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It was winter. A cold morning wind blew from the sea bringing a sour salt smell and a spitting rain that would inevitably sap the power of the bowstrings if it did not let up.
"What it is," Jake said, "is a waste of goddamn time."
No one took any notice of him.
"Could have stayed in Brest," Jake grumbled, "been sitting by a fire. Drinking ale."
Again he was ignored.
"Funny name for a town," Sam said after a long while. "Brest. I like it, though." He looked at the archers. "Maybe we'll see the Blackbird again?" he suggested.
"Maybe she'll put a bolt through your tongue," Will Skeat growled, "and do us all a favor."
The Blackbird was a woman who fought from the town walls every time the army made an assault. She was young, had black hair, wore a black cloak and shot a crossbow. In the first assault, when Will Skeat's archers had been in the vanguard of the attack and had lost four men, they had been close enough to see the Blackbird clearly and they had all thought her beautiful, though after a winter campaign of failure, cold, mud and hunger, almost any woman looked beautiful. Still, there was something special about the Blackbird.
"She doesn't load that crossbow herself," Sam said, unmoved by Skeat's surliness.
"Of course she bloody doesn't," Jake said. "There ain't a woman born that can crank a crossbow."
"Dozy Mary could," another man said. "Got muscles like a bullock, she has."
"And she closes her eyes when she shoots," Sam said, still talking of the Blackbird. "I noticed."
"That's because you weren't doing your goddamn job," Will Skeat snarled, "so shut your mouth, Sam."
Sam was the youngest of Skeat's men. He claimed to be eighteen, though he was really not sure because he had lost count. He was a draper's son, had a cherubic face, brown curls and a heart as dark as sin. He was a good archer though; no one could serve Will Skeat without being good.
"Right, lads," Skeat said, "make ready."
He had seen the stir in the encampment behind them. The enemy would notice it soon and the church bells would ring the alarm and the town walls would fill with defenders armed with crossbows. The crossbows would rip their bolts into the attackers and Skeat's job today was to try to clear those crossbowmen off the wall with his arrows. Some chance, he thought sourly. The defenders would crouch behind their crenellations and so deny his men an opportunity to aim, and doubtless this assault would end as the five other attacks had finished, in failure.
It had been a whole campaign of failure. William Bohun, the Earl of Northampton, who led this small English army, had launched the winter expedition in hope of capturing a stronghold in northern Brittany, but the assault on Carhaix had been a humiliating failure, the defenders of Guingamp had laughed at the English, and the walls of Lannion had repulsed every attack. They had captured Tréguier, but as that town had no walls it was not much of an achievement and no place to make a fortress. Now, at the bitter end of the year, with nothing better to do, the Earl's army had fetched up outside this small town, which was scarcely more than a walled village, but even this miserable place had defied the army. The Earl had launched attack after attack and all had been beaten back. The English had been met by a storm of crossbow bolts, the scaling ladders had been thrust from the ramparts and the defenders had exulted in each failure.
"What is this goddamn place called?" Skeat asked.
"La Roche-Derrien," a tall archer answered.
"You would know, Tom," Skeat said, "you know everything."
"That is true, Will," Thomas said gravely, "quite literally true." The other archers laughed.
"So if you know so bloody much," Skeat said, "tell me what this goddamn town is called again."
"Daft bloody name," Skeat said. He was gray-haired, thin-faced and had known nearly thirty years of fighting. He came from Yorkshire and had begun his career as an archer fighting against the Scots. He had been as lucky as he was skilled, and so he had taken plunder, survived battles and risen in the ranks until he was wealthy enough to raise his own band of soldiers. He now led seventy men-at-arms and as many archers, whom he had contracted to the Earl of Northampton's service which was why he was crouching behind a wet hedge a hundred and fifty paces from the walls of a town whose name he still could not remember. His men-at-arms were in the camp, given a day's rest after leading the last failed assault. Will Skeat hated failure.
"La Roche what?" he asked Thomas.
"What does that goddamn mean?"
"That, I confess, I do not know."
"Sweet Christ," Skeat said in mock wonder, "he doesn't know everything."
"It is, however, close to derrière, which means arse," Thomas added. "The rock of the arse is my best translation."
Skeat opened his mouth to say something, but just then the first of La Roche-Derrien's church bells sounded the alarm. It was the cracked bell, the one that sounded so harsh, and within seconds the other churches added their tolling so that the wet wind was filled with their clangor. The noise was greeted by a subdued English cheer as the assault troops came from the camp and pounded up the road toward the town's southern gate. The leading men carried ladders, the rest had swords and axes. The Earl of Northampton led the assault, as he had led all the others, conspicuous in his plate armor half covered by a surcoat showing his badge of the lions and stars.
"You know what to do!" Skeat bellowed.The Archer's Tale
Excerpted from The Archer's Tale: Book One of the Grail Quest by Bernard Cornwell
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