SHADOWS OF THE CONQUEST
28th September, 1066
Le Blanc's whistle alerted me. He was at the prow, one hand on the dragon's neck, the other pointing into the darkness. I rose and made my way up the deck, threading a path through the crates and sacks, and sleeping men.
Le Blanc grabbed my arm but kept his gaze fixed out to sea. 'There's something out there, Robert.'
'The Mora? Where?' He had pointed north where she should be, but I could see nothing, only the waves rolling out into the night.
'No. Something just up ahead, floating in the water.'
He climbed onto the rail and leaned out as far as he dared, holding fast to the figurehead.
'But what about Duke William? Where the hell's his ship?' I kept my voice low, not wanting to alarm the men, but Le Blanc didn't hear me either.
On either side, to east and west, the lanterns of a thousand ships advanced across the ink-black sea in a tide of flickering light. We were midway between Normandy and the English coast, our fate suspended between the two.
The Mora had led us out of Saint-Valery at sunset. The finest vessel in our fleet, she had raced ahead, heedless of the rest of us, until the light from her lantern had faded into the distance. We'd had no sight of her for three hours or more.
'We've got to catch up!' I murmured, and perhaps the wind heard my plea, for our boat lurched in a freshening breeze, sending sprays of salt water over the deck. I reached for one of the ropes, feeling the quiver as it strained to hold the mast. We would be there by dawn, the prize reeling us in: England, the wealthiest realm in Christendom.
Surely, nothing could deny us now.
'Damn! Whatever it was, it's gone,' Le Blanc called down.
Had the Mora strayed off course? Unlikely. She had Frisian sailors to navigate and tend the sail, as had all sixty of our Beaumont ships; they knew these waters better than most.
Our soldiers manned the oars. Their dark shapes were now slumped over those oars or crouched amongst the crates, taking rest while they could; unaware we had lost sight of the duke's vessel. One or two, drenched by the spray, had risen to shake their cloaks, spitting curses as they groped around for a drier berth.
One man sauntered over to us, the silver embroidery on his cloak catching the moonlight. Baldwin Fitz-Gilbert. His eye was on Le Blanc still perched on the rail.
'Fancies himself as the ship's new dragonhead, does he?' he said. 'Fat lot of good he'll do us; face like that won't fright the enemy - though, you never know, it might bring their women running to the shore to welcome us.'
The side of Fitz-Gilbert's lip curled, the closest he ever got to a smile. He was a barrel of a man, primed for war but ever quick to scorn friend and foe alike.
'Look, there it is again!' cried Le Blanc.
There was something: something white and round ensnared in a dark mass bobbing up in the swell.
Le Blanc jumped down beside us and whispered, 'Hell's teeth, Robert! It's a body. We'll be on it in no time.'
'I'll tell the steersman,' I said. 'You keep watch and direct us towards it. Fitz-Gilbert, rouse the men. We'll try to haul it in.'
Fitz-Gilbert did as he was ordered. He was competent for all his faults. I hurried to the stern where the shipmaster was talking with the steersman, alerted by Fitz-Gilbert's shouts.
'We'll have a job heaving it aboard at the pace we're going, Segnour Beaumont,' warned the shipmaster. 'Best we lower the sail and take to the oars.'
'No, we can't afford the delay. We drag it up as we pass or not at all.' I had no intention of falling any further behind the Mora.
Le Blanc was signalling from the prow and sent William de Ferrers with his message: 'Body off the steerboard!'
Most of the men had risen to their feet, trying to see what was going on. I had Martin de Bernay, my lieutenant, order those on the backboard to keep their places as Ferrers and Fitz-Gilbert organised those on the steerboard to be ready with hooks and rope.
A cloud had drifted across the moon and it was hard to discern anything as the waves rose and fell with their captive. I caught a glimpse of a face - no, the tonsured head of a monk - before it disappeared again.
'Here!' someone yelled as the body came alongside. Men reached for it, held it and lost it. One got a hook into its clothing but the fabric tore and the body drifted free. The shipmaster at last managed to seize the monk's arm and haul his near-naked corpse onto the deck. He lay there, a gaunt, wretched creature, the remnants of his vestments entangled around his throat. He had clearly been fasting to excess.
'Dieu me sauve! Why bring that aboard?' Fitz-Gilbert groaned and crossed himself in respect for the dead, though he appeared to have none for this monk.
'He's not been in the water long,' said the shipmaster. 'His flesh feels firm and he's not stiff yet.'
I took a lantern from its hook on the mast and brought it close to the man's face. He was ghostly white, his lips blue, his eyes glassy and staring. I recognised him.
'It's the English priest, Aelfric of Rye. He was on the Mora.'
It was he who had brought the news we had long awaited: that the English army had been disbanded, forsaking their watch on the coast.
Fitz-Gilbert prodded the body with his boot. 'Well, he's with his Maker now, nothing to be done for him. Must have fallen overboard. Toss him back, Beaumont.'
I shook my head, turning from him to address the men. 'Back to your places and get some sleep. We've a long day ahead of us.'
I told Le Blanc and Ferrers to keep a lookout for more bodies or any sign of wreckage lest, God help us, the Mora had foundered.
I knelt and closed the monk's eyes, then pulled down what remained of his vestments to cover him. As I did so, a leather cord around his neck broke and a small wooden cross fell into my hand. But there was something else encircling the man's neck. Another cord perhaps? I brought the lantern closer.
Mordieu! His throat's been slit!
I sat back, my mind reeling. Had the Mora had been attacked, Duke William and his retinue slaughtered? Was the English fleet awaiting us?
Instinct made me keep this to myself. I needed time to think. I knotted the cord holding the cross, slipped it over my head and then covered the corpse with a piece of sailcloth.
I returned to the bow where Le Blanc stood once more with William de Ferrers at his side, the one towering over the other; both were men I could rely on. Le Blanc's real name was Turstin Fitz-Rou, the son of a redhead, though his own hair was so fair that everyone called him Le Blanc; but it was his height that was most distinctive. I was tall, but not compared to him.
'The Mora's as fast as a falcon; that scrawny priest simply lost his grip.' Le Blanc smothered a laugh and crossed himself, then clasped me to him, pinning my head against his chest.
Ferrers grunted and rubbed the grizzled stubble on his chin, murmuring, 'Better pray she's not flown straight into the English fleet.'
'Tsk! One look at the Mora would have them scuttling back to port,' scoffed Le Blanc, moving away from us and settling on a nearby crate. He pulled out his knife and a whetstone and began honing the blade, whistling softly.
I leant on the side of the ship and gazed out over the water where the moon shone a trail on our wake as if to show the way back to Normandy. I lowered my voice so only Ferrers could hear.
'Supposing the Mora's been attacked, supposing the duke is lost, do we go on?'
Ferrers leant beside me. He coughed but didn't answer at first.
I persisted. 'Without the duke we've surely no claim on England, nor any grievance for which to seek redress. The claim is Duke William's, and his alone.'
'Our fortunes are all tied to this cause,' Ferrers warned in a harsh whisper. 'To return to Normandy empty-handed is unthinkable. To return without Duke William, God forbid! The duchy would descend into turmoil again, the duke's whelp easy prey for certain nobles we could mention.'
He sighed and straightened up, adding, 'It'll be daylight in a few hours. We'll find him then. Have faith in the duke, Robert. He's succeeded in putting together an army and a fleet in only six months; he'll let nothing thwart his objective now.'
He was right; the duke always triumphed in the end. Overhead the clouds were gone, and the sky was a mantle of stars.
'At least the weather's with us tonight,' I said. 'And with luck their fleet fared worse than ours in that storm two weeks past.'
'Luck!' protested Le Blanc, joining us at the rail. 'What need have we of luck? We fly the papal banner. Ours is a just and holy war.'
'They're Christians not infidels,' muttered Ferrers. He half-turned away from us, resting his chin in his hands and staring out at the array of flickering lights from our fleet. He had fought against the Saracens in Sicily.
Le Blanc draped an arm around my shoulder. 'Remember our mock battles on the banks of the Risle, Robert? How we dreamed of conquering foreign lands? Doesn't seem so long ago yet here we are, the hour is almost upon us.'
He flashed that raffish smile of his. Nothing daunted him. But the smile flickered with annoyance when Fitz-Gilbert sauntered up and he moved away to resume his vigil at the dragonhead.
'Still no sight of the duke's ship, I presume,' remarked Fitz-Gilbert with a quick glance at the horizon. 'Somewhat reckless, this leader of ours, wouldn't you say? He puts our mission in jeopardy.'
It was disloyal, and unwise, to openly criticise the duke and I didn't bother to reply. I slumped down on a crate, rested my back against the ship's side and shut my eyes, but I might have guessed Fitz-Gilbert wasn't done.
'So, young Beaumont, if the duke has perished, will you scurry back to the safety of your father's castle?' Fitz-Gilbert loomed over me like a grim apparition, his cloak flapping behind him in the wind.
'Just leave me in peace,' I retorted wearily, turning my back.
Second sons were usually destined for the church and that had been my lot, until my brother was slain at the capture of Le Mans two years ago. Compared to his beloved eldest son, whose valour he extolled, endlessly, my father considered that my priestly training had made me too bookish; that I did not possess the mettle of a true knight.
Now it was up to me to prove myself in battle and show my father I was worthy to be his heir. Succeed - or die in the attempt. Like my brother at Le Mans.
We will succeed. We must.
In the grey light of dawn I had Bernay issue wine and bread to all, then walked back to the bow of the ship where Ferrers still kept watch and passed him his share of the victuals.
'The English coast,' he said, nodding at the line of chalk cliffs emerging from the mist ahead. He took a draught from the flask of wine, adding, 'Looks much like our own, doesn't it?' He studied me for a moment and put his hand on my shoulder. 'You'll do fine, son; you're as good a swordsman now as your brother ever was.'
'I doubt that, William. But if so, it's thanks to your training.'
My father had appointed William de Ferrers as captain of my personal guard. They had fought side by side at Mortemer twelve years ago when Duke William's forces routed the Franks, and he had always been a loyal friend. Perhaps I should tell Ferrers about the monk's murder; he would keep it to himself.
But all thought of the monk deserted me as I caught sight of a ship's sail, dark against the white cliffs.
'Look, William! A ship! Is she the duke's? Or is she English?'
'The sail might be the Mora's but, damn, they're taking it down now. I can't make out much else, she's too far away.'
We watched, unable to take our eyes off her as our vessel drew nearer. Before long we had halved the distance between us.
'There's a statue on the prow and a cross on the mast. It's definitely the Mora,' said Ferrers, a broad smile on his face. 'No sign of damage that I can see. She's hove to, waiting for us.'
'Thank Christ for that!' I seized the flask to toast the duke, relief washing over me, but my thoughts returned to Brother Aelfric. Who then had killed him if not the enemy? Had the duke proved him false and had him slain? If so, the English levies might not have disbanded and could be there, on the shore, ready for us.
I heard some shouts. A group of men had gathered at the stern of the boat and from amongst them Fitz-Gilbert now weaved his way towards us.
'What was going on back there, Fitz-Gilbert?' I demanded.
'Beaumont, the men don't want to make land with a dead English monk on board. They believe it...inauspicious. I've had the body thrown back in the sea. We're overladen as it is.'
Fitz-Gilbert watched for my reaction, his lip twisting in that faux smile. The bastard was testing me.
'Don't take it on yourself to give orders here, Fitz-Gilbert,' I said coldly. 'Brother Aelfric was entitled to a Christian burial.'
'We're about to land in hostile territory, Beaumont. Sacré Dieu! There'll be no time for a burial.'
'I am in command of this ship. Don't forget that!'
Or you can join the priest, I wanted to say, but thought better of it. This was not the day to quarrel with the nobleman though it was plain he resented being under my command and probably considered my twenty years too young to have charge of a vessel, or felt shamed not to have been able to furnish his own.
But that's his problem. This is a Beaumont ship. If he resented me so much he should have found passage with another. If, of course, he could have found anyone else prepared to suffer his sour company.
Our ships crept east along the English coast in the Mora's wake; our men shouting challenges to the invisible foe and baying like wolves for their blood. Gulls mewed overhead as if to echo our cries, or to warn the English, for indeed there were now figures running across the cliff top. A beacon flared into life. No soldiers to be seen, yet, but the enemy know we are here.
Rounding the greatest of the chalk headlands we followed the coast northeast where the cliffs sloped down to marshland and long stretches of sandy beaches intersected by streams and inlets.
Ahead, the curtain walls of a stone castle rose into view, or what looked like one, for this was no castle but an old Roman fort: Pevensey, our first objective. We'd been told it held a town within its walls and was large enough to shelter our forces should an army come against us after landing. We had to take it in all haste.
Sailing closer, we could see that the fort was built on a spur of land rising out of the marshes and overlooked mudflats to the east dotted with wading birds and islets of scrub. The fort's harbour lay protected behind a long spit of shingle drift that barred our approach at low tide.
We dropped anchor, waiting for the change of tide as the rest of our fleet caught up, advancing towards us in a forest of sails. Roche, my squire, brought my hauberk, helmet and shield, his fingers fumbling as he fastened my mail shirt. Others, too, prepared for the fray, silent now, their gazes fixed, steeling themselves for what was to come, and as I watched the shoreline for any movement that might reveal the presence of troops, I could feel my heart thumping.
'They could be lurking in the marshes, ready to ambush us when we land,' warned Le Blanc with a grin, eager for the fight.
Within the hour the waters began to rise, submerging the barrier of shingle and rippling swiftly over the mudflats to form a bay stretching far to the north. The Mora's crew rowed hard for the shore and we followed, driving our ships onto the sands as far as our shallow hulls allowed.
The duke leapt from the Mora, the first to step on English soil. Raising his arms in triumph, he stumbled and fell.
'Dieu me sauve! Is that a portent of our doom?' muttered Fitz-Gilbert, looking wildly about him as he joined me on the beach.
The duke rose slowly to his feet, a playful smile on his face. His joy could not be checked. Clutching fistfuls of damp sand, he called out to his troops.
'Regardez, mes segnours! By God's good grace I have seized possession of my rightful kingdom! It is now mine - and what is mine will be yours!'
We cheered and pounded our shields, our spirits soaring. We had survived the crossing and landed unopposed. The conquest had begun.