You may have heard of the Hundred Years War. You may think you know about what those times were like. Lots of mud, territorial aggression and religious beliefs. But what if the outmoded superstitions of an uneducated populace were actually true? What if God *would* send an angel to fight by your side, as long as you were a rightful king? What if someone could call up a devil?
All of these questions are answered in the epic historical fantasy series by Mark Alder. SON OF THE NIGHT is just out and getting great reviews so here, to whet your appetite, is the first chapter . . .
The count of Gâtinais was leaving, going to answer King Philip’s call to arms. The count was not a warlike man, and he was old – though his sons who sat mounted at his side were strong boys, good in the jousts, better in the mêlée.
The late summer morning was pleasant, the dew still on the grass outside the great church, the sun calling light from the wet land. He did not want to go. This was a blessed land, its people’s fingers stained yellow with the saffron they picked, the bees ambling among the flowers that grew from the turfed roofs of the cottages, the children fat and bonny.
‘Why must kings want things?’ Gâtinais asked his son Michel. ‘Why must they move and change? Why not doze through life, by the sun in summer, by the fire in winter?’
‘The English king wants our lands.’
‘Not our lands. Aquitaine, a little around Calais.’ ‘Granted those, he will look for more.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’
He patted his horse’s neck. It was a good horse, a courser he’d ridden on many a pleasant ride through the gentle fields around his castle. He didn’t want it shot, spiked by English arrows, blown to bits by their guns or, worse, devoured by devils or demons or whatever strange infernal creatures the English had struck bargains with now. ‘We have displeased God by allowing the English to prosper in
France,’ said Michel.
‘How do you know? Wouldn’t it please God more just to make a truce? Turn the other cheek and all that.’
‘Those that turn the other cheek get kicked twice in the arse.’ Robert, big burly Robert who’d nearly killed his mother coming into the world, smiled down at him, a head taller than his father. The boy was a credit, it had to be said. He favoured the war axe over the sword and was famous for his skill.
‘Blasphemy, boy, blasphemy.’
‘Less blasphemous than to allow the English and their devils to burn our churches, steal the relics of our saints.’
‘Indeed. You’ve had your axe blessed?’
‘And my armour, my dagger, my shield and my cock.’
‘You’re going to kill a devil, not swive one, brother,’ said Michel. ‘It’s the bit I’d like least to lose.’
‘Why?’ said Gâtinais. ‘You have four fine boys. One of them will make it to succeed you. Why do you need it more than your arm?’
‘For fun, Father.’
‘Oh, that,’ said Gâtinais. ‘All sounds rather tiring to me.’ ‘My Lord Gâtinais!’
Pushing through the crowd that surrounded the war party, through the villeins at the back, the merchants in front of them, through the wealthier peasants in front of them, the clergy in front of them and the wives and young children of the nobility at the very front, were two men. The first was tall and gangling and wore a paint-spattered felt cap. The second could only just be seen behind him. A short, squat man who looked as though a giant had pressed a thumb on top of his head before his face was quite set. For an instant Gâtinais thought the short man might be a devil.
He’d had the borders of his land blessed but they covered a huge area and he was aware there was only so much blessing even the most hard-working priests could achieve. Then he recognised the tall one. A man who had been doing a little business for him.
‘Gâtinais! Noble Gâtinais!’ said the tall man.
‘Do not address yourself to the lord so boldly!’ A man-at-arms pointed towards the man.
‘Tancré?’ said Gâtinais.
‘It’s me, Lord, Tancré, at your service.’ ‘Approach me, approach me.’
The crowd parted and the man came forward. He was dressed in a tunic that might once have been quite fine but now looked as though it had lain a while on the floor of a chicken house. The fellow beside him, he led by the hand. He was barelegged and barefooted, just a long tunic to cover him – a piece of rough cloth with a hole for the head, no more. A few in the crowd threw insults and made jokes as Tancré raised the man’s hand to display him to the lord. The people loved a simpleton and this man clearly appeared to be one.
‘I have him, sir – Jean the Idiot.’
‘We already have a fool, father,’ Robert spoke. ‘This man isn’t a fool, he’s a simpleton.’ ‘There’s a difference?’
‘Yes – what kind of idiot are you?’
‘I thought the question was “What kind of idiot is he?”’ Robert laughed. He liked jokes like that.
‘A useful one. Try to copy his example.’ Gâtinais gave his son a wink and then dismounted.
‘Hold a while,’ he said. ‘I have an hour’s business to attend to.’ ‘I can never guess summer hours. How long are they?’ asked
‘Long enough to have a drink,’ said Robert.
‘You might want to come with me,’ said Gâtinais.
Gâtinais led the two low men to the entrance of the great church. His sons followed on, with country folk’s easy disregard for the privileges of rank that said they should enter the church before the paupers.
‘This is the man?’
‘Yes, sir. He restored the windows at Lafage after the mob smashed the church.’
‘When did that happen?’ said Robert.
‘A while ago,’ said Gâtinais. ‘The low men in that area had an outbreak of the Luciferian disease. They set themselves about their masters!’
Robert crossed himself. ‘God save us from that.’
‘He has done,’ said Gâtinais. ‘Good masters need not fear men trying to upend God’s order. I am your protection.’ He turned to Tancré. ‘Didn’t the men of Lucifer burn half that church?’
‘They did, sir. But he rebuilt the window out of the heat-cracked pieces. He has a gift for it, sir. He is blessed by God to do His work.’ ‘Another one?’ said Gâtinais. ‘Him and half the world nowadays, it seems, if you believe them.’
‘You can believe him, sir.’
From the darkness of the church porch a figure took form, black against the summer light. A priest.
‘Ah, Father,’ said Gâtinais. ‘I have a present for you.’
The priest, a man who had done his best to bring severity and penance to the jolly county of Gâtinais but had largely given up owing to the abundance of very good mead, smiled.
The priest gave Tancré the sort of look he normally reserved for peasants caught shitting in the apse – a look he had to employ far too often for his liking – but inclined an ear anyway out of deference to his count.
‘My great Lord,’ said Tancré. ‘This is the man who can fix your window.’
The priest looked around him, at something of a loss. ‘What window?’
‘I thought you’d ask that,’ said Gâtinais.
‘You were correct, My Lord. Our windows seem to be in an excellent state of repair.’
‘Not the bricked-in one behind the altar.’
‘I feel that was bricked in for a reason. The church sits with the altar facing west. It’s confusing for the parishioners to see the evening light behind it.’
‘It was bricked in because a devil flew through it!’ said Gâtinais. ‘The count of Anjou’s wife, mother of the Plantagenets!’
‘That is an old legend spread by the enemies of England to discredit its royal line.’
‘I’m an enemy of England, and I don’t remember spreading it,’ said Robert.
‘Did it not perform miracles, this window, before that?’ said Gâtinais.
‘So it is said.’ The priest gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘The glass fragments certainly work none.’
‘No, but they might were they restored.’ ‘No one even knows what it looked like.’
‘The idiot doesn’t need to know, sir,’ said Tancré. ‘He has a feel for it. He’s your man to repair anything broken.’
‘Set him to repair France,’ said the priest. ‘We have had enough of miracles. There are Devils abroad. The English army bristles with them, so it’s said.’
‘We will raise our angels,’ said Gâtinais. ‘And that will be the end of English devils. Let him see the remnants of this window, priest. I may not be long for this world and I would like to leave something to it. The miracle window restored would be a fitting monument, I think.’
‘As you instruct, sire.’ The priest didn’t roll his eyes but only, suspected Gâtinais, because he was making the effort not to.
They followed the priest down the long apse of the church to a door by the side of a shrine to Mary.
The priest, rather sacrilegiously in the view of Gâtinais, took a small votive candle from the shrine and opened the door. They progressed down a dark and winding stair, the light bobbing before them.
‘The crypt?’ said Gâtinais, who had never been in this part of the church before.
‘A store,’ said the priest.
At the bottom of the stair was a short corridor with three doors coming off it.
‘Look away, common men,’ said the priest. Tancré and Jacques did as they were bid and the priest reached his hand into a crack in the wall to pull out a key. He used it to open the door to their right.
There was a waft of damp and the smell of long disuse as the door scraped open. The priest went within with the light.
‘Follow, follow,’ said Gâtinais, to the two common men, who were still looking away.
Inside was a large box, as long as a coffin but as wide again. It had a rough wooden lid on it, which the priest lifted away. It seemed to Gâtinais that the box was full of sparkling jewels, blue and amber in the candlelight. But among them he saw bigger pieces of what he knew to be glass.
‘This is no place to keep a holy window,’ said Gâtinais.
‘The remains of one,’ said the priest. ‘It’s said an angel stepped from this window and shattered it. God sundered it.’
‘I thought a devil flew through it.’
‘It was a long time ago,’ said the priest. ‘You believe what you like. As you can see it’s some way beyond repair.’
So it seemed. Though the odd larger piece remained, most of the window was in tiny bits, dust some of it. Perhaps it had been ambitious. He should have looked at the window as soon as Tancré had suggested restoring it. He’d been so busy, though, organising the response to the king’s call.
‘Not beyond repair, sir. I promised you.’
‘You are a miracle worker?’ The priest raised a doubtful eyebrow. ‘No, sir, but the idiot is. You watch. He can repair anything.’ ‘Beautiful,’ said Jean. His voice was thick and guttural, a peasant to his core.
‘Anything beautiful,’ said Tancré. ‘Let him show you. ‘No,’ said the priest, as Gâtinais said ‘Yes’.
‘If it pleases you,’ said the priest, adjusting his opinion to match that of his lord.
Tancré gestured for Jean to take up a piece of the glass. Jean put his hand over the box, as if uncertain which to choose. Then he withdrew one of the larger fragments, a sliver of blue the length of a finger. He held it up to the candle.
‘What’s he doing?’ said the priest. ‘Looking at it,’ said Tancré.
‘I can see that.’
Jean reached into the box again. Once more his hand hovered and then he withdrew a piece the size of a thumbnail. He studied that too, holding it to the candle.
‘I don’t think we can let this fool go heating up this glass,’ said the priest. ‘In some senses it might be seen as a holy relic. In some senses—’
He stopped short. The idiot drew a line with the glass across the back of his hand, drawing blood. Gâtinais exchanged glances with the priest.
‘Is this devilry? Blood magic?’ said the priest. ‘No more than the Communion,’ said Tancré.
‘Blasphemy,’ said the priest, without any great outrage.
The idiot smeared the blood across the edge of the bigger piece of glass. Then he put the smaller piece to it, as if expecting to use the blood as glue. He folded his hand over the two pieces and said:
‘At times the enormity of my sins overcame me, and I sighed with confusion and wondered at the long-suffering patience and goodness of God. It seemed to me that I saw Him depute some good guardian to defend me from the attacks of the evil demons
. . . Meditating often about this, I desired greatly to know the name of my guardian, so that I could, when possible, honour his memory with some act of devotion. One night I fell asleep with this thought and behold, someone stood by me saying my prayer was heard, and that I might know without doubt that the name I desired to know was Gabriel.’
‘God’s knees, what a mouthful!’ said Gâtinais.
A very strange thing happened. Gâtinais only had eyes for the poor man’s hands. The candle, the glitter of the glass in the box, the eyes and teeth of his companions, no longer seemed to shine from the darkness. Only the hands cupped a glow, as if concealing a taper, as if all the light in the little space had condensed into Jean’s hands. Jean opened his grip and the light expanded to fill the room again. The two pieces of glass were whole.
‘Swipe me!’ said Gâtinais.
‘It’s a marketplace conjurer’s trick, no more,’ said the priest. ‘Well if it is, it’s a blessed good one. Where did he learn to talk
like that? I’ve never known anyone outside a monastery gabble on so.’ ‘How did you do it?’ said the priest. ‘You could be tried for witchcraft.’
‘Not by me,’ said Gâtinais, ‘so not at all.’ The Church was always trying to encroach on the rights of the nobility, and trials for witchcraft were strictly a secular affair.
‘It’s the light, sir, he can use the light,’ said Tancré. ‘The light wants,’ said Jean.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ said the priest.
‘He knows what the light wants, sir, he always says so.’ ‘More trickery. Mark me, Count, these men learn a few mystical lines that ensnare the credulous and use it to try to gull their way to fortunes. This is a trick, like the nut that vanishes.’
Gâtinais took the piece and studied it. It was whole, no line, no fracture, just a deep and perfect blue glittering in the candlelight. ‘Well, we’ll soon see, won’t we?’ he said. ‘Allow him to begin the repair. If he can’t do it, it will soon become obvious.’
‘He’s either rewarded or—’
‘Cut off his hands?’ said the priest.
‘Let’s taste the ale before deciding it’s spoiled. Give the man a chance.’
‘You can’t let him go unpunished if he’s a fraud.’
‘No, no. But we think too much on harshness nowadays. Let us try to do a good thing.’
‘Is it a good thing to allow a fool to sully holy relics?’ ‘Is he a fool?’
‘A man who has been taught to ape a few lines of his betters.
You will suffer, man, when your tricks are exposed.’ Jean spoke:
Et in misericordia tua disperdes inimicos meos et perdes omnes qui tribulant animam meam quoniam ego servus tuus sum.
‘What, what?’ said Gâtinais. The priest crossed himself. ‘A psalm,’ he said.
‘What the devil does it mean?’ ‘Do you not know Latin?’
‘About as well as you know the use of lance and sword. Of course I don’t know Latin – what’s the use of you lot if the nobility are going to stick their heads into books?’
‘“And in thy loving kindness cut off mine enemies, And destroy all them that afflict my soul; For I am thy servant.”’
The idiot nodded and pointed. Clearly he didn’t mind making enemies of churchmen, which marked him out as an idiot indeed. ‘He has learned these things for the benefit of clergy,’ said the priest. ‘He seeks to be tried by a Church court rather than face the punishment due to him as a common man.’
‘Well, that alone means he’s not as green as he is cabbage-looking,’ said Gâtinais. ‘Let him try, priest. The country is full of devils, called by kings. Then there are the demons that whisper treachery in the ears of the poor. We have been lucky not to see these things amongst us. The window is a blessed object and would provide protection. Even word that it was being restored might keep dark forces away.’
The priest took up the piece of glass. ‘How long would this take?’ ‘No more than five years, sir,’ said Tancré. ‘He is a marvellous fast worker.’
‘A blink,’ said Gâtinais, ‘a blink in the life of this great church. Let him try.’
‘How much does this rogue want paying?’
‘Food only, sir. I have come to a financial arrangement with the count. Food only. He will sleep in the church or where you tell him, it’s a more comfortable spot than any he has known.’
‘We’ll have to move good brick.’ ‘He will screen the gap, sir.’
‘Come on,’ said Gâtinais. ‘If an angel dwelt in that window once, perhaps it could again.’
The priest handed the glass back to Gâtinais.
‘Very well, though it’s against my best instincts. I’ve seen enough marketplace conjurers and charlatans in my time. But if it’s only going to cost me some bread and ale, then let’s try. And if he doesn’t restore it, I have your permission to punish him?’
‘You churchmen are zealots for pruning a fellow, aren’t you?. Yes. Clip away if you must but give him a fair chance. Nothing before I return from the wars.’
‘And if you do not return?’
‘Then it shall fall to my sons to take my place.’ ‘And if they do not return?’
‘Then God is gone from the world and we are all damned. Now let’s get back into the light. I have a useless king to follow.’
So saying, he turned to the steps, to lead his sons to war and all of their deaths on Crécy field.
Excerpted from Son of the Night © Mark Alder 2017