Reynald refused to rest. There
was battle in the air; he could hear it in the nervous shiverings
of his stablemates, and smell it in the oil that rubbed into the
tack and armor that had been laid out for them. He kicked at
his door in frustration, whickering his desire to be out of this
confinement. He wanted to make ready, to prepare. Battle was
on the wind. The westering moonlight faded too slowly as dawn
came onward. He whinnied, calling for Benedict, but the groom
was nowhere to be seen.
He reared and lashed out again,
harder this time, snapping the wooden hasp. The door banged open
and without a thought Reynald ran out onto the mud of the yard,
scattering dogs and trampling chickens. He turned toward the
great house and was up the wide stone steps, shouldering aside
the sleepy guard that stood by the door. With a crack, the door
opened. Reynald ducked his head and trotted inside, up the corridor,
and through a doorway that opened onto the grand hall. Tapestries
and torch flames wavered at his entrance, but it was an empty
place, filled only with the echo of his hooves on the straw-strewn
flags. He whinnied in frustration and drew sparks on the stone
floor. He heard voices—the drone of priests—and smelled the
lemon smoke of incense. He turned that way and followed his ears
and nose down a hallway, surprising laundresses and servants.
They fled, but others came behind, chasing him until at last he
came to a pair of silver-trimmed doors that stank of priests.
His strong hooves bashed open the doors and he ran inside, feet
slipping on the polished stone, eyes wild at the shrieks of women
and shouts of men.
The grandeur of the place infected
him—the gold, the robes, the acrid incense, the somber dance
of candlelight. A man reached for him and he reared up in defiance,
bellowing a challenge and shaking his mane. His hoofbeats clanged
through the dark space as he headed down the aisle, seeking his
lord. Another man reached for him, and Reynald gave him a sorrowful
bite on his arm. Up ahead, one man stepped forward from a group
of armored knights: Reynald's king.
"You willful thing,"
his lord said, chuckling. "I would have come for you anon,
but you have less patience even than I." He turned to the
censer-bearing priest. "Thank you, Father, but as you can
see, it is time for me to prepare." Reynald nodded his assent
and moved forward, calmly placing his nose under his lord's outstretched
Good, he thought. Let us be
at this thing, and quickly.
He allowed Benedict to take him
back to the stable. Other grooms and stableboys had returned,
bringing warm light beneath the wooden beams. As they crossed
the rain-soaked yard, Reynald looked up. The stars were paling
with the growing dawn. "No clouds," Benedict said,
to Reynald or to no one. "That's a welcome change."
Reynald snorted. He did not
care if there came clouds or rain or hail. War was war, and no
matter how grand and all-encompassing men thought it, it was in
reality a small and private thing for those who fought, mind to
mind, muscle to muscle. War was not glorious, only victory was;
and Reynald had long ago learned the difference between the two.
Back in the stable, Benedict
gave Reynald something to breakfast upon—a few handfuls of grain
and a winter apple—and Reynald crunched while he was combed and
saddled. Anton and Robert came up with his barding and he stopped
eating while they fitted it to him, hind and fore, heavy chain
and padded metal. Behind, he felt Benedict begin to braid his
tail and Reynald turned to inspect. He saw the ribbons the groom
was threading in and he thrashed his tail wildly. Benedict stepped
back and let the braid fall out. The ribbon fell to the churned
straw and mud of the stable floor. Reynald shifted his weight
and placed one foot on the bit of colored satin. Benedict stepped
up and began to braid Reynald's tail again.
No ribbons, Reynald thought;
today we see battle.
The yard was charged with the
sounds of metal and leather, the smells of sweat and manure, and
the thoughts of men and horses, young and old. Reynald tried
to shut out the distractions and concentrate his will on the day,
the tasks, and the battle before them. At the outer gate were
the footmen, the poles of their hook-bladed gisarmes and scythe-head
glaives standing like a wheat field ready to be harvested. Archers
stood in clustered ranks behind them, and along the stable wall
were the horses and their knights. Reynald stood at the side
nearest the steps to the inner keep, awaiting his king.
Is this all we are today? he
wondered, looking at the tired and besmirched assortment of ill-armored
men. We do not even fill the yard.
The house doors opened and a
great shout went up, ushering in Reynald's lord, his buffed plate
and chain limned by the low-angled light of morning. Reynald
could not keep his feet from dancing in anticipation as the king
descended the stairs. He came to Reynald's left side and spoke
to him in his gravelly voice.
"You have carried me through
many battles, my friend, and this one, today is the day for which
you were born." Reynald turned his head, seeking his master.
The king's face had thinned during the long months of winter siege,
and his beard was shot with gray. Still, there was a ruddiness
in his cheeks though, and his eyes were clear and strong. He
was still king.
Reynald felt the tug and weight
as his lord mounted. Turning heavily once, Reynald shook everything
into place: armor, rider, and weapons. He turned again as his
king addressed the forces in the yard.
"Stay to your lines, men.
We fight for the last time, though not without hope. We few can
end this today, if we but do our utmost. Stay strong, and Heaven
be on our side."
Another shout rose above the
muddied court, and a heartbeat began as weapons were put to shield
in martial rhythm. Louder they pounded until, when the gates
opened, they ceased. The vale lay before them.
Smoke from the enemy's fires
shrouded the valley. None of the soldiers spoke as they filed
out of the gates, heading down the hill, slowly and without order,
until one of the captains called them to a halt. In front of
them was the assembled enemy force, a long line of pikemen behind
which stood the infantry and the mounted nobles. Had he looked,
Reynald might have recognized some of the men, but he did not
care. They were the enemy, and that was recognition enough.
The captains deployed the defenders
in a line of polearms to match the aggressors, and Reynald was
pleased to see that his king's line was deeper than the enemy's,
though not by much. The archers took the high ground on either
side, and the knights took the center behind the footmen. Noblemen
rode along the lines, inspiring men by their presence and their
calm, but when a trumpet sounded from across the vale, all stopped.
The enemy's line of pikes parted and a trio of horses issued through
the gap, one rider bearing the banner of the green and gold that
Reynald had come to know well through parley and sortie. Spurs
touched Reynald flanks and he leapt forward, along with two others.
With a stablemate on each flank and the red and gold of their
own banner snapping in the wind of their passage, they headed
for a parley. Men knelt as their king passed, filling Reynald
with a sense of purpose and power. He whinnied once, and rolled
his eyes, breathing deep of the clear morning air and exhaling
it in a double font of gray mist.
The six riders converged in the
center of the field. Reynald came up strongly on the lead horse
of the enemy trio, head high, chest out. He raised one hoof and
pulled at the turf beneath him, marking the ground as his domain.
With a closer step he blew a heavy breath upon the other and saw
fear in the enemy's mount.
"You wish a parley,"
asked the king.
"Yes, Brother," said
the enemy rider. "I come to request your surrender."
The king checked Reynald with
the reins before he could bite the enemy for his insolence. He
ran Reynald a few quick paces along the length of the emplaced
battle lines and then back between his stablemates. "Your
army deserts you, my brother. Your numbers decline. The winter
has hurt you."
"As it has aged you,"
said the enemy.
Reynald heard the hatred in that
voice and bristled at it. This man was a danger, best dealt with
in battle. With a firm hand along his neck, the king calmed his
steed. "Age brings wisdom, Brother. We shall not surrender
this morning." Reynald was forced to turn away from the
enemy then, and return to the lines of waiting men on their side
of the vale. The king was met by a squire holding his helm.
Reynald nipped the squire's horse and they shouldered together,
both anxious for battle. The king turned him quickly to face
the enemy, and Reynald heard the singing of metal. The sun lanced
through the morning sky and Reynald saw the white gleam of his
lord's sword, pointing toward the field. The royal forces gave
cry and ran into battle. Arrows hissed over their heads, arcing
to meet the enemy's advancing lines. Another volley was loosed,
and then the lines met in crash of metal, flesh, and bone. The
king then called to his nobles, and set the cavalry in motion.
The world turned into one of
speed and sound. Grass flew underfoot, crisp air was pulled into
lungs, then expelled in bannered breaths. The tambour of a hundred
hooves threatened to tumble the towers of home, and the roar of
men hurtling toward battle rang in the air. At a command, the
line of charging cavalry became two, each half swinging to the
side, then wheeling in to crash through the weak ends of the enemy
infantry. Reynald lowered his head and bowled over man after
man. His rider trimmed the hedge of soldiers that rose on either
side, and Reynald heard the clash of sword on metal, and the woody
thunk of sword on bone. Men and horses screamed as they were
cut down, but Reynald and his king fought through.
On the rise, the riders reformed
their rank, and Reynald saw the confused melee of footmen below.
Reseated, the line of knights charged again, this time upon the
rear. The enemy cavalry charged up to meet them, but were hindered
by the slope. Reynald and his king plunged into them with the
force of speed and downhill weight, Reynald biting with teeth
and hooves, his king with steel and mailed fist. The battle became
thick, and Reynald knew only his opponent, his rider and liege,
and the art of war. His mind was nothing but this small world
of death, the mingling of blood and dirt, and the will to live
The blow came suddenly. The
pikeman died for his trouble, his jaw and cheek crushed with a
small movement of Reynald's foreleg. Reynald landed heavily and
barely kept his feet, the pike blade deep within him, piercing
breast and lung, the wound mortal. The battle surged inward but
broke against the king's circle of loyal fighters. The forces
from Reynald's keep pushed forward, outward, and the enemy dropped
weapons and fled. A cheer of victory rose from the defenders
as they claimed the field and the day.
Reynald fell gently to his knees
and then to his side, careful not to injure his rider by his weakness.
He looked up and saw his king standing above him. Though beyond,
his knights and soldiers exulted and waved the fallen flags of
their enemy, the king's face taut with mournful pain. He tossed
his mailed gloves to the ground and knelt by Reynald's head.
Gently, he reached out toward him. "Well done, lad,"
the king told him, and tears filled his gray eyes. "Well
Reynald nickered in pleasure,
nudging his liege's hand softly with his nose. The day for which
I was born, he thought to himself, and then, quietly, happily,
Reynald willed his heart to stop.