Chapter VI: The Melee
 

You have won your prize stoutly and well, sir 'prentice," the king said. "I should not have deemed it possible that one of your age could have smitten such a blow, and right glad should I be of a few hundred lads of your mettle to follow me against the French. What is your calling?"

"I am an armourer, my liege," Walter answered.

"And you are as good at mending armour as you are at marring it," the king said, "you will be a rare craftsman one of these days. 'Tis a rare pity so promising a swordsman should be lost to our army. Wouldst like to change your calling, boy, and take to that of arms?"

"It is my hope to do so, sir," Walter answered modestly, "and his grace the Prince of Wales has already promised me that I shall some day ride behind him to the wars."

"Ah! Edward," the king ejaculated, "how is this? Have you been already enlisting a troop for the wars?"

"No, sir," the young prince replied, "but one day, now some four years since, when I was riding with my Lord Talbot and others in the fields near the Tower I did see this lad lead his play-fellows to the assault of an earthen castle held by others, and he fought so well and gallantly that assuredly no knight could have done better, until he was at last stricken senseless, and when he recovered I told him that should he choose to be a man-at-arms I would enlist him in my following to the wars."

The king laughed.

"I deemed not that the lads of the city indulged in such rough sports; but I wonder not, seeing that the contingent which my good city of London furnishes me is ever one of the best in my army. We shall see the lad at work again tomorrow and will then talk more of it. Now let us bestow upon him the prize that he has so well earned."

Walter bent on one knee, and the queen handed to him a sword of the best Spanish steel, which was the prize given by the city to the victor. The king handed him a heavy purse of gold pieces, saying:

"This may aid in purchasing your freedom."

Walter bowed deeply and murmured some words of thanks, and was then led off by the marshal. After this many of the young nobles of the court jousted on horseback, ran at the ring, and performed other feats of knightly exercise to the great pleasure of the multitude. The marshal on leading Walter away said to him, "You will be captain of the city band tomorrow, and I must therefore tell you what the king purports. He has prepared a surprise for the citizens, and the present show will be different to anything ever before seen in London. Both to show them somewhat of the sieges which are taking place on the borders of France and the Low Countries, in which Sir Walter Manny and many other gallant knights have so greatly distinguished themselves, and as an exercise for the young nobles, he has determined that there shall be a castle erected. It will be built of wood, with battlements and towers, with a moat outside. As soon as the lists are over a large number of workmen will commence its erection; the pieces are all sawn and prepared. There will be machines, ladders, and other appliances. The ten champions on either side will fight as knights; you will have a hundred apprentices as men-at-arms, and the court party will have an equal number of young esquires. You, as winner of today's tourney, will have the choice of defence or attack. I should advise you to take the defence, since it is easier and requires less knowledge of war, and many of the other party have accompanied their fathers and masters in the field and have seen real sieges carried out."

"Can you show me a plan of the castle," Walter said, "if it be not contrary to the rules, in order that I may think over tonight the plan of fighting tomorrow?"

"Here it is," the marshal said. "You see that the walls are 200 feet long, they are 12 feet in height, with a tower at the end and one over the gateway in the centre six feet high. There is a drawbridge defended by an outwork of palisades six feet high. The moat will be a dry one, seeing that we have no means of filling it with water, but it will be supposed to be full, and must be crossed on planks or bridges. Two small towers on wheels will be provided, which may be run up to the edge of the moat, and will be as high as the top of the towers.

"Surely they cannot make all this before morning?" Walter said.

"They will do so," the marshal replied. "The castle has been put together in the king's courtyard, and the pieces are all numbered. Two hundred carpenters will labour all night at it, besides a party of labourers for the digging of the moat. It will be a rare show, and will delight both the citizens and the ladies of the court, for such a thing has never before been attempted. But the king grudges not the expense which it will cost him, seeing that spectacles of this kind do much to arouse the warlike spirit of the people. Here is a list of the various implements which will be provided, only it is understood that the mangonels and arblasts will not be provided with missiles, seeing that many would assuredly be killed by them. They will be employed, however, to show the nature of the work, and parties of men-at-arms will be told off to serve them. Crossbows and arrows will be used, but the weapons will be blunted. You will see that there are ladders, planks for making bridges, long hooks for hauling men down from the wall, beams for battering down the gate, axes for cutting down the palisades, and all other weapons. The ten who will serve under you as knights have already been nominated, and the city will furnish them with full armour. For the others, the apprentices of each ward will choose sufficient representatives to make up the hundred, who will fight as men-at-arms; these will wear steel caps and breastpieces, with leather jerkins, and vizors to protect their faces, for even a blunted arrow or wooden quarrel might well kill if it struck true."

On leaving the marshal Walter joined Giles Fletcher and Geoffrey Ward, who warmly congratulated him upon his success. He informed them of the spectacle which the king had prepared for the amusement of the citizens on the morrow.

"In faith," Geoffrey said, "the idea is a good one, and promises rare sport, but it will be rough, and we may expect many broken limbs, for it be no joke to be thrown down with a ladder from a wall even twelve feet high, and there will be the depth of the moat besides."

"That will only be two feet," Walter said, "for so it is marked on the plan."

"And which do you mean to take, Walter, the attack or the defence? Methinks the king has erred somewhat in making the forces equal, for assuredly the besiegers should outnumber the besieged by fully three to one to give them a fair chance of success."

"I shall take the assault," Walter answered; "there is more to be done that way than in the defence. When we get home, Geoffrey, we will look at the plans, and see what may be the best manner of assault."

Upon examining the plan that evening they found that the wall was continued at an angle at either end for a distance of some twenty feet back so as to give a postern gate behind each of the corner towers through which a sortie might be made. Geoffrey and Walter talked the matter over, and together contrived a plan of operation for the following day.

"You will have one great advantage," Geoffrey said. "The apprentices are all accustomed to the use of the bow, while the young nobles will know but little of that weapon; therefore your shooting will be far straighter and truer, and even a blunt-headed arrow drawn from the shoulder will hit so smart a blow that those on the wall will have difficulty in withstanding them."

After the talk was ended Walter again crossed London Bridge, and made his way to Ludgate, where he found his late antagonist, whose head had been plastered up, and was little the worse for the conflict.

"There is no ill-will between us, I hope," Walter said, holding out his hand.

"None in the world," the young smith said frankly. He was a good-tempered- looking young giant, with closely-cropped hair, light-blue eyes, and a pleasant but somewhat heavy face.

"My faith but what a blow was that you gave me; why, one would think that your muscles were made of steel. I thought that I could hit a good downright blow, seeing that I have been hammering at the anvil for the last seven years; but strike as I would I could not beat down your guard, while mine went down, as if it had been a feather, before yours. I knew, directly that I had struck the first blow, and felt how firm was your defence, that it was all up with me, knowing that in point of skill I had no chance whatever with you.

"I am glad to see that you bear no malice, Ralph," Walter said, "and hope that we shall be great friends henceforth, that is, if you will take me as such, seeing that you are just out of your apprenticeship, while I am not yet half through mine. But I have come to talk to you about tomorrow. Have you heard that there is to be a mimic siege?"

"I have heard about it," Ralph said. "The city is talking of nothing else. The news was published at the end of the sports. It will be rare fun, surely."

"It will be pretty rough fun," Walter replied; "and I should not be much surprised if some lives are lost; but this is always so in a tournament; and if knights and nobles are ready to be killed, we apprentices need not fear to hazard our lives. But now as to tomorrow. I, as the winner today, am to be the leader of the party, and you, as second, will of course be captain under me. Now I want to explain to you exactly what I propose to do, and to arrange with you as to your share in the business."

The young smith listened attentively to Walter's explanation, and, when he had done, exclaimed admiringly: "Why, Walter, you seem to be made for a general. How did it all come to you, lad? I should never have thought of such a scheme."

"I talked it over with my master," Walter said, "and the idea is his as much as mine. I wonder if it will do."

"It is sure to do," the smith said enthusiastically. "The castle is as good as taken."

The next day all London poured out to the scene of the sports, and the greatest admiration and wonder were expressed at the castle, which had risen, as if by magic, in the night. It was built at one end of the lists, which had been purposely placed in a hollow, so that a great number of people besides those in the pavilions could obtain a view from the surrounding slopes. The castle was substantially built of heavy timber painted gray, and looked at a little distance as if constructed of stone. A flag floated from the central tower, and the building looked so formidable that the general opinion was freely expressed that the task of the assailants, whoever they might be - for at present this was unknown - was quite impossible. At ten o'clock the king and his court arrived. After they had taken their places the two bands, headed by their leaders, advanced from the lower end of the lists, and drew up in front of the royal pavilion. The leaders took their places in front. Behind them stood ten chosen followers, all of whom, as well as their chiefs, were encased in full armour. Behind, on one side, were 100 apprentices, on the other 100 esquires, all attired as men-at-arms. The court party were led by Clarence Aylmer, son of the Earl of Pembroke. His companions were all young men of noble family, aspirants for the order of knighthood. They were, for the most part, somewhat older than the apprentices, but as the latter consisted chiefly of young men nearly out of their term the difference was not great. Walter's armour was a suit which the armourer had constructed a year previously for a young knight who had died before the armour could be delivered. Walter had wondered more than once why Geoffrey did not endeavour to sell it elsewhere, for, although not so decorated and inlaid as many of the suits of Milan armour, it was constructed of the finest steel, and the armourer had bestowed special care upon its manufacture, as the young knight's father had long been one of his best customers. Early that morning Geoffrey had brought it to his room and had told him to wear it instead of that lent by the city.

"But I fear it will get injured," Walter had urged. "I shall not spare myself, you know, Geoffrey, and the blows will be hard ones.

"The more need for good armour, Walter. These city suits are made for show rather than use. You may be sure that young Pembroke and his band will fight their hardest rather than suffer defeat at the hands of those whom they consider a band of city varlets."

Before issuing from the tent where he and his companions had put on their mail Walter carefully fastened in the front of his helmet a tiny gold bracelet. Upon taking their places before the pavilion the king ordered the two leaders to advance, and addressed them and the multitude in the following words:

"Brave leaders, and you, my people, I have contrived the pastime today that I may show you on a mimic scale the deeds which my brave soldiers are called upon to perform in France. It is more specially suited for the combatants of today, since one party have had but small opportunity of acquiring skill on horseback. Moreover, I wish to teach the lesson that fighting on foot is as honourable as fighting on horseback, for it has now been proved, and sometimes to our cost, in Scotland, that footmen can repulse even the bravest chivalry. Today each party will fight his best. Remember that, even in the heat of conflict, matters must not be carried to an extreme. Those cut off from their friends will be accounted prisoners, as will those who, being overpowered, throw down their arms. Any wounded on either side will not be accounted as prisoners, but may retire with honour from the field. You," he said, looking at Walter, "as the conqueror of yesterday, have the choice of either the attack or defence; but I should advise you to take the latter, seeing it is easier to defend a fortress than to assault it. Many of your opponents have already gained credit in real warfare, while you and your following are new to it. Therefore, in order to place the defence on fair terms with the assault, I have ordered that both sides shall be equal in numbers."

"If your liege will permit me," Walter said bowing, "I would fain take the assault. Methinks that, with my following, I could do better thus than in defence."

The king looked somewhat displeased.

"As you will," he said coldly; "but I fear this will somewhat mar the effect of the spectacle seeing that you will have no chance whatever against an equal force, more accustomed to war than your party, and occupying so superior a position. However," he went on, seeing that Walter made no sign of changing his mind, "as you have chosen, so be it; and now it is for you to choose the lady who shall be queen of the tourney and shall deliver the prizes to the victors. Look round you; there are many fair faces, and it is for you to choose among them."

Smiles passed between many of the courtly dames and ladies at the choice that was to be made among them by the apprentice lad; and they thought that he would be sorely puzzled at such a duty. Walter, however, did not hesitate an instant. He ran his eye over the crowd of ladies in the royal gallery, and soon saw the object of his search.

"Since I have your majesty's permission," he said, "I choose, as queen of the tournament, Mistress Edith Vernon."

There was a movement of surprise and a general smile. Perhaps to all who thought that they had a chance of being chosen the selection was a relief, as none could be jealous of the pretty child, who, at the king's order, made her way forward to the front, and took her seat in a chair placed between the king and queen. The girl coloured brightly; but she had heard so much of tourneys and jousts that she knew what was her duty. She had been sitting far back on the previous day, and the apprentice, when brought up before the king, was too far below for her to see his features. She now recognized him.

"Sir Knights," she said in a loud, clear, childish voice, "you will both do your duty today and show yourselves worthy cavaliers. Methinks that, as queen of the tourney, I should be neutral between you, but as one of you carries my gage in his helm, my good wishes must needs go with him; but bright eyes will be fixed on you both, and may well stir you to deeds of valour."

So saying, she resumed her seat with a pretty air of dignity.

"Why, sweetheart," the king said, "how is it that this 'prentice lad knows your name, and how is it that he wears your gage, for I know that the young Pembroke wears the glove of the Earl of Surrey's daughter?"

"He saved my life, sir, mine and my mother's," the child said, "and I told him he should be my true knight, and gave him my bracelet, which you see he wears in his helm."

"I recall somewhat of the story," the king said, "and will question my Lady Vernon further anon; but see, the combatants are filing off to their places."

With flags flying and trumpets blowing young Pembroke led his forces into the castle. Each of his ten knights was followed by an esquire bearing his banner, and each had ten men-at-arms under his immediate order. Two of them, with twenty men, remained in the outwork beyond the drawbridge. The rest took their station on the walls, and towers, where a platform had been erected, running along three feet below the battlements. The real men-at-arms with the machines of war now advanced, and for a time worked the machines, which made pretence at casting great stones and missiles at the walls. The assailants then moved forward and, unslinging their bows, opened a heavy fire of arrows at the defenders, who, in turn, replied with arrows and cross-bows.

"The 'prentices shoot well," the king said; "by our lady, it would be hot work for the defenders were the shafts but pointed! Even as it is the knocks must be no child's play, for the arrows, although not pointed, are all tipped with iron, without which, indeed, straight shooting would be impossible."

The return fire from the walls was feeble, and the king said, laughing, "So far your knight, fair mistress, has it all his own way. I did not reckon sufficiently upon the superiority of shooting of the London lads, and, indeed, I know not that I ought not in fairness to order some of the defenders off the walls, seeing, that in warfare, their numbers would be rapidly thinned. See, the assailants are moving up to the two towers under shelter of the fire of the archers."

By this time Aylmer, seeing that his followers could make no effectual reply to the arrow fire, had ordered all, save the leaders in full armour, to lie down behind the parapet. The assailants now gathered thickly round each tower, as if they intended to attempt to cross by the bridges, which could be let down from an opening in the tower level with the top of the wall, while archers upon the summit shot fast and thick among the defenders who were gathering to oppose them.

"If the young Pembroke is wise," the king said, "he will make a strong sally now and fall upon one or other of the parties."

As he spoke there was a sudden movement on the part of the assailants, who, leaving the foot of the towers, made a rush at the outwork in the centre. The instant they arrived they fell to work with axes upon the palisades. Many were struck down by the blows dealt them by the defenders, but others caught up the axes and in less than a minute several of the palisades were cut down and the assailants poured in. The defenders fought gallantly, but they were overpowered by numbers. Some were struck down, others taken prisoners by main force, and the rest driven across the drawbridge, just as the gates were opened and Pembroke, at the head of the defenders, swarmed out to their assistance.

There was a desperate fight on the bridge, and it was well that the armour was stout, and the arms that wielded the weapons had not yet attained their full strength. Several were knocked off the bridge into the moat, and these were, by the rules, obliged at once to retire and take no further part in the contest. Walter and Ralph the smith, fought in front of their men, and hard as Pembroke and his followers struggled, they could not drive them back a foot. The court party were galled by the heavy fire of arrows kept up by the apprentices along the side of the moat, and finding all his efforts to regain the earth-work useless, Pembroke withdrew his forces into the castle, and in spite of the efforts of the besiegers managed to close the gates in their faces. The assailants, however, succeeded in severing the chains of the drawbridge before it could be raised.

From the tower above, the defenders now hurled over great stones, which had been specially placed there for the purpose of destroying the drawbridge should the earthwork be carried. The boards were soon splintered, and the drawbridge was pronounced by the Earl of Talbot, who was acting as judge, to be destroyed. The excitement of the spectators was worked up to a great pitch while the conflict was going on, and the citizens cheered lustily at the success of the apprentices.

"That was gallantly done," the king said to Queen Philippa, "and the leader of the assailants is a lad of rare mettle. Not a captain of my army, no, not Sir Walter Manny himself, could have done it more cleverly. You see, by placing his forces at the ends of the wall he drew all the garrison thither to withstand the assaults from them, and thus by his sudden movement he was able to carry the outwork before they could recover from their surprise, and come down to its aid. I am curious to know what he will do next. What thinkst thou, Edward?" he asked his son, who was standing by his side.

"He will win the day," the young prince said; "and in faith, although the others are my comrades, I should be glad to see it. He will make a gallant knight, sir, one of these days, and remember he is engaged to follow my banner, so you must not steal him from me. See, my liege, they are taking planks and ladders to the outwork."

"They are doing wrongly then," the king said, "for even should they bridge the moat where the drawbridge is, they cannot scale the wall there, since the tower defends it, and the ladders are but long enough to reach the lower wall. No, their leader has changed his mind, they are taking the planks along the edge of the moat towards the tower on the left, and will aid the assault by its bridge by a passage of the moat there.

It seemed, indeed, that this was the plan. While some of the assailants kept up the arrow fire on the wall others mounted the tower, while a party prepared to throw a bridge of planks across the moat. The bridge from the tower was now lowered; but a shout of triumph rose from the defenders when it was seen that by some mistake of the carpenters this was too short, and when lowered did not reach within six feet of the wall.

"All the better," the king said, while the prince gave an angry exclamation. "Accidents of this kind will happen, and give an opportunity to a leader to show his resources. Doubtless he will carry planks up to the tower and so connect the bridge and the wall."

This, indeed, was what the assailants tried to do, while a party threw planks across the moat, and rushing over placed ladders against the wall and strove to climb. They strove in vain, however. The ladders were thrown down as fast as they were placed, while the defenders, thickly clustered on the walls, drove back those who tried to cross from the tower.

"I do not see the leader of the assailants," the prince said.

"He has a white plume, but it may have been shorn off," the king said. "Look, the young Pembroke is making a sortie!"

From the sortie gate behind the tower the defenders now poured out, and running down to the edge of the moat fell upon the stormers. These, however, received them with great steadiness, and while some continued the attack the rest turned upon the garrison, and, headed by Ralph the smith, drove them gradually back.

"They fight well and steadily," the king said. "One would have thought that they had reckoned on the sortie, so steadily did they receive it."

As only a portion of the garrison had issued out they were unable to resist long the pressure of the apprentices, who drove them back step by step to the sally- port, and pressing them hard endeavoured to force their way in at their heels.