Stand and Fight

Stand and FightMontmal Castle, the Duchy of Aquitaine, 1374

A large French army is at the walls of Montmal castle. Bertrand, the Gascon commander of Montmal is ready to surrender despite his vow to defend castle in the name of Edward, Prince of Aquitaine and the eldest son of Edward III of England. Richard Stone, the sole representative of the English government of Aquitaine is horrified at Bertrand’s duplicity. But the French commander has a grudge against Bertrand and will under no terms accept his surrender. There is no choice for the garrison but to stand and fight.

“Stand and Fight” is a short story set during the Hundred Years War between England and France.

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Montmal was a beautiful castle. Strong, thick walls and well sited on a rocky outcrop above the upper reaches of the Dordogne. Richard would have been a very proud man if he had been its castellan. For a besieging army it was only possible to attack on two sides. The other two were protected by high cliffs that swept down to the riverbank. A brave man, or a goat, could clamber up the cliff in parts but there was no possibility of bringing siege engines up against those walls. The one weakness, Richard reflected, was that damn drain. He had insisted that Bertrand block it up and divert the garrison’s effluent elsewhere, but Bertrand was more interested in the comfort of himself and his men than serious defence.

If it wasn’t for Richard, the French might have managed to surprise the garrison that morning with its pants down. Richard was on his morning patrol of the walls. He nodded to the guard who stood in the West tower looking down at the river below. The man raised his chin in acknowledgement, but that was all. That surly bugger was half of the watch accounted for. And this man’s main duty was to watch for boats and merchants passing along the river or the riverbank road below. Easy prey for Bertrand’s routiers.  The other sentry should have been watching from the gatehouse looking out for anyone approaching up the hill to the castle, or any sign of groups of men moving in the hills to the North and East. Richard couldn’t see anyone on the battlements of the barbican as he approached along the wall-walk. And when he pushed open the door into the barbican from the wall-walk, his nose told him why. The stink of stale wine, piss and vomit assaulted his nostrils. Bodies slumped and slumbered around the inside of the round tower room. One of these vagabonds should have been on sentry duty.

Richard opened his mouth, but rather than speak he bit his lip instead. He had learnt already that his word had no weight here. He would speak to Bertrand later about the laxity, but he knew what the answer would be: a grin and wink, and “Don’t be so pious mon ami.” Bertrand had a winning charm when you first met him, but Richard’s feelings for the Gascon captain had soured weeks ago.

Richard stomped through the tower room, making sure his boots made as much clatter as possible and clambered up the ladder and pushed open the hatch onto the tower roof. Not a thing stirred in the room below him.

But on the road that lead down the hill away from the barbican there was plenty of movement. Richard gripped the stone of the wall and stared down at the small army that marched in column up the narrow road. He could not make out exact numbers as parts of the road were obscured by rocky outcrops and trees, but he was sure there were several hundred men. Most on foot—crossbowmen most likely, but at least two hundred men were mounted. They would be the men-at-arms. The garrison of Montmal was no more than fifty, with perhaps another twenty servants who catered for the demands of Bertrand’s routier company.

At the front of the party a group of them rode ahead of the main body. The early morning sunlight glinted off their helms and the tips of their lances. They were ready to repel any surprise sorties by the defenders. They hadn’t reckoned with the laziness of Bertrand d’Elbet. Richard looked at the device on the banner that they bore, hoping against all likelihood that perhaps this was not a French army. The wind caught the cloth of the banner as the armoured horsemen spurred their mounts faster up the road. Perhaps they had noticed that there was very little movement on the walls and were hopeful of being able to storm the castle there and then. A couple of ladders or a rope and they could be over the wall and inside. If the barbican was not well defended then it would be simple to open the gates and let their fellows flood in. Richard himself had taken several places in such a way—mostly at night though.

Richard didn’t recognize the device on the banner, a griffon rampant gules on a field argent. But by the way the horsemen were moving he didn’t need to. He ran to the barbican’s north flanking tower and grabbed hold of the rope of the alarm bell and began pulled it back and forth.

Bertrand was the first of the Gascons he saw. He emerged in his night-shift pulling a sword belt over his shoulder and with a helmet underneath his arm. He shouted up at Richard.

“What the hell is going on?”

“A French army at the gates, several hundred strong.”

Bertrand shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it.

“Get your men on the walls,” screamed Richard. “Their vanguard will be here in minutes and if they don’t see any defenders they will attempt an escalade.”

Bertand broke into a run and disappeared into the inner door of the barbican. Richard glanced over the wall. Outside the gates the French horsemen had come to a stop. There were twenty of them in a line looking up at the walls. Their visors closed just in case. They were within bowshot. If only he had some good archers here, they could have knocked their horses down at least. These horsemen had sacrificed the protection of their mounts for speed, who wore no barding.

Bertrand appeared on the wall, a few of the men who’d been sleeping below in the guard-room in tow. Some of them had crossbows, but they weren’t hurrying to fix bolts in place. “Stop that ringing!” he screamed and waved his sword at Richard as if he were the enemy not the French outside. Richard stopped, and beside Bertrand, his lieutenant, Jacques, chuckled.

Richard ignored the waving sword and grabbed hold of Bertrand’s arm. He tugged him over to the battlements. The Gascon didn’t resist, but almost fell against Richard as he pulled him along. He’s still drunk, Richard realised. Bertrand’s breath smelt of stale wine and onions.

“There is your enemy, captain! Not I!” said Richard. “Have your men string their bows and fire. We can take some of them off their horses and let them know we mean to defend this castle.”

Behind Bertrand Richard could hear Jacques laugh again. Bertrand scabbarded his sword and looked at the ranks of horsemen below. The wind had dropped and their banner hung limply on its pole.

Bertrand shook off Richard’s hand and turned to face the men that had joined him on the wall. “Jacques,” said Bertrand. “Command the men to start packing their things. We’re going to march out of here. The French will be more interested in the castle than us.”

Now it was Richard’s turn to grab Bertrand’s arm. “What did you say? You’re going to abandon the castle?”

“Of course I am. We don’t stand a chance of defending this place, and do you really think Felton will send anyone to relieve us?”

Bertrand shook off Richard’s hand and strode towards the trap-door. The seneschal of Aquitaine, Thomas Felton, had few men to spare, and as Bertrand said, it was unlikely he would send any to lift the siege of this place. There were other, more vital, fortresses on the road to Bordeaux.

But that wasn’t the point.

“Bertrand d’Eblet, you took a vow to defend and hold Montmal in the name of Prince Edward. Does your word mean nothing to you?”

Bertrand turned and scowled at Richard. “And you took a vow no doubt to spy on me given just such an occurrence as this. Why else would you be here?”

“Those bags of silver pennies and gold trinkets that you plan to carry out of here are your profits in fair exchange for your duty to the Prince. You may have no honour, but you are in the Prince’s debt.” Bertrand shook his head, and Richard threw his last dice. “At least put up pretence of a defence. That will buy Felton time and warn the other fortresses to prepare themselves. If you fly now without any resistance, then the French will march without warning into the Agenais.”

“What you don’t understand my English friend is that my men fight for profit. There is no profit to be made locked up in this castle. The seasons are changing. Soon it will be harvest time, a time of rich pickings, and then we will need winter quarters. I don’t want to be holed up in this place with nowhere to go once we surrender it.”

Richard could feel tears of anger wetting his cheeks. What was the point of all this. He had been sent here to make sure the Gascon captain did his duty, and had failed at the first challenge. He would return to the household of the Prince as a failure.

Bertrand laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled warmly at Richard. “It’s not so bad. I know how you feel. I thought I had honour once when I was your age. But if you want to live, and even to prosper, then you’ll change you ways.”

The blast of a trumpet from the foot of the gates drew their attention. “Good, they want to discuss our surrender,” said Bertrand.

Bertrand walked to the battlement and looked through the embrasure at the horsemen below. Richard followed and looked through the gap. The man who held the banner, which now had caught a breath of wind, put up the visor of his bascinet.

“Sacré Mère!” exclaimed Bertrand.

“What is it?” asked Richard, alarmed by the tone of Bertrand’s voice. The routier captain never seemed to take alarm at anything.

The man holding the banner shouted out. “Bertrand d’Eblet, it is I Charles Decroix, Comte de Veneuf.”

Bertrand ducked behind the stone merlon, but Richard kept staring at the man with the banner as he spoke.

“Bertrand d’Eblet, I name thee a murderer and a despoiler of women. Surrender yourself and face the King’s justice.” The man’s voice was not loud and on some words he seemed to search for the air with which to breathe, but Richard could hear them well enough, but to understand them he was at a loss. He glanced at Bertrand who had crouched further behind the merlon as if Charles Decroix was about to lean over the battlement and peer around the stones of the battlements to look for him.

“What’s this about?” Richard asked.

Bertrand just shook his head. All the blood had drained from his cheeks and he looked as if he might weep. “It’s all lies that’s what it is,” he said.

“You sir,” came the voice of Charles at the foot of the walls. “Are you a companion in arms of Bertrand.

Richard realised that he was referring to him. “Bertrand is …”

“No!” hissed Bertrand.

But Richard ignored him. “Bertrand is the castellan of this castle and holds it for Edward, Prince of Aquitaine. He shall not surrender this place, and neither will any of his companions-in-arms surrender him. For we do not recognise the King of France’s justice in these lands.”

Charles nodded. “Then, sir, we will seek to bring the King’s justice to this place.”

And with that Charles replaced his visor and turned his horse about and rode, followed by the rest of the horseman, back to the main body of the French force.

Richard could see the constituents of the force more easily now. They stood arrayed in ranks and files and many had their weapons drawn and their helmets on, the better to intimidate the defenders of Montmal. He counted them.

“Two hundred mounted men, perhaps fifty of them armoured men-at-arms with lances, the others their servants and squires. Perhaps four hundred crossbowmen, and a good number of pavisiers to shelter them, perhaps another hundred. And at the rear there is a good hedge of spears. Militia from some of the towns of the Limousin perhaps, a good two to three hundred more I would say. Yes that is the standard of Limoges I can see. Come to seek vengeance on the Prince’s vassals for the sack of their city.”

“So I am royally screwed then,” said Bertrand. He stood now that Charles had departed and looked over the French host himself.

“You know their commander, the Comte de Veneuf?” asked Richard, finding it hard to keep a hint of levity out of his voice.

Bertrand spat and sighed. “I know him.”

“And so you will be staying to defend Montmal?”

Bertrand turned and glared at Richard. “By the end of it you won’t be smiling, I can promise you that.”

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