Two months later
At the Palais de la Cite, Evelyn found herself immersed in a strange new world. She had always been familiar with the customs of soldiers, and she had spent considerable time watching them in practice and at tourneys. But to see them, every day, coming and going at a hurried pace...to see the wounds they returned with, and to experience the loss of men she had known, it opened her eyes to a whole new experience of life.
She thanked God that the men she was closest to always returned safely from their campaigns, although they were gone for weeks at a time. During their absence, she and the other women busied themselves with preparing bandages and salves, and caring for the wounded. It was overwhelming to be among men who were in such sad condition, some of them with wounds so grave they had no chance of survival. But not a single soldier expressed regret about his sacrifice, and when they expressed such valiant words to her, it always moved her to tears.
Her knowledge of war tactics grew. She learned of the Greek fire, and the strategies of a siege. Late one night, Simon quietly explained the quest his men were set to take early the next morning. Sleeping space was at a minimum, and they shared a narrow bed in an upper tower of the castle. Evelyn did not mind the close quarters, as it gave her a perfect reason to be close to Simon. With her eyes closed, she listened to the comforting sound of his voice. He spoke with a hint of excitement as he told her of his coming mission.
“Our men will breach the walls. We will attack from many directions, with foot soldiers and archers. Our miners will undermine the walls. We will suffer losses, of course, but we will take the outer bailey. And then, with our enemy not suspecting it, we will sneak through the garderobe and into the chapel. Before they have learned of our presence, we will have the upper hand. The Château Gaillard will be ours, and it will be a grand victory for our king.”
It sounded like such a miserable existence. Evelyn snuggled closer to him, wishing there was some way she could aid him beyond emotional comfort.
“It must be so very difficult out there, in the fields. Not just in the battle. But at night, sleeping on the cold, hard ground. Having little food, and no manner of even the smallest comfort.”
“That is why I return to you,” he smiled. “I must confess, I am happy to know that you are not so far away.”
It pleased her to know that at last, he had accepted her presence. After her mother’s bold announcement, that night at the supper table, none of the men had been of good mood. They had all fumed and grumbled about the idea of bringing women with them to the castle. They complained bitterly about the dangers of the road, and how it was improper for women to be involved, even in the smallest way, in a military campaign. But eventually, they all accepted the idea, and gradually came to embrace it. Evelyn smiled at the thought of it.
“I would follow you anywhere, Simon. We are destined to be together, always. Much like Orpheus and Eurydice.”
His grin was full of amusement. “You compare us to creatures of mythology?”
She shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “I admit, it sounds fanciful and absurd. But what good is life if it is all seriousness?” She leaned her head against his shoulder, sighing. She wished they were at home, where they could be alone. In the two months they had been here, they had rarely been without company. She understood that everything was for the good of the crown. But still, she longed for the intimacy and sweetness of their marriage. Simon must have sensed what she was thinking. He spoke soothingly, kissing the top of her head.
“Victory is within our grasp, my love. We will return home soon, and together, we will reap the rewards of a glorious triumph.”
Rene sat at a table with several other men, carefully making clay canisters. The little cylinders would soon be filled with pitch and other flammable materials. Tomorrow, they would be used to light fire to the outbuildings of Château Gaillard. He sighed, wondering how on earth he had ever allowed himself to become this involved in a cause. Pausing for a moment, he glanced across the great hall. Seeing Marie, he smiled. She came his way, bearing bread.
“I thought you might be hungry,” she said. Taking a seat across the table from him, she broke the small loaf in two, giving him half. As they ate, he saw the way she looked about, clearly interested in the activity around the table.
“Thank you,” he replied. “I am rather famished. And tired. But, as they say, I will find enough sleep in death.”
Marie’s expression grew solemn at hearing him say that. Over the few months of being here, he had seen that look more and more often. She always gave a denial when he questioned her about it, claiming that some unpleasant thought had crossed her mind, and nothing more. But it was becoming quite obvious to him that her feelings were growing. She cared for him, much more than she wanted to admit. He placed his hand over hers where it rested on the table. Leaning forward, he spoke in a whisper.
“Why can you not admit what you feel for me? I have long ago confessed what is in my own heart.”
He waited, hoping that she would lift her hand and join it with his. But instead, she slowly pulled away from his grasp. She gave him a little smile.
“It is late,” she said. “Good night, Rene.” As she left, passing by his side, she reached out to run her fingers through his hair. It was a physical gesture of affection that he adored, and one she used quite often. He only wished it would be followed by words of equal affection.
He was in love with her. He knew now that there was no better match for him than this woman. In many ways, they lived the life of a wedded couple. They shared a bed, although their actions were limited of late by their surrounding circumstances. When time permitted, they shared intimate conversation and told each other of their concerns. But most telling of all were the things they said in silence. Whenever he saw her across the room, everything else disappeared from view. When their eyes met, he found it impossible to look away, and when she was not in his line of sight, he found himself searching for her. When she was not with Evelyn, she was at his side, and when he was away from her, she was always on his mind. Their affair had started as a casual relationship. But he felt it quickly growing into something deeper. For the first time, he realized he wanted a lasting bond with a woman. He wanted a wife.
If only Marie would accept him.
He knew that if he offered her a proposal of marriage, she would refuse. He had learned, on one night in particular, that to ask for her love was to ask for the impossible of her. That night, only a few days hence, they had ventured into an isolated corner of the castle. In the midst of a deeply passionate encounter, he had lost control of his own emotions. Lost in the moment, he had whispered fevered words of adoration in her ear. But she had never returned his sentiments. Even though her smile and touch seemed to express the very essence of love, she had not once expressed it in words.
They had not spoken of it since. And he wondered if she would ever be able to love him. He had to suppose it was a proper judgment for all the crimes of the heart he had committed. After all the lovers who had come and gone, it seemed a fitting punishment for him to find the one woman who refused to give away her heart.
A smile slowly crept across his face. She was a stubborn one, but when it came to women, he had always enjoyed a challenge. He would win this fight in the end. He was certain of it.
After tearful farewells and loving embraces, the war party set out before the sun had fully risen. Simon glanced around him at the men who were prepared to give all. Mostly, he looked at the members of his family. His father was there, of course. He took great pride in seeing Basil in command, leading a garrison of nearly two-hundred men. To be sure, it was a modest garrison when compared with entirety of the king’s army. But once they met up with the other soldiers in Normandy, they would be more than a two-thousand strong. And they would send the English fleeing for home. Their king was weak, and it was rumored that he had already deserted his troops, leaving them to fend for themselves. It would be a solid victory.
Simon’s eye caught sight of the man to his left. He and Rene only spoke when necessary. What reason was there for them to converse? They were not destined to like one another. And yet, there was less hatred between them than before. Somehow, in the last few months, Rene had managed to become a decent soldier. He was a particularly good horseman, and he was wiry and quick in combat. That alone was reason to despise him less, if he could contribute to the crown’s mission.
But he had more self-serving reasons for easing his hatred of Rene.
The cad had turned his attention to Evelyn’s lady-maid. He was smitten, it seemed. That served everyone well, but Simon was particularly pleased with it. After all this time, he had no fear of impending trouble in his relationship with Evelyn. When this war was at its end, they would begin their lives again. And they would be happy. It would be their just reward. One they had earned, in his opinion, several times over.
The noise of the melee was deafening. As men surged forward they shouted all at once, creating a roar of voices that drowned out every other sound. Simon heard nothing save the blood roaring in his ears as one Knight came at him, and then another. His shield rattled from the force of a blow, and as he dispatched one man with his sword, severing the man’s leg at the knee, the second Knight’s blade came within inches of his head. He felt the opening of his flesh, above his ear, and in retaliation he lodged his sword in his opponent’s throat. Blood spurted and gushed from the fatal wound, but he did not wait to see the body drop.
With the outer bailey taken, the infiltration followed, and when the drawbridge came down, the men charged across it. Arrows assaulted them from every direction, gauging some and narrowly missing others. Men screamed in agony as they were crushed by falling stones or burned by showers of pitch. Simon felt the flesh of his neck singed by a rain of ash, but he forced his way onward, smashing a man’s skull with the handle of his sword and deflecting a shower of arrows that hammered against his shield. As he charged towards the inner bailey, he felt a searing pain ripping through his side.
An enemy’s sword had torn him open.
Blood poured from the wound, but he could not stop. He would not stop, and with a mighty swing he saw his attacker’s head parted from his body. But the next attack came from behind, and he had no time to deflect it. A blade broke through his mail, slashing across his shoulder blade. He cried out in agony, and he felt an arm close around his neck. A dagger flashed in the sunlight before it came to his throat. But suddenly it stopped, only a tiny space away from his jugular. His assailant was suspended in time for a moment, as an arrowhead stuck out of his throat. It had come from behind, and with the gurgling of blood, the body collapsed into the dirt. Simon fell to his knees, gasping for air. But he was soon on his feet again. Glancing to his right, he saw that it was Rene’s precise shot that had saved his life. But there was no time for thanks.
The battle raged on, and again and again Simon pushed himself forward, even as his loss of blood began to take its toll. Just before the castle was taken, he fell to the ground, too weak from his wounds to go on.
The shouts of aggression became shouts of triumph as the chateau was taken. When the moment of glory had passed, the victors surveyed the carnage. The losses on both sides were staggering. Bodies were everywhere. Some dead, and some dying. Guy and Lucien, bloody but whole, searched anxiously for Owen. He had disappeared from Guy’s sight during the surge across the courtyard. As they looked for him, Guy felt a terror unlike any he had felt before.
How will I tell Cassia? He thought. Dear God, how will I tell her that our son is lost? He shook his head, refusing to accept such a fate until he witnessed it for himself. And as he turned a corner, he heard an agonized voice calling for him.
“Papa, I am here.”
He fought the urge to weep with relief as he saw Owen on the ground, leaning against a wall. An arrow was lodged clean through his shoulder. Guy and Lucien rushed to him, helping him to his feet. Lucien snapped off the exposed part of the arrow shaft, leaving the rest to be removed later. They needed to get him back to camp, where they could deal with his wounds properly. As they helped him along, they were stopped by the sight of Simon, battered and bloodied, being carried away by two soldiers. Guy’s fear came flooding back to him, as he realized that it would not be his wife who would bear the brunt of tragedy, but his beloved daughter. Evelyn loved her husband so passionately. How could she possibly cope with his loss?
As Simon’s body was loaded into a wagon, Guy prayed to God to spare his son-in-law. So many lives had been lost this day. He considered himself blessed that Owen was not a casualty. But was it too much to ask for a second miracle?
The end of an iron poker glowed red as it was removed from the campfire. Basil, Lucien, Guy, and Rene stood over Simon, watching the procedure that was about to take place. Owen sat nearby, his head turned away. He had just endured the procedure himself. After the arrow had been removed from his shoulder, a hot iron had been put to his wound to seal it. His stomach turned at the thought of it being applied to Simon’s injuries.
Simon was alive, but drifting in and out of consciousness. It was imperative that his wounds be sealed, if there was any hope of saving his life. The four men held him down, and it took all of their strength to keep him down as the hot iron did its cruel work. He screamed in agony as it was applied to his side, and then again to his back. He muttered and wept softly as he was put down on the ground. As he slipped back into unconsciousness, Guy looked pointedly at Basil.
“He must be taken back to the Palais de la Cite.”
“Then you will accompany him,” Basil replied. “The army must push north, and I must follow.”
Guy nodded. Basil’s actions were understandable. He could not leave his men, even for the sake of his own son. But the concern he felt was written in his face. Guy put a hand to his shoulder.
“We will see him cared for. You have my word.”
The two men clasped arms. Then, Basil turned to Rene.
“I owe you a great debt. You have proven your worth, and I will see you rewarded for it.”
Rene nodded. “I have merely done my duty, your grace. For the first time in my life, it seems.”
“I hope it will not be the last.”
They clasped arms. The men helped to lift Simon into the cart, and Owen climbed in to sit beside him. Guy, Lucien, and Rene mounted their horses. Then they turned to the southeast, and journeyed towards Paris.