The River Aisne swirled slow through a wide valley edged with low wooded hills. It was spring and the new leaves were a startling green. Long weeds swayed in the river where it looped around the city of Soissons.
The city had walls, a cathedral, and a castle. It was a fortress that guarded the Flanders road, which led north from Paris, and now it was held by the enemies of France. The garrison wore the jagged red cross of Burgundy and above the castle flew the gaudy flag of Burgundy's duke, a flag that quartered the royal arms of France with blue and yellow stripes, all of it badged with a rampant lion.
The rampant lion was at war with the lilies of France, and Nicholas Hook understood none of it. "You don't need to understand it," Henry of Calais had told him in London, "on account of it not being your goddam business. It's the goddam French falling out amongst themselves, that's all you need to know, and one side is paying us money to fight, and I hire archers and I send them to kill whoever they're told to kill. Can you shoot?"
"I can shoot."
"We'll see, won't we?"
Nicholas Hook could shoot, and so he was in Soissons, beneath the flag with its stripes, lion, and lilies. He had no idea where Burgundy was, he knew only that it had a duke called John the Fearless, and that the duke was first cousin to the King of France.
"And he's mad, the French king is," Henry of Calais had told Hook in England. "He's mad as a spavined polecat, the stupid bastard thinks he's made of glass. He's frightened that someone will give him a smart tap and he'll break into a thousand pieces. The truth is he's got turnips for brains, he does, and he's fighting against the duke who isn't mad. He's got brains for brains."
"Why are they fighting?" Hook had asked.
"How in God's name would I know? Or care? What I care about, son, is that the duke's money comes from the bankers. There." He had slapped some silver on the tavern table. Earlier that day Hook had gone to the Spital Fields beyond London's Bishop's Gate and there he had loosed sixteen arrows at a straw-filled sack hanging from a dead tree a hundred and fifty paces away. He had loosed very fast, scarce time for a man to count to five between each shaft, and twelve of his sixteen arrows had slashed into the sack while the other four had just grazed it. "You'll do," Henry of Calais had said grudgingly when he was told of the feat.
The silver went before Hook had left London. He had never been so lonely or so far from his home village and so his coins went on ale, tavern whores, and on a pair of tall boots that fell apart long before he reached Soissons. He had seen the sea for the first time on that journey, and he had scarce believed what he saw, and he still sometimes tried to remember what it looked like. He imagined a lake in his head, only a lake that never ended and was angrier than any water he had ever seen before. He had traveled with twelve other archers and they had been met in Calais by a dozen men-at-arms who wore the livery of Burgundy and Hook remembered thinking they must be English because the yellow lilies on their coats were like those he had seen on the king's men in London, but these men-at-arms spoke a strange tongue that neither Hook nor his companions understood. After that they had walked all the way to Soissons because there was no money to buy the horses that every archer expected to receive from his lord in England. Two horse-drawn carts had accompanied their march, the carts loaded with spare bowstaves and thick, rattling sheaves of arrows.
They were a strange group of archers. Some were old men, a few limped from ancient wounds, and most were drunkards.
"I scrape the barrel," Henry of Calais had told Hook before they had left England, "but you look fresh, boy. So what did you do wrong?"
"You're here, aren't you? Are you outlaw?"
Hook nodded. "I think so."
"Think so! You either are or you aren't. So what did you do wrong?"
"I hit a priest."
"You did?" Henry, a stout man with a bitter, closed face and a bald head, had looked interested for a moment, then shrugged. "You want to be careful about the church these days, boy. The black crows are in a burning mood. So is the king. Tough little bastard, our Henry. Have you ever seen him?"
"Once," Hook said.
"See that scar on his face? Took an arrow there, smack in the cheek and it didn't kill him! And ever since he's been convinced that God is his best friend and now he's set on burning God's enemies. Right, tomorrow you're going to help fetch arrows from the Tower, then you'll sail to Calais."
And so Nicholas Hook, outlaw and archer, had traveled to Soissons where he wore the jagged red cross of Burgundy and walked the high city wall. He was part of an English contingent hired by the Duke of Burgundy and commanded by a supercilious man-at-arms named Sir Roger Pallaire. Hook rarely saw Pallaire, taking his orders instead from a centenar named Smithson who spent his time in a tavern called L'Oie, the Goose. "They all hate us," Smithson had greeted his newest troops, "so don't walk the city at night on your own. Not unless you want a knife in your back."
The garrison was Burgundian, but the citizens of Soissons were loyal to their imbecile king, Charles VI of France. Hook, even after three months in the fortress-city, still did not understand why the Burgundians and the French so loathed each other, for they seemed indistinguishable to him. They spoke the same language and, he was told, the Duke of Burgundy was not only the mad king's cousin, but also father-in-law to the French dauphin. "Family quarrel, lad," John Wilkinson told him, "worst kind of quarrel there is."
Excerpted from Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell Copyright © 2009 by Bernard Cornwell. Excerpted by permission.
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