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 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.
Epilogue: 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, 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.
The sequel, 'Star of England', is here: http://www.squidge.org/peja/cgi-bin/viewstory.php?sid=53796