The Torch of God

Original fiction by David Pilling

First published in the Winter 2009 edition of Solander magazine – copyright remains with the author. David has a website and blog, and we reviewed his first novel, Folville’s Law, here.

Newgate Prison, London, 1440

I, Robert Stafford, sometime thief and mercenary and ever a miserable wretch and sinner, will soon be dead. These past five years I have languished in Newgate gaol waiting to be hanged. If they do not kill me soon I shall do the job myself and dash my brains out against the wall, for even that is preferable to rotting away in a cell.

First I will finish writing my life story. They allow me pen and paper in here, thinking it a great joke that a condemned man should spend his time writing. Today, on a fine April day with warm sunlight lancing through the bars of my cell window, I shall write of the French wars and the child who brought me closer to God than I have ever been.

 

Verneuil

                                                

Sixteen years ago I was serving as a captain of archers in the English army in France. I did this for no patriotic reason but because military service was the only alternative to hanging. I had done great harm in Surrey and Sussex as an outlaw and the justices gave me a stark choice of enlistment or the gallows. Fighting the French seemed the better option but several months of hard campaigning did much to change my mind, as did being kicked awake early one August morning.

I cursed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and struggling to focus on the sergeant-at-arms looming over me. It was a dry morning, uncomfortably warm and plastered in a clinging yellow mist.

‘The French are mustering for battle’ he barked ‘we march out to meet them within the hour. Get your men up and ready’

He clanked away to harass someone else, leaving me to cast off the patched cloak that served as a blanket and go in search of my brave troops.

They didn’t take long to find. Sickness, battle and privation had whittled their number down from fifty to twelve, and the lucky dozen were sleeping close to where I had made my rough bed. My men were the scum of the earth, poachers and pickpockets and the like. Months of campaigning had only made them worse.

‘Get up!’ I yelled, imitating the sergeant and giving them a taste of boot ‘we have a battle to fight!’

‘Battle?’ whined a tousle-headed ruffian known as Dagger John ‘it’s too early for battles’

‘My lord Bedford doesn’t wait on your pleasure. Nor do the French and nor do I. Up, now!’

Groaning and cursing but not daring to disobey, the remnants of my company struggled to their feet and followed me to the muster.

 

Our army was camped on the outskirts of the forest north of Verneuil in Normandy. We could see the grey mass of the town of Verneuil a mile north of the camp. The French had recently snatched the town from us via a bloodless ruse and the glittering mass of their host was drawn up on the plain before us.

‘Lombards’ grunted a Welsh archer named Hook, pointing at a brigade of horsemen on the left flank of the French army. Lombard mercenaries, tough professional soldiers covered in finely wrought Italian plate armour and mounted on massive war-horses.

‘Our bows won’t make a dent on all that metal’ Hook added, scratching his chin. ‘Best not get in their way when they charge, lads’

A ragged cheer rippled down the line as trumpets screamed the order to advance. The central division, led by our commander the Duke of Bedford and his household knights, clanked forward eagerly. The lightly armed archers on the flanks were more cautious.

Another blast of trumpets halted our advance as we came within arrow range. Men rushed forward to plant sharpened stakes in front of our line. As they did so the French lines erupted with the sound of their own trumpets and their host began to move.

The entire brigade of Lombards, hundreds of faceless steel golems clutching swords, spiked maces and gleaves, spurred their monstrous beasts into a slow trot and the earth shook beneath the tread of plate-sized hooves. They were coming for us.

‘Notch’ I bawled in unison with the other captains, and a thousand men snatched arrows from their sheaves and notched them to their bows.

‘Draw!’

A thousand bowstrings creaked.

‘Loose!’

A thousand shafts whistled into the air and plunged into the Lombards, with little effect. Here and there a man fell as chance arrows penetrated chinks in the steel shells or hit a horse, but the majority were unharmed and lurched into a ponderous gallop.

Our only defence was the wall of stakes, but the ground was dry and hard and they were not driven in properly. Cries of fear and despair escaped from a thousand throats as the stakes were trampled and swept aside by a crushing wall of horseflesh and steel.

Our right flank collapsed as we cast down our useless bows and ran for the safety of the forest. To stand against the onrushing horsemen was to wait for death. All thoughts of comradeship fled from my mind as I did my best to shove and claw my way through the mob of fugitives.

The ground shook violently and the thunder of hoofs and rattle of harness echoed behind me. A man screamed, something crashed into my back and I fell.  By some miracle I wasn’t trampled as a Lombard galloped right over me, the hooves of his warhorse pounding the turf inches from my head.

A gap appeared in the melee and I ran for it, ducking beneath the belly of a rearing horse and stumbling over a prone archer in my desperation to reach the trees.

I kept running, expecting a lance in my liver or a mace to smash into my skull at any moment. My lungs threatened to burst, the blood pounded in my veins, something sliced into my arm and I collapsed into a pile of undergrowth, gasping and sobbing for mercy.

 

La Pucelle

 

I stayed hidden beneath a mound of wet leaves for what must have been hours, muttering prayers and curses as the noise of battle receded and darkness fell. At last it grew too cold to remain and I cautiously ventured out. The woods are no place to linger at night, when they become home to all manner of wandering spirits and bogeymen. One of them might have taken me had I not found the girl.

She was crouched with her back to an enormous oak tree in the middle of a clearing, her gaze fixed on a sliver of pale moonlight lancing through the canopy of the forest. She was entirely focused on the light and did not notice my presence.

A twig snapped beneath my heel and she glanced up. I reckoned she was about twelve, skinny and dressed like a boy in a grubby jerkin and torn hose. Her face was pale and thin and framed by an overgrown thatch of straw-coloured hair. She was barely more than a child, freckled and snub-nosed, but her eyes were huge, like dark limpid pools inside their cavernous sockets. She studied me curiously with her head cocked to one side.

‘Hello, goddam’ she said in English with a heavy French accent, gesturing at the pool of light ‘the moon is beautiful, is it not? It is God’s torch, allowing travellers to find their way at night’

‘Goddam’ was the term the French peasantry used for the English and normally uttered with venom. They judged us to be cursed by God, but there was no malice in her reedy voice.

‘What are you doing out at this hour?’ I said ‘the forest is not safe at night, especially for children’

‘I ran away when my master was killed in the battle. I will come to no harm. My voices will protect me’

‘What voices?

‘Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret’

‘That sounds like heresy. I should know, since I used to be a priest’

‘Yes, you were. From a place called…Sussex. In the south of England’

I was astonished. ‘How could you possibly know that?’

‘My voices told me’ she said simply. ‘They also tell me that you have done many bad things. But I will be safe in your company’

‘Do your voices have something planned for us?’

She nodded, ran towards me and grasped my hand.

‘What are you doing?’ I demanded, amazed at her lack of fear.

‘I will take you to see the Grail, holy man. Won’t that be fine?’

‘The Grail does not exist’ I protested as she dragged me along ‘or if it does, it is not in France’

She laughed, and we emerged from the tangle of thorns and waist-high bracken into a wide path flanked by tall white trees like rows of marching pillars.

Fascinated despite myself, I allowed her to lead me down the path. This part of the forest was eerily quiet with no sounds of wildlife. I felt a pressing need to fill the silence.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘My master called me La Pucelle. He was a knight and made me his squire, saying he preferred the company of a girl while on campaign’

‘I can guess why’

‘He vowed not to touch me until he had killed an Englishman. Instead an Englishman killed him. Now he is food for worms’

Something about the careless way she said this made my flesh creep. For a moment the shadows played on her face and lent her gap-toothed smile and cavernous eyes a sinister aspect.

I pulled my hand away from hers. ‘Your voices are of the Devil, and so are you’ I muttered, fumbling for my dirk ‘you are leading me to damnation. Leave me be!’

She frowned. ‘St Michael says you are being very foolish. He hoped you would have more courage’

‘Courage is for fools’ I retorted ‘or those who can afford to case their bodies in steel’

Suddenly my fears dissolved and a feeling of peace and calm descended upon me. ‘What just happened?’ I asked, sliding my dirk back into its scabbard.

‘My voices laid a blessing upon you. Now you will be brave’

She trotted off down the path and I followed in her wake like an obedient dog.

 

 

 

The Sword Bridge

 

The path through the white trees gradually narrowed until barely wide enough for us to walk abreast, but at last we turned a corner and came to a dead end.

We were confronted by a deep ravine, and instead of a bridge the ravine was spanned by a gleaming sword. The sword was the length of two lances laid together and laid on its edge, the point buried in a white tree-trunk on the far side of the ravine. I marvelled at the gleaming golden hilt on our side, inlaid with precious stones and with a grip more than two handspans wide.

Beyond the sword-bridge the ground rose steeply to a series of high mountains. Perched on the central peak was a mighty castle with sinuous towers and a high central dome that made it resemble a fortified mosque.

‘The Grail is in there’ said La Pucelle, pointing at the castle ‘but first you must cross the sword-bridge’

‘Cross the blade?’ I squawked ‘but I would cripple myself!’

‘Not if you have faith in God’

‘Faith has no power against a sword’s edge’

‘Fool. Watch and I shall show you the power of faith’

She ran towards the bridge, hopped lightly onto the shining blade and scampered across with her arms spread wide like an acrobat.

‘Look’ she cried when she had reached the other side, raising one of her feet for my inspection. It was completely unmarked.

She beckoned me to cross, and for my pride’s sake I could hardly do otherwise. Taking a deep breath, I got down on all fours and crawled onto the sharp steel.

I howled as the blade cut deep into my hands and would have scrambled back had not some strange inner resolve compelled me to keep going. Maybe it was the blessing at work as I shuffled in agony across the sword-bridge. My hands, knees and feet were sliced to ribbons and my blood flowed freely off the blade into the unfathomable depths below.

Somehow I made it across, though by the time I reached the other side I was a shrieking gore-spattered creature driven half out of my mind with pain. La Pucelle helped me off the sword-bridge and gently stroked my injuries.

She opened one of my hands, which had been clenched in agony, and through my tears I saw clean healthy flesh. The jagged cuts were gone from my body, as was the pain.

‘Follow’ said La Pucelle, starting up the path towards the distant castle. By now totally in her power, I got to my feet and obeyed.

 

 

 

 

The Grail Chapel

 

Before long we were standing at the foot of the vast outer walls. Ramparts, battlements and towers loomed above us, making the greatest castle in France seem like a hovel by comparison. The gates were wide open.

‘Could be a trap’ I said suspiciously.

‘This is the house of God’ La Pucelle explained ‘everyone is welcome here and the gates are always open’.

We passed through the gates into the deserted outer ward. Darkened windows stared vacantly down at us as we crossed through another open gateway that led into the inner ward.

‘The Grail chapel’ said La Pucelle, gesturing at the building that loomed before us. The chapel was huge, its central dome crowning a square base several storeys high and flanked by four slender cylindrical towers like great stone spears thrusting into the sky. The doors were engraved with scenes from the Old Testament and forged of solid iron. Despite their obvious weight they glided open at a touch from La Pucelle’s hand. She beckoned me inside.

The interior of the temple was one vast chamber, the walls and ceiling painted with luminous images of the saints and episodes from their lives. Presiding over all was a mighty fresco painted on the dome’s interior displaying Christ in splendour and seated upon a golden throne.

An altar made of white marble stood in the middle of the chamber. Upon it stood a stone chalice decorated with white gemstones. Flanking the altar were two marble lion statues, their white jaws bared in an eternal snarl.

‘The Grail’ I breathed. There were no guards, no living soul except for myself and La Pucelle. I strode greedily towards the altar, intending to snatch the chalice.

A blast of hot stinking breath smote my face and something slammed into my left shoulder, knocking me flat on my back. I hit the floor like a sack of potatoes, almost fracturing my skull on the flagstones, and a shadow leaped at me. I rolled aside and drew my dirk, wondering what had attacked me.

To my shock and disbelief I saw that the marble lions had become flesh and blood, and that in place of immobile statues were two sleek lethal predators. Their fearsome jaws gaped wide to expose long yellow fangs as they slunk towards me, gold-flecked eyes fixed upon my trembling blade.

‘You can’t hope to defeat them’ La Pucelle said calmly ‘weapons are useless here’

One of the beasts made a sudden lunge, swiping at my face with a paw the size of a ham. I blocked it desperately with my dirk. The lion’s claws sheared through the blade and left me holding a useless fragment of steel.

‘I warned you’ La Pucelle said complacently as I dropped the remnant of my dirk and fled behind the altar. The lions padded slowly after me, licking their chops in anticipation.

‘You were a priest once’ she reminded me as I cowered in terror. ‘Surely you can remember some of your Latin?’

‘A quick psalm, perhaps?’ I shouted.  One of the lions leaped onto the altar, almost dislodging the chalice. He threw back his massive head and roared. The awful noise reverberated through the chapel and I backed away, heart fluttering as I waited for the beast to spring.

‘Say something’ said La Pucelle ‘something to show you haven’t entirely forgotten what you once were’

I dredged up dim half-memories of my brief life as a chaplain at Lindfield in Sussex. I had probably been the worst chaplain in history, preferring to steal from the poor box and dally with other men’s wives than deliver sermons, and my Latin had always been patchy.

However, the prospect of being torn to pieces concentrated my mind wonderfully. I managed to croak out ‘Sed et ambulavero in valle mortis…’

‘Good’ said La Pucelle encouragingly, but then my memory failed. The lion on the altar crouched, ready to jump, while his mate prowled towards me.

‘Non timebo malum quoniam tu mecum es virga tua et baculus tuus ipsa consolabuntur me!’ I cried, shutting my eyes.

A few seconds later, having not been savaged, I opened them again. The lions had turned back to marble, their faces locked in an expression of feral hatred.

‘Well done’ said La Pucelle ‘Now give me the chalice’

Trembling, I carefully picked up the heavy stone vessel in both hands and passed it to her. All thoughts of stealing it had vanished from my mind.

She held the chalice high as though offering it up to the image of Christ. I expected some moment of epiphany but instead she let it go.

The chalice hit the flagstones and shattered, gemstones and all, as though the whole was made of cheap plaster. I fell to my knees, scrabbling for the broken pieces as though I could somehow put them back together. ‘You’ve broken the Grail!’ I screamed.

‘It was just a cup’. She sounded half-angry, half-amused. ‘Did you seriously think it was the Grail?’

I glared up at her. The curious hold she had over me was ebbing and I was sick of being patronized. ‘Where is the true Grail, then?’

‘Have you not guessed?’

‘No!’

‘Then listen. You have heard that that Christ’s children fled to France and married into the dynasty of the Kings of France?’

‘That blasphemous old tale. Christ fathered no children’

‘Blasphemy or not, it is true. He did have children and they did come to France, but the theory is wrong in one detail. Christ was a carpenter, a peasant, and his progeny were the same. Peasants marry other peasants, not kings’

I shook my head impatiently. ‘So what and where is the Grail?’

‘It stands in front of you. I am the Grail’

‘You are mad’ I said, rising ‘and I have spent too long in your company’

‘Whether you believe me or not is up to you. But I should warn you, goddam, God will not tolerate the English presence in France much longer’

‘God will just have to put up with it’

‘No. He will cast you out of my country. The Grail will cast you out’

I had to laugh. The idea that this pale scrawny girl, with her unruly thatch of hair and knock-knees, would somehow drive the English out of France was utterly preposterous.

‘Will you put on armour, and lead armies into battle?’ I sneered. La Pucelle nodded.

‘God wills it, just as he willed that you should meet me in the forest. Perhaps he means to save you’

‘He may as well give up now. I don’t need or want to be saved’

‘Then goodbye, goddam’ she said sadly ‘you will lead a bad life and come to a bad end’

She grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, drew me to her and kissed me full on the lips. Pain coursed through me at her touch, unimaginable bolts of agony that gripped and twisted every nerve. I could bear no more than a few seconds of it before darkness took me.

 

 

Victory

 

‘Captain, can you hear me? Are you all right?’

‘I think he’s waking up. Here, lads, the captain’s waking up!’

I opened my eyes slowly, rough voices echoing around me. My first sight was of Dagger John and Ill-Gotten Will, their coarse concerned faces thrust uncomfortably close to mine.

‘Thought you was a goner, captain’ said Will ‘nasty wound you took’

I tried to move and gasped as pain shot through my left shoulder. At a glance I saw it was wrapped in bandages crusted with dried blood.

Other men crowded around me, vague shadows whose faces I could not make out. ‘We found you in the woods after the battle’ one said ‘you were out cold, and your shoulder was a proper mess. Looked like a bear had been at it’

They found me in the woods…had I dreamed it all then, La Pucelle, the sword-bridge and the rest? But my shoulder bore the marks of the lion’s claws.

‘How did you escape from the French?’ I asked weakly.

‘We didn’t’ grinned Dagger John, a horrid sight ‘they had to escape from us. We stuffed them, in the end’

‘We won?’

‘That’s right!’

‘But the Lombards rode right over us!’ I protested, my voice gaining strength ‘they could have turned about and rolled up our line’

‘But they didn’t’ laughed Will ‘instead they went and pillaged the baggage train. They’re only mercenaries, after all. Meanwhile the Duke got tore into the French men-at-arms and soon had them on the run. They tried to get back into the town but the gates was closed and we slaughtered them like sheep’

‘And their Scottish friends’ added John ‘greatest victory since Agincourt. Never seen so many corpses’

I said nothing. My shoulder throbbed, I felt dog-tired and La Pucelle’s words kept revolving in my head.

He will cast you out of my country.  The Grail will cast you out.

‘Leave me’ I ordered ‘I need rest’

My men obeyed and shuffled back to their boasts, their ale and their gambling. I was left alone with my thoughts.

 

 

Ashes

 

La Pucelle was no dream. I know this because I saw her once more, in the market-place at Rouen seven years after Verneuil. She was tied to a pillar and surrounded by hundreds of gawping folk who had come to see her burned to death. She had fulfilled her promise to me and inspired her countrymen to rise up against the English. For that and her claim to hear holy voices she had been condemned to the flames.

The Grail will cast you out.

I remember that her head was shaved and that she was dressed in a plain white shift. From her neck hung a placard bearing the words ‘Heretic, Apostate and Idolator’.  She repeatedly called upon God as the executioners lit the faggots piled below her feet and did not stop praying even as the smoke and flames rose to consume her.

To my shame I was one of the six hundred English soldiers assigned to guard her as she burned. I stood and did nothing as her prayers turned to screams and sobs, and then she cried out for a cross.

Ignoring the shouts of my commander, I broke my spear across my knee into two pieces and tied them together into the shape of a cross. I held it before her; careless of the heat scorching my face and hands, and my penance was to watch her burn. She kept her eyes fixed on the cross until the end and showed no sign of recognising me.

Afterwards, when the fires were damped and the poor girl reduced to cinders, I was flogged for disobedience and turned out of the army. Much I cared.

 

The girl I met in my dream described the moon as God’s torch. She might have been talking about herself, for La Pucelle was the torch that lit the fires of French nationhood. In revenge my people turned her into a human torch and cast her ashes into the gutter.

Even now, years after her death, the French cry her name as they sweep our armies and garrisons out of their country. They call her Jeanne La Pucelle, the Maid of Orleans.

 

 

Posted by Richard Lee

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