In the year of Our Lord 1166, being the 12th year of the reign of Henry II, by the Grace of God, King of the English...
Near the end of summer, in the middle of a day, a cavalcade of horsemen came thundering through the forests and over the landscape in the center of England. Although they wore no armor, sunlight flashed off the sword hilts at their belts and their conical helmets. They rode warhorses, and one of the two men in the lead carried a staff from which flew a colored pennant. The squires at the rear led sumpters encumbered with packs and also barrels that held the knights’ chain mail, loaded in sand to keep it burnished and shiny. This caravan frightened the livestock and alarmed the peasants cutting barley in the fields, although I admit their leader was always careful to avoid crops as much as he could. There are no highways near Helmdon, only tracks, and shortcuts will always tempt men in a hurry.
I had expected them to come from the south, but they had failed to find the shortest route and so they entered the village from the north. I am sure that Helmdon did not impress them—a dozen or so cob-and-thatch cottages flanking the road, a public well, a tract of common land, and some majestic elm trees. It even lacked a church, so that the barely-literate Father Osric celebrated mass either inside or outside his own home, depending on the weather. The hamlet’s only claim to any importance whatsoever was that it had given its name to an academy that in those days was ranked as one of the finest schools of secular learning in England, if not all Christendom.
Looking back now from my doddering old age, I can appreciate how little the academy must have impressed men fresh from the king’s court and the ornate cities of France. In appearance it was merely a somewhat tidier repetition of the village, except that the buildings were slightly larger, for most had two or even three rooms, and so could be glorified as cottages rather than huts; a couple had proper chimneys, which were rare back then. They were grouped around a yard and connected by a boardwalk, shaded by great elm trees. The windows were either fitted with shutters or screens of thinly shaved horn. None were glazed. This had been my home since I was barely old enough to rub down a horse or shovel out a stable.
That warm afternoon, both Ruffian, a stallion, and Bon Appétit, my palfrey, were saddled and tethered in the yard. They heard hooves approaching long before human ears did, and whinnied an alarm. By the time the cavalcade arrived, I was standing on the boardwalk near the entrance, leaning on my stout oaken cane, waiting for the visitors, with Eadig at my side. Other men were emerging from some of the cottages, but we two were obviously the welcoming committee.
There ought not to be any welcoming committee, because the king’s men were on a secret mission.
The leading two horsemen rode into the yard, the rest remained outside. By then Ruffian had scented other stallions on his territory and was making enough commotion to raise the Trojan dead, screaming horse insults, and doing his damnedest to pull over a sixty-foot elm.
The young rider in front, the one who carried the pennant, also bore a shield on his back and thus was obviously a squire. I later learned that his name was Piers. The knight he served followed a few paces behind; both men wore swords. The knight’s mount was one of the stallions that were so exasperating Ruffian, but it was being kept under admirable control.
The young squire eyed me in the cold way that Normans always eyed Saxons back then, and often still do. In his case, the shiny nose guard between his eyes made his stare even more menacing. “On the king’s business, Sir Neil d'Airelle seeks Adept Durwin of Helmdon.”
I bowed, although not much. “You may inform Sir Neil that his quest has been crowned with success. This is the Academy of Helmdon, and I am the man he seeks.”
Piers glanced around at his knight. Receiving a nod of approval, he then backed his gelding away so that the stallion could take its place. If the squire’s stare had been cold, the knight’s was positively icy. He was not much older than I, large and dark complexioned, and he sported a thin mustache of the type the king did back then. That was all I could see of his person, although he was obviously well clad and outfitted. In those days heraldry had not achieved the complexity and importance it has reached now, so he displayed no fancy emblems.
What did he see? A twenty-two-year-old male, well built but no giant, clean shaven, with hair as blond as could be, to match his Saxon name. My tunic was of good linen and well tailored, but on my right foot I wore a boot raised about four inches by an iron platform. The king would not have forgotten to mention my impairment, so Sir Neil should be in no doubt that he had indeed found the man he sought. He eyed me with disapproval, but I could guess that his displeasure was mostly directed at the elbow-length cape I wore over my shirt, for it was dyed green, the insignia of a qualified sage.
I had guessed correctly.
“The king’s understanding,” he said, “as he explained it to me last week, was that you accepted his silver on condition that you would report to him for employment as soon as you had completed your studies in this...” He glanced around with disgust. “...school.” His accent was not Norman. He might be from Anjou, like the king himself, or perhaps somewhere farther south, like Maine, but certainly not Aquitaine, for there they speak a very different sort of French.
“Sir, that was my understanding also,” I said.
“So how long have you been a licensed sage, Durwin?”
I glanced at the shadows of the trees. “About four hours, sir.”
“You expect me to believe in such a remarkable coincidence?”
“It wasn’t a coincidence, sir.”
Neil looked over the tethered horses, saddled and laden with baggage, and then at my companion, young Eadig. Eadig, I must explain, looked all of thirteen, but was in fact four years older than that. His hair was a reddish gold, his complexion peaches and cream peppered with freckles, and at that moment he was gleaming all over with excitement like a silver cup in sunlight. He wore the white cape of an adept.
“Eadig son of Edwin,” I explained, “who will accompany us as my cantor.”
“And how long has that child been an adept?”
“Three and a half hours, more or less, Sir Neil.”
Eadig drew breath sharply to choke off a laugh, but even that was an offensive sound. Back then, Saxons were still very much the underdogs in England. Normans—or other Frenchmen such as Angevins—expected abject respect from them. Other kingdoms had monarchs who could speak to their people and understand what their people said to them, but since William the Bastard had defeated noble King Harold at Hastings, exactly a century ago, England had been ruled by Frenchmen, and mostly absentee Frenchmen at that.
Glaring with fury at our lack of deference, Sir Neil glanced past me to view the audience, for the entire faculty and student body of Helmdon—except for one who was on his deathbed, and another keeping death watch on him—had emerged by then to stand in the background and watch the encounter in progress. I expect that most of them were enjoying the show, for scholars have little love for fighters.
“Who told you we were coming?”
Had I appreciated the danger properly, I might have been able to save the situation even then, but instead I just made matters a whole wagonload worse. Remember that the king’s man expected a Saxon lad to grovel, if perhaps not literally in this case, but I was so puffed up with my recent triumph that I felt almost as if I had summoned him there by magic, and he should be kneeling to me.
“No one, Sir Neil. Let me put it this way. I have lived here in Helmdon since I was child. This morning I attained my life’s ambition, when the sages voted to make me one of their own. Now one of His Grace’s honored confidants has come from France to summon me to my duties in his service. These are great events in my life, Sir Neil.”
“What of it? Who else should care?”
“Great events often cast their shadows ahead of them.”
The squire in the background crossed himself, but Sir Neil was not to be cowed by hints of magic, and certainly not pleased at my impudence. “You are claiming that you can see the future?”
“Oh, not in general, sir! But sometimes such great turning points can be sensed in advance. It was for such skills that the king engaged me, sir.”
“And so I must put up with you. But then I don’t need to tell you where we are going, do I?”
The squire smirked.
And I promptly made an already bad situation a hundred times worse.
“Might that be Lincoln, sir?”
I was gambling, for I wasn’t certain of that, and had I been wrong my error might have saved the day. But I was obviously right. The squire crossed himself again and murmured a prayer. The knight’s face paled inside his helmet and his hand went to his sword hilt. He was on a supposedly secret mission! Even his horse felt his shock, for it whinnied in alarm and shifted its feet.
“Who else knows about this prophetic vision of yours?”
Seeing my folly at last, I hastily bent the truth to the breaking point. “Adept Eadig assisted me in the enchantment, sir, but we have told no one else the details, only that I, um, had reason to expect a summons from His Grace to... I expected a messenger to arrive today... I did ask the dean if Eadig could accompany me... sir. I know no further details of our...” Oh, Lord, that was an even worse error! “...your mission, Sir Neil.”
Scowl. “So of course you know where we shall spend tonight?”
Almost certainly he would be heading to the king’s castle in Northampton, which would provide him with hospitality that he would find much more agreeable than whatever a monastery would offer—probably even a woman—but I had caused too much trouble already. Guessing, even if correct, was not going to help matters now.
“No, Sir Neil. I have told you as much of the future as I can foresee.”
He glanced again at my game leg, and then at Ruffian, who was still doing his utmost to rid himself of his saddle and bridle so he could eject the intruders.
“You are right in so far as His Grace sent us to call you to his service. We head now for His Grace’s castle in Northampton. Make your own way there. I won’t wait for you. And His Grace made no mention of servants, so if you bring that boy—or familiar, or whatever else he is to you—along, then you can pay his board yourself.”
With that Sir Neil wheeled his stallion around and rode out of the yard. Eadig ran for our horses and I bobbled after him as fast as I could. Some of the Helmdon squires were already trying to calm Ruffian.
The king’s men left in a drum roll of hooves and a haze of dust. They had barely quit the village before we were mounted and racing after them, with me struggling to hold Ruffian back. Eadig was a far better rider than most Saxons ever got the chance to be, but no man could force a palfrey like Bon Appétit to match the stallion when he was in fighting mood, as now.
“They’re going to follow the Nene downstream,” Eadig shouted over the thumping hooves. “If we cross the headwaters and cut through the forest, we might be able to beat them to Northampton.”
“We might indeed,” I said, “but we will tag along behind, like good little minions.” I could just imagine Sir Neil and his company riding up to the castle gate only to find the two of us already there, patiently waiting. It was a pleasant fancy, but I understood by then that it would be dangerously unwise.
I had totally mishandled my first meeting with Sir Neil d'Airelle, making the man the king had set over me into an enemy instead of a colleague. Had I behaved myself as I should have known to do, I might have persuaded him to give me at least a general idea of what our mission was all about. Then I might have made a better choice of the enchantments to take with me and so might have been able to avert the disaster that followed.