Happy New Year to all my friends and faithful readers!
The past year, everyone agrees, has been a bit of a stinker. So as a consolation prize, I am posting the first chapter of my new Outlaw Chronicles novel for you to enjoy for free. The book – Robin Hood and the Castle of Bones – begins with Alan Dale feeling a bit like I feel this morning after a surfeit of seasonal merriment. It seemed apt. Hope you enjoy it!
“Have you thought much about wine, Alan?” Robin asked me.
I turned in the saddle and squinted painfully at my lord, who was clopping along beside me on the dusty road. My head was aching more than a little, my stomach queasy from even the gentlest movements of my horse, and the bright spring sunlight seemed to spear my half-closed eyes.
My first thought was that Robin was mocking me in some inventive fashion for indulging too much the evening before at the large townhouse in Chalon-sur-Saone, in the region known as Burgundia, where we had spent the night. The wines of this area were, even to my rough, untutored tastes, quite simply delicious. And they were plentiful. And we were rich.
“Of course I have,” I said. “It would be difficult not to think about the joys of drinking when we pass vineyard after vineyard on the road and sample a new vintage at every tavern. What are you saying, lord?”
“I know you think a great deal about drinking it,” said Robin. “And from the unhealthy colour of your face this morning, and the vile, raucous bawling I heard from the hall last night after I went to my bed, I’d say you indulged the practice with enthusiasm. But that’s not what I meant.”
There had been a little joyful singing the night before. Not bawling by any means, nor was it vile or raucous. I was a serious musician in those days, a skilled player of the five-stringed vielle, and a honey-voiced singer praised by royalty, no less. But I had, in truth, stayed up late by the fire in the great hall of the house we had stayed in – a mansion owned by a Jewish merchant called Mordecai with whom Robin had some murky connection – with two companions, who were now riding behind Robin and me. Yes, we had enthusiastically sampled a few jugs of the local vintage – a sweet, strong, yellow brew – courtesy of the kindly old Jew and with a good deal of pleasure. Yes, we had engaged in some tuneful jollity; a rhyming verse or two, a mere canso or salut d’amor, perhaps, to amuse ourselves as we explored our generous host’s excellent cellar. But our merrymaking could hardly be described as “vile, raucous bawling”.
I heard the report of a prolonged belch from behind me and turned to look at its perpetrator. Hanno, a bald, much-scarred Bavarian man-at-arms, a friend of mine and mentor to me, scowled back as if he wished me to drop dead this instant, as if his discomfort today was all my fault.
His normally ruddy face was a greyish colour, and beaded with oily sweat, his body trembled like an old man suffering from a winter ague, and he gave the distinct impression of a fellow on the very edge of death – or perhaps just of bringing up his breakfast all over his horse’s black mane. He scratched angrily his unshaven jaw, rubbed his round and stubbled pate and belched deafeningly once more. I caught the revolting sweet-sour waft of half-digested wine from two horses’ lengths away.
Beside Hanno rode Ricky, a slight, dark fellow – an excellent sailor and blue-water navigator but a less impressive man-at-arms, who had chosen to take the role of Robin’s servant while we were on dry land. He, too, looked extremely unwell – perhaps even in worse shape than Hanno.
It was just the four of us on that hot, dusty road in the heart of Burgundia, walking our horses along between sprouting rye fields and cow-cropped pastures, and seeing nobody but one sullen peasant with a wagon and pair of dusty mules to pull it, and once a muttering priest on a grey mare. We were a few miles west of Chalon-sur-Saone, the largest local town, on a straight road that would lead, or so we devoutly believed, after about a day’s ride, to the more substantial settlement of Autun.
The rest of our company – more than a hundred souls under the command of Robin’s gigantic lieutenant, amusingly nicknamed Little John – was some seventy miles to the south of us, between the towns of Lyon and Mâcon in the fecund valley of the River Saone. They were advancing north only at a snail’s pace in a lumbering train containing three ox-drawn wagons. The Sherwood company, as we called it, was a mixed one, comprised more than three score English and Welsh bowmen, and a conroi, or mounted company, of thirty-seven men-at-arms, mostly Normans, recruited in Marseilles, as well as spare horses, weapons and kit, and a dozen women and their children, whom we’d collected over the past two years of hard travelling.
Hanno, Ricky and I were on a scouting mission – away from the village-like hubbub and chatter of the slow, ever-creaking ox wagons – with the self-appointed task of reconnoitering the best routes to get us safely back home to England. It was not an arduous task, to be honest, more a pleasant jaunt in the springtime. And the Earl of Locksley had decided, at the last moment, to accompany us, for reasons known best to himself. He claimed he was only seeking a break from the burdensome responsibilities of command and relief from the monotony of the journey. But, with Robin, who could say what was on his mind? Not I, for sure.
The weather had mostly been kind. The main roads in the Saone Valley, built by the Romans all those centuries ago, were still paved with big stone slabs and, for the most part, ran arrow straight. These ancient thoroughfares remained in a surprisingly good condition, despite the passage of so much time and the many generations of travellers, and allowed us to travel as a decent pace. Furthermore, the route was already familiar to us, since we had passed over this placid landscape only two years before. That spring we had come down from Normandy to Tours, then marched east, across to Chalon, and south down the valley to Lyon, with a mighty array of knights and noblemen of England and Normandy, part of King Richard’s vast host, which was bound for the Holy Land.
How many of those bold Christian souls still walked the earth, I wondered? Certainly we had lost more than our fair share of noble men-at-arms to sickness, many more than to battle, over the past two eventful years. And what had we achieved? Very little fame or glory – that was for sure – although we had won one great victory over Saladin, the Saracen warlord, at a place called Arsuf, and sent him and his army reeling back.
But even that one victory had been sadly incomplete and the news we received from the Holy Land, in March, when we arrived by sea at the port of Marseilles, was all bad. Despite his best efforts, Richard had been unable to capture the holy city of Jerusalem and his exhausted knights now spoke only of making peace with Saladin and returning to England.
“I meant with your share of the Caliph’s gold,” said Robin, loudly and a little too cheerily for my frail constitution. “Have you thought much about investing all your hard-won money in the English wine trade?”
Well, yes, there was the Caliph’s gold, of course. We might not have covered ourselves with everlasting glory on the long journey to the Holy Land and back, but we were, it could not be denied, indecently wealthy.
We had wrested, with much toil, sweat and pain, a large quantity of pure African gold ingots and several barrels of silver coin from one of the cruellest of the Almohad rulers of southern Spain and, although Robin had been forced to outlay a good deal of it since, I still had a fat purse full of silver coin hanging from my belt and in the iron-banded boxes in the three wagons, seventy miles on the road behind us, was my share of our glittering hoard, a sum to keep me in comfort for the rest of my days.
“I don’t know very much about the wine business . . .” I began.
“Except how to drain three whole casks of Mordecai’s finest in only a single night!” Robin said, chuckling away in a most irritating manner.
I didn’t care to endorse Robin’s jest, so I held my tongue.
We rode on for a furlong in silence then Robin said, in a more serious tone of voice, “You see, Alan, I know of a wealthy wine trader; a respected vintner of the City of London, a fellow called Ivo of Shoreham, who has a house on the river near Queen’s Hithe. He makes a good living in the business and owes me a favour. I thought I might invest some of our gold with Ivo; and, with luck, make a good profit in a year or two. I wondered if you would like to come in with me on this arrangement.”
“This Ivo buys his imported wine from here?” I asked, incredulous. “From the County of Burgundy? And he transports all those unwieldy great barrels back to England. It must be five hundredmiles by land!”
“No, not from here, Alan; and, once again, we are not in the County of Burgundy, we’re in the Duchy of Burgundy – they are two separate entities. Not by land either. The trade routes run by sea from Bordeaux in the Duchy of Aquitaine, west of here. The ships carry the wine across the Bay of Biscay, up the Channel then into the Port of London. Ricky knows the trade, don’t you? You served on the wine cogs for years, no?”
Robin turned in the saddle to look at his whey-faced servant.
Ricky grinned feebly and, lifting a trembling index finger in the air, he said: “Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine and roses, and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”
I dimly recognized it as a snatch of the reams of poetry that Ricky had spouted in the hall the night before. There had been a good deal more dense verbiage in this vein, I recalled. And we had applauded it heartily.
Robin grinned. “Yes, I’ve heard that silly bit of doggerel before. It’s the old Persian trouvère, Omar Khayyam – a wretch who, like you three idiots, loved wine to an absurd degree. ‘Drink! For you know not whence you came nor why; drink! For you know not why you go nor where.’
Robin swung around in the saddle to look at me. “It’s people such as that old sot Khayyam, or boozy young Alan here, who’ll make us rich!”
“Could we please not talk about this, my lord,” I said, feeling my stomach lurch. “I become ill even thinking about taking wine today.”
“Wine is the Devil’s own foul, stinking piss,” growled Hanno. “Ale is better for proper drinking. Fresh ale doesn’t make your belly sour . . . “
Hanno stopped abruptly and snapped his head round to look north. Beyond the thick hedgerow that lined the road was a patch of rough grassland, which rose gently to the summit of a knoll. There was a wide, spreading yew at the brow of the knoll and, at that moment, a small flock of pigeons had, all at once, risen from their perches and, wings clattering madly, they flapped upwards and wheeled away into the empty blue sky.
There was the sound of drumming hooves and over the crest of the hill, outlined clearly in the light, came a thick line of horsemen.
They were knights or men-at-arms with green surcoats, grey iron mail, chequered shields and full helms, and carrying long, lethal lances.
A score of hostile riders.
“Ware right!” shouted Robin. “Ware cavalry. Back everyone, back down the road. Back to Chalon! Alan, wake up, man – ply those spurs!”
The attack was so unexpected, and my brain was so dulled with last night’s festivities, that I completely froze. I sat like a lump in the saddle staring stupidly at the oncoming horsemen. And they were oncoming fast, now in the centre of the field, barely fifty yards away from us now, on the far side of the thick hawthorn hedge.
But Robin’s words did rouse me. I hauled my poor horse round, yanking on the reins. He was a well-schooled gelding called Ghost who was used to the alarms of battle and seldom panicked. Ghost wheeled and responding to the prick of spurs, he set off at a canter back down the road after the others, the same road we’d ridden up so carelessly that morning.
The four of us were spread out along the broad highway. Ricky was far in the lead, crouched up over the neck of his bay, urging her on with soft words. Then came Hanno, twisted in the saddle and looking back at the enemy horsemen thundering behind us. Then Robin and – last of all – me. I snatched a fast glance behind us, too, and saw the enemy were leaping the hedge, clearing the hawthorn like fallow deer, and gathering themselves and their mounts, before pounding up the road behind us.
I could clearly hear their excited cries – they were hallooing to each other like excited huntsmen in pursuit of some frightened hart – although the language they used between them was quite unintelligible to my ears.
That’s odd, I thought. They don’t seem to speak in French. Is that not the tongue in these parts? Why is that? Who are these folk? Then I dismissed these irrelevant notions and concentrated on riding for my life.
I was last in the line, with Robin two horses’ lengths in front of me, and now we went up from the canter to full gallop, our horses at their longest stretch. Some three miles down this arrow-straight road was the walled town of Chalon, seat of a local bishop, with whom we had dined the day before, and to whom Robin had made a generous gift of Almohad silver. This was ostensibly alms for the poor but in reality a big fat bribe.
The bishop had plenty of his own men-at-arms on the high walls of that town, and mercenary crossbowmen up in the strong gatehouse, too. Chalon meant safety for us – if only we could reach it in time. I glanced back again. We were easily outpacing our pursuers; the gap between our galloping mounts and the madly yelling men in green surcoats was growing with every pounding stride. A very sloppy ambush, I thought. Our horses are much faster. They have done no more than chase us away.
I laid a hand on Ghost’s straining neck, willing him to more speed. He was a fine, strong horse; he would never fail me, I knew that at least.
Robin was twisted in the saddle too, looking beyond me to our noisy pursuers, fifty yards away, the gap between us and the foe growing larger.
“Something’s not right,” he yelled. “Something is wrong.”
In a moment, we discovered the nature of that wrongness.
I heard a man scream, high and desperate, and saw little Ricky was now flying right over the top of his horse’s head; and the poor animal whinnying in terror and tumbling over its legs. Then the awful crack of equine bones. The horse was now sprawling in the dirt of the road, kicking a loosely flopping foreleg; Ricky lay in a heap a few yards further on, quite still. I simply could not understand what had happened.
Then Hanno, just a few paces behind, leapt his horse into the air, as if he were jumping an invisible hurdle, and came skittering to halt on the other side. There were now strange horsemen on the road ahead of us – five or six more of the green surcoated fellows, all with mail, helm and lances. I saw that a heavy rope had been stretched across the road at the height of a man’s belly, a yard high, tied to two oak trees on either side.
Robin was shouting, “Halt, halt!” and I was desperately reining in Ghost, his four hooves locked and skidding in the dust of the road. My body was hurled against his silky neck, I found I was fighting just to keep my seat, and not to slip right forward over Ghost’s grey head.
This was no sloppy, ill-conceived ambush. It was a well-laid trap.
On the far side of the rope, Hanno was already in a savage melee; sword out, laying about with his usual lethal skill. There were half a dozen horsemen milling around him and, as I watched, he cut down one fellow with two flicks of his sword. Then slashed another across the face.
But Hanno took a hard, clanging mace blow on the back of his steel helm and I saw him reel in the saddle, and suddenly spur onward, his big horse shouldering another out of his path. Hanno’s sword jabbed out and skewered an enemy through the thigh – the fellow screaming in a strange tongue, and lashing out again with the mace, and Hanno yelling back at him in the same language, as he struck again, a pounding hack into his enemy’s left shoulder, smashing his long blade into the man’s grey mail.
It’s German, I thought madly. They’re speaking a kind of German.
Our first line of pursuers had caught up with us by now. I had my own sword out and was wrestling my left arm into the tight leather slings of my shield. A big blond fellow, lance couched, was coming straight for me. The deadly point of his spear aimed right at my heart. But I did the correct thing. I gave Ghost a tiny signal with my knees, and my brave animal waited for the exact perfect moment and made a little dancing step to the right. The charging knight’s lance hit my leather-faced shield, but only a glancing blow and, rotating my body with the force of his lance strike, using his momentum, I lashed out with my sword and crunched the long blade into the back of his coif as he thundered past me.
I heard a sharp snap, like a twig underfoot, felt his iron mail give in under my powerful strike and reckoned I’d broken the bastard’s neck.
Robin, too, was engaging a knight now, sword to sword, steel scraping against steel, sparks flying in fiery arcs. I saw that Hanno was past his mass of opponents, beyond the tight-stretched hempen rope, and that three of them already lay dead in the road. He was free and clear. Yet Hanno was circling his horse now, turning it, as if to return, brush aside his foes once more, and jump back over the rope and come to aid us.
I dodged a snake-fast lance-strike at directly my face. It came out of nowhere but I felt the horrible wind of it on my left cheek. I swung my sword into a passing horseman, and felt it thump uselessly on his shield.
Robin had killed his opponent – a straight hard thrust through the fellow’s Adam’s apple, gory point bursting out of the fellow’s mail-clad neck. My lord was now yelling over at Hanno. “Ride away, man. Get back to Little John. Go! Go!” But Hanno still hesitated.
I got my shield up in time to block a vicious sword swipe from a man with a steel helm and full lattice-like facemask, the curved steel face-plate punctured with little square breathing holes. A pair of curled goat’s horns were affixed to the flat top of the helmet, giving him a unearthly, even a slightly demonic, air. I could not see the fellow’s eyes behind the mask – an effect that meant he looked to me like a living monster, like some foul creature of a deep, disturbing netherworld.
Indeed, I was so shocked by his ghastly appearance, that my instinctive counter blow was badly mistimed. He easily batted off my sword blow with his own, and struck at me again, his sharp blade thwacking against the leather face of my shield, and slipping off the surface, sliding upwards to crash painfully into my mailed shoulder.
“Yield, sirs! Surrender or die,” said the man in the hellish steel monster-mask, the words muffled but intelligible as a kind of French.
I glanced at Robin. Then looked at the road ahead, Hanno was two hundred yards down the road and galloping hard back towards Chalon. Ricky was still unconscious – or dead – lying in a heap in the dust. There were a dozen men in green all around us; some armed with lances, one man, a veteran sergeant, had a crossbow pointed right at Robin’s chest.
There was no way though them, or none that I could imagine.
“Yield or die!” the masked man repeated, shouting more loudly this time, his menacing sword raised, ready to cut me down. “Yield to me!”
“Very well,” said Robin, lowering his own blade. “We surrender.”
If you would like to buy Robin Hood and the Castle of Bones, in paperback or eBook, you can do so by clicking here.