Readers of this blog may know that a while ago I published the first volume of a serialized novel, Stonehearted. The first volume is By the Sword’s Edge. The second volume doesn’t have a title yet, so I’m going to call it Stonehearted 2 for now. I started writing the second volume towards the end of last year and am making fairly good progress on it at the moment. I thought it would be fun to post here each completed chapter as I write them. They’re only drafts at the moment – no fancy editing, so probably riddled with typos and inconsistencies. Once I have finished this volume I’ll publish it in print and eBook format and announce it on this blog.
Louis felt warm and comfortable with the sun on his skin and a few cups of wine inside of him it was a beautiful afternoon to take a nap in the orchard at the back of their house. If only Madelaine was lying next to him it would be just perfect. He could hear a gentle breeze swaying the apple trees behind him and somewhere he could smell bread being cooked for the evening meal. Above the sky was a perfect blue. Was it true that God lived there? Louis hoped idly that it wasn’t too warm in heaven nearer the sun. Those angel wings must get hot in the summer. And scratchy too. At least as a man he could strip down to his underpants, and he had done just that. Louis rubbed idly at the warm skin of his belly and twisted the small curls of hair that lay around his belly-button. He slapped the skin. A firm stomach, and he had some muscles too. This summer Madelaine would say yes, surely. He’d ask her to dance at the fête on Lammas Day and then …
Louis’s reverie was broken by the sound of trickling water and the strong smell of piss. Louis levered himself up on his elbows and looked over his shoulder. A man in a fur hat with a scarlet fur-trimmed cloak was urinating against one of the apple trees.
“Did I wake you?” said the man. It was his brother, Oliver.
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Oh of course not,” replied Oliver. The urinating came to a halt and Oliver shook his penis and replaced inside his pants and tied up his breaches. “There that’s all done. The cidre this year will have a fine taste to it I think. Mother will be proud of me. Don’t mind me though, go back to your dreams, little brother.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“The watch never sleeps does it and that’s what we, the good citizens of Montdidier pay you for isn’t it.”
Louis shook his head and lay back down, hands behind his head. Perhaps Oliver would go away soon.
“Or perhaps,” continued Oliver, “you watch for enemies in the sky. Do the English sport wings now? I have heard wild tales that their king and his sons came like demons into our lands once upon a time. A nice fiction to tell for those who would waste the hard-won coin of honest working men.”
“Honest!?” Louis coughed out and shook his head. “You call usury and maintenance of unfair prices honesty?” Louis could feel himself getting angry. A common occurrence whenever he was within earshot of his elder brother these days. Oliver had returned a new man from his apprenticeship with a mercer of Rouen. Full of grand ideas of making the town and its people rich. Those people like himself, that was, who could afford to buy up in large quantities the pots, baked and glazed by others who had no access to the markets of the bigger cities. The town of Montdidier was blessed, as Oliver kept reminding them, with wonderful deposits of clay and over thirty householders who had their own pottery kilns, but they all competed against each other, and that drove down prices, and that, according to Oliver, was not good for business, not good at all.
The mercers of Rouen had certainly filled Oliver’s head with garbage and no mistake. Their family, the Cidrons as the name suggested were cider-makers by heritage, their farm stood on the edge of the town and just outside the walls now fallen into disrepair. They owned some land in the town – sold off fields to accommodate pottery workshops and their family homes – all in one constructions with the workshop below and the folk living above, all crammed in they were – they paid rent by the yard. That had been the Cidrons first mistake, Oliver had told them when he returned so grandly from Rouen, a new fur-hat on his head and that red cloak on his back. The land was an investment. They should have kept it and the rents that went with it. But now there were men who lived in Montdidier who lived just from the rents, and they lived very well indeed. They were the bourgeois and ran the town council for the most part, and made all the decisions. And what did the Cidrons get from the sales of their land. They paid for a new cider-press to be built, a new cart and horses to pull it. That was because their father was lazy, Oliver had said, and that’s when old père Cidron had said “enough is enough” and thrown him out of the house.
Père Cidron had died two months later. Oliver had come to the funeral and mère Cidron had rested her head on his shoulder afterwards and wept and had listened to all that he had to say and given her coin, their father’s coin, into his hands for his damned investments.
“And what work do you do?” said Oliver. “Do you call getting drunk on the your mother’s farm’s produce work?”
Louis licked the inside of his lips. Sharp tang of apples still lingered from the last cider he had drunk. He let out a belch that a bull-frog would have been proud of.
Louis felt a gust of air flicker the hair on his head as Oliver turned, pulling his cloak around himself in a great twirl. Ever the showman.
Louis smiled to himself. Words were Oliver’s only weapon. And what were they, only movements of the tongue and lips propelling sounds through the air to curl into the ears of foolish folk. Oliver’s words didn’t fool him. There was nothing to him. He was jealous most likely. Jealous of a real man like Louis, who owned a crossbow and a sword and knew how to use them (well the crossbow anyway).
A cloud appeared above in the sky and swept over the sun. Louis shivered. A few moments later he heard the slow, heavy clang of the tocsin bell.
Hot, sharp breath burnt at the back of his throat as he scrambled to his feet. He looked around expecting to see banners and lances approaching over the hedgerow of the orchards. But he could see nothing. Was it a false alarm? It sounded more like a funeral bell it was tolling so slowly. He could hear shouting from the other side of the farm, towards the centre of the town. Other men who had heard the bell and were hurrying to their posts, or hurrying to lock themselves indoors if they, like Oliver, were too cowardly to fight.
The Church of the friary of St. Michel was located not far from the farm. Located just off the main road that went from Amiens straight to Paris, any English army that approached would most likely come from this direction, but Albret d’Gascogne, the commander of the watch had also designated watchmen to be at all four parish churches to toll their bells as well in case word of raiders, or worse an army, was reported. So far, the only bell that Louis could hear was the single thrum of the friary church. Grabbing his cross bow in one hand and his sword-belt in the other, Louis jogged down the track from the farm to the main road. He could see the bell tower of the friary from here and the bell slowly moving back and forth. From the fields around the friary walls he could see men and women hurrying. They were servants of the friary, workers for their fields, or serfs of their lands, and anxious to get to the safety of her walls as quick as they could. Half a dozen came slowly down the road from the north on a two wheeled cart drawn by an oxen. The cart was half-full of hay they had been cutting and half-full of frightened peasants.
“What news?” Louis shouted as he came to the road and within shouting distance of the cart. The man leading the oxen shook his head. A dull expression of fear upon his face. Louis ran up to them. “What have you seen? Are the English here?”
The man looked at him and tugged on the rope of the oxen harder, trying to propel it to a faster pace. The peasants on the cart huddled together like fledglings in a nest, as if their shared body warmth could protect them. They looked as if they were shivering with cold, but it must have been the hottest day of the year, and Louis was sweating in just his shirt and braies. He looked past the cart. He wasn’t going to get any more sense out of them. There were no more peasants coming, they had all gone within the friary walls. And then he saw them, standing like tall pillars, two, no three, dark plumes of smoke reaching up into the blue sky, not half a mile away. It looked like they were near the friary’s farm and grange of St. Chappelle. The trinity of pillars of dark grey smoke rose up to form a single cloud high in the sky casting a shadow over the friary and Louis’s farm, blocking out the sun.
“The unholy trinity,” said a voice behind Louis. He turned. It was the mercenary. Wulf he called himself, and some said he was German, although Louis knew little of the man.
“The clouds of smoke?” asked Louis.
“Fire, death and the English,” Wulf replied in his heavily accented French.
“Where’s the rest of you?” asked Louis, thinking about the other dozen mercenaries the commune of Montdidier had hired a month ago when news of the English invasion had spread through the towns and villages of Picardy like the plague.
Wulf looked at Louis as if he was talking Moorish. “The smoke,” he began. “Where the smoke is, or half-way towards the town …”
Louis shook his head in confusion. “The other sellswords are at the grange of St. Chappelle already? But how did they know? Why wasn’t the alarm bell rung earlier?” And why aren’t you with them, wondered Louis.
Wulf grabbed Louis’s jaw and lifted him until he was on his toes. “Don’t even think any more on it, boy. Just forget what you heard me say, eh?” Wulf let go of Louis’s chin and brushed his hands against the front of his brigandine as if wiping them clean.
Are you drunk, was what he wanted to ask. But daren’t in case it provoke more erratic action from the old mercenary. Wulf was reckoned to be the best swordsmen of the men they had hired.
Wulf turned and started walking down to the road.
Louis hurried after him. “Where are you going?”
“Your commander of the watch set the town square outside the church of St. Sauveur as the muster point, so now we’re going to muster. It’s also next to the tavern of the Three Hearts, where we might find my fellows, whom you wanted to locate. Are you coming?”
Louis looked over his shoulder at the clouds of smoke. “I’m coming,” he said.
If you want to read the first volume of Stonehearted, By the Sword’s Edge, then click here.