last night, used to making an easy living as the herds were funnelled through the gully. This particular herd was no easy prey, though; two of the archers simply drew and loosed, and the sickle-claws fell. The column of men continued on its way. 'Two less of the buggers for us to worry about,' grunted Bates with satisfaction, and Montjoy agreed wholeheartedly.
The gully gave out onto a fan of detritus. They paused at its head to get their bearings; a chain of pools to the south-east was their objective. Then they descended the packed earth of the slope to the lowlands proper, into damp heat and clouds of biting insects. The trail they were following split into several; Richard singled out the one that made for the pools they had marked from above and, with extreme wariness, began to follow it. Behind them the smoke of the volcano mounted up into the blue sky, but the mountain itself was now mostly hidden beyond the ridge. Sunlight angled through the undergrowth, sending hazy shafts of light across their path. Montjoy kept looking to left and right, searching for the plants they needed; he had found himself in the centre of the column, with Bates and Guy and Griffith close at hand, and trusted to them to keep him safe. But though he saw many flowers, scarlet blossoms on the bushes with huge butterflies beginning to flit around them, he saw no trace of the lowly herbs they had come to find. His head was beginning to ache with lack of sleep and the concentration of searching. Henry's sword dragged at his hip. He slapped away a mosquito.
'They'll be thickest around the water, you'll see,' grumbled Guy in an undertone.
On they went, disturbing a gang of badger-dogs, foraging in a mound of vegetation that looked like a huge ant-hill, but such a powerful smell of decay came from it that it could not be such; no-one felt the slightest desire to investigate. A while later they stopped for a few minutes in an open glade to rest and drink, and then took up the trail again through the spindly undergrowth.
A stand of taller trees showed up ahead, rising over the bushes, and a sudden increase in the number of mosquitoes confirmed that they were approaching open water. Gloucester halted the column to regroup. He and Exeter conferred briefly, and then they all went ahead together, every archer with an arrow on the string, Exeter with his mace at the ready and the rest of them with swords drawn. It was at a watering-place that they could expect to find the most present danger.
They came suddenly out of the trees at the head of a still lake, ringed with water-weed and mud and the stumps of dead tree-trunks. On the western side, nearest to the mountains, was a group of Hastings-beasts, the closest they'd ever come to them, their hides striped irregularly in green and grey; some were down on all fours, drinking, and others were half-raised on their hind legs to browse on the trees. Seen so close, they were immense, much bigger than the horn-faces. But though they lacked their fearsome weaponry, Gloucester led the column with no further discussion towards the other side of the pool. No-one wanted to tangle with such vast creatures.
Montjoy was keeping a close eye on the surface of the water. Surely among the weeds and slime there would be a patch of duckweed? They made their cautious way around the foreshore, dried and crusted mud sucking at their boots, and at length turned a treed promontory to find a sheltered inlet that was green from bank to bank. Duckweed.
'Ah...' a long sigh went up from the men, but Exeter growled 'Quiet!' and the noise was hushed immediately.
Montjoy pulled off his pack and fumbled at its straps to take out the wide-mouthed leather flask he had brought for the purpose, only to find that Bates was taking it from his hand.
'I'll see to that, Herald,' he said in a tone that brooked no argument. Montjoy blinked up at him, but the man was passing his bow over to Griffith, and a small party of archers was forming up around him to escort him down to the water. Well, they had more experience of such matters than he.
A sudden commotion across the main body of water distracted them all. The Hastings-beasts were scattering, running in all directions. And then, to their horror and amazement, a vast grey-and-black monster burst out of the trees and raced towards the giant creatures. Shaped like a sickle-claw but much, much bigger, almost the size of its prey, with a huge head full of fearsome teeth, it drove the Hastings-beasts like sheep, harrying them hither and yon. Among a stand of dead trees it overtook one of them and felled it with a single bite that tore off a huge slab of muscle. The archers had lifted their bows, but no-one loosed; at three hundred yards the range was simply too great.
Then there was a wild cry from Richard, down by the water; 'Jenny Greenteeth!' and a long shape suddenly showed, moving fast along the surface of the inlet. A confusion of men, shouting and splashing, and Bates was hastening back up the mud out of range of the snapping jaws that lunged for him. Arrows showered down on the creature, but for the most part bounced off. She was armoured and apparently invincible. Now she was surging out of the water and onto the shore.
There was a huge roar from across the lake. The killer-creature there was apparently in no mood to share the water-hole with any other beast. Hunters everywhere, on land and in the water. And there, tantalisingly close, was the duckweed that they had come so far to find. Maybe this inlet was Jenny Greenteeth's own private realm? Maybe she brooked no rival? And she was fully occupied now, battling with a flailing knot of men. There might be no other chance.
He had simply had enough. He sprinted down to the water-side a little way from the fight, and flung himself to his knees in the stinking mud. Bates had taken the bottle. He would have to make do. He spread out the skirts of his leather coat, scooped up duckweed and water and all, clutched the dripping bundle to his midriff, sprang to his feet and got himself away from there with all speed.
Guy and Court were running towards him, appalled expressions on their faces, but he panted 'I'm all right. I've got it. Look to the others,' and at that point there was a churning and a splashing from the water's edge, and a wild yell. He glanced round involuntarily, and was in time to see Exeter fetch Jenny Greenteeth a terrible blow across the snout with his mace. She roared again, lurched back into the inlet, and with a threshing and a flick of a long, saw-crested tail, was gone. Exeter roared back, laughed, and stamped back up the shore.
There was an answering roar from the other side of the lake. The archers yelled back, insults and obscenities; many of them shoved two fingers high in the air. Then Gloucester was shouting, 'Form harrow!' and discipline was gradually restored.
Montjoy searched around for Bates, 'Where's that bottle?' he shouted, the water spilling down his legs from the bunched skirts of his coat. Someone nipped out of the circle of the harrow and retrieved it, and between them they got the duckweed decanted into it. He stoppered it tightly, put it away into his pack, and began to shake uncontrollably.
'She's back again!' shouted Richard, and a swirl in the water indicated that Jenny had not yet finished with them.
'Into the trees,' ordered Gloucester, and as one man they retreated, moving fast between the grey trunks until they reached another open glade. There they halted, while Gloucester checked over that none of them had been left behind and that they still had their equipment, bows and packs and water-casks.
'Montjoy! You've got the duckweed still?' Montjoy fumbled into his pack again. The flask was there; he peered into it, angling it to the light. Liquid and clumps of green swirled there.
'Yes, it's safe.'
'Keep it, then. The rest of us may have to fight,' and back it went into the bottom of the pack. 'Now. North. Shortest route back to the scarp. We'll climb up any way we can. Richard, come with me in front. Uncle, take the rear-guard!'
The column sorted itself out, and moved off fast. No-one wanted to go back to the gully if they could avoid it, not with the killer creatures they had seen roaming the lowlands. They wanted to get up to the ash-fields, to have a wide view all round and space to shoot and fight; there was a grim determination not to spend the night in the swamp-lands. So they marched in silence, every archer with bow at the ready and every man fiercely alert.
They reached the scarp in late afternoon, and climbed wearily up between steps and shelves of dark rock. There was a trail of sorts, made by smaller creatures than horn-faces or Hastings-beasts, but it was still hard going at the end of a strenuous day. Plodding upwards, Montjoy heard a bow twang, and the thump of a body. Guy had shot an unwary sickle-claw. They stopped for a breather, scanning the scarp as best they could, and then toiled upwards again. But they saw no more of the creatures, and perhaps had killed all the pack members already. In the red light of sunset they came over the last crest and stood once more on the plains of ash.
They picked up firewood as they passed a grove of dead trees, continued on a little way to have a clear line-of-sight all round, and halted at last. Gloucester set guards, and the rest of them simply slumped on the ground, chewing on their rations.
Gloucester came and sat beside Montjoy as he checked once more on the precious flask. 'All there?'
'Yes, not a drop spilled.'
'Good. I for one have no wish to go back to that pool.'
'Nor I.' But it seemed to Montjoy that Gloucester, for all the fervour of his statement, looked strangely content in the half-light of dusk; he seemed far more sure of himself than when they had started the expedition.
'You seem happy, my lord duke.' That was a familiarity Montjoy would not normally have dreamed of, but after the events of the day formality had gone by the board rather.
'Yes, I am!' replied Gloucester. 'For once I've done something that my brothers haven't... It's always been hard, to live up to the rest of the family. Soldiers every one, and I came late to it, a scholar first and foremost...' this last with a self-deprecating half-laugh.
Montjoy was astonished that any member of the house of Plantagenet could be so unsure of his own worth, and besides, none of the brothers had ever seemed to look down on him. But Henry must be hard to live up to, and it was no wonder that Gloucester was pleased to have led the expedition so far without loss.
'You were far and away the best man for this task, my lord,' he offered, 'and it's your studies that have given you that advantage.'
'Aye, though I've never heard tell of a creature like that... tyrant... we saw, hunting the Hastings-beasts. We can't call it a dragon, no wings or fire.'
'Nor did the fishing-dragon have fire.'
'No. More things to look up in the bestiaries when we get home, and maybe write of. What did you make of Jenny Greenteeth? I think she was a crocodile myself, though I've never heard they grew to that size.' Gloucester was becoming positively garrulous as the dusk deepened, though he still spoke in an undertone.
'I think that's likely, though I've never seen one in real life. Maybe Sir Thomas has – when he travelled with your grace's father.'
'We'll ask him. But, in the meantime – you did well today, Montjoy. I should have said so before.'
Montjoy smiled in the dusk. 'Thank-you, my lord, though if I had thought about it, I would not have done it.'
'That's often the way!' Gloucester got up. 'I should carry on. Get some sleep, Montjoy, we've got a long march tomorrow.'
'Aye, my lord.' Montjoy returned, rather ruefully He had not slept at all well last night, after Richard had shot the sickle-claw he hadn't even known was there. But perhaps today he had made up for that, and would be able to look Henry in the eye when he next saw him.
He dreamed that he was smiling at someone, but suddenly had a sensation that the ground beneath him could no longer be relied upon. He fought his way up through veils of sleep, hearing groans and curses around him. Not a dream, then. He sat up, realising as he did so that the earth was quivering again. 'What's happening?'
'Earthquake!' That brought him awake in a hurry. He stared around wildly. The shapes of men were moving around him, dimly seen in the light of a waning moon. No stars were visible. Below, on the lowlands, he could hear faint trumpetings as the Hastings-beasts voiced their unease.
'Montjoy!' That was Exeter's voice. He stumbled towards him through the confusion. Gloucester was there too, staring out at the volcano. The snow-covered upper slopes glimmered in the moonlight.
'Montjoy, what do you make of this? We could stay until dawn, or risk marching in the dark. We won't be able to see far to shoot. We might risk falling into a poisoned pool like the one we saw on the way out.' Gloucester was worried once more.
'Your grace, I would say go now. I think Pliny told of days of earthquakes at Pompeii – is that your recollection?' Gloucester nodded. 'But the end when it came was very quick. And the Sicilians know their mountain, but even they retreated when the fissure opened.'
'We'll go then, but with care. Form up!' he shouted. 'Uncle, do you take the lead, with Calder to guide you. I'll bring up the rear.' Exeter nodded briskly, and went to the head of the column that was straggling together. 'Montjoy, you'll go in the centre. Guard that duckweed at all costs!' There was an odd tone in Gloucester's voice, as if he was even now trying not to laugh. It seemed to have struck him all of a sudden that it was a very strange thing for a soldier, and a royal duke at that, to say.
'Aye, my lord,' seriously and mock-seriously all at the same time. Montjoy went to collect his pack, and checked for the flask again, finding himself flanked by archers as they moved off into the night.
It was hard going; not enough sleep, a long climb the day before, and two days of marching before that. But the threat behind spurred them on, and another tremor shook the ground after an hour or so. They quickened their pace as best they could. Occasionally a man stumbled over a lump of stone or a tangle of low-growing plants. There was no sign of the creatures of the ash-fields, whether grazers or hunters.
The straps of his pack cut into his shoulders, and it was becoming increasingly hard to put one foot in front of another. He bowed his head, and concentrated on keeping up with the rest of the men. After a while, he noticed that he could see the ground more clearly. Looking up, he saw that a faint light was growing in the sky on his right hand, with a darker bulk beneath it. Dawn was rising over the hills to the east. Somewhere among them were Henry and the rest of the retinue.
'Halt!' Montjoy stopped immediately with a quiet groan. All around him the men were likewise sighing. He straightened up, peered round in the gloom, and realised that they had reached the top of a long, low ridge. No wonder he had found the going so hard. Far away on their left hand was the line of volcanoes, the intervening ground lost in shadow. The lowlands were invisible behind them.
Gloucester called him over. 'Are we far enough away, do you think?'
'Yes. We must be ten miles from it. The Italian towns are closer than that to their volcanoes.'
'Then we'll rest now and go on in a few hours.'
Montjoy nodded, lowered his pack to the ground, pillowed his head on it, and slept.
When he roused again it was mid-morning. Blinking, he gazed around. There were a few sentries on guard; eastwards, the line of hills could dimly be seen through the thickening haze. Richard was standing next to Exeter, pointing in that direction; doubtless they were deciding on their route. Behind, the cause of the haze was plain – the volcano was belching out huge clouds, both from its summit and from partway down its slopes. The brimstone reek was strong in the air.
Gloucester joined his uncle now, his hair, so near in colour to Henry's, catching the sunlight. He turned back to the camp, and called 'We'll take some food and be on our way.'
And ahead of them as they started down the ridge, Montjoy saw, for the first time in daylight, a shooting-star curving down the sky.
By evening they had finished the crossing of the ash-fields, and felt another tremor or two, and seen the first small flames issuing from the mouth of the volcano. So they continued on through the dusk, marching north along the edge of the wooded hills now. A stinging rain blew up out of the south, increasing their discomfort, but at least it was warm rain… Surely they could not be far from the tunnel-cave? The forest was busy with small sounds of life, though the plains were now empty of herds – where had they all gone? Once a long roar gave them pause, but it came from some distance away, high in the hills. Bates, beside Montjoy, muttered, 'Sounds like that tyrant-beast we saw across the lake,' and Montjoy had, reluctantly, to agree.
And then, at last, they heard a voice from above, and called back, and a chorus of glad cries welcomed them. They had reached the cliff below the tunnel-cave. The dark rock close at hand compounded the night, but there were torches moving above, and they all gathered round while Gloucester called their good news up, and the ladder came down. 'Careful with this one,' he shouted, as Montjoy's pack went up on a rope, the first of them all, and then the men began to climb the ladder one by one. Montjoy made the ascent in his turn. His limbs were leaden, and it seemed a long climb, but as he scrambled over the lip of the cliff he found what seemed like most of the retinue waiting, half of them holding torches, and the King in their midst, watching anxiously as his men came home.
Montjoy's eyes met his. And Henry smiled, and Montjoy smiled back.
Men and torches, forest and tunnel-cave seemed to disappear for a moment. It was just him and Henry, smiling at one another in near-darkness.
Then he heard someone coming up the ladder behind him, and moved away from the cliff-edge to give him room. Bates, with his bow slung across his back. Henry greeted the archer, and resumed the watch as more men appeared.
Montjoy collected his pack, and straightened up to find Stephen coming up to him.
'You've got it, then!' Stephen was grinning, reaching out to clasp his hand in greeting.
'Yes, though it was a close-run thing. What's been happening here?'
'We found the token for his grace of Bedford, down in the lower glade.' Montjoy made a pleased noise, though truth to tell he had forgotten about this. 'Mars and Saturn, signifying war and duty, we think. We couldn't find it before because of the colour of the metals – iron and lead, just too similar to the soil. The King has already hallowed it. John Melton has found all the planet-light he needs, so our talismans have been re-charged. The spell-sheets are ready. All we need now is a salve of your duckweed, and we can go.'
Last over the cliff's edge was the Duke of Gloucester. Henry came forward and embraced him and Bedford followed suit; Gloucester was laughing and gesturing, and Henry called out, 'Back to the cave. We have a fine feast for you, and we'll hear your tales there, out of the rain.'
A torch-lit procession made its way up the slope towards the tunnel-cave's entrance. The clearing had been widened in the last few days. The undergrowth was almost gone, though some of the flowering bushes had been left untouched, the great white blooms showing pale through the darkness.
Stephen continued talking as they went. 'But it isn't all good news. There's been some creature stalking the heights. We've heard it roaring from time to time.'
'We heard it, an hour or two ago!' said Montjoy.
'That's the one,' agreed Stephen. 'The King wanted to lead parties out to hunt it, but Sir Thomas and my lord Bedford counselled against it…'
'That was wise, said Montjoy weakly. Words were rather inadequate for what he felt; in fact his blood ran chill at the thought. 'We saw a giant beast, down in the lowlands, which made the same roar. A tyrant, my lord Gloucester called it, and he was right. Shaped like a sickle-claw, but the size of a Hastings-beast.'
'What? How did you escape?'
'We were on the other side of the lake, and it had just made a kill. We were lucky. The thought of going out to hunt one of those creatures…'
'Truth to tell, I think the King just wanted something to do. He's been like a caged lion the whole time you've been away.'
Montjoy smiled at the thought of Henry prowling around the camp, fretting for something – anything – to do. It simply was not his way to let others take risks on his behalf.
'And another thing… John Melton thinks he knows why there are so many shooting-stars. He's seen a comet.'
More rain was falling, so nearly eighty men crammed into the tunnel-cave, eating a huge meal and exchanging news. Sitting in flickering firelight with the king and his counsellors, Montjoy listened as Gloucester and Exeter made their report of the expedition. It seemed like the wildest of travellers' tales, with its flying dragon and tyrant and Jenny Greenteeth, but barely did justice to the truth. Henry grinned appreciatively when he heard how Exeter had beaten the crocodile back, and smiled again at Montjoy when he admitted that he had been the one to retrieve the duckweed.
'The volcano?' he queried.
'There's going to be an eruption, I'm sure, my lord, and my fear is that Tommaso knew of this and hopes to destroy us by means of it. In the parchments we found he made mention of the element of fire...'
'Then we must be off as soon as maybe. There's the comet, too; that's a bad omen.'
'We didn't see it at all while we were under the volcano,' said Gloucester. 'Only the moon and one or two shooting-stars,' and the latter only on the higher ground, above the haze.
'There were showers of shooting-stars every night while you were away. And the comet's getting brighter, John Melton says. I want to go tomorrow, if at all possible. Dr Colnet's making up the salve now.'
Montjoy cast a look at Stephen. 'We have all the parts of the spell, now the token has been found. I would wish to look over our spell-sheets again...'
'Tomorrow, then. Pass the order,' this to Bedford and Erpingham. 'For now, thanks to God for your safe return, and prayers, and sleep. And thanks to you, also... Where are our talismans?' And Henry donned them once more.
After Stephen had led them in prayer, Montjoy rose, and bowed, and went a little way back into the tunnel-cave, his mind mazed by tiredness. He found his place and lay down; Gloucester and Exeter followed soon after. He remembered nothing more that night, except faint and far away even in his dreams, a distant but terrible roar.
In the morning he woke to find the packing already going on further down the cave, and the horses were being led out into the clearing. The other members of the expedition were only just stirring; they went outside and begged some food from William. Then Montjoy found himself a quiet spot, leaning against the wall of the tunnel but still under the eye of the sentries, and began to go through the spell-sheets one last time. It was all there, he was sure, all they needed to escape this place and go... where?
Stephen and Bedford were already down at the gateway with a heavy guard, setting out the cardinal stones and making sure the circle was clearly marked. Dr Colnet came to find him, and handed him a small bottle, 'Here's your salve,' he said. 'I've more bottles in safe places; don't want to risk losing the whole supply. We don't want any more Quests of the Duckweed,' and Montjoy agreed wholeheartedly.
He looked up from the third sheet of the counter-spell. Through the trees towards the cliff-edge he could see a flicker of red, and from time to time there was a distant explosion, and volcano sent up another cloud of dark smoke. The sooner they were on their way, the happier he would be.
One of the men in the busy group in the clearing, glancing round, left what he was doing and made his way across to him. Confident stride, hand on sword-hilt, fair hair. Montjoy allowed himself a moment of simply looking, and, greatly daring, made only half a move to rise. The king smiled, and sat next to him.
'Well, Herald, I've had no chance to talk you privately since your return. Are you recovered from your adventures?'
'I slept soundly last night, to be sure, my lord!'
'Good. You're the one we'll need thinking clearly today. The rest of us can do the ordinary work.'
And Montjoy found himself smiling again, but he said 'I would have the Duke of Gloucester and Master Stephen check through the counter spell too, though.'
'I'll send my brother to you... He says you acquitted yourself well on the march.'
'His grace is perhaps too generous.' It was time to make the confession again. 'Did he tell you how I almost let a sickle-claw past while I was on watch?'
'No... What were you doing on watch anyway?'
'Well, I insisted, but perhaps I should not have done.' He told the tale in brief, and Henry shook his head.
'Really, Herald, if Richard Calder saw something you didn't, you should not blame yourself. He's the best huntsman we have. As you are the best astrologer.' He patted the spell-sheets which Montjoy was holding loosely on his knee, causing warm tingles to course up his leg. That was the third time Henry had touched him in public... apart from at Agincourt, for sure, which didn't really count. The tingles, before they could travel further up his body, met a stern reminder from his brain that this man was much younger than himself, a king and an Englishman at that, and a touch, however public, could not mean anything beyond simple reassurance. But oh, it was pleasant to be reassured by Henry... who was speaking again.
'Go through these once more, and get my brother and Stephen to look through them. I want to be ready to leave by noon.' Another flurry of shooting-stars fell. They both lifted their heads to watch, and then Henry looked down through the cleared forest to where the volcano was issuing forth smoke and flames, as if in answer. A river of lava glowed on its flank.
'Fire answers fire,' he muttered. 'Herald, do your work well, but do it quickly... '
Thus prompted, Montjoy bent his head in acknowledgement as Henry rose to his feet, and made ready to resume his reading. Henry moved off, like a small whirlwind passing across the clearing, his men glancing up as he passed and turning swiftly again to their work.
Gloucester appeared shortly afterwards, and began to check the spell-sheets that Montjoy had prepared before their departure, occasionally asking a question. 'Is this the fire you were talking about?' he said, pointing at a symbol, and Montjoy nodded soberly.
And there was a sudden flurry of shouts across the clearing; 'John! Look!' and a yell from John Melton; 'Sire! The comet!'
He was pointing up through the tall trees, and there a bright star shone, though it was broad daylight. Silence descended on the clearing, and then a babble of voices calling on God. Henry shouted out, 'Harness the horses! We're going now!'
The men fell to work with fierce urgency, and their commanders and sergeants began counting them off. Gloucester thrust the sheets back at Montjoy, who gathered them all together and rammed them into the satchel. He rummaged through it. White leather bag with their talismans. Salve. Stephen had the hour-glass.
Blankets and pans and water-bottles were being hurled onto the carts; the men were at the traces and among the horses, calming them though on the sharp edge of panic themselves. Now the first of the carts was moving out of the clearing with an escort of a few archers. Lines of horses were following. Gloucester had vanished. Two more carts were on their way. The comet was brighter. His heart was beating fast, fast in his chest.
A storm of birds erupted out of the trees, their alarm calls sounding above even the noise of the evacuation. There were roars from within the forest, and the sound of breaking branches – horn-faces, perhaps, stampeding. No matter. Montjoy joined the surge of men heading for the narrow track down to the lower glade. He hesitated as he passed Henry, standing at the edge of the clearing, but was waved on. 'Go! Get the spell ready!' He nodded speechlessly, and began to run along with the rest of them. Henry was still standing behind him, seeing the last of the stragglers onto the track.
Nearly a mile to the gateway, but downhill all the way, God be praised. The forest, normally dim, was more brightly-lit now as the comet's light increased by the minute. Ahead, he could clearly see grey shapes stampeding through the thick undergrowth and then across the track; yes, they were horn-faces, running in panic like themselves. And then, as the carts stopped while the horn-faces thundered by, there was an almighty roar. A vast shape sprang onto the track. Terrible jaws, absurdly small arms. Another tyrant like the one at the lake. Much, much closer, and far bigger than the other had seemed. It saw them, opened that fanged mouth, and snarled; drool fell from its jaws. It shifted its feet to face them, and lowered its head with unmistakable menace. Montjoy stopped, panting, among a press of men and horses. In a moment it would be on them.
'Out of my way!' They parted, and Henry charged through.
Up ahead, Erpingham was calling, 'Ready!' Two-score archers bent their bows.
'Now strike!' shouted Erpingham, and the devil's harp-string note sounded, of many bows being released at once, that he had not heard since Agincourt. Before the first arrows had even thudded into their target, another flight was on its way. A few paces into its onslaught, the tyrant bellowed again as the arrows sank into it, up to the fletching. A third flight. Another immense howl. Arrows were tearing into it constantly now, looking as small as needles against the moving mountain, but the giant beast slowed and tottered. Now there was blood, pouring down its throat and chest and mixed with the drool. A wail of pain now, and it crashed onto its side, thick tail and great clawed legs churning and bringing down bushes and saplings. Its jaws snapped uselessly as the enormous head thrashed back and forth across the track. Across their means of escape.
And the stocky figure of a man raced around behind the head, drew his sword, reversed his grip and raised it high in both hands, and drove it into the creature's eye. He leapt back out of the way and fell. A great cry from the men; but his work had been done well. Shudders ran through the tyrant's body, the legs kicked once or twice and the head jerked a few more times, the sword-hilt swinging horribly with it, and then the monster was still. There was a moment's awful silence, and then a storm of yells and the men surged forward.
And King Henry reappeared from behind the huge skull, bespattered with blood but unharmed; Montjoy's body sagged on a great exhalation of relief. 'Drag the head out of the way! Get the carts through if you can!' shouted Henry. A press of men hurled themselves against the head, and heaved, and pivoted it back on the thick neck, pushing it into the undergrowth. 'Gloucester! Herald! Sergeant Bates, bring your squad!' Henry beckoned them through with urgent gestures.
The rest of the men were being held back by Exeter and Erpingham. Astonishingly, Pistol was chopping at the tyrant's jaws with his hatchet to take the teeth, despite the peril they were in, and others were joining him. Montjoy hurried past the wall of flesh, and the track down to the river of rock was open before him, and a few men were rushing up it – Bedford's party - and shouting he knew not what. Gloucester was calling out 'Have you seen the comet? Are you ready?'
'Yes! Get down here! Where's the King?' That was Bedford himself.
'Following! He's killed a tyrant!'
Bedford stared, open mouthed, and then yelled, 'Come on, then!' Montjoy ran with the rest, pell-mell, out of the trees and onto the rock-river. He snatched a glance upwards. The comet was much, much bigger. Much, much brighter. And moving fast across the sky, plummeting down to their left. Lightnings crackled around it. The very air seemed hot. He put his head down, and ran faster. The lower glade was opening before him. Another glance behind; men and horses and carts were coming out onto the rock-river at breakneck speed.
A great light suddenly shone beyond the hills to his left. Instead of dying away, it grew and grew, until half the sky was brilliant, incandescent white. There was no noise at all.
This was Tommaso's fire.
White light was flooding the whole sky. Sweet Jesus. I can't tell if the spell will work, thought Montjoy, but, with his eyes almost closed against the dazzle and the shadows sharp as holes that it cast, he was running again… And now there were no shadows anywhere.
The light crested, and slowly it faded. Montjoy cast one more look behind him. Where was Henry? Then he arrived at the gateway, and crashed to the ground. He emptied his satchel. Stephen was there, with his line and bow-stave; carts, horses and men arrived, headlong and panicked, around him. He snatched frantic glances around through the dying glare. Someone had Reynard on a leading-rein, along with Cloud. One of the carts was still on the rock-river, lopsided with a broken axle; two men had cut the traces and were hurrying the horses along with them at a lurching run.
He realised that he had fallen because the ground was shaking. There was noise at last, a deep, distant, grinding boom, as if the earth itself were bellowing. The white light was almost gone. But Henry was here, now, at last.
He tried to scramble to his feet, and the earth shook again. 'Everyone inside the stones, like last time!' He could not give more specific instructions, but Guy, Colnet, Jacob and John Flete with a flaming brand were dashing up to him. He scrabbled among the spell-sheets and found the ones they needed. They snatched up their rings and pennies. There was another, fiercer, tremor. He almost fell again, regained his balance, and ran for the centre of the gateway. Stephen was tracing his circle, the men leaping over the line as it went round, like children at a skipping game. The king and his kinsmen were already at the periphery.
Now a dreadful cloud was soaring up, up, where the white light had been, and then it began to spread. Another noise, like the greatest storms he had ever experienced, magnified a hundred times, a thousand. Henry was on that side of the circle, of course, and Montjoy saw him snatch a look back over his shoulder. There was sheer, naked terror on his face. Stephen closed the circle and panted up to him with the hour-glass, and Montjoy fumbled to coat it with duckweed-salve. 'Is it right? Have I got it right?' he gabbled at Stephen.
'I don't know! It doesn't matter! Work the spell!' and Stephen's face reflected the same terror, and he knew his own did too.
The slope up to the track was empty. The four men with the spell-sheets were all staring at him. Waiting for his word. 'Begin!' he screamed, and they bent to their tasks.
Now the cloud blocked out the sun, and a vast shadow fell on the forest. A wild scorching wind tore down upon them, leaves and branches and stones whipping past. The earth shook again. Trees toppled.
No time to make sure, no time! He slammed the hour-glass down onto the paper. 'God!'
Darkness swallowed them.
Part Three: Imitate the action of the tiger
He was down on all fours, eyes full of dust, dust in his throat. All around was confusion. Something sliced through the air above his head. He fell again, trying to avoid it, and rolled. Rising again to his knees, wiping the dust from his eyes, he saw a loose horse, panicked, trying to run to safety. Someone caught at its harness. There was coughing all around, but the leaves and dust were falling to the ground. The wind was gone.
'Is everyone safe?' Henry's voice, hoarse and unsteady.
The men were looking round. No-one seemed to know for sure. But those who had weapons were readying them.
'Form up in companies!' Gradually order was restored. Erpingham got a ragged harrow marshalled. Bows were lifted, half-drawn.
Men were looking round, checking on each other.
The answers came back from the royal dukes, 'All here, my lord!'
Now they could look around them.
A grassy plain, herds of grazing creatures, palm trees, rocky outcrops, red cliffs in the distance. Water glinted here and there. There was no trace of the cataclysm.
'No sign of the cloud. The shooting stars...' He looked up and around, and tried to steady his voice. 'We'll have to wait for nightfall to be sure. But we've escaped, Sire, for the present - I think - '
'All right. Everyone, wait a while.' Minutes went by. Nothing untoward happened. Montjoy's body began to tremble with the aftermath of their flight. Then, to his relief, Henry called out. 'We'll camp on the hill over there. Anything that looks as though it's part of the spell, pick up for the Herald. Be vigilant. This looks more like home. Don't assume it's safe. Bedford, you and your men stay behind with Montjoy and his squad.'
The Herald sorely doubted his ability to notice anything that might be of use, but he waited while the rest of the party formed up and trudged off towards the rocky hill. Stephen went with them; they would need him. Many of the men had unnoticed tears on their faces; Montjoy realised that he was in like case. He wiped a shaking hand over his cheeks.
His escort, double its normal size, took up their positions. He grasped at the shreds of his self-possession.
'My lord Bedford. Will you give Sergeant Bates and his men leave to search with me?'
'Bates, take your orders from the Herald,' said Bedford immediately, and started to organise the remaining archers. Henry and the rest of the men had almost reached the nearby hillock. It was a huge relief to have them so close at hand; to have him so close at hand.
He began the familiar task of quartering the ground, Bates and his men straggling on either side of him. They were all silent. Montjoy knew they would not find anything beyond the obvious, and the light was the gold of late afternoon; they would not have much time. But they began to pick up pieces of lead almost immediately, most of them smeared with yellowish clay. Griffith handed him a shard with the letters UMFRED scored into it. They could not find any parchment at all.
With so many searchers, the task was soon done, and they made the short journey across to the camp, the rocks of the hilltop outlined against a luminous evening sky. The Cross of St George was already flying proudly from the highest point. Some of the men there were cutting the best stakes they could from scrubby woodland at the base of the hill. Others were preparing food from the carts, scanty rations now, and some were descending from the summit. When Montjoy and Bedford and their party splashed through the shallow stream that ran past the camp, everyone gathered quietly round the main fire, which had been built in the lee of a shallow, rocky step, so there was the semblance of a wall on one side and a view across to the gateway on the other.
Henry, coming back from checking the defences, looked exhausted. So did all of the men. But the tyrant's blood had been washed off him, and his step was firm.
'Herald, what have you found for us?'
He spread the fragments of lead out, and they all regarded them, and then some of them looked back at him, as if expecting answers.
'This,' he picked up the biggest shard, 'must refer to his grace of Gloucester,' who came forward, and took the shard from him, looking with fascinated dread not quite masked in his eyes. 'So we have a figure for your majesty, and for each of your brothers. I suppose that means this is the last part of the spell.'
There was a stir of relief, of dawning hope, among the men.
'I'll have to search for more parchments, though.' He was so tired that the thought was almost too much for him. 'There must be some pieces caught among the rocks or in the woods...'
'Tomorrow. We all need rest after what happened. You have done well for us today, Herald; we are all in your debt.' There was a murmur of assent. Some of the men reached out and patted his shoulders and back. 'Now, we'll eat, and give thanks, and rest, and then we'll see what tomorrow may bring.'
There were no fires to be seen but their own as night fell, but they had come to expect that. The horses were pulling purposefully at the grass. There were half-familiar trees around them; and when the moon rose –
'It's the right size! The moon's the right size!' That was John Melton.
'And colour,' someone added; the blue moon of the land of the sail-backs would not be forgotten by any of them.
'There's no comet...'
'The Herald was right! He's going to get us home!'
Montjoy had found his bedroll placed next to the king's beneath the rock-step, with Gloucester on the other side of him and Exeter on the other side of the king. It was a mark of favour, he supposed, after his part in their escape from the comet-fall, and he was spreading the blanket out when he heard these comments. He looked up, and felt an unwelcome weight of expectation settle on him. He was dismayed. Hadn't he done enough today?
Light flared and grew in the sky, casting deep shadows and then no shadows at all; it crested silently and died away. They were all running, and the earth was trying to shake them to the ground, like a horse twitching its skin to be rid of a fly. He fell, and got up and ran again. Henry was looking at him, shouting for him to work the spell – they were all looking at him. He could not find the hour-glass. He must have dropped it when he fell, and turned back, frantic to find it again, but his limbs would barely move. He tried to cry out his distress, but no sound came. The earth roared.
'Herald. Wake up!'
He could move again, a little, but something was holding him. Had a tree fallen on him? He was gasping, his heart pounding and his whole body shaking with it.
'Montjoy. It's all right.' A dear familiar voice. He half-turned towards it, and the shudders calmed. 'That's better,' came the voice again.
He woke finally, fully, breathless. Henry was holding his arm. In the moonlight he looked half-asleep himself, but his grip was firm.
'Oh. I thought - ' The panic had not entirely left him; his voice shook.
'Just a dream, Montjoy. We're all safe.'
Had he spoken in his sleep?
He let his head rock back onto the satchel and bundle of clothes that formed his pillow. Then he said, with some feeling, 'Once was enough.'
'Yes.' Their voices were low; one or two of the men at their fire had stirred and then settled down again. There were the quiet noises of horses cropping the grass, and the pacing of sentries. Frogs called from the stream. He rolled his head to stare at Henry.
'What if I hadn't - '
'But you did,' said Henry, with quiet firmness. He sounded more awake now, and let go of Montjoy's arm.
'If it happens again...'
'Then you will know what to do,' replied Henry, steady and reassuring.
Montjoy groaned quietly. 'My lord, I had no idea whether it would work.'
A breath of laughter. 'Nor do I, half the time. But that's how I live my life. The burden never goes away.'
Montjoy gazed at that young face, so close in the dim moonlight. For a moment he had an inkling of what it must be like, to be Henry of England.
'You have to live with this all the time?'
'Always, since I was king. They all look to me. I've never felt adequate.'
'How do you bear it?'
'Why, I look to God, and my friends. And I pretend, from one day to the next, that I know what I'm doing.' He pulled his blankets round him again.
Montjoy looked up at the unfamiliar stars. 'I've been in the company of kings for many years now. And I never knew that.'
'Not something we make widely known!' said Henry. 'But now you too know what it is, to have so much depending on you.' He was talking quietly, easily, as if to himself. 'And I tell you, Herald: you may not feel sufficient to the responsibility, but no-one who is worthy of the task ever does. No-one else could have done what you have done. No-one else could have saved us today. But you did. And tomorrow you'll go and find things out, and help me keep the men's spirits up, and we'll keep doing that until we've found our way home.'
'You make it sound easy.'
'It's never easy.' He reached out and gripped Montjoy's arm again and gave it a little shake, clumsily affectionate in the dark. 'Go to sleep now, Herald, there's work to do in the morning.'
'Aye, my lord. And – thank-you.'
Another movement in the dimness. 'Henry. When we're alone. Call me Henry.'
Montjoy felt himself go absolutely still. That was an honour beyond anything - 'Yes. Henry.' The hand tightened around his arm for a moment; there was a slight noise – of relief? – and then it withdrew.
Standing on the rocky summit above the camp the next morning, with the framework for John Melton's use already going up behind them and the flagpole to one side, Henry commented, 'It reminds me of Monmouth, the way the stream curves around the hill.' They could see a vista of undulating plains covered with rippling grass, stretching to a line of cliffs which blocked the view in the middle distance. Otherwise the land was as they had seen it yesterday; Montjoy's heart sank at the prospect of searching that wide landscape for something as small as a sheet of parchment. But it would have to be done.
'Those are the first big furred beasts we've seen in all our travels,' continued Henry, gazing with interest at the vast herds which grazed in the deep grass. 'They should make better eating than those monsters we had to make do with before.'
There was a subdued titter of laughter behind them. Griffith and Guy were looking off to one side, around a rocky outcrop. On the plain below an extraordinary creature had ambled into view. Larger than a wagon, cobby of build and covered with a thick plated hide, it had a long tail at the end of which was a huge spiked club. The archers, realising they had been noticed, wiped all the amusement off their faces and resumed their scanning of the plains. Glancing at Henry, Montjoy saw that now he too was suppressing a smile; but the dimples gave him away. He turned back to the armoured creature, and the tail with its mace swung into view again, and then suddenly he had it. It bore an uncanny resemblance to my lord of Exeter when arrayed for battle.
'Oh,' the exclamation was surprised out of him, and then, hurriedly, 'We see ever stranger creatures. I wonder what else is down there?' His voice quivered slightly.
'You'll need a large escort whenever you go out.' Henry, manfully keeping his own voice steady. 'Let's see what there is on the other side of the hill.'
They picked their way among the rocks and wispy grass of the hilltop, and stared round. More herds of the huge antelope-like creatures – but one herd some distance away was moving oddly, the beasts not grazing peacefully but standing still, their heads up, as they stared round nervously. Then suddenly the herd leapt into motion, each creature swerving and dodging with an agility surprising in such large animals. There was a flurry of movement to one side of the herd, and then one of the antelopes stumbled and fell. A black-and-tawny shape had leapt up out of the long grass and was even now wrestling it to the ground. It was joined by more of its kind, their striped coats making them hard to see among the rippling grasses. The herd raced away, crossed a stream and then halted. More of the hunters converged on the fallen antelope, including one huge beast and some small cubs.
'So,' said Henry, sobered, 'fully armed escorts at all times, no-one to go out alone,' he shot Montjoy a meaningful glance, 'be wary at all times.' Montjoy nodded dumbly. 'If we hadn't lost the cart with the arrows,' for that was the one that had broken down in their mad flight to the gateway yesterday, 'I'd consider going out hunting those creatures, tigers, whatever they are. But we must save the arrows as far as possible.'
In slightly subdued frame of mind they turned and went back down the hill.
That afternoon, as they were quartering the gateway again, they picked up a few more lead fragments that they had missed, and then suddenly George Benet, one of Bates' archers, called Montjoy over.
'Herald, this is different.' And it was; an iron disc like the tokens of the planets they had found before. Montjoy took it eagerly; iron, with the figure of Mars on one face.
'There's no figure on the other face,' said Benet, 'just a blank.' Montjoy turned it over and stared at the smooth grey metal.
'Oh...' Why was this? Henry and Bedford had had two signifiers each.
Bates came up and examined the disc. 'Has the other side split away from it? George, where did you find it?'
'Just here, Sergeant.' Benet indicated the grass close at hand. It was trampled and flattened. There had been such confusion as they had arrived, with horses panicking and the hail of stones and small branches, and the roar of wind and comet-fall and earthquake still in their ears.
'We'll have to keep looking,' said Bates, 'but good work, George!' Montjoy added his thanks, and took a moment to gaze around at the open grassland. They had not found a single sheet of parchment yet, and the gale they had brought from the doomed forest and the wind of the plains might have taken them anywhere. He stowed the token away safely, and resumed his slow progress across the gateway.
They had to begin the search for the parchments close at hand, while they waited for the horses to regain condition after weeks of meagre fare; and they themselves needed a few days' respite, staying close to the hill and in the company of their fellows.
The task when they began it was made disconcerting by the fact that the sun seemed always to be in exactly the wrong direction. There was none of the shortness of breath, or the brimstone reek, of the land of the sail-backs or of the giants. But time and again Montjoy found that he had to turn half round before he could re-orient himself. Bates, when questioned, admitted to the same problem, and they took care always to keep the men fairly close together.
But the job had to be done, and each morning, after a careful survey from the crest of what they now called Castle Hill, Montjoy and Bates set out with their squads to quarter the plains. Each brake of trees had to be searched thoroughly and with some care. William the cook learned his way round the carcasses of the strange creatures they called antelopes, and Allbright and Robert the fletcher did their best to produce more arrows. The feathers they used came from fearsome birds, taller than a man on horseback, which stalked the plains; Gloucester said they were not unlike the ostriches he had seen in his books at home, though ostriches did not have that terrible axe-like beak. And from time to time they saw large creatures, like bears only bigger, ambling about solitary but secure in their great size and strength. Once or twice the men tried shooting at them, but the arrows were blunted on their hides and dropped uselessly to the ground, and Henry ordered that they stick to the giant antelopes and axe-beaks.
The pride of striped beasts – tigers they called them, though surely no tigers ever had those fearsome fangs, curved like Arab scimitars – was in a state of turmoil, and did not bother them for a while. One morning from the hilltop they witnessed a terrible battle between the largest beast, one of whose fangs was broken off short, and two newcomers, these last with much narrower stripes than the rest of the pride. 'Brothers, are they?' said Gloucester, thinking aloud, and certainly they worked together to defeat the king of the pride. The roaring had gone on into the night. The next day Griffith had reported seeing Half-tooth, as he called him, skulking off among the scrubby growth along a stream, and the two challengers in uneasy charge of the pride. Snarls and scuffles broke out from time to time, and the smaller beasts, each merely the size of a lion, were seen prowling and pacing furtively among the rocks and brakes of their realm. The cubs were not to be seen at all.
After a few days they were able to ride again. Everyone felt much safer on horseback, for a galloping horse could just out-run the axe-beaks, and the job of searching for fragments of the spell went more quickly. With the camp established, more men could be spared for the task, and once or twice the king or his kinsmen rode out with them.
It was while they were busy searching another small patch of scrubby woodland that Montjoy discovered where the tiger cubs had disappeared to, and why. Caught out once again by that strange disorientation, he had become separated from his escort while working his way through a cluster of young palms. Then he almost fell over two of the little creatures, crouched flat to the ground and almost invisible in the striped shadow of the palm-fronds. The surprise brought him up short, and he looked round wildly, realising he should have stayed closer to the other men ...
And found himself staring at one of the usurping tigers, and a third cub hung dead from its jaws.
He froze. He could not call for help lest he attract the tiger's attention. His hand crept towards his sword, though it would be of no use against this beast – and then there was another sound behind him. He flung a glance over his shoulder, and there was the other brother, standing over the two cubs, its head dipping towards them.
He would die here.
There was a sudden crashing through the bushes, and one of the giant bears barged into sight. The tigers swung to face it, and Montjoy was leaping towards the helpless cubs. He bent, caught each one by the scruff of the neck – Jesu, they were heavy – and was into cover as a further commotion erupted behind him. Falling heavily to the ground behind a large rock, a cub clamped firmly in each hand, he writhed round and peered over the boulder. John Bates and his men were bursting into sight with loud yells. The tigers gave them a look of contempt and sprang away into the undergrowth, and the bear continued undeterred on its own business.
Montjoy slid down his rock and closed his eyes for a few pounding heartbeats, panting, his shirt plastered to his back, clammy with sweat. He was amazed to find himself still alive. There were roars and crashes off to one side, and the sound of footsteps close by; his eyes flew open again, and he was looking straight at Henry.
'What were you thinking of?' He was on the edge of a Plantagenet rage.
Montjoy had escaped the tigers and was going to die anyway. It seemed so unfair. He lifted the cubs mutely; one of them squirmed in his grasp, and he saw that it was bleeding from a deep gash on its back. He had only just been in time.
Henry gave the cubs barely a glance. 'What did I tell you about staying close to the men?'
'I lost sight of them – just for a few moments. My fault.'
There were more footsteps; Henry glanced back into the trampled area left by the bear. Montjoy craned his neck and peered over the boulder. Bates and his men had taken in the situation at a glance and were carefully disposing themselves around the clearing, without appearing to notice what was going on between their king and the French herald.
' We need to get away from this place, now. Did you find any more of the spell?'
'Get up, then.'
Montjoy struggled to his feet, still clutching the cubs.
'What? You're not bringing them with you!'
'This one's hurt. If I leave them, the brothers will find it and kill them both. They've already killed another one.' He was hugging them both to his chest now, trying to calm them – an impossible task, considering the state he was in.
Henry gave him a look of absolute disbelief. 'Of all the... Right. Bring them. You look after them and you don't let them interfere with your work. Go on, back to the horses.'
In a charged silence, they rejoined the escort and made their way to the horses, where Montjoy found himself unable to mount because of his burden. Henry looked on with an 'I told you so' expression, until Griffith came forward and helped Montjoy wrap one of the cubs in his cloak, passing it of up to him when he had climbed to Reynard's back, and taking the other one himself. The group of horsemen made a subdued return to Castle Hill.
Montjoy rode straight up to William the cook, and begged a bowl of scraps, chopped fine, and he and Griffith took the cubs along to the main campfire, where they passed them carefully down to Bates and Guy on the ground. Guy took the horses off to the pickets; the other men were arranging a small nest between three rocks, and Montjoy carefully placed the two bundles of fur within it. He put the bowl of meat in front of them, and stepped back in trepidation.
The cubs huddled together, not daring to move. He sighed, gathered up some palm-fronds, placed them carefully over their nest, and stood back again. He suddenly realised that Henry had disappeared. Off being king somewhere, no doubt.
'Not much else we can do, sir,' said Griffith, 'best leave them alone for now.'
'Water. They'll need water.'
'Guy's bringing some now.' He had a broken cup in his hand, with water from the stream. They tucked it under the palm-frond roof, and left the cubs to their own devices.
A little circle of men had gathered around, but they scattered and became very busy about their own tasks as Henry strode through them. He summoned Montjoy with a jerk of his chin; Guy stayed unobtrusively by the cubs' nest and Montjoy followed the king.
Henry marched in grim silence towards the summit of Castle Hill. About three-quarters of the way up, he turned off the path through a screen of bushes and boulders. Montjoy had not been here before; it was understood that it was the king's private sanctuary, where only he could go. They came out into a grassy little glade below Tower Rocks, hidden on three sides and from above by scrubby trees but with a view westwards across the plains; a pleasant place, under other circumstances. But now Henry swung round and faced Montjoy, and his eyes were bleak.
'I'll hear your explanation.'
'I have none, sire, save that I wandered a little far, became confused, and met the tigers.'
'I'll speak to Bates later. I gave him the job of guarding you because he's cautious as well as brave. He should have known better than to let you out of his sight.'
'My fault entirely, sire –'
'He had his orders. Go on. Why didn't you run when the bear appeared?'
'Those little creatures – the tigers had already killed one of them...'
Henry exhaled in exasperation. 'You've got more to think about than them! What if you had been killed?'
'I've thought about that... since...'
'Why didn't you think about it at the time?'
'It just – happened. I couldn't stand and watch while they were killed too.'
Henry, unmoved, said, 'Sometimes you have to do just that, if it's necessary. How do you think the rest of us would get home without you?'
'Why, Master Stephen, or your brother, or you - '
'We don't notice things the way you do. Master Stephen's a scholar, but only with books and pens. I and my brother are soldiers first and foremost, and our hands are full keeping everyone alive. Keeping you alive!' His voice rose slightly; he gave a quick glance at the figures of the sentinels outlined against the cloudy sky above them, and lowered it again. 'All we can do is give you time to work!'
Montjoy had known this, at some level, but had done his best not to think about it. The responsibility was simply too great. He finally felt all its weight descend on him, and slumped under it; then, with a great effort, he straightened his spine, and said 'Sire, I am sorry. I will be more careful in future, and more diligent.'
Henry stared at him for a moment. He turned away, running a hand through his hair, which had grown long and shaggy. Then he turned back. 'Henry. I asked you to call me Henry.'
Montjoy simply bowed slightly in acknowledgement. He could feel words boiling formlessly in his brain, but he kept his lips clamped shut.
'When I saw you lying behind that boulder, I thought you'd been killed. I've lost too many friends in my time. I don't want to lose another one.'
Briefly Montjoy remembered the field of Agincourt and the mounds of the French dead, and then put the memory from him. Henry had simply been doing his duty by his country and his people; a duty which the noblemen of France had neglected for too long.
'My lord.' Then, with difficulty, 'Henry. I didn't understand. I am sorry,' and he could not add that I frightened you, but continued 'Shall I tell you why I wanted to save those little things?'
An olive branch, and Henry, blinking back what surely could not be tears, said, 'Tell me, then.'
'Most nights, I dream of what happened in the land of giants. You remember the nightmare I had?'
'It comes back. Sometimes I dream that I make a mistake, and we all die. Sometimes I dream that I'm there, and I know what to do, but you can't hear me or see me, and we all die. Once or twice I've almost known how to save that forest and all the creatures in it, but there's a part of the spell that I haven't understood, and I have to watch while it's destroyed. But today I thought I could save those little cubs, and so that's what I did.'
Henry stared at him for a few moments, and then his stance lost its rigidity. He put his hand on Montjoy's shoulder, squeezed hard, and said, 'Gentle Herald. I had it right, the day of the battle, didn't I?'
'Sire. Henry. I - ' Montjoy hardly knew what he meant to say. Henry waited a moment, and then let his hand fall. 'I will take more care in future.' He cast about desperately for something more, for Henry seemed disappointed. 'I would ask that you do the same. Always you're in the very forefront of danger. We need you to lead us, not to die for us.' Doggedly. 'I need you. As a friend.'
The very glimmer of a smile. 'Then we'll both be more careful in future, shall we, Herald? And will you tell me if you get more nightmares? I know what it is to have unsound sleep.'
Montjoy looked at him questioningly, and Henry added, 'Since I was king.'
Greatly daring, Montjoy reached out and touched his arm, and Henry smiled properly at last. 'Well, let's go and see those cubs of yours,' he said, with an attempt at his normal briskness, and gestured towards the path. As they began to make their way down to the campsite, Montjoy heard, faint but distinct, a voice from the lookout point above them; 'Just a tiff, then.'
It wasn't a word he was familiar with, and he almost asked Henry for an explanation. Henry, though, paused fractionally, gave him a quick half-glance, and continued on his way; but a faint blush had risen to his face. Montjoy's question died on his lips.
'Scrambled eggs!' Breakfast a few mornings later was greeted with smiles all round. One of the foraging parties had raided an axe-beak's nest the day before, and by now any variation in their diet was welcome.
Once it was eaten, forty men saddled up, rode out across the ford and split up, a dozen with Bedford and Richard Calder to hunt antelope on the other side of a wide, shallow lake a couple of miles away, and the rest to continue the search for parchments. Henry, who had had his turn at hunting a few days before, was now leading by example. Searching was an unpopular duty by comparison with hunting, and he had devised a system of incentives – the best cuts of meat at the evening meal, a day off for several days of searching, the promise of better pay when they finally arrived home, and of course a large reward offered for anyone who made a significant find. So there was no grumbling at being assigned this duty, just a certain amount of resignation, which was entirely justified on this day as so many days; no parchments were found in the area of winding streams and palm-trees which they covered.
Bedford had had better luck. They had shot a couple of antelope and had snared some waterfowl for variety. Henry's party, returning, met up with the hunters on the near side of the lake, and Bedford, bringing his horse up alongside Cloud, said, 'You remember that tiger with the broken fang – the one that was ousted by the brothers?'
'Yes, poor old fellow. I felt some sympathy for him!'
'Well, so did I, and as we were riding away after butchering the carcasses he sneaked out of the scrub and started feeding on them. I told the men not to shoot – we need to save the arrows, and he won't be any danger to us on the other side of the lake. He looked a bit scruffy, to be honest, fallen on hard times.'
'Well, we afford to give him some charity, after all, and maybe it'll redound to our credit... '
Montjoy was pleased. Gloucester had thought, from the similarity in their markings, that Half-tooth was probably the father of the cubs, and it was good to know that he was still surviving.
After days of searching – dull, painstaking work – they had found a few scraps of parchment, caught in clumps of reeds or stamped into the earth by panicked horses. On the days when he stayed in the camp he sat copying these fragments he had, or discussing them with anyone who happened by. There was a steady procession of visitors once the cubs had begun warily to venture forth from their nest. William came by with plates of meat, and stayed to make much of them; archers would appear with toys made out of frayed bow-strings and tufts of hair from the antelopes they shot. Pistol called them his lambkins, and began to teach them how to hunt. The cub which had been gashed by the usurper had been thoroughly cleaned by his brother by the next day, but he would always have a scar on his back. The other one Montjoy called Fierce, because he was, baring his small fangs and growling at any perceived danger and then washing ostentatiously when he was laughed at.
Life became rather routine, the work of the camp, the making of new arrows and the search for the complete spell going on day by day. Montjoy soon found that he was sharing his blankets with two warm furry bodies at night. Before long it became apparent that the cubs regarded the blankets as their own, and were graciously allowing him to share them.
He was still sleeping next to Henry, and though his own nightmares had diminished somewhat, he was aware that Henry's sleep was still uneasy. One night he was awakened from a light sleep by hearing him return from yet another of his rounds of the camp-fires. He half sat up, propped on one elbow, and mumbled 'Henry? Is everything all right?'
'Yes, it's all quiet,' replied Henry in a low voice. 'I can't sleep, that's all.'
'Bad dreams?' It was rather a personal question to ask a king, but he couldn't think of anything else to say.
A pause. 'No, I'm just restless.' He lay down and pulled his blankets round him.
Montjoy considered this, his brain still fuzzy from sleep, and then said, 'Here,' and gently pushed Scar across to him. Scar gave a soft yowl of protest, and then Henry's hand reached out for him and gathered him in.
'He'll take all your blankets if you're not careful,' Montjoy warned.
Henry half laughed. 'I've seen how careful you are to keep your blankets from them.'
'I'm completely heartless.'
There was a faint sound of fabric moving. Scar was obviously making himself comfortable.
Thereafter they each slept with a cub sharing their bedding.
More days went by; Half-tooth was seen more often, and seemed to have realised that these strange newcomers to the plains could provide him with easy meals. The hunting-parties took to leaving better cuts on the carcasses for him, and he began to lose his down-at-heel air.
It was a pleasant morning, sun and clouds chasing shadows across the grasslands. Montjoy, sitting on the rock-step, looked up from packing his satchel. Another day of searching for the elusive parchments loomed.
'My lord,' and he stood; in the presence of others he was still formal with Henry.
'Come to the lake with us. You need a day's rest.'
'I should be out searching.' But truth to tell, the prospect of a lazy day at the lake-side was an enticing one.
'You'll search quicker and better for a holiday. None of us can keep going all the time.'
Put like that, of course, he had little choice, and nor did he want one; a day at the lake with Henry was not to be missed. So he left the satchel with Stephen, and Pistol said he would keep an eye on the cubs (natural partners in crime, he thought.) He picked up a change of clothes and followed Henry to the horse-lines.
Reynard seemed to think he deserved a rest too, and blew a long mournful sigh as he splashed through the ford, but put his ears up when Montjoy dismounted at the lake-side. The archers on guard duty took careful stock of their surroundings, but everyone else was cheerful and relaxed, and Montjoy caught their mood. He unsaddled Reynard, tethered him to a palm-tree, and made his way down to the shore.
There was a strange shape moving there, like a huge animated mushroom or a gigantic beetle. Griffith was carrying his coracle on his back, a skin boat that he and Robert Berry had made from withies and antelope-hide. It looked fragile as a lily-pad, but floated as bravely. Several smaller ones were being launched by men intent on a morning's fishing.
'Come on, Herald, let's see what you can catch for us!' and Montjoy clambered into the little craft. There were two fishing-rods in it with lines of horse-hair, and hooks made by Allbright.
Griffith paddled them competently out onto the lake. 'This is easy, compared to the Conwy,' he said cheerfully, and cast Montjoy's line out for him. 'My Da had me out fishing in all weathers before I was ten.' They sat for a while in meditative silence, enjoying the warmth of the sun. The world seemed very wide and peaceful; water-birds came in to land on the lake, or cruised in flocks at the margin of the reed-beds. Back on the shore, a dozen or so men were lounging or gathering firewood. Montjoy heaved a great sigh, and relaxed.
Griffith cocked a sympathetic eye at him. 'That's better, now.'
'Yes. I hadn't realised how tired I was.'
'The king did, though, you can be sure of that.' He paused to haul in his line and unhook a fine fish. 'Not much he misses, our Harry.'
'I've learned that...' Montjoy took a few moments to try to imagine a French prince leading his men through the unknown in like manner to Henry, but had to abandon the attempt. His mind simply would not form the images. 'You're lucky to have him as your king.' He surprised himself by confiding this.
But Griffith continued to watch his float, and made no reaction other than 'He's your king too, you know. For now, at least.'
'Hmm,' was all the reply Montjoy made, lazy acquiescence, but he was smiling as he gazed out across the water. He liked this feeling of belonging.
After an hour or so, Griffith had landed several more fish and Montjoy one; and he paddled them back to the shore. Montjoy put the fish into the keep-net. Griffith took John Melton out instead, and from the coracle's erratic progress, appeared to be trying to teach him to manage the craft.
'Catch anything?' Henry enquired, appearing at Montjoy's side.
'Only one, but Griffith caught enough for both of us.'
'Each to his own trade,' observed Henry. 'We'll be able to swim soon. The day's warming up.'
'Yes,' said Montjoy, and disgraced himself by yawning. Henry laughed when he apologised, and sent him off to take a nap.
He found a place by a fallen palm-trunk, stretched out and closed his eyes. The buzzing of insects and the lapping of water died away, and then the men's voices too. He drifted in a warm darkness, and then, perhaps because of the turn his conversation with Griffith had taken, thought he was back in France, riding out with a cavalcade of nobles at harvest-time while the peasants worked in the fields or cooled off in the river. But there was a sense of loss within this dream of home, something not quite right, which was only soothed when he woke and found the King of England sleeping peacefully close by. He blinked, confused; but then there was an almighty splashing from the lake, and a burst of laughter. Someone had managed to overturn one of the smaller coracles, and while he was watching the attempts to right it again, the rags of the dream fled from him.
Later in the morning he joined the men in stripping down to his drawers and going for a swim. To his surprise, he found that he was a stronger swimmer than most, though when he remembered the cold grey waters around England he wondered no more. But now even Henry was laughing and splashing about in the shallows, his compact body making him look a little like a seal, and perhaps Montjoy swam further out than the rest, and came back to the shore, past Henry, at his greatest speed.
He hauled himself out to dry in the sun and light breeze, and then struggled into clean clothes, and tried not to watch too obviously as Henry waded up to the beach, an unlikely Aphrodite, water streaming off him and darkening the hair on his chest and belly. Someone handed him a towel and he dried himself with it, looking out across the sunlit lake. Then he dressed in shirt and leggings and spoke to two of the men, and they lit the kindling in the fireplace that had been built by Bedford's party.
Grilled fish, straight from the lake, and palm-fruit (dates they called them, though they were not quite the same) made a meal truly fit for a king. The talk round the fire meandered from fishing on the Welsh rivers, to fowling in the reed-beds of East Anglia, to how to catch octopus in the Mediterranean – 'You mean people actually eat them?' asked Melton, aghast, an Englishman to his bones; then it drifted off into an easy silence, and gradually the men dispersed, to lie in the shade of palm-trees or lean against boulders and doze the afternoon away. Sentries took their turn. Montjoy propped himself up against his palm-trunk, with Henry not far from him, and watched the sun on the rippling water.
As the day drew on towards evening, Montjoy lent a hand to haul the coracles out of the water, and then they collected their fish and made their leisurely way back to Castle Hill, in contented silence.
... And the camp, when they returned, was buzzing with excitement.
'Well, my lord, you've missed a fine fight!' Exeter, foursquare and grinning, was waiting at the ford for them.
'What? Who's been fighting?' Henry swung swiftly down from Cloud, handed the reins to one of the men, and cast a look round the camp. No sign of damage done; he looked inquiringly at Exeter.
'Those tigers – the brothers – and one of those giant bears! The pride brought down an antelope, out there on the grasslands.' He pointed away over the next stream, where they had seen the herd escaping that first morning on Castle Hill. 'They were all feeding, but the bear came up out of the trees, and wanted his share. The two brothers went to see him off, and I'd just put money on them, but one blow from his paw and the bigger brother was laid out cold.' A swipe of his arm demonstrated it. 'And the rest of the tigers just ran away, for all there were more of them and better-armed!' There was a fractional pause; Montjoy busied himself with Reynard. 'Well, we got close enough for a shot at the bear, but the arrows just bounced off him – that hide would make good armour! But they annoyed him, and he went away after a while. So we've got antelope for dinner again, and a tiger-skin to cure.'
Downwind, beside the stream, Pistol was pegging out a large hide. Montjoy gave it a brief glance, out of courtesy. He bore Exeter no ill-will for his thoughtless remark; tact was not his strong point, and he had obviously realised his faux pas immediately. But Montjoy was pleased to learn that one of the usurpers was dead. They had tried to kill Fierce and Scar, and had killed the third cub, after all. He went on loosening Reynard's girth.
'Well, that'll make a fine rug for someone – did you manage to stop the men from taking the teeth? - and I'll look forward to a good dinner too. And we've made a good catch of fish. But you should have seen the one that got away...' The momentary awkwardness was being smoothed over, and Henry's voice died out of hearing as Montjoy led Reynard to the horse-lines. Then he took himself back to the rock-step, and got out his notes again. Stephen was there, reading through one of his prayer-books, doubtless composing the evening's service, and so was Gloucester, checking over his mail-shirt. They looked up, asked for news of his day, and continued with their tasks.
Montjoy was still rather saddened by the memories which Exeter's comment had conjured up. But then Scar came plodding up to him, dragging a dried axe-beak's wing, dropped it near the fire, and came over to him. Flopping against Montjoy's leg, the picture of utter weariness, he gave himself a halfhearted wash, and addressed himself to his slumbers. Montjoy reached out and caressed his head, pulling gently at his ears. There was a low rumbling. Fierce, happening by a few minutes later, curled up against his other hip. Montjoy read on with a cub under one elbow and another leaning heavily against his leg, occasionally stroking one or other of them.
Glancing up, he realised that he had an audience; Henry, returning to the camp-fire, had halted and was watching him with a slightly anxious expression. Montjoy met his eyes and gave a faint, rueful smile, and with a gesture of his head invited Henry to come and sit with him and the cubs. Henry did so, and laid his hand next to Montjoy's on Fierce's striped back.
'Well, they're contented enough,' said Henry, and Montjoy replied, 'So am I.' Henry looked at him steadily for a moment, and then nodded, touching Montjoy's fingers for a heartbeat. They smiled at each other, very briefly, and Montjoy expected Henry to get up and go about his next task. But though he withdrew his hand, beginning an absent-minded patting of Fierce's fur, he sat quietly for a while, leaning back against the rock-step and looking out across the stream.
Exeter happened by with a handful of glossy feathers from an axe-beak's crest. 'We shot another of these when we brought the dead antelope in; they'll make fine pens,' he said in his bluff manner. Montjoy looked up and smiled acceptance of the peace-offering, though he already had plenty of quills, and he took them with the hand that wasn't lying next to Henry's. Exeter nodded, and continued down to the streamside to see how Pistol was getting on with the tiger-skin. By late afternoon, when dinner was ready, the small awkwardness had blown over completely.
Things had become unsettled among the tigers since the death of one of the usurpers. Half-tooth was seen more often, scavenging on the kills Henry's men had made. The remaining brother, who was the smaller of the two, spent his time patrolling restlessly around his territory. The females, when not out of sight hunting, were ill at ease, surveying the grassland from small hillocks or under the shade of trees, and occasionally starting minor fights. Still short of arrows, the men made no attempts at what would have been very long shots anyway, but the parties going out on repeated searches for more parchments were wary.
One night he thought he'd had a recurrence of his usual nightmare, feeling the ground shudder beneath him once more. There was a knocking of stones from the hill above. He roused groggily, feeling around for Fierce, who was absent on his own business as happened increasingly often. But his groping hand encountered another one, and he woke properly, and found Henry propping himself up on one elbow and fighting off sleep.
All over the camp men were sitting up and feeling for their weapons.
'Nothing to be seen, Sire.' The cry came down from the summit of the hill.
'Pack up, load the carts, get the horses harnessed.'
Under a three-quarters moon they struck the camp.
'Herald. This is what you were afraid of, isn't it?' and Montjoy remembered his nightmares. 'If we need to leave in a hurry, can you work a counter-spell yet?'
Montjoy exchanged a glance with Stephen. 'My lord, no.' His frustration sounded in his voice. 'There's simply too much that's missing.'
'I thought so.' Henry scanned the sky. There were no portents as there had been in the land of the sail-backs and the doomed forest. Familiar moon, strange stars, a planet or two. The earth was quite still now. They all stared round.
'Brothers, Uncle Exeter, Sir Thomas. Your thoughts.'
'Best stay put. This is safe a place as we could hope to find. Close to the gateway, too, if we need to make a run for it.' Montjoy caught Stephen's eye, and shared the devout hope that it would not come to that, but the others were nodding agreement. 'Double the guard, be ready to leave at a moment's notice. That's all we can do.'
Uneasily the camp settled down again. Henry and his kinsmen departed to go round the campfire, and Montjoy, feeling that he had failed Henry, lay down once more and began running through all he had learned of the spell.
Fierce loped back to his side before long, and Scar appeared shortly thereafter, and in Henry's absence settled himself against Montjoy's back. He took comfort in their company, and dropped into an uneasy doze.
Next morning they found little evidence of the earthquake apart from the stones shaken loose from the rocks at the look-out point, and a widening pool downstream where the water was spilling out over low-lying ground. But they had been reminded of the blue moon and the barrage in the east which had sent them fleeing from the mountains, and the destruction which had fallen on the forest. The search for more parchments intensified.
Out on the plains, they caught frequent glimpses of Half-tooth, grown bolder now that one of his rivals was dead. Fierce and Scar seemed to share his confidence, and often followed the search parties a little way as they set out, stopping to tussle atop an ant-hill, or to hunt small fry in the long grass, but close enough to scurry back to Castle Hill should danger threaten. Then one afternoon as Montjoy's party was returning home, they saw, in a shallow, rocky valley –
'They're going to fight it out!' Guy, sitting taller in the saddle, pointed at two striped beasts, pacing and circling, snarling at each other. Then the snarls erupted into roars. They leapt through the stream, spray fountaining around them, and were briefly obscured by bushes. An instant later the rivals were in full view again, on the brink of a low waterfall.
'See him off! Come on, Half-tooth!' yelled the men. Half-tooth roared again, and very air vibrated. Both the tigers reared high. They struck terrible blows at each other with mighty paws; they grappled, rolled, their fangs slashed –
'He's done it! Good lad!' Half-tooth's rival limped away into the scrub, and the victor stood braced on the fall's edge and roared and roared until Montjoy could feel it resonating right throughout his body. Cheers and yells erupted from all the men. They raised their bows and fists and waved them aloft. He was shouting along with everyone else.
'There's a good omen for us,' cried Griffith, and even this reminder of the work he had yet to do failed to damp Montjoy's spirits.
A day later, there was a second tiger-skin pegged out to dry at the downwind edge of the camp. Another scouting party, finding the dying tiger surrounded by predatory axe-beaks, had taken pity on the stricken beast and shot it. Half-tooth's roars still rang out across the plain every few hours, from each quarter of the compass. He was reclaiming his rights.
In more ways than one. Searching in a broken, rocky area of the country, a party consisting of Henry, Montjoy and their escorts were stopped in their tracks by the sight of Half-tooth and one of the lithe young females prowling around each other in a glade in the scrub forest. The men, startled, retreated into the cover of clumps of bushes around the edges of the glade. The female bumped shoulders with Half-tooth, and then rolled and regained her feet, to swat him across the nose – with claws retracted.
'Oh-ho, I know what's going on here,' said Henry, at Montjoy's side, and with a grin. The two of them had taken refuge among a scatter of boulders, shaded by a couple of bushes. He called quietly across to the other men, 'Don't shoot unless you have to.'
The female rubbed up against Half-tooth again, yowled, and crouched. Half-tooth approached her cautiously, and when she did not cuff him, rubbed faces with her, then flowed around her to cover her, biting gently at her neck. They both tossed their heads high, and snarled. Then the female roared, broke away, and lashed out at him in earnest. The prowling resumed, but a few moments later, she was crouching again.
This went on for long enough to make Montjoy's eyes widen. Subdued exclamations of respect came from the men concealed in the scrub around them. An unwary move to retreat by Bates distracted Half-tooth from his business for a moment; he swung round, half-rearing, red mouth open in warning, but a moment later had turned back to the female. All the men subsided deeper into hiding, but not a bow was drawn.
After a while the tigers dropped into a boneless doze. Henry began sliding backwards between the boulders, beckoning Montjoy to follow him. It was tricky work, with their swords getting in the way. They gained the shelter of the scrubby trees and, after checking carefully around them, rose into a crouch and worked their way round to the rest of the men, who were in whispered conference.
'Start moving back. Slowly, and keep quiet. That means you too, Court.' That was Bates.
'I can't see the King or the Herald. Where've they gone?' Court, anxious and scarcely audible.
Another of the men made a succinct suggestion, to the effect that they might be imitating the example of the tigers. There was the barest ripple of indulgent laughter.
'Quiet!' A savage whisper from Bates.
Montjoy, feeling himself flush, cast an involuntary glance at Henry, who had paused in the act of removing a twig from his hair, and was blushing pink himself. A brief, conscious look came Montjoy's way; Henry seemed on the point of saying something, and then the first of the men appeared, boots first, crawling slowly backwards out of the bushes. Henry finished brushing himself down with great speed; Montjoy doing the same, they took simultaneous paces apart, and by the time Benet had emerged and turned round they were both cautiously scanning the scrub around them.
'Away back to the horses, while they're sleeping,' ordered Henry, with a jerk of his head at the glade, half-visible through a screen of bushes. Everyone knew what had been said and overheard; no-one was quite meeting his eye, and the command was obeyed with speed and in guilty silence. They met up with the men who were waiting with the horses at the edge of the open plain, and left the area in very subdued mood.
That evening, Henry beckoned Montjoy to him with an economical gesture, and led the way up the path to the grassy glade beneath Tower Rocks. He had an air of one burning his boats. The cubs self-importantly escorted them. King and herald turned off the path, and sat in the dusk in privacy among boulder and shrub.
Henry, who had avoided looking straight at him for several hours, cleared his throat, and began, with constraint, 'Well, you know what they're saying about us.'
'Yes.' Montjoy's heart was thumping. He did not risk looking at Henry's face.
'Do you mind?'
'No. I don't mind at all.' There. He'd made the first declaration, since the king could not, for fear of a response made out of duty, not love. He stared at his boots, wondering if he had gone too far, misread Henry's meaning -
Henry sighed, and moved slightly, so his shoulder nudged up against Montjoy's. 'Good.' His hand stirred, and felt about for Montjoy's, who clasped it. They sat there in the dusk, quite still, for long moments, not daring to look at each other. Then, little by little, Montjoy let his head bow until he could feel Henry's hair against his temple; Henry turned towards him slowly, so their cheeks touched. Then his mouth brushed against the corner of Montjoy's, fleeting and awkward. There was another pause.
'Can it be right, to want this so much?' whispered Montjoy, suddenly assailed by doubts.
'God enjoins us to love our enemies, after all,' replied Henry, quite reasonably, Montjoy felt, and the kiss was repeated, but this time their lips met fully. The deepening twilight seemed to pause around them; all was still. Then Henry shifted, put his hands up onto Montjoy's shoulders and turned him around slightly. 'I never dared hope it would come to this,' he murmured, 'and of all the ways for it to happen...'
'You too?' Montjoy could not quite believe it.
'Yes, since – oh, before the battle. And I thought you'd hate me after it.'
'No. I was sad, that was all. I don't know if my people will ever learn...'
'Maybe we can learn together.' Henry's hands slid across his back, and this time it was a proper kiss, all gentleness and promise.
Montjoy dared, at last, to return the embrace, his arms full of his king, and when the kiss ended, he put one hand up into Henry's shaggy mane. 'I always loved your hair,' he murmured, 'always wanted to touch it, even in Westminster.'
A soft laugh against his neck. 'That would have made me forget all about the tennis-balls!'
'You looked so young, so isolated. My heart went out to you.'
'I stopped being young the day I became king. But yes, I was isolated.' Henry, his voice quiet, sounded completely dispassionate.
'Not so much, now. And I still want to take care of you. I know I'm being foolish.'
'Not so foolish. I'm but a man. I suffer from doubts, and tiredness, and night fears, like any other man. You know that. I would be glad of your care – when we're alone.'
'There's so much I want to do - when we're alone.'
An arm tightened suddenly, strongly, around Montjoy's shoulders, and in the twilight he could just make out a surprisingly impish smile as Henry pulled back just far enough to look into his face. 'Herald. We're alone now.'
It was almost full dark, and the cubs, bored, had departed on business of their own, when Henry said 'We must get back to the men.' They unwound from each other, brushed themselves down, and made their careful way down the well-trodden path to the main camp. The red light of the fires grew steadily closer, and Montjoy, following at Henry's heels and still feeling Henry's hands ghosting upon him, suddenly wondered how he was going to face the men now that he had in truth become their king's beloved. Since they had, apparently, believed this to be the case for some time, there should in theory be no alteration. But now he felt so new-made that the others would surely realise the difference.
Henry, squaring his shoulders, stepped up to the first fire. 'Court. How goes it with you?'
'Well, my lord.' There was no trace of surprise in Court's voice as he saw the Frenchman close beside the king.
Another figure appeared, wrapped in a dark cloak, his hair gleaming white.
'Sir Thomas. Your turn to do the rounds this evening?'
'Aye, my liege.'
'Hm. Get you to your rest. I'll finish up for you. No,' as Sir Thomas seemed about to protest, 'go on.'
The old knight inclined his head, and took his leave. Henry touched Montjoy's arm. 'You too, Herald. I'll see you at the camp-fire. Try and save my blankets from Scar, yes?' His hand tightened on Montjoy's arm, and then he turned away from love and towards duty, firm of tread and cheery of voice, Harry, King of England once more.
But when he came back to the rock-step and settled to his rest, he lay closer than he had done before, and his hand stole out from under his blankets and found Montjoy's, which returned the clasp; he sighed as if reassured, and slowly the sigh turned into the quiet breathing of approaching sleep.
A few days later Montjoy was riding with Bates and his men across a particularly open stretch of the grassland, the scrub forest having yielded almost nothing in the way of pieces of the spell. Away to what he still could not quite convince himself was the north, the line of cliffs marched, blocking out the horizon. He gazed at it, wondering if they would eventually find themselves climbing them in their search... Henry would undoubtedly be very good at this.
''Ware axe-beak!' called Bates, and Montjoy jerked his attention back to his immediate surroundings. One of the giant birds had suddenly risen out of the grass and was running towards them. It was astonishing how fast they could move; the great scaly feet thumped the ground, the terrible beak open and screeching. Court and a couple of other men flung themselves from their horses and drew their bows.
'Don't waste those arrows!' snapped Bates, and they waited a few heartbeats while the bird bore down on them. When they could shoot with absolute confidence, they did so, and the axe-beak collapsed into the grass.
'Roast chicken for us tonight, lads!' They rode over to the carcass, and a swift work of butchery went on.
Montjoy, who knew his limitations in that department, stayed mounted, and continued to scan the flat plain, though his thoughts were half with Henry. Then he saw a flattened patch in the grasses, and sat up straighter. 'Is that a nest?'
'Why, so it is.' Bates followed his pointing finger. 'It's worth a look!'
There were a score or more of the eggs, each the size of one of the big palm-nuts they'd been eating, laid in a neat spiral in the nest, which was a crude affair of torn-up grasses and leaves. The men produced cloaks and began to bundle the eggs up in them. Then as Guy was lifting one of the last of the eggs, he gave a cry of surprise, and bent low, and then looked up at Montjoy. 'Herald!' He picked something out of the nest. It was dirty white –
Montjoy was off Reynard in a moment, and reaching out a hand to take the parchment. 'Guy! That's wonderful!' He smiled broadly. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and then they pounced on the remaining eggs, and pulled them out of the way. Two more scraps of parchment came to light. Montjoy, his hands shaking, scanned them quickly. 'That's another whole sheet! I'd almost given up hope!' And then he mentally upbraided himself; Henry would not have said such a thing.
But Guy, grinning broadly, said 'You, me, and everyone. But now we know – look for axe-beak nests!'
'Well, maybe,' said Montjoy, rather more soberly. 'We should search this whole area.' He tucked the parchments away in his satchel, and looked round. 'Sergeant?'
'Five men to stay with the carcass, the rest of us to search with the Herald,' said Bates promptly; so they re-mounted, left the eggs with the butchers, and began to quarter the vicinity thoroughly. Deep in the centre of a solitary thorn-bush they found another sheet of parchment. Montjoy reached for it with great care but had to resort to swearing in his own language as he did so. There was a ripple of amusement, and in the end he simply drew his sword and made short work of the bush.
'Time we got back to Castle Hill,' said Bates eventually, and making a careful note of their position, they re-mounted and went back to their friends and the axe-beak carcass, loaded it up and made their way westwards back to the camp. Taking one last glance back, Montjoy saw a bulky, striped shape settling down over the remains of the axe-beak. Half-tooth, though back in charge of his kingdom, apparently saw no reason to stop scavenging their kills.
The new parchments were stained and faded. Montjoy started reading them while they were waiting for the evening meal, and showed them to Stephen.
'Do you know, Montjoy, I think we've got almost enough to work with now.' Stephen was placing the parchments on the ground, fitting the torn edges together; four sheets, with a few corners missing and some of the text stained and indecipherable.
'We still need to know the second signifier for his grace,' said Montjoy.
'How to find that? We don't know what we're looking for.'
'Maybe there'll be a clue in the parchments. I'll start transcribing them tomorrow.'
Montjoy settled down for the night full of roast fowl, with Scar in the curve of his arm. Henry was curled up likewise with Fierce; their hands, casually out-flung across each cub, just touched. For several nights they had slept this way, and the light clasp of Henry's fingers drove the bad dreams away, and it seemed Henry too slept sounder, for in the mornings as he woke he would smile drowsily into Montjoy's eyes.
There was little privacy in the camp, and they could not leave its safety to be alone together, so the clearing below Tower Rocks became their refuge for a short space of time every day. But it seemed pointless to try to dissemble their affection for each other, though they did not flaunt it. So Henry, when not busy with his duties around the camp, would occasionally appear at Montjoy's side, and with a smile and a motion of his head suggest that they climb the path to the summit. Here they would sit in the shelter of the boulders and small trees, and kiss, and murmur absurdities to each other. And one day Henry muttered that it was getting colder of an evening, and they should bring their cloaks with them next time.
A few evenings after that, things went beyond kisses and caresses. Henry's hand had burrowed its way under Montjoy's shirt and was sliding up his back, fingers caressing each rib as they went, and abruptly it seemed to him that there were far too many clothes between him and his beloved. He pulled back – Henry's face suddenly apprehensive, as if he thought he'd gone too far – and rapidly shed his jacket before catching Henry into his arms again. Henry smiled in relief – 'Ah, love, at last. I couldn't ask,' this last murmured against Montjoy's ear-lobe, which lit up all his nerve-endings. He loosed Henry again and started undoing his shirt-ties with clumsy fingers.
Then Henry was getting rid of belt and jacket too, and Montjoy, wrestling determinedly with his shirt, wanted to know, 'Why couldn't you ask?'
A moment's surprised pause. 'I'm a king. You would have had no choice.'
Montjoy, suddenly apprehensive, said 'Henry. Mon ami. Down there in the camp, and everywhere else, yes, you're the king. But here, we're alone, and you're my lover, and you've asked me to call you by your name. To set the kingship aside. Am I wrong to do this?' His hands had stilled.
Henry took hold of them and moved them aside, and began work on the ties himself. 'No. No, you're not wrong. But maybe I find it more difficult to do that than I'd hoped. Be patient with me, love?'
'I will.' He drew a shaky breath. 'But oh, Henry, just at this moment I am in haste,' and he pulled the shirt over his head, and helped Henry with his. Then he fumbled with his laces and pushed his leggings and under-linen down. Henry was doing the same, an untidy heap of clothes cast behind him. They pulled a cloak up to cover them, and then it was Henry who reached out first, and pulled Montjoy's body against his own. Warm skin and cool evening air; Montjoy's heart was racing; he wanted more. 'God.' He slewed his body round, bringing Henry down on top of him. One of Henry's legs fell between his, and they both gasped with pleasure as their eager flesh touched for the first time. They shifted slightly, and paused. He looked up at Henry, his head and shoulders a close dark shadow against the faint luminosity of the night sky. 'Mon ami. Mon coeur,' he whispered. His English had finally deserted him; he was speaking love's own language. They found the time to kiss deeply, solemnly, before pleasure made its imperative demands and they began to move in earnest.
He was woken from blissful drifting by something cold and damp nudging his neck, then a scratchy, tickling sensation across his shoulder. A deep purring started up close to his ear... one of the cubs. He groaned. 'Go away.'
'What's that, love?' Henry was still almost asleep.
There was the sudden sound of racing paws off to one side; a cub hurdled their prone bodies and crashed into the undergrowth beyond. The first cub was quick to follow suit, using Montjoy's side for leverage – 'Ow!' A high-pitched squeal, suddenly cut off, came from the bushes.
'They're growing up,' observed Henry, sitting up. Further drowsing was impossible. There were fearsome growls; the cubs were obviously fighting over the prey.
'I suppose we should get back to the camp,' sighed Montjoy, and in the moonlight began looking for his clothes. They got dressed slowly, brushing grass-stalks and leaves away, and stood up.
Henry closed his arms around him for one last kiss, and a while later said, 'We'd better go now, or we'll be here all night.'
'I wish we could.' The warmth of Henry's body in his embrace was so welcome in the cool night air. It was always a struggle to relinquish it.
'So do I.' They stood for a moment longer, and then loosed their embrace, and began to pick their way back to the path.
The task of transcribing the torn and stained parchments from the axe-beak's nest was almost complete. Sitting alone by the main camp-fire, propped against his boulder, Montjoy became aware that one symbol was repeated over and over again in the twisting lines of the spell. An intuition began to grow. He checked the almanac, made a note, and continued his work.
Gloucester came down the path from Tower Rocks; he had been visiting the look-outs there.
'My lord Duke.' He knew there was an undercurrent of excitement in his voice.
'Yes, Montjoy,' said Gloucester, with a smile.
'I believe I have found something.'
Gloucester came straight over to him, and squatted at his side. Montjoy pointed at the oft-repeated symbol on the parchments and papers on the ground. 'This sign,' he said, without preamble, 'is Mercury. Among other things, it signifies scholarship, and youth. I believe it is the second signifier for your grace.'
'Mercury,' said Gloucester. He bent over the parchments, eyes flicking from one instance of the sign to another. 'The token we found only had one face.'
'Mars, yes. But the metal for Mercury is quicksilver - '
'Which is a liquid, and cannot be worked like other metals. How could Tommaso have made his token?'
'It must have been contained somehow. But I found nothing, down at the gateway...'
'There was such confusion, when we arrived. And quicksilver – well, the name says it all. It would be hard to find, after all this time.' There was a short silence. 'Is it necessary to find it, do you think? Would some of Dr Colnet's herbs be a substitute, or planet-light?' Gloucester sat back against a boulder of his own. He was staring into the middle distance, frowning.
'Maybe. Maybe not. I would be happier if the King could hallow all the fragments of the original spell. That has worked for us twice before...'
Gloucester exhaled, a frustrated sound. 'How would we go about finding it?'
'We know what we're looking for, now, and we didn't before. Suppose we searched again, every man of us?'
'All of us? Eighty men, to cover that small area? It would be chaos.'
He had a sudden memory of Stephen, marking out a circle to contain the counter-spell, the long cord stretched taut between the central peg and the yew stave. 'On hands and knees, if need be, in a line.' He held his quill sideways, and moved it slowly across the ground to illustrate what he meant. 'Searching for beads of quicksilver.'
Gloucester looked as though he was having trouble grappling with the concept, and no wonder. 'I've never heard of anyone trying that before. But if anyone could organise it, it would be Henry.'
'Yes.' There was all the affection in the world in his voice.
Gloucester gave him an amused glance. 'I'll give orders that no-one is to go near the gateway for now. No point in having it disturbed, even after all this time. Henry should be back from his hunting-party soon; we'll talk to him about it then.'
The line of men, shoulder to shoulder, crawled forward with painful slowness. Exeter at one end and Sir Thomas at the other kept them marshalled; half a dozen archers kept watch. It was mid-morning, and there was a resigned silence among the men... did they expect him to produce a counter-spell out of nothing?
Among the trampled grasses and seedling shrubs it was hard to see anything different, let alone something as small as a bead of quicksilver. Maybe the rain had washed it away, or the earthquake had opened the soil enough to allow it to trickle away. He exchanged an uncertain look with Henry, who came over to him.
'They'll keep at it, don't worry. They know not to give up,' he said, in an undertone. They had never given up, even faced with the most overwhelming odds. Montjoy nodded speechlessly, and turned his attention back to the men. The line inched on. The small sounds of the plain were loud in his ears. Off to one side, the cubs were nosing busily through the grass.
One of the men, over towards Sir Thomas, made a sudden movement, looking at his hand, and then he bent closer to the ground, scanning the grasses at close range. He looked back over his shoulder at Montjoy. This had happened a time or two already; false alarms, every one, an arrow-head or horse-shoe nail. He had told them to call him over to see anything that did not belong here. But he strode quickly over to the man; Nicholas Frost, he saw, the bowyer.
'Glass splinters,' he said, 'I cut my hand on them.' The men on either side were craning round to see. Montjoy knelt beside Frost, who was now mopping at the cut on his palm.
'Get Dr Colnet to have a look at that,' said Henry who had arrived in his turn.
'Sire, I'll be alright, it's just a scratch,' protested Frost.
But Henry said, 'Go. You've done well, Frost, but I'll not have my bowyer unable to use one hand.' He clapped the man on the shoulder, sent him on his way back to the camp with an escort, and then said, 'Carry on,' to the rest of the men, and the line resumed its slow progress.
Montjoy, meanwhile, had cleaned the glass splinter with his handkerchief (the world had cause to be thankful to King Richard for that innovation,) and then bent closer to the ground. Among the grasses and small herbs it was difficult to see anything so tiny as a shard of glass. He began to break off stalks and leaves carefully, bending low over his task, belatedly realising that he had a cluster of royalty around him, waiting for his words.
'The glass is curved. It may be from a vial or bottle of some sort,' he said, 'and if it was smashed here, the quicksilver may be here too.'
They all dropped to the ground beside him. 'Move back a little,' he suggested, 'and go forward again slowly.' A small pile of glass shards began to collect on the handkerchief.
'Here, Montjoy.' Bedford passed him what looked like a tiny stopper; being solid, it had not even cracked. There was a figure embossed into it.
'Mercury,' said Montjoy flatly. They all sighed with relief.
'Will this be enough, or do we need to find the quicksilver itself?' Henry obviously knew the answer.
'We should keep looking...' Montjoy drew his knife, and began to shave the grasses back to the ground. Slowly they cleared a patch a bow-stave square, finding more splinters in the process, but no silver beads. Montjoy hissed a little in frustration, and then began lifting small stones and pebbles off the surface of the soil.
'The earthquake,' he explained. 'It may have shaken the ground enough for the quicksilver to slip below ground.'
Quietly they worked on. The rest of the men were some way ahead of them now. The small sounds of the plain went on around them; insects, a light breeze whispering in the grass. His knees began to ache.
'Ah!' Henry had lifted a slightly larger stone away, leaving a depression beneath it. And cupped in the hollow was a tiny, shining puddle. His hand wavered over it, and then drew back. 'I'd best not touch it yet. Herald...'
Montjoy took out a small spoon and bottle, provided by Dr Colnet, and with extreme care manoeuvred the mercury into it, wrapped it up again in a scrap of leather, and put it safely away. He sat back on his heels, and looked at the others. They were all smiling. Then he bent forward again. 'We should carry on looking.'
Faint groans, but they all did the same, and with lighter hearts.
Everyone scrambled to their feet. One of the female tigers was standing foursquare, not far away across the plain. Her head was up, and she was staring at the cubs, perched on an anthill upwind of her. Fierce and Scar were backing away down the anthill, their ears flattened and tails down. The guards were lifting their bows; Montjoy's hand went to his sword and he made to run to the cubs.
'No, wait!' Henry's hand was on his arm and he went forward a few hasty steps with him. Then, louder, 'Don't shoot!'
'The cubs!' Montjoy almost went to shake Henry off; he caught himself and stared at him, then back at the tableau before him.
'Wait!' repeated Henry. The tiger was making small, chirruping noises; the cubs paused in their retreat. Their ears went up.
'Guy! Richard!' The two marksmen glanced round. 'Be ready to shoot, but wait for my word!' The other archers lowered their bows.
Long moments of silence. The tigress chirruped again, and came forward at a swinging trot. The cubs suddenly tumbled down the anthill and bounced towards her, tails held high.
'Oh...' Montjoy realised what he was seeing, and relaxed in Henry's grip as the tigers met, out there on the windy plain. The female lowered her head to greet her cubs, rubbing the side of her face along theirs. They wound in and out among her legs.
'They've got their mother back.' Henry was openly in tears, but smiling. Bedford and Gloucester were smiling too. They would have been very young when their own mother died, but they had obviously loved her. Montjoy's own vision blurred. He felt for Henry's hand and held it, hard, and Henry leaned into his shoulder. A pleased chorus came from the men, every one of whom was smiling sentimentally. Even Erpingham. Even Exeter.
'Ah, that's a good omen.' Henry glanced at him as he spoke; they smiled straight into each other's eyes. 'You got them home, love. You'll get us home too.'
'Maybe,' replied Montjoy, and for the first time this goal seemed within grasp. And then, when he heard Pistol's sentimental comment, 'Ah, the lambkins!' he realised that all the men were looking back across the area they had searched towards the tigers, and this meant that they could also see him and their king, so close together; and that no-one seemed particularly concerned about this.
That evening, after Henry was shriven, he took the little puddle of quicksilver into his palm with no sign of hesitation, and tipped it back, a moment later, into the bottle. 'There, that's done. Dr Colnet, do you have the salve ready?'
'Yes, your majesty.'
'Brother;' this to Gloucester, 'you and the Herald and Master Stephen, to set up the counter-spell tomorrow. The rest of us, to strike camp. Herald, our talismans,' and he donned them again.
Later, they walked up the path to Tower Rocks for the last time, continuing on to the summit rather than stopping in the clearing. Henry sent the look-outs to one side, and sat with Montjoy on the topmost slab of rock. 'I cannot quite believe that it's almost over,' said Henry, as he surveyed the darkening plain, the winding streams and palms and patches of scrubby woodland. Montjoy, too, gazed across the landscape. Out there the cubs were sleeping, reunited with their pride, or prowling along in the wake of the hunt.
'Half of me wishes that we could just stay here,' he said. 'I've been – happy - these last few weeks.'
'So have I, with my herald.' His arm slipped around Montjoy's waist. 'This place almost feels like home now. But the men would never stand for it, and I have kingdoms to rule.'
And the thought that once they had returned, they would be French and English once more, sprang to the forefront of Montjoy's mind. He shivered.
'Are you cold? Come on, back to the clearing. I'll warm you up,' and in the soft light of dusk they made their way down from Tower Rocks and back to their private haven.
By the rock-step the next morning he was woken by the sound of vigorous scratching; Scar, who had returned in the night, was waking next to him and making ready to go about the day's business. Fierce was eating from his bowl, growling quietly to himself. Montjoy gave a soft cry of joy to see them – he had not thought that he would do so again - and caught each one of them up in his arms. He remembered carrying them both, when he had saved them from the murderous brothers. Now he could barely pick them up one at a time. He buried his face in their coats, endured a brief face-wash from Scar, and then sent them on their way. They trotted down through the camp, the men patting them and calling farewells, and across the ford towards the pride, which was taking its ease at the base of the next hillock.
Henry was at his shoulder.
'They'll be alright.'
'I know. But I'll miss them.'
Henry smiled at him, but could not offer comfort, for there was none. 'Go on, set the counter-spell for us. We'll start getting packed up.' He raised his voice. 'John, Uncle Exeter, Sir Thomas!'
Gloucester made his way across the ford with a few men to set up the circle. Montjoy and Stephen stayed in a quiet corner of the camp, writing out the counter-spell on the sheets Stephen had cut from his Bible. Late in the afternoon Montjoy glanced up, out over the stream, and so caught sight of the pride setting out purposefully up a rise across the grassland, two smaller figures loping along with them. 'Go well,' he said quietly, and Stephen, following his gaze, murmured a benediction.
The work was done by dusk, and they settled to what they hoped would be their last dinner on Castle Hill. There was an air of subdued cheerfulness about the camp. Henry and Bedford went to do the rounds of the fires; Montjoy went to check on Reynard down at the pickets.
Bates was there too, seeing to his horse. 'So, we're all set to go, then, Herald?'
'Everything's ready. We'll be off as soon as it's light.'
'It's a change from the other two translations, isn't it? The blue sun, and all the cannon-fire. And then the comet-fall. I thought it was the end of the world. But you got us away, safe and sound.'
'Let's hope we can do so again.' But Bates' words had started an uneasy train of thought in his mind. Tommaso had tried to trap them in the past, and twice had almost succeeded at the last moment. What might be lying in wait for them tonight? 'Sergeant Bates. Maybe you have the right of it. We should be ready for something, I think. Tell the men to be prepared.'
Bates gave him an unsurprised look. 'Aye, we'd be fools to expect it to be easy. I'll tell them.' He went back to his squad.
Montjoy stood still for a few moments, Reynard's brush forgotten in his hand. Was he being too fearful? Then, purposefully, he went back through the camp. He could make out Henry's figure in the twilight, unmistakable with its blond mane, at one of the further fires; Exeter was there too.
He began to run. The men were looking up as he passed, some of them snatching at weapons or bags. 'Herald, what is it?' called Richard.
'I don't know!' he panted. 'It's just a feeling! Henry!' he shouted, all protocol forgotten. People were turning, staring at him, astounded. He had no time for any of that.
Henry had whipped round; Exeter completely taken aback beside him. 'What's the matter?'
'I think we should go now!'
The bald statement left Henry staring at him for a heartbeat, but then he shouted 'Load up! Recall the guards!' An answering cry came down from Tower Rocks; Griffith and Robert Berry were on duty there this evening.
The camp surged into activity. Oh, if he was wrong... But he could not risk lives for fear of being made to look a fool. He doubled back to the rock-step and caught up the satchel and his bag. The cart-horses were being harnessed, the men working fast with the help of torches now.
A sudden rumble from the earth, and it shuddered beneath his feet. He staggered – no, not again! Curses filled the air, and then there was a slithering of rocks from the summit of the hill. He all but dropped the satchel, regained his senses and held onto it, and then there was a cry – Griffith's voice – from the path. He made to stagger towards it, but Gloucester's hand on his shoulder stopped him. 'Don't go! We can't risk you!' Stephen on his other side was shouting something, unnaturally loud as the noise died away. But now Robert was calling for help, too.
Bates' voice sounded over to his left, and suddenly there were more torches, and he and a group of men from the squad stumbled past. The carts were moving off. He had lost sight of Henry. He stood transfixed for a moment, on the point of giving in to the urge to run and search for him, and then knew where his duty lay, and spun round to follow Gloucester and Stephen towards the ford. Then he remembered that two of the men they needed for the counter-spell, Dr Colnet and Guy, would be where Griffith was. 'Your grace!'
Gloucester was at his elbow.
'We have to guard the doctor and Guy.'
Gloucester stared at him for a heartbeat, called a couple of archers to him, and doubled back to Castle Hill. Montjoy clasped the satchel under his arm and stumbled up the further bank of the ford. A straggling line of men began to make their way across to the gateway. There was another low groan from the earth. Everyone lurched, and some of them fell. Then there was silence. He looked up at the sky, apprehensive, but there were no shooting-stars such as they had seen over the doomed forest, just a slip of a moon, and the strange constellations, and the Milky Way shining in a faint band beyond.
'We'd best get on,' he said, desperately calm.
'They'll need our help!' someone protested.
'They'll manage, and we must have the circle ready for them and the carts inside it.'
There were muttered curses, but the group started to move again. Where was Henry, his beloved, brave young king? His friends? Reynard? If they had not joined them when the circle was set out he would go back.
The ground was wet underfoot. Strange, it had not been raining. But his boots were splashing through shallow water... They reached the gateway. 'Here, Herald. You'll need this.' William the cook was close at hand with a torch. He took it, and began to cast around for the central peg, found it, and called to Stephen, then went to search for the cardinal stones.
Jacob and John Flete were already in position at the west and south, waiting anxiously for him. He gave each of them their sheets of paper and talismans, and left the torch with Jacob at the south. Stephen went past him with his bow-stave and line, and as Montjoy returned to the peg he saw more torches approaching from Castle Hill, a long line of men and horses, splashing through a widening pool. The torchlight was reflected waveringly in the water.
Erpingham arrived. 'What's happening?' Montjoy asked without ceremony.
'Griffith and Robert fell on their way down from Tower Rocks. The king's there - '
Of course he was there. 'Safe?'
'Yes. But they're rigging up stretchers for Griffith and Robert. Dr Colnet's there. Said Robert was knocked cold and Griffith's got a broken leg. Is the counter-spell ready?'
'As ready as it can be without Guy and the doctor.'
'Good man.' Erpingham turned to supervise the men now filing into the circle. Montjoy stared across the dark water; there were lights flickering across it on Castle Hill, and then he saw with relief that they were moving down-slope and towards the ford. He supposed, in a distant way, that the water, still rising slowly, was spilling over from the stream – if the ground had shifted just slightly in the earthquake that was quite possible. More horses were arriving. Reynard was among them – he stroked his neck and murmured to him as he went past – and Cloud.
The last of the lights moved closer. There was the sound of feet swishing through the pool. He could see, in the flickering light, the last cart and its escort approaching. Where was Henry? Gloucester, at the head of the little group, caught Montjoy's eye, and said, 'He's safe. Bringing up the rear.'
Montjoy sagged in relief, and said 'Thank God,' and turned back to watch the stragglers come in. The cart went past – he caught a glimpse of Robert's pale face – and then Guy and Dr Colnet were beside him. He delved into the satchel and handed them their rings and pennies and papers, and sent them on their way to the cardinal stones.
And last of all, Henry appeared, making steady progress through the sheet of water, his face strained and set. But it lightened when he saw Montjoy, and he half-embraced him for a brief moment.
Stephen, waiting to close the circle, passed Henry the hour-glass, who grasped it for an instant before handing it on to Montjoy. Then he shouted 'Call the roll!' and the men responded, squad by squad, and one of his mates answered for Robert. They were all there.
'Carry on,' he said wearily to Montjoy and Stephen, and Montjoy went to the centre of the circle, the peg now underwater, and cried, 'Begin!' There was a brief flare to one side as Jacob lit his paper. He coated the hour-glass in salve, and looked round one last time at the flickering torches and the grasses of the wide plains, waving above the surface of the water. Then he invoked God and His saints, and brought the hour-glass down onto his spell-sheet. Lights and reflections and eddying water blurred, and swirled, and diminished, and were gone.
… this dear conjunction
There was more water, but this time it was falling as heavy rain, and there were puddles on the ground, but no spreading lake. It was daylight, though thick grey clouds covered the sky.
The harrow was forming up as he gathered up the hour-glass and spell-sheet and put them back into the satchel. Around its perimeter Henry and his kinsmen kept watch.
He went through the press of men, skirting the cart with Guy and Robert, stood at Henry's stirrup, and gazed out at the sodden landscape. They were in a narrow stretch of land between low cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. Headlands retreated, one after another, into the hazy distance. Gorse was blooming, the bushes clinging to the cliffs and the foreshore. And they were on a road, and off to one side, where there was an embankment cut into the hillside, were traces of fresh diggings.
Behind him the men were making inchoate sounds; relief, he thought, and exhaustion. He caught the sound of weeping from more than one direction. Tired; they were all so tired.
'This place... it may not be home, but it's close to it.' He looked up and down the coast. 'If it were France, I'd say Brittany...'
'Or Cornwall,' said Exeter, who had ridden round the harrow. 'We should find out. These cliffs will give a good view.' He looked up at the smooth granite rocks.
From his place in the cart, Griffith said in a strained attempt at normality, 'It reminds me of Wales,' and someone enquired, 'What, because of the rain?' There was a faint ripple of laughter.
'Have a double squad ready, but wait a while yet,' said Henry, loudly, to Exeter, and they waited again, while the rain hissed on the sea and the puddles spread and joined. No sign of movement along the road, no noise but for waves and rain. A few seagulls wheeled past.
'Go,' said Henry after a while. 'Be very careful.'
'Sire,' said Montjoy formally, 'I should perhaps look at these diggings.'
'Sergeant Bates! Take your squad and go with the Herald.'
They climbed awkwardly up the embankment, Bates lending Montjoy a hand now and then, and began the familiar search for shards of lead, for tokens or sheets of parchment among the earth and stones. Nothing. He looked down at the harrow on the road, all the archers still tense and alert, and then up at the party climbing to the brow of the cliff. There was no sign of a threat anywhere.
They slipped and stumbled back down to the road. 'My lord, I could find nothing. Maybe there's nothing to find.'
'How so?' Henry glanced down at him, confident as always that he would find the answers while Henry protected the men.
'If we have truly come home, come to the end of the spell... we have all its parts with us already. There would be nothing left in the earth. Those diggings – they remind me of what we saw near Caen. The trap was set by a road close by a bridge, so we could not avoid it. This is almost the same.' He looked up in the rain at Henry, who was dividing his time between scanning the landscape and glancing down at him.
'So... traps set near Channel ports, one for each brother and for any who were with them, where we were sure to come across them. But we found our way out of the trap each time.'
'I think that is the right of it.' Montjoy stared round; if they were in Brittany now, where had the statue of Bedford been buried? Near Calais, perhaps, an obvious invasion point for the English.
'My uncle Exeter can tell us more; they've found something.' The squads were waving, and picking their way quickly down from the cliffs.
And then came a sound which they had not heard for months; church bells ringing. Nones, mid-afternoon. An incoherent murmuring went up from the men, thanks and praise, and Montjoy found that rain was mingling with tears on his cheeks.
'Stay alert, my friends! We can't fall at this last hurdle!'
Exeter's party was returning now, and the Duke came straight up to Henry, who dismounted to hear his news. Montjoy made to withdraw, but Henry put a hand on his arm, keeping him close. 'Well, Uncle?'
'There's a town, in an inlet just around the headland. I think it may be St-Malo. I've seen it from the sea, when we were chasing pirates back to their lair.' A town now garrisoned by the English. And at the news, there really was an outcry; the men were shouting, weeping – someone thumped Montjoy's back and hugged him. It was Henry, who was laughing against his neck. Montjoy's arms went around him and he found himself weeping into Henry's hair. Then the moment was over and Henry broke away, shouting 'Form up! We'll get closer, and see what may be seen,' and the retinue got control of itself again and into some semblance of order. Montjoy turned to find Reynard, Henry was back up on Cloud, and they were on the march again, towards the headland, towards the world they knew.
Once or twice as they rode through the rain he looked back, to the place between the embankment and the foreshore where they had made the last of their translations, and could not rid himself of the idea that, just on the other side of an invisible circle, were a windy grassland, a hill like a castle, and a pride of tigers with two sturdy cubs in their midst.
The castle at St-Malo was flying the English flag, and so were some of the small ships in the harbour. So, reassured, the retinue smartened itself up as best it could, and rode into the town, and the Duke of Exeter demanded entrance at the castle gate. The garrison commander, astonished, gave them admittance, and stared at Henry; 'Your majesty is most welcome! We have all been in turmoil these last weeks – it was feared that you had been ambushed, or taken by a flood - '
'Ambushed we certainly were, Sir Gilbert, though not in the usual way. What's the news?'
'The Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Westmoreland are mounting a relief expedition. Your French dominions are prepared for attack...'
'Any sign of that happening right away?'
'No, my liege, and we'll be ready if it happens.'
'Well, we can rest here for a night at least. We'll need a good meal and the best accommodation you can find for the men. They deserve nothing less.'
Filing into the inner bailey, they all dismounted amid sighs and weary groans, and the horses were led away. It felt very strange to be enclosed by uncompromising atone walls once more. Dr Colnet and the garrison's physician were supervising the removal of the injured men to the infirmary. There was a bustling around the kitchens and great fires were lit in the wash-house. The men were accommodated in a long hall, while Henry and his immediate entourage were whisked away to the private apartments.
Montjoy, responding to a light touch on his arm, followed in Henry's wake, up the broad spiral stair, and through a wide arch into an airy room. There was a good deal of coming and going, and when it cleared he found himself installed in a small intramural chamber, with Erpingham and Stephen. He sank down on his pallet and put his hands over his face.
Stephen said, 'It'll be all confusion, over the next few hours. The king will be hearing reports and deciding on his plans.'
'I know,' said Montjoy. Had his sadness been so obvious? He unbuckled his sword-belt, fumbled with the clasps of his leathern coat, and immediately felt lost without them. The precious satchel was ready to do duty as a pillow. 'I can't believe it's all over.'
'No more can I, nor any of us,' said Erpingham, laying his sword down at the end of his truckle-bed, 'Herald, you did us proud.'
The friendly talk calmed his roiling emotions a little; he scrubbed his hands over his eyes and tried to join in. After a while he roused himself to visit the infirmary; Griffith was settled there, with his leg in splints and Guy next to his bedside. Robert was in another bed, sleeping now, rather than unconscious.
'How are you, Griffith?'
'I've got one of the softest beds in the castle, and a nurse to hold my hand. What more could I want?' He exchanged a smile with Guy.
'A clean break, the doctors say. It could have been a lot worse. Would have been, if I'd still been at the top of Tower Rocks. I've got you to thank for raising the alarm.'
'Not me, Sergeant Bates. The king told me he's got a head on his shoulders, and he was right.'
'Ah yes, the king. How is it with him?'
'He's in council now, hearing the news and making plans.'
'That's our King Harry; duty first with him, always.'
A little silence fell. Guy and Griffith glanced at each other. 'Herald, if it wasn't for you we'd all still be stuck in the land of the sail-backs. You can always count on our friendship, you know that, don't you?' said Guy.
'Yes. Yes, I do. Thank-you.' He grasped each of their hands; archers' hands, callused from years of pulling longbows; his friends' hands.
Then he took a quiet leave of them, and met Bates on the way back to the spiral stair, and learned that the rest of the men were going to eat in the great hall, so joined him; bread, for the first time in months; pease pottage! Then he went back to the room within the walls, and a while later they were summoned to the wash-house, and they all stripped and plunged in. It reminded him of that day at the lake when they had fished and swum and dozed under the palm-trees. He had been happy then, for all the doubt and danger of their position.
But when he had dressed in cleaner clothes again and gone back to the little room, he pulled a stool over to the window and sat for a while, looking out as chilly dusk fell over the fields of France, and realised what he must do. So he pulled his tabard with its golden lilies out of his bag, smoothed the creases from it as best he could, and slipped it over his head; so strange, to be wearing it again!. The leathern coat and the sword he put in a neat pile at the bottom of his pallet, and then he went back to staring out of the window.
Erpingham came into the chamber, took one look at him, and vanished through the door.
Gloucester appeared moments later. 'Montjoy. Come with me.'
He nodded dumbly, picked up satchel and sword and coat, and followed him down the short corridor. As he came out into the main chamber, the men inside it, all of them his friends, looked round. Their talk died away as they saw the tabard, and they stepped slowly away from the table, where their king was sitting. He had found time to get clean, for his hair was damp and he had been shaved, and there were the remains of a meal at his elbow, forgotten among a clutter of papers and maps. Montjoy lifted his chin, and walked straight up to him – Henry rising as he did so, his eyes shocked and vulnerable, though his face was a mask - and bowed.
'Your majesty, this sword and coat are yours, and these fragments of the spell should go to you, also.' His voice did not sound like his own. 'I ask that you give me some message for the French court, and leave to depart the castle tonight. I can find accommodation in the town.' Slow tears gathered and fell; he wiped them away impatiently.
Henry cast a swift look around him. 'Gentlemen, will you give us leave?' And they withdrew to one side of the room, not looking at the pair of them, concerned to give them privacy, and he took Montjoy through a door in the other wall; into his bedchamber, with a fire burning, and bags and weapons dumped on chests around the walls.
The door closed, a hollow sound. Montjoy set the things he was carrying down on a long table, and faced Henry. There was silence for a few moments.
'This...' Henry made a jerky gesture at the tabard. 'You're leaving me.'
'We're back in the world now, back in France,' he replied unsteadily. 'You have your duty, and I have mine.' But there were no more tears.
'I cannot...' He stopped, and began again. 'I feared it would come to this, though I hoped it would not.' He sounded forlorn.
'Then you know why I must go.'
Henry looked at him for a long moment, and then turned his head away so Montjoy could not see his face. 'When I put your talismans on, back in the land of the sail-backs, and I realised that you had a kindness towards me, I knew how much you loved France too. But can't you love both me and France?'
'I do. I always will. But back there in the past, it all seemed so far away.' He should never have let that influence him, never have listened to his heart or the urgings of his body. 'Here and now I'm a Frenchman, and we're still at war until the treaty is signed. I'd be a traitor if I cleaved to you.'
Henry turned back, hope in his face. 'But when the treaty's sealed? You'll come to me then?'
'When the treaty's sealed you'll be promised to the princess.'
'Oh,' Henry made a vague gesture, 'she's royal, she won't expect me to be faithful to her. There'll be no-one else but you. I won't be flaunting favourites in her face.'
How could he explain this to a king? 'She's royal, and so are you. But I'm a commoner. I don't think like that. I've known her since she was a little girl. If you knew the life she's led, with a mad father' - his voice caught for a moment – 'and a licentious mother... I can't do that to her. Can't betray her with her husband. You are the best chance of happiness she'll ever have.'
Henry swung away again, and strode quickly over to the window. 'There'll be a way.'
'There isn't,' said Montjoy heavily. 'Believe me, I've thought about it... And what would I do, in England, anyway?'
Henry turned back, and his mouth quirked up at the corner; there was that dimple again. 'Why, you'd be the king's enchanter.'
Now it was Montjoy who looked away. 'The king's bedfellow, you mean. And that's all I'd be. No life for a grown man.' He knew his voice sounded bitter.
Henry came quickly over to him, and caught at his arm. 'No, dear love, or at least not just that. You'd help me protect the kingdoms from sorcery. France as well as England.' Quick, coaxing words. 'You'd teach at the universities... We have no men of magic to protect us from people like Tommaso. Not yet.'
He had not thought of that. But - 'Your brother and Stephen can do that.'
'Not as well as you can! If it wasn't for you, we'd still be trapped in the past!' Henry's voice was full of distress.
'They'll find a way.'
Henry rested his hands on the table, next to the coat and sword and satchel, and bowed his head. 'Now I know why you wished we could stay there at Castle Hill.'
'Yes.' The candle-flames blurred before Montjoy's eyes.
'Scant reward for all you've done for us, to say thank-you and farewell...'
'My reward is that evil sorcery has failed. That the Duke of Clarence's expedition won't be needed. That there will be peace.'
'I would have given you an earldom.' Henry's eyes met his own. 'I would have given you myself.'
Montjoy's breath caught. An earldom was nothing. But to call Henry his own, even for one night...
And Henry was moving quickly back along the table, and his hands were reaching out for Montjoy's. 'I can still do that. Not the earldom, that doesn't matter. But give me one night, dear herald. I would... make conjunction with thee, here in a proper bed with a door between us and the world.'
He spoke quietly, persuasively, warm hands holding Montjoy's; and Montjoy hesitated, and Henry saw it, and went on quickly. 'There are none but our friends here. No word will get out into France. Stay with me, love, just for one night, if that's all you can give me.'
'It will be the more difficult, in the morning...' but he was wavering, and Henry knew it.
'Whatever we do now will be difficult. Whether you leave me or stay with me – either way it will hurt. But we can have one night, just to ourselves, and have that to remember, when we're following the path of duty out there in the world.' His hands were caressing Montjoy's now, holding them gently, and he lowered his head to rest his face in the hollow of Montjoy's neck. Montjoy felt tears against his skin.
'Oh...' a long sigh of pain, and then Montjoy's arms slipped around his king; 'I'll stay. Just for tonight. Though I should not.'
Henry held him close, and they stood like that for long moments. Then; 'Dear love. Wait here, just a few minutes. I'll dismiss the council. There was nothing much else to discuss with them, anyway; tomorrow will do for the rest of the business,' he muttered, almost to himself, and he loosed Montjoy, scrubbed his hands over his eyes, and went to the door. Then his voice could be heard in the next chamber, strained but decisive; how many meetings had he brought to a close in like manner?
Montjoy sank down onto a stool at the table, and leaned his head on one hand for a moment. He closed his eyes. Why had he agreed to it? It would only mean more heartbreak in the morning... In an effort to distract himself, and with shaking hands, he opened his satchel, and began to empty its contents out onto the table.
Here were the spell-sheets which he had written out. Here was Erpingham's white leather bag, with their own bodged-together talismans of silver and moonstone and pearls, that had first given Henry an inkling of Montjoy's feelings for him. A handful of feathers from an axe-beak's crest; the tooth of a tyrant. Here was the hour-glass –
It was crazed with a fine pattern of cracks, and as he took it into his hand, it shivered into fragments. He stared at the glittering shards in dull perplexity. Had Tommaso set a limit to its life? Be-spelled it so that it could not be used again once its purpose was served? Either way, it was just as well that no-one could use it now. For the thought of people voyaging through time, changing the past, and the present with it, was a terrifying prospect. He laid the fragments down carefully, and looked again into the satchel.
A bundle of papers, wadded together and pushed down one side of it. Page upon page of his own notes. He spread them out, and gazed at them with amazement. How had he ever thought his way through the puzzle? Stephen and Gloucester had played full part, of course, and there had been night after night of discussion around Henry's camp-fire, whether in the mountains or the doomed forest or on Castle Hill. And without the men, they would have been lost; John Melton, or Bates and his caution, or Pistol the thief most of all. But more often than not, he had been the one to see their way through the maze. Though now they were in a maze that had no key - his love for Henry, Henry's for him, the barriers that divided them.
The door opened, and Henry came back into the room. Montjoy made to rise, but Henry came swiftly over to him, and laid one arm around his shoulders. He bent close, his cheek resting against Montjoy's temple. 'Not much to show for all our adventures, is it?' he said softly, sadly. But then his hand strayed over the silver talismans, and he added, 'But we've got these.'
'The hour-glass has shattered, like the statues and the tokens,' said Montjoy. 'It's telling us our time's up, maybe.'
'It isn't quite over yet. Come to bed, love,' and Henry raised him to his feet then, turned him and kissed him before leading him by the hand to the great bed in the corner of the room. They dowsed all but a few of the candles as they went. The fire was burning low. Then, quietly and without haste, they undressed, and slid beneath the covers, and into each other's arms.
And a while later, Henry made a deep luxurious growl, a tiger's purr of pleasure; and then they slept.
In the deep watches of the night, when they had woken again, Montjoy whispered, 'I miss Fierce and Scar.'
'I know. So do I,' said Henry, and stroked his hair. 'But they'll be all right, our little tigers. The pride will take care of them, and in a few years' time they'll gather a pride of their own, and go and live on Castle Hill, and their cubs will lord it over the plains.'
'You make it sound as though they're still alive.'
'Why, so they are, on the other side of time. And that's because of you, and I helped you, even though I was angry with you at first... I wonder what they're doing now?'
'Up to no good, if I know our cubs,' said Montjoy, between laughter and tears, and Henry, in like case himself, held him close again and rocked him gently, while out on the windy plains, and on the other side of time, the cubs were practicing ambushes on their mother.
The morning dawned grey and slow, but still too swiftly, and in a heavy silence they got out of bed and dressed; and Montjoy put on his tabard again. Henry held him one last time, and said, 'I know you're set on this, so it's no use asking again. But if ever you change your mind, you'll come to me, won't you?'
'If ever I change my mind, then I will. But I do not think I ever can. Marry the princess, Henry. Love her. Be good to my people. Remember me, from time to time.'
'I will.' Henry's mouth touched his, solemn as a sacrament, and then their time together was over, and they went out of the door of their bedchamber, and back into the world again.
Down in the courtyard his escort was awaiting him; Erpingham, Bates and the squad. Guy was holding Reynard, who whickered to see his master.
'Guy? Shouldn't you be staying here?'
'Sir Thomas said I could, but Griffith said to go with you. We meant it when we said we were your friends.'
'Thank-you. All of you.'
'No, Herald, it's for us to thank you. Up you get, now,' and Guy waited while he mounted, then turned away to his own horse. Hooves clattered on the cobbles as the escort moved towards the gatehouse, where Henry was waiting, with his kinsmen around him.
Reynard checked for a moment, and Montjoy looked down into Henry's eyes. His hand, with a ring of silver and pearl upon it, dropped from the reins. Henry took one pace forward, and touched it – an answering gleam of silver - before stepping back again. They filed through the arched passage, darkness and a smell of damp stone, and out onto the Paris road. There were stallholders setting out their wares, housewives doing their shopping, carts arriving; all the normal business of a normal day. A young lordling with hair so black it was almost blue went past with his retinue, bearing the arms of Rais, his head turning to see the English, and the French herald in their midst, crossing the drawbridge. They were going in the opposite direction, towards Brittany. Sergeant Bates turned onto the road the other way.
One last glance back at Henry, and then he set his face towards Paris and duty. They would meet again at Troyes, in all likelihood, when the treaty was signed.
And there would be peace between their nations.
Jan 2013: The sequel, 'Star of England', is here at my LJ: http://hyarrowen.livejournal.com/25151.html
Warning for brief mentions of the abuse of children as committed by one of the historical, but non-canon, characters. Nothing explicit and nothing on-screen - but the crimes underpin the plot.