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Par tel amur

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The poor boy looked like his own funeral effigy. Propped semi-recumbent by a couple of crude sacking bolsters on a camp bed, he kept his long pale hands folded outside the horse-blanket that covered him to the waist, and dull, glassy eyes rigidly front. His upper half was somewhat inadequately cased in a kersey doublet made for someone who occupied a station in life with which its new wearer—if he was indeed who the surcoat in which he had been found, now rinsed of its more horrendous stains to reveal the fleur de lys, a label of three points argent, proclaimed him to be—had never been familiar, the station in life to which Thomas Gower himself belonged. The French had no yeomanry, that was known: it was all either nobility or serfs with them, and it had been their undoing, Tom thought scornfully.

The pavilion flap opened and Gruffydd bustled in.

‘His Grace is on his way. But when he last laid eyes upon the Duke he was not yet the Duke, look you, which is to say he was a boy only, for as is well known his father was foully murdered in the open street of Paris, a tyrant and a whoremaster, yes, but murder is murder, when he was but twelve—’ His black, glittering eye at last made survey of the occupants of the tent. ‘Jesu.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Where did you find him, Tom?’

‘Up at the standards.’

‘He’d been there—’

‘All night, yes.’

‘Our Lady and all the saints. It’s a miracle he lives.’

‘He landed on his back. A blessing, but a mixed one. A follower of his stood over him, by all accounts, and then fell on top of him in such a way as to keep a little chamber of air that he could breathe when more fell on top of them both. His armour bore some of the weight, so his ribs were not crushed, and what was—what was under him sank slow. He’s only cut and bruised. The injury's—’ Tom tapped his temple.

‘He lay on a pile of corpses looking into a dead man’s face all night. A man he knew. Who served him.’

‘Well, it must’ve got dark pretty quickly.’ Tom could see from Gruffydd’s expression that he was being literal-mindedly English, and conceded with a shrug, ‘I know, it doesn’t make any difference. Worse, if anything.’

‘Tom, you’ve never been buried, is it?’ Gruffydd looked up at him, his chin nudging this way and that, which signified extreme agitation. A brown thing stuck into the folds of his cap, some charm or favour or another, the Welsh were beastly superstitious, nodded like a coxcomb.

‘No, not for more than a paternoster’s pass or two. Lucky, I suppose.’

‘I have. Not a battlefield. Siege mining.’ He looked down at the ends of his boots and said to them, ‘you’re never the same. After.’

A surge of ferocious protectiveness consumed Tom from his liver to his gorge, and it was only with a physical effort he refrained from taking Gruffydd in his arms. It wasn’t even so much that it would hardly do, not here, with guards, servants and that bloody little toady Bates busying around, but that Gruffydd would scarcely, given the nature of the admission he had just made, welcome a smothering. Instead Tom said awkwardly, ‘Is that why you—have opinions about—I mean, that time at Harfleur with Macm—’

‘Yes,’ Gruffydd said, uncharacteristically brusque. He snatched off his hat with his left hand as he made the sign of the cross with his right. ‘Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

‘Yeah,’ Tom said, feeling uncomfortably Lollardish at his own misgivings concerning the utility of prayers for the dead. ‘Poor old Mac. The engineer hoist with his own—look, I say, Gruffydd.’

Gruffydd looked up, placid again. ‘What?’

‘The thing is, he won’t—’ Tom could not keep his eyes from the uncanny creature on the daybed. ‘He won’t even take water. It’s been nearly two days. If he keeps it up, he’ll—’ Tom caught himself thinking about the ransom, a possible cut of the ransom, that would pay for a second-storey solar to the house in Kent, and staff that meant his wife Nan wouldn’t have to put her own hand to churning or the harvest ever again, and keep Hugh at the grammar school in Canterbury, all of which were appalling things for him, a centenar in the retinue of Sir Thomas Erpingham, to think. Gruffydd would never sink to thinking that the only good reason to keep another Christian soul alive was the gold you might sell him for, and Gruffydd had actually been a mercenary. ‘Will you try and talk to him?’

‘Me?’ Gruffydd’s nostrils flared and the corners of his mouth turned down in alarm.

‘You can speak French. Properly speak it, I mean.’

‘I could before I could talk English, it is true.’

Tom filled his cheeks and blew. ‘As you never cease to remind me. They say he likes poetry. Try him with that one you told me, about the fellow who bust his brains out blowing the elephant horn. That’s a capital story.’

Gruffydd’s shaggy head sagged again, he wheezed and his bent shoulders heaved. Concerned, Tom reached out to grasp his arm, but saw then he was laughing.

‘I’m not sure a tale of a catastrophic French defeat is quite the thing to bring him round, look you.’

Tom couldn’t articulate what it had meant to him, the two friends quarrelling then reconciling, and Oliver, with the last of his strength, when his eyes were failing, splitting the swooning Roland’s helmet from crown to nose-piece to look full-face upon him one last time, and kiss a testament of farewell, not a bad way to go, better than drowning in mud and blood and shit—

‘No, but—’ he said, feebly. But Gruffydd had already trotted over to the daybed, was on one knee explaining his presence and his complicated Welsh pedigree to the oblivious Duc d’Orleans, if that was indeed who he was. They were going to look like a bunch of right sodding charlies if he wasn't. Tom sighed. There was probably something he had to go and account for, arrows or men or luggage wagons, but his very bone-marrow felt tired, chilled and not at all victorious.

Williams stuck his head in through the flap. ‘You’re wanted, sir.’

Tom ran a hand through his hair and rubbed his stiff neck. ’Can’t it fucking wait? We’re supposed to have fucking won.’

‘No, sir. Orders from the very top himself, sir.’

Tom glanced over towards Gruffydd. He didn’t seem to be making much headway, but he could look after himself.

‘All right, Williams, what is it?’

‘I think it’s good news, sir, I’d say he wants to do you some honour—someone said a knighthood was mentioned—’