WITHIN A DARK FOREST - BOOK 3
Charles V, increasingly referred to as Charles the Wise, continued to frustrate the English. The French king's tactics were unorthodox, at least to Plantagenet minds. He never fought pitched battles but preferred raids, ambushes, night attacks, and harassment against isolated towns and fortresses with small garrisons. His troops attacked foraging parties and wagon trains, cutting communications. He succeeded, by constant surprises, in wearing down enemy morale. Charles' overall strategy was to encourage the French of Aquitaine to rise up against the English, and he used persuasion, bribery or threats to achieve his goal. His unusual tactics proved victorious. In the summer of 1370, Charles' man, The Duke of Berry, even succeeded in turning aside the loyalty of Limoges, a city located 110 miles northeast of Bordeaux.
Limoges' betrayal especially angered the Black Prince for Edward had considered its bishop, Pierre du Cros, to be his personal friend. Yet the bishop had willingly opened Limoges' gates to the Duke of Berry. Although du Cros had taken the oath of fealty to Prince Edward, he had allowed himself to be bought back to the French cause. In exchange for ten years' exemption from excise taxes, Limoges' magistrates and citizens were pleased to go along.
Edward heard of Bishop du Cros's perfidy at his headquarters in Cognac. When he was told that the bishop was also spreading rumors of his death, the prince's face was terrible to behold.
"We shall see who courts death," he raged. "Pierre du Cros will stand before the judgment seat even if I have to send him there with my own hand. And I swear by the soul of my father that I will obtain revenge upon Limoges for its treachery."
Since this was Prince Edward's first protracted journey in two years, he made the trip in a four-wheeled litter accompanied by an elaborate escort. The pace was exceedingly slow. Each bump in the road caused Edward discomfort, if not agony. Trying to ignore the pain he busied his mind with strategy or ordinary conversation with members of his escort, as well as John of Gaunt, who hovered near him. John deferred to his elder brother in all matters and treated him as if he were the Edward of old, powerful and invincible.
I am far from that. Prince Edward almost welcomed another bout with the fever, which tended to dull pain along with his senses. But I am not the only one suffering, he thought, as he watched his brother, who rode immediately ahead. John of Gaunt's wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had succumbed to the plague and he was still in mourning. And the world seemed less bright for them both following the passing of their mother the queen this time last year.
Edward collapsed against the mattresses and bolsters of his litter and closed his eyes.
What is happening? Where is all the sweetness, the glory? Has it left us forever? Is God displeased with England? Mother was old and in ill health, but Blanche was young and beautiful and John loved her. And Lionel, our brother, our shy, gentle giant, plucked from God's green earth as easily as a blade of grass.
For the prince the most bitter of all the deaths had been that of his beloved friend, John Chandos. Indispensable at Crecy, Poitiers and Najera, a man who even Charles V declared to be wise and capable enough to broker a lasting peace, Chandos had been killed nine months past during a minor skirmish. Was it sign, omen, or coincidence that John had taken the lance near his eye in the general vicinity of Poitiers? Now the companion who had shared in every moment of Edward's glory was rotting in his grave—as was Edward's youth. Both, it seemed, had simultaneously been laid to rest.
* * *
On September 14, 1370, Prince Edward's army arrived outside Limoges, situated near the Vienne River. Limoges was a beautiful, prosperous city, particularly renowned for its goldsmiths. Like many French towns, it consisted of two distinct quarters: the town, dominated by the castle, and the city, dominated by the cathedral of St. Etienne.
As expected, Limoges' gates were closed and its walls manned by previously friendly citizens now shaking makeshift weapons at the English pitching their tents in the fields beyond. While John of Gaunt and the war council inspected Limoges' fortifications, Prince Edward went off by himself. He had no need of a tour of its defenses since he himself had ordered them constructed. Every city, every castle possessed a unique personality. Edward studied the town's walls, and the spire of St. Etienne rising above the jumble of tiled and thatched roofs. Formidable strengths; few weaknesses.
I can recall Limoges as easily as I can the face of my wife.
He stared at the fleur-de-lis banner drooping above the rooftops and his eyes narrowed. Bishop Pierre du Cros's treachery disturbed and enraged him in equal measure. Du Cros had been godfather to Edward's son and had often dined with him and his family. But more importantly, a clergyman's word, as well as a knight's, was supposed to be sacred. Edward had patterned his life upon that tenet—and was continually surprised when reality proved otherwise. I am forty years old. I should no longer be surprised.
He sighed, thinking again of John Chandos. John, whose wise counsel had helped engineer so many military triumphs, had disagreed with him over the taxing of the Guyennois and had subsequently retired to his Normandy property.
We were not estranged, Edward assured himself. John was ever loyal.
As he'd proven when the prince had recalled him, appointing him seneschal of the province of Poitou after the French had retaken vast amounts of surrounding territory. Other than commenting that, at the great age of fifty-five, he was not the warrior he'd once been, John had obeyed willingly enough.
During the long nights when he relived his friend's passing, Edward often wondered whether he might have sensed his impending death. For John had been killed during a minor skirmish on some insignificant bridge above the River Vienne. He'd slipped on the bridge's icy surface, become entangled in his longcoat and had fallen, only to be fatally stabbed by an enemy squire who had no idea of his identity.
A trick of fate.
John's death had distressed King Edward's court in England and certainly Prince Edward's in Guyenne. Even Charles V had lamented the knight's passing. A cenotaph had already been erected to mark the spot where Chandos had fallen.
Edward was pleased by such chivalric gestures, whether they be in word or deed. And he took comfort that his friend would be immortalized in the chronicles, for Froissart had already written, "Never since a hundred years did there exist among the English one more courteous, nor fuller of every virtue and good quality."
Still, John's death continued to pain Edward. Far more than his illness which was becoming so much a part of him he no longer questioned it. Nor did he dwell on it except when the bloody flux again gripped him and rendered him so helpless that all other concerns were wrenched from his mind.
"The rest of the war council has assembled, sire. We await your bidding." The prince turned as Matthew Hart approached him.
Edward nodded. "Fine, Matthew."
"Would you lean on me, Your Grace?" Matt was pleased to see Edward walking unaided. At this moment he could yet believe his prince's illness was temporary in nature. Edward of Woodstock was different from ordinary men. As his sickness had been greater, so would his recovery be all the more dramatic.
"I am feeling better today. But I will take your arm."
Matthew matched his stride to Edward's.
"Do you think on Poitiers, Matt?"
"Aye. 'Twas fourteen years past, at this very time of year."
"September 19, 1356. It seems a lifetime ago. Someone else's lifetime."
"'Twas our lifetime, my lord." Matthew smiled at the prince. "And the best, for both of us, lies yet in the future."
"I wonder." Edward's voice was pitched low with reflection. "Some say chivalry is dead. Look at Limoges' walls. Cannon is mounted there. Cannon!"
Matthew knew that His Grace the King had employed cannon at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, but all agreed it had done little more than scare the horses.
Prince Edward continued, "It chills my very bones to think of such weapons becoming commonplace. Some even predict they will take the place of the sword. Can you imagine a proper knight ever killing his enemy without even touching him?"
"Nay, I cannot," Matthew said with conviction. "And 'twill never happen."
Edward smiled. "Are you always so certain?"
"About war I am. 'Tis the one thing I know."
Edward's war council decided that the only way Limoges could be taken without a protracted siege was to mine beneath its walls. The prince called together his miners and ordered the digging to begin. The tunnel's entrance, positioned a safe distance from the city, was carefully concealed and the soil removed and hidden under cover of darkness so their plan would remain undetected. As the soil was excavated, the masonry was braced with timbers soaked in fat or petroleum.
During the ensuing days Prince Edward's disposition deteriorated. Generally, his moods came and went as quickly as a summer storm, but this time he was obsessed with obtaining retribution against the city and its treacherous bishop.
Edward's actions uneased Matthew. Against enemies of his own class the prince had always shown himself unfailingly gracious, but this time there was no forgiveness in his face or in his words. Matthew soothed himself and others who expressed concerns by asserting that, with the first call to arms, their lord's natural fairness would return.
On the fourth day, the French discovered the mining. Hoping to drive Edward's men back by flood, smoke, or force of arms, they began a counter mine.
"Have you ever fought in the mines, Matt?" Harry Hart asked as they awaited word that the miners had breached the wall. Harry had found the entire campaign unpleasant, but this latest possibility terrified him. "I would not like being covered by tons of earth and enclosed all around. I think I could not endure it."
Matt also misliked the possibility. Underground fighting was always savage and confused and seemed an improper way for a knight to war, but he put on his usual confident face for his brother. "The miners claim the tunnel is nearly to the city walls. There is no way the French can reach us before we fire it. I promise you we will fight in the open."
Harry looked relieved, as if Matt's promise could truly make it so. And in this case he was proven correct.
For in due time, word was sent to Prince Edward that the mine was complete.
Before dawn the following morning miners set fire to the flammable mine timbers. Knights strapped on their armor and began assembling, drifting like phantoms toward the prince and the other commanders. All waited quietly, expectantly, their eyes riveted to the point where the wall would collapse.
Matthew shivered in the cold air, as much from excitement as the temperature. The anticipation of battle charged through him as it always did, quickening his senses. Automatically, he sought Harry, who was located near the front with his lord, John of Gaunt.
'Tis a pity you cannot more share the joy of combat, Matthew thought, fingering the gilt-adorned hilt of his sword. Harry had complained incessantly throughout the campaign, though he conducted himself well enough once fighting ensued. And once he'd vomited the contents of his stomach.
Beside Matthew, Prince Edward exhaled sharply. Matt turned. Though still confined to his litter, Edward was wearing his body armor, and his shield was strapped to the side of the vehicle within reach, as if he might actually have use of it.
"Soon, Matthew," he said softly, his gaze bright and feverish.
"Aye, my lord." For the first time Matt felt a sliver of something, what? The fear he'd felt at Poitiers, when he was certain they would all be slaughtered? A foreboding? Or something else that he could not put a name to, though it had settled upon him as surely as the identifying jupon atop his armor.
The water in the moat surrounding Limoges showed opaque. Scattered rays of sunlight struggled along its surface, crept up the city's curtain, exposing individual stones. From beneath the knights' feet emerged a low rumble and shaking, like the beginnings of an earthquake.
With a mighty roar Limoges' curtain collapsed, tumbling into the moat. An enormous wound appeared in the wall. Trumpets sounded. Soldiers began running toward the rubble. Others ran to the gate, cut through the portcullis and knocked it down.
The sack of Limoges had begun.
* * *
Women and children raced for city exits, seeking to escape the wrath of the English who spilled through Limoges' twisting lanes, but all exits had been blocked. Trapped inside the city, some citizens rushed blindly toward the cathedral of St. Etienne or the smaller churches. Others cowered in their houses, praying to be overlooked, or fled to their cellars. But the English pulled them from sanctuary, raped them in their homes, burned them in their cellars. Unencumbered by orders, the soldiers pillaged, despoiled, and murdered as they pleased. After carrying valuables from houses, mounted knights lashed their horses to the frames and pulled down the buildings. Foot soldiers looted churches; men-at-arms found vintners' shops and broke into the wine kegs. Streets ran as red with wine as they did with blood.
Harry Hart had followed his lord, John of Gaunt, to Limoges' square where the French garrison of eighty knights had gathered, backs to the stone wall and banners unfurled, for a last stand. But as Limoges crumbled around them, the French leaders, preferring ransom to certain death, relinquished their swords. Limoges' organized defense, at least, was ended.
Matthew Hart and a cordon of other knights stayed with Prince Edward, who insisted on being wheeled through Limoges' streets so that he might personally survey the carnage. Around piles of rubble and dead bodies, along lanes slick with spilled liquids and blood, they guided him. The morning air reverberated with cries and screams, the sound of steel against steel, the neighing of horses, the roar of collapsing dwellings. The bells in St. Etienne's tower rang frantically, like the terrified heartbeat of the city.
While surveying the devastation, Edward's face bore the same mirthless smile. His hands remained clenched in angry fists; his eyes missed nothing. Not the women and children who ran up to him and fell to their knees crying, "Mercy! Mercy, gentle sire!"; not the contorted corpses of men and animals; not the pillaging nor the drunkenness.
Matthew was having a difficult time reconciling Edward's actions with the prince he'd known. Edward did not even remark upon transgressions which on previous campaigns had been punished by hanging.
He was also disgusted by the siege itself. He saw few French knights—and none living—only bunches of terrified women, priests, and children. Incidentals of war. Limoges' citizens would be rounded up and turned out into the countryside.
I have missed all the real action, he thought sourly. I am consigned to the background with weepy women who should know they have naught to fear from the prince. Our lord would never punish innocent bystanders for their leaders' treachery.
Several of Lancaster's men, including Harry, approached Edward from the direction of the Bishop's Palace. In their midst stumbled a bound Pierre du Cros, who had just been wrested from his Bishop's palace.
"God is good!" Edward said. "'Tis fine to gaze upon that whoreson's face."
One of Lancaster's knights shoved du Cros forward, against the prince's litter. The bishop fell to the befouled cobblestones. Seeing the tonsured head bent in fear and prayer, Matthew experienced the same triumph as his sire. Pierre du Cros had broken his word and committed treason against the prince. Not even God in heaven, Matt was certain, would forgive such perfidy.
Edward motioned for the bishop to be lifted to his feet. Reaching out with his ungauntleted hand, he jerked up du Cros's chin, forcing the trembling cleric to look into his eyes. "So you called me dead, did you? Do I look dead to you, bishop?"
"My lord, forgive me. Forgive our city."
Edward's lip curled. "You will learn how I deal with you and your traitorous town." His fingers squeezed du Cros's flesh. "By God and St. George, before the day's end, bishop, I will see your head cut off. And as for your city... "
Edward shoved du Cros away. "Remove this vermin from my presence. I will deal with him soon enough."
As the knights hurriedly moved to obey, Edward ordered Harry Hart to stay and then beckoned to Matthew. "Come close. There is something I wish you to do."
Edward reached out and grabbed Matt's face, as he'd done with du Cros, though his expression was very different. "I have trusted you with my life, and I would trust you again. I know that you will always remain loyal to me."
"Aye, my lord." Matthew could feel the flame of the prince's fever through his fingertips, as if it had seared through Matthew's beard to the flesh beneath.
"No matter what the cost?"
Matthew was taken aback by the peculiar question. "Of course, my lord."
"I would have you and your brother carry out an order for me. A very important order." Edward motioned Harry to stand beside his brother. "The Hart name has always been synonymous with loyalty and bravery. That is why I am choosing you to execute my will."
Intrigued by the prince's words, Harry leaned forward expectantly. If they were to be singled out, what a fine tale he would have for Desire and Ralphie, and for his drinking companions! Perhaps even his father would be proud of him.
"Handpick a score of loyal men, a few from each of the companies," the prince continued. "With these men gather together all the women, children and clergy. Take them beyond Limoges' walls, near the Vienne River."
Inwardly, Matthew groaned. His eyes caught Harry's. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head. All this secrecy for a mundane duty? Edward acted as if he were bestowing some momentous obligation, while he only wanted them to play nursemaid.
"Once you gather them all together, put every one of them to the sword."
Matthew blinked. "My lord?"
"Spare no one—not the priests or the babes or the old women. The French will not forget what it means to thwart Edward of Woodstock's will."
"You cannot mean it!" Beneath the grime, Harry's face showed pale as a May lily. "'Tis unchivalrous. Damme, 'tis inhuman!"
"'Tis an accepted law of war. A city taken by assault is at the mercy of its conquerors. I am not in the mood to show mercy."
Harry turned frightened eyes to Matthew, who was as shocked as his brother. "Remember, sire, how you hated Pedro the Cruel for massacring those in his care? You said such tactics always fail. You are not like Pedro and you would not give such an order. We have misunderstood you, have we not?"
"I will not countenance treason—not from one mewling bishop or an entire city. I am sick unto death of the French and their double dealing. I will teach them a lesson they'll not forget."
"I canna believe you mean us to slaughter women and children," Matthew insisted.
Harry had scooted close to his brother. "Nay, not helpless innocents," he echoed.
Ignoring Harry, Edward shifted on his pillows to better view Matthew. "We have been through much, have we not? And have I not always led you well? "
"Of course you have. There has been no one finer."
"I am your prince, am I not?"
"Aye. And I love no man more, not even my father." Matthew felt trapped in a web of words, as if he were being pulled down, down by its merciless threads into the pit of hell.
"And you've sworn fealty to me, have you not?"
"To the death, my lord. You know that. But what you ask..."
"'Tis wrong," Harry interrupted. "I am warning you, God will punish us."
"'Tis my will." Edward continued concentrating all his fevered attention on Matthew. "And you, along with other good and faithful knights, will swiftly gather up the offenders and execute my will. Is that not right?"
The cries of frightened madams and ladies and maidservants, the ringing church bells, the battle sounds receded. Matt saw not his brother, bearing the blood splattered rose of Lancaster upon his jupon, or the other knights watching curiously in the background. He saw only the prince. His lord whom he loved.
"Do you not know 'tis impossible? 'Twould be an unforgivable sin, even for war. I would ask that you reconsider, my lord. Please." It sounded what it was, a plea, unmanly in its desperation. But he could not partake in such a sin.
"Would you disobey me, Lord Hart?"
Matthew wet his lips. He opened his mouth to deny him but found himself whispering, "Never. I will do as you command."
Harry gaped at him. "You canna truly mean to do this!"
Rather than respond, Matt placed his bascinet on his head, unsheathed his sword, adjusted his shield and strode away into the Rue de la Boucherie with Harry stumbling after. The Rue was lined with butchers' shops, and every stall had been smashed open. Entire carcasses, along with smaller cuts of meat, had been strewn into the street. Dogs that had yet escaped the sword feasted on choice pieces of beef while flies buzzed above the offal-filled kennel running down the rue's middle.
Stepping around corpses of cows and Frenchmen, slipping on entrails and other waste parts, detouring around spilled tables, Harry tried to catch up with Matthew, who was headed toward Limoges' main gate.
Occasionally, Matthew paused long enough to beckon a soldier, most of whom wore Prince Edward’s black ostrich feathers on their jupons or shields. To each he said, "Our prince has a duty for us to discharge."
Matt's manner chilled Harry. He could not mean to obey the prince, but he was certainly acting as if he did. After reaching his side, Harry huffed, "What are we going to do? Prince Edward's sickness has affected his brain. When he feels better he will be glad we disobeyed him. But what is your plan?"
"To execute our liege's orders. We have no other choice."
"Certainly we do. We must! We will talk to his brother the duke, to other members of the war council and tell them the prince has gone mad."
"'Twould do no good. Prince Edward has the ultimate authority."
They passed another man, a yeoman who, along with several others, was looting a chapel. Somewhere it registered that Matthew knew the man, Thurold Watson, Margery's stepbrother, the man he'd freed from Newgate. He thought of Margery and the babe he had never seen.
Near ten months old now. A babe like those I will kill today.
Matthew's legs went weak. Turning down a side alley, he collapsed against a timbered wall, and gulped in great lungfuls of air until the trembling passed.
Harry stood beside him. "How do you plan to disobey Edward?" he insisted, as if he were a three-year-old pestering his parent.
Matthew rolled his head from side to side.
Interpreting this as a negative, Harry said, "But you always have a plan."
"Not this time. I have only one idea, and that is to do as I am told."
"But 'tis madness." Harry grabbed Matthew's arm. "We cannot. When the prince comes to his senses he will be sorry for his order."
Harry's eyes clearly mirrored the internal terror he himself felt. Aye, Edward must indeed be mad and since madness was caused either by divine punishment or by Satan himself, somewhere, somehow their liege had grievously sinned. What had Edward of Woodstock done to so displease God that He had singled out this paragon of chivalry for such punishment? Not enough prayers, not enough alms, not enough largesse, too much pride, too many sins of the flesh, too much war, not enough war? Or was it not God at all who had turned the prince's mind, but Satan, who even now might be whispering in Edward's ear sweet and cunning and soul-damning lies? As he once had whispered to Christ in the desert?
Only Christ had not listened.
Christ had not been mad.
Matt shook off Harry's grip, forced himself to move, to stride once more out into the street. "Our lord will hang us," he said over his shoulder, his steely voice belying his inner turmoil. "He is our commander and he has given us an order. If we value our lives, we have no choice but to carry it out."
"Do you want to die for the French? Should we disobey him, he will only force someone else to execute the order and we will lose our lives for naught."
"But they are innocent women and children. Like my wife. Like my son." Harry's voice broke. Tears slipped down his begrimed cheeks.
And my son, Matthew wanted to yell. "Do not think about it. Do not worry it and analyze it. Just do it."
"But they are victims of war, nothing more."
Matt whirled on him. "There are always victims of war! Listen, brother, we are not listening to a minstrel's romance recited in some comfortable hall, or playing at battle with a dainty joust. This is the truth of life, and there is naught we can do to pretty up war or make it something other than what it is. People die in wars, and 'tis better them than us."
"Not even the devil himself could justify such an act. 'Tis one thing to war with soldiers, quite another to slaughter common people."
"We have one hope. Edward's nature. He has never committed an unchivalrous deed. When the time comes, mayhap he'll rescind the order."
"You are right, of course." Relief flooded Harry's face. "Of course our liege will change his mind."
"Of course." But in his heart Matthew doubted.
* * *
Some placed the number at three hundred, others at three thousand. Matthew could not say, but the mass of pregnant women, children, priests, the old and crippled seemed to stretch forever. Limoges' citizens had been rounded up and herded to a spot where the Vienne River curved and began trailing away from the city. A company of knights, all with drawn swords, guarded them.
The knights Matthew had picked for the killings were drunk, but they still looked as shaken as he felt. No wine had passed his lips, however. All the drink in the world would not erase from his memory the horror of his task—and he needed a steady hand. So that, should the executions actually take place, the deaths would be quick.
Harry weaved up to him. He had broken into the wine kegs hours past and was so drunk he could scarce stand
'Tis fine. Just what I need now. "Go take your place with the others," he said coldly. "The prince will soon arrive."
"I cannot!" Harry began to sob. "Do not make me. I could not live with myself with such sin on my hands. Please, can you not think of a way to spare me?"
"Spare you? What about me? Think you I enjoy this?" Matt twisted the front of Harry's jupon, jerking him toward him. "Do you not see none of us has any choice?"
"You said he would change his mind!"
Matthew wanted to hit his brother, to vent his own fear and revulsion by smashing that helpless expression, smash it and smash it until it was forever obliterated. As if that would make any difference.
"Stop crying. This is a battlefield, not a nursery."
He sounded so broken that Matthew's anger evaporated. Harry had never blamed him for breaking his vow about Cumbria or for his other shortcomings. Harry was easy-natured and gentle and incapable of holding a grudge. True enough he was an indifferent knight, but that was because cruelty was alien to him. Why place this impossible burden upon such a fragile disposition?
From out the fallen gate of Limoges, Prince Edward emerged; his litter tracked its way toward them like an enormous beetle. Tongues of flame leapt from behind the rubbled walls signaling that the city had been put to the torch. In his heart, Matthew knew that their lord was not coming to rescind his order but to witness the carnage.
He turned once again to Harry, whose eyes were bloodshot from weeping and wine. When William Hart learned of today's blasphemy, would he scorn Harry for his cowardice and accuse Matthew of once again shielding him? But Harry's past problems were so inconsequential in comparison to what they now faced. In comparison to mass murder. A mass murder that Matthew would have orchestrated. What would their father say when he knew?
"I would rather be hanged," Harry slurred. "'Twould be like Herod's Massacre of the Innocents. Not even a million dispensations will cleanse our souls."
Matthew felt his legs turn to water and grabbed Harry's shoulder to steady himself. His heart suddenly beat so frantically he thought it would explode; his vision blurred. For a moment he was certain he would faint. But, for the sake of his men and their liege, he could not succumb to weakness, so he drew Harry closer, as if he'd meant only to whisper something against his ear.
Which he now did.
"Go hide yourself." He spoke loudly enough to be heard above the wailing of the women and children, the screams and booms and crashes emerging from the heart of the dying city. "Somehow, should the need arise, I will make up an appropriate excuse."
"Thank you, brother." Harry tried to hug him and nearly fell over. "I will be forever grateful."
"If Prince Edward does not relent, they will still die," Matt said grimly.
"But not by my hand. And I can live with that." Harry stumbled away. "At least I think I can."
* * *
From the crowd emerged a keening, which started low before building until it became a sound so chilling it seemed inhuman, like that of banshees or the Hag of the Mist. In one voice, the people of Limoges lamented their fate, even as they made ready to meet it. Matt thought again of his beloved. "Do you kill women and children?" Margery had asked. She had borne him a son like the sons he would kill today.
I must do as I am told.
Matt's gaze swept over the crowd, the blur of brilliant color from various garbs, the blur of faces he refused to distinguish one from the other. Clouds of smoke billowed toward them with a shift in the wind; it tasted acrid in his already parched mouth. Occasional patches of robin's egg blue sky showed through the tattered blackness. He spotted a hawk winging toward the sun.
Just like Poitiers. Matthew's resolve cracked. This cannot be happening. Not to Prince Edward. Not to me. He knew he could not comply, no matter what the punishment. He closed his eyes until his resolve hardened.
Do not think or feel. Obey.
Edward's litter had been halted near Matthew and the thirty designated knights who stood with their swords plunged point-down in the ground so that the weapons resembled crosses. The litter's tapestries, which framed Prince Edward observing everything with a keen, unwavering gaze, were as black as the armor he wore. Had the prince noticed Harry's disappearance? Would he remark upon it or even have him hanged for desertion?
Forcing down such distracting thoughts, Matthew surveyed the knights, standing motionless all in a row. Then he nodded. Each man withdrew his dagger from his belt.
Prince Edward signaled for the first of the prisoners to be brought forward. The keening crescendoed, shivering through the mild air into Matthew's soul. The Hag of the Mist foretold impending death to all who heard, as did banshees. He imagined hundreds of these bean nighes—withered, long-haired creatures, twisting their knobbed hands as they glided among the soon-to-be-departed, wailing,"Too late! Your end be here!" Or the Hag of the Mist, only she would not be rising from the brume screeching like a gale in winter, but out of Limoges' creeping, choking smoke...
Knights began pulling victims from the front. Frantic mothers tried to shield their children or push them beyond the knights, toward freedom.
One of John of Gaunt's men came forth, dragging a chestnut-haired woman and her daughter. The child looked to be about four years old. Its cheeks were soft and round. It was screaming.
"Do not harm us, please." The woman cried. "Spare me! Spare my child!"
The knights stared at the woman. Not one came forward to begin the slaughter. Matthew felt his heart slamming against his chest, felt in his hand the familiar shape of his dagger.
I canna do this.
He looked to his prince, seeking the reversal of the order. Their eyes met. Almost imperceptibly, Edward nodded.
Matt stood as if rooted to the ground. Either way I am dead, he thought. HE will hang me, or the devil will claim me. They are the enemy. They are women and children. They are innocent. They deliberately defied Edward. He is mad. He is my prince.
Matthew's head whirled with a thousand voices, threatened to explode with the lamentations of the doomed. He felt as if he must split in two. If only that could be. So a part of him could obey Edward; a part of him could obey himself.
Somehow, Matthew forced his legs to move. Forward. He willed his heart to slow, his breathing to return to normal, his mind to blackness.
John of Gaunt's knight pushed the woman to her knees. The hair spilling down her back was the same color as Margery's. The woman raised her head and looked up at Matthew. Her eyes were blue, as blue as the brilliant sky. As blue as his son's would be.
"God forgive me," he said in French. Words. There would be no forgiveness.
Matthew tipped the woman's chin and slit her throat. The cut was perfect. Blood spilled upon his hands. The woman crumpled to the ground.
Matthew turned to her child.