September 19, 1356
Cries of the injured and dying French men-at-arms filled the air as Welsh bowman cut down the initial enemy onslaught. The vibration from the second charge toward the English lines traveled up through Arthur’s powerful legs, the tremor slight against Stephen’s armored calf.
“Be still,” he ordered as the warhorse stamped his impatience.
His friend and baron he served, Guy Guiscard, said something indistinguishable over the noise.
Stephen leaned closer. “What?”
“We cannot hold them here, even on the high ground, not with their superior numbers.”
Both eyed the grassy gap between theirs and the French held plateau. Unfurled enemy banners flapped in the breeze, a colorful swell that continued up the expanse.
“Maybe not but we can blanket the field with their blood,” Stephen said, exchanging a smile with Guy.
Black-robed priests, who had earlier busied themselves blessing bows and swords now busied themselves taking confessions, offering prayers, and the Holy Eucharist. A decade before, at Crecy, he believed himself invincible—a young man’s arrogant mantle. Today’s hard battle would leave few unscathed. When the fattest of the churchmen approached, Stephen looked to the dying below. They’d prayed too. He turned to the priest and waved him off.
On the other rise, squires stood and took the reins from a contingent of French cavalry who’d dismounted. They retained their arming swords, axes, and morning stars. Behind them, line after line of mounted knights amassed on the grassy gap.
“They’re saving the best horsemen for the initial cavalry charge,” Stephen said.
He and Guy were in Edward of Woodstock–the Black Prince’s column. They’d be the first to challenge the cavalry charge.
“I’m tired of watching the devils parade around foolishly thinking they cannot lose,” Guy said.
Stephen flipped his visor down, the sound of the battle dimmed by the drone of his rapid breathing inside the steel helm. The waiting was worse than fighting. He glanced over at Prince Edward. “Let us be done with this. Give the order,” he said low.
The prince straightened in his saddle as more of the enemy climbed the hill in front of their column. Then, the French cavalry charged. No longer a mere tremble of vibration, the ground quaked with the bruising the soft earth took from the oncoming horses. They rode over the men on foot and made for the breach in the hedge where Edward sat.
English arrows darkened the sky. A deafening roar rose from below as the arrows found their marks. Horses screamed as multiple shafts pierced their hides. Those who didn’t fall reared, bucking their riders off. Others bolted, crushing French and English alike.
Edward gave the signal. The prince’s column charged into the butchery. Arthur slid on the grass wet from a lingering morning mist, blood, and the entrails of eviscerated horses and men. To Stephen’s right, Basil Manneville, best friend to Guy, went down. His horse had taken an ax to the chest as Basil leaped the hedge.
Guy, several strides ahead, turned and rode to his aid. Stephen spun Arthur around, spurring him hard to help. His pursuit was cut off by a mounted enemy knight. The Frenchman came at him with his long sword, which Stephen maneuvered away from then quickly pivoted to engage.
The long sword was never his favored weapon and Stephen faced the knight with his shorter arming sword drawn. The Frenchman shielded his sword and drew his morning star. Trained by Stephen since he was a colt, Arthur didn’t flinch or shy from the charge. He bared his teeth at Stephen’s cue, ready to bite either the enemy or his horse. The Frenchman’s mount danced to the left. The knight’s position altered a fraction leaving a vulnerable space open under his arm between the back and breastplates of his armor.
Stephen plunged his sword deep into the Frenchman’s side, striking ribs then soft tissue. The knight swung once with his morning star and then fell from his mount. The strike missed.
Several lengths off, enemy soldiers had Guy surrounded. As Stephen reversed direction to ride to his aid, he caught a flash of orange and black in his peripheral vision. Guy’s warning from Yuletide the year before came back to him. Beware the black cat in a field of orange.
The image closed in on him. He turned and saw the
Frenchman’s surcoat, a panther on a background of orange silk. Stephen hesitated for a split second as the warning became real. The French knight raised his sword high. Stephen brought his up.
A second too late.