The Herald had ridden this way often enough in the last ten years as the tide of civil war had surged across north-eastern France and back again. So he was able to pick his route easily, and concentrated instead on the makeup of the vanguard as he rode in the rain past the straggling lines of men. Not some army of his king's over-mighty subjects this time, but an invasion force, English and Welsh troops, turned aside from their direct route from Harfleur to Calais, now across the Somme and heading back northwards: straight into the path of the French army, finally mustered to destroy them.
With King Charles' message committed to memory, Montjoy was taking careful note of numbers, weapons, coats-of-arms. There was Cornwaille, nodding at him with distant courtesy, and a small group of mounted knights. Archers, a lot of archers, stumbling, weary and ill, slogging down the muddy track. A few more horsemen. He stopped counting the archers in tens and began to reckon them by the score, then in fifties. There was Umfraville, looking as tired as his men. Only the weapons were bright.
More archers. Where were Henry's men-at-arms?
A long gap. Montjoy urged his horse to a canter, knowing this part of the route well; and then came to a clearing, a hanged man, and Henry himself.
He delivered the message almost automatically, watching the King's grim, exhausted face. Much more was going on here than a simple execution, and yet it seemed that Henry had not flinched from it. Montjoy tried a direct appeal to the men, standing shocked and silent behind Henry, and got nowhere with it: it seemed they accepted the summary justice, though they could not see what it had cost the King as he kept his tear-stained face resolutely towards the French herald.
But his first words startled Montjoy - the latest in a long line of surprises today - for instead of replying immediately, Henry, wet, weary and obviously under immense strain, far from home and help, looked straight into his enemy's eyes and quietly asked his name.
And soon afterwards Montjoy was riding back down the track, feeling those northern-sky eyes on him still as he went. And the rain came down again.
Reporting back to d'Albret, the Constable of France, Montjoy found himself against his will comparing the two, and how they led their men. In fact d'Albret had seemed almost inert as the invasion progressed, though whether that was simply because the Dauphin had wanted to fight, Montjoy didn't know. But the Constable had consistently argued that they should let Henry's campaign run its course, and retake Harfleur at some unspecified date after the English had returned home. (Montjoy tried, and failed, to imagine Henry sitting likewise at his ease in London in the face of a French invasion of England.) Only when the odds had tipped overwhelmingly in France's favour had d'Albret begun to show any enthusiasm for a counter-attack. And yet he was no coward, just detached; a strategist to Henry's tactician, and it was hard to fault his approach in this case.
D'Albret could hardly credit the herald's report on the composition of the English army. ‘Five archers to every man-at-arms, you say? What's Henry thinking of? Peasants will never stand and fight.' Had he forgotten the lessons of Crecy? ‘And a vanguard of a thousand men? Either their army's tiny, or Henry's well-nigh leading it himself;' most likely both, was Montjoy's mental comment. ‘They'll give us no problems!' The Constable rubbed his hands in pleased anticipation. A further thought occurred. ‘Henry himself. How did he look? Worried? Ready to surrender?' There had been no love lost between Henry's father and d'Albret since the latter's invasion of the English royal lands in the Aquitaine years ago, and it seemed as though the quarrel was ready to be transferred to the son at last.
‘He's - ‘
At this point, a great many things that he could say about Henry rushed through Montjoy's head, and it didn't seem the time to articulate any of them.
Determined. Henry had meant it when he said he would not be ransomed, though with the morale of his men to consider he could not do otherwise. Brave, or foolhardy; but surely the Constable knew that already? Ruthless, yes; Montjoy would not forget that hanged man easily, though the judgment had obviously cost Henry dear (and yet he'd let the people of Harfleur go unharmed, even given them money for food and an armed escort to safety, and what to make of that?) Exhausted, and not surprisingly, after the long cat-and-mouse game along the banks of the Somme, and there was no prospect of rest for him. All to the good for the French.
But Montjoy, who had seen more kings and marching armies than he cared to remember, knew that there was something else that he could never tell d'Albret, or the Dauphin (should that prince ever think to ask): Henry's men respected and loved him. Henry had certainly had Montjoy's startled respect ever since their first meeting in the council chamber at Westminster, and he seemed as capable of conjuring... affection from one Frenchman at least as from his own soldiers. For with everything else to think of, reflected Montjoy ruefully, he treated me with courtesy and complete attention, asked my name and remembered it: not something that happened very often to heralds. He had a sudden vision of the Constable speaking to an enemy herald in such a way, and had to force back a wildly inappropriate laugh.
In fact, about the only thing Montjoy had left off this list (more silent laughter) was ‘beautiful' and star-struck as he was he couldn't really apply this description to Henry any more than to himself. But he'd burned bright in the dripping forest, drawing all eyes to him, and Montjoy had been no exception. Something else he couldn't tell d'Albret. Along with:
I wish he were ours.
I wish he were mine.
But the Constable was waiting.
‘- an exceptional leader, and he won't give up,' Montjoy finished inadequately, picking on the one aspect of the enemy king that would be vital tomorrow; if he could get his commander to listen.
‘He won't even be ransomed, you say?' Montjoy shook his head. ‘No point offering that as an incentive to capture him, then. We'd best have him killed as quickly as possible. There'll be plenty of young knights eager to make their mark that way.' D'Albret nodded at him, satisfied, and the Herald, duty done, tried to be satisfied too.
But later that evening, as he sat with the French commanders in the Constable's tent, Montjoy listened to the rain drumming down and the sounds of revelry from the French camp, and felt his disquiet grow again. Open hostility seemed about to break out between d'Albret and the Dauphin, and he earned himself a frown from d'Albret when he tried to defuse the tension.
‘The armour in your tent tonight, are those suns or stars upon it?'
‘Stars, Montjoy!' The Constable was in no mood for small-talk.
‘Some of them will fall tomorrow, I hope.' The Dauphin smiled, seeming to think that he'd scored a point.
‘And yet my sky shall not want!' Now it was the Dauphin who was on the receiving end of the Constable's glare.
In the end the bickering irritated Montjoy so much that he left abruptly soon after the Dauphin, only stopping to deliver a final word of warning to d'Albret and Orleans on his way out of the tent, and they could take heed or not as they chose.
The tension ebbed from him as soon as he stepped out into the chill, damp air of the night. The noise from the French soldiers was dying down at last, and the English camp was utterly, ominously silent, as it had been all evening. What was Henry doing now? Not sitting idly picking quarrels with his commanders, Montjoy was sure of that. He remembered his own words to d'Albret: he won't give up.
The ground squelched underfoot as he began to make his way back to the heralds' tent, but the downpour had stopped at last. He looked up, hoping that the sky was clearing. Heavy-armoured as the French were, they would need dry weather to fight in tomorrow. But though the rain had stopped, the sky was still completely overcast.
He could not see a single star.