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By Bernard Cornwell
The treasure of Hookton was stolen on Easter morning 1342. It was a holy thing, a relic that hung from the church rafters, and it was extraordinary that so precious an object should have been kept in such an obscure village. Some folk said it had no business being there, that it should have been enshrined in a cathedral or some great abbey, while others, many others, said it was not genuine. Only fools denied that relics were faked. Glib men roamed the byways of England selling yellowed bones that were said to be from the fingers or toes or ribs of the blessed saints, and sometimes the bones were human, though more often they were from pigs or even deer, but still folk bought and prayed to the bones. A man might as well pray to Saint Guinefort,“ Father Ralph said, then snorted with mocking laughter. They're praying to ham bones, ham bones! The blessed pig!”
It had been Father Ralph who had brought the treasure to Hookton and he would not hear of it being taken away to a cathedral or abbey, and so for eight years it hung in the small church, gathering dust and growlng spider webs that shone silver when the sunlight slanted through the high window of the western tower. Sparrows perched on the treasure and some mornings there were bats hanging from its shaft. It was rarely cleaned and hardly ever brought down, though once in a while Father Ralph would demand that ladders be fetched and the treasure unhooked from its chains and he would pray over it and stroke it. He never boasted of it. Other churches or monasteries, possessing such a prize, would have used it to attract pilgrims, but Father Ralph turned visitors away. It is nothing,“ he would say if a stranger enquired after the relic, a bauble. Nothing.” He became angry if the visitors persisted. It is nothing, nothing, nothing!" Father Ralph was a frightening man even when he was not angry, but in his temper he was a wild-haired fiend, and his flaring anger protected the treasure, though Father Ralph himself believed that ignorance was its best protection for if men did not know of it then God would guard it. And so He did, for a time.
Hookton's obscurity was the treasure's best protection. The tiny village lay on England's south coast where the Lipp, a stream that was almost a river, flowed to the sea across a shingle beach. A half-dozen fishing boats worked from the village, protected at night by the Hook itself, which was a tongue of shingle that curved around the Lipp's last reach, though in the famous storm of 1322 the sea had roared across the Hook and pounded the boats to splinters on the upper beach. The village had never really recovered from that tragedy. Nineteen boats had sailed from the Hook before the storm, but twenty years later only six small craft worked the waves beyond the Lipp's treacherous bar. The rest of the villagers worked in the saltpans, or else herded sheep and cattle on the hills behind the huddle of thatched huts which clustered about the small stone church where the treasure hung from the blackened beams. That was Hookton, a place of boats, fish, salt and livestock, with green hills behind, ignorance within and the wide sea beyond. Hookton, like every place in Christendom, held a vigil on the eve of Easter, and in 1342 that solemn duty was performed by five men who watched as Father Ralph consecrated the Easter Sacraments and then laid the bread and wine on the white-draped altar. The wafers were in a simple clay bowl covered with a piece of bleached linen, while the wine was in a silver cup that belonged to Father Ralph. The silver cup was a part of his mystery. He was very tall, pious and much too learned to be a village priest. It was rumoured that he could have been a bishop, but that the devil had persecuted him with bad dreams and it was certain that in the years before he came to Hookton he had been locked in a monastery's cell because he was possessed by demons. Then, in 1334, the demons had left him and he was sent to Hookton where he terrified the villagers by preaching to the gulls, or pacing the beach weeping for his sins and striking his breast with sharp-edged stones. He howled like a dog when his wickedness weighed too heavily on his conscience, but he also found a kind of peace in the remote village. He built a large house of timber, which he shared with his housekeeper, and he made friends with Sir Giles Marriott, who was the lord of Hook-ton and lived in a stone hall three miles to the north. Sir Giles, of course, was a gentleman, and so it seemed was Father Ralph, despite his wild hair and angry voice. He collected books which, after the treasure he had brought to the church, were the greatest marvels in Hookton. Sometimes, when he left his door open, people would just gape at the seventeen books that were bound in leather and piled on a table. Most were in Latin, but a handful were in French, which was Father Ralph's native tongue. Not the French of France, but Norman French, the language of England's rulers, and the villagers reckoned their priest must be nobly born, though none dared ask him to his face. They were all too scared of him, but he did his duty by them; he christened them, churched them, married them, heard their confessions, absolved them, scolded them and buried them, but he did not pass the time with them. He walked alone, grim-faced, hair awry and eyes glowering, but the villagers were still proud of him. Most country churches suffered ignorant, pudding-faced priests who were scarce more educated than their parishioners, but, Hookton, in Father Ralph had a proper scholar, too clever to be sociable, perhaps a saint, maybe of noble birth, a self-confessed sinner, probably mad, but undeniably a real priest.
Father Ralph blessed the Sacraments, then warned the five men that Lucifer was abroad on the night before Easter and that the devil wanted nothing so much as to snatch the Holy Sacraments from the altar and so the five men must guard the bread and wine diligently and, for a short time after the priest had left, they dutifully stayed on their knees, gazing at the chalice, which had an armorial badge engraved in its silver flank. The badge showed a mythical beast, a yale, holding a grail, and it was that noble device which suggested to the villagers that Father Ralph was indeed a high-born man who had fallen low through being possessed of devils. The silver chalice seemed to shimmer in the light of two immensely tall candles which would burn through the whole long night. Most villages could not afford proper Easter candles, but Father Ralph purchased two from the monks at Shaftesbury every year and the villagers would sidle into the church to stare at them. But that night, after dark, only the five men saw the tall unwavering flames. Then John, a fisherman, farted. Reckon that's ripe enough to keep the old devil away," he said, and the other four laughed. Then they all abandoned the chancel steps and sat with their backs against the nave wall. John's wife had provided a basket of bread, cheese and smoked fish, while Edward, who owned a saltworks on the beach, had brought ale.
In the bigger churches of Christendom knights kept this annual vigil. They knelt in full armour, their surcoats embroidered with prancing lions and stooping hawks and axe heads and spread-wing eagles, and their helmets mounted with feathered crests, but there were no knights in Hookton and only the youngest man, who was called Thomas and who sat slightly apart from the other four, had a weapon. It was an ancient, blunt and slightly rusted sword. You reckon that old blade will scare the devil, Thomas?" John asked him.
My father said I had to bring it,“ Thomas said. What does your father want with a sword?”
He throws nothing away, you know that,“ Thomas said, hefting the old weapon. It was heavy, but he lifted it easily; at eighteen, he was tall and immensely strong. He was well liked in Hookton for, despite being the son of the village's richest man, he was a hard-working boy. He loved nothing better than a day at sea hauling tarred nets that left his hands raw and bleeding. He knew how to sail a boat, had the strength to pull a good oar when the wind failed; he could lay snares, shoot a bow, dig a grave. geld a calf, lay thatch or cut hay all day long. He was a big, bony, black-haired country boy, but God had given him a father who wanted Thomas to rise above common things. He wanted the boy to be a priest. which was why Thomas had just finished his first term at Oxford. What do you do at Oxford, Thomas?” Edward asked him. Everything I shouldn't," Thomas said. He pushed black hair away from his face that was bony like his father's. He had very blue eyes, a long jaw, slightly hooded eyes and a swift smile. The girls in the village reckoned him handsome.
Do they have girls at Oxford?“ John asked slyly. More than enough,” Thomas said.
Don't tell your father that,“ Edward said, or he'll be whipping you again. A good man with a whip, your father.” There's none better," Thomas agreed.
He only wants the best for you,“ John said. Can't blame a man for that.”
Thomas did blame his father. He had always blamed his father. He had fought his father for years, and nothing so raised the anger between them as Thomas's obsession with bows. His mother's father had been a bowyer in the Weald, and Thomas had lived with his grandfather until he was nearly ten. Then his father had brought him to Hookton, where he had met Sir Giles Marriott's huntsman, another man skilled in archery, and the huntsman had become his new tutor. Thomas had made his first bow at eleven, but when his father found the elmwood weapon he had broken it across his knee and used the remnants to thrash his son. You are not a common man," his father had shouted, beating the splintered staves on Thomas's back and head and legs, but neither the words nor the thrashing did any good. And as Thomas's father was usually pre-occupied with other things, Thomas had plenty of time to pursue his obsession.
By fifteen he was as good a bowyer as his grandfather, knowing instinctively how to shape a stave of yew so that the inner belly came from the dense heartwood while the front was made of the springier sapwood, and when the bow was bent the heartwood was always trying to return to the straight and the sapwood was the muscle that made it possible. To Thomas's quick mind there was something elegant, simple and beautiful about a good bow. Smooth and strong, a good bow was like a girl's flat belly, and that night, keeping the Easter vigil in Hookton church, Thomas was reminded of Jane, who served in the village's small alehouse.
John, Edward and the other two men had been speaking of village things: the price of lambs at Dorchester fair, the old fox up on Lipp Hill that had taken a whole flock of geese in one night and the angel who had been seen over the rooftops at Lyme.
I reckon they's been drinking too much,“ Edward said. I sees angels when I drink,” John said.
That be Jane,“ Edward said. Looks like an angel, she does.” Don't behave like one,“ John said. Lass is pregnant,” and all four men looked at Thomas, who stared innocently up at the treasure hanging from the rafters. In truth Thomas was frightened that the child was indeed his and terrified of what his father would say when he found out, but he pretended ignorance of Jane's pregnancy that night. He just looked at the treasure that was half obscured by a fishing net hung up to dry, while the four older men gradually fell asleep. A cold draught flickered the twin candle flames. A dog howled somewhere in the village, and always, never ending, Thomas could hear the sea's heartbeat as the waves thumped on the shingle then scraped back, paused and thumped again. He listened to the four men snoring and he prayed that his father would never find out about Jane, though that was unlikely for she was pressing Thomas to marry her and he did not know what to do. Maybe, he thought, he should just run away, take Jane and his bow and run, but he felt no certainty and so he just gazed at the relic in the church roof and prayed to its saint for help. The treasure was a lance. It was a huge thing, with a shaft as thick as a man's forearm and twice the length of a man's height and probably made of ash though it was so old no one could really say, and age had bent the blackened shaft out of true, though not by much, and its tip was not an iron or steel blade, but a wedge of tarnished silver which tapered to a bodkin's point. The shaft did not swell to protect the handgrip, but was smooth like a spear or a goad; indeed the relic looked very like an oversized ox-goad, but no farmer would ever tip an ox-goad with silver. This was a weapon, a lance.
But it was not any old lance. This was the very lance which Saint George had used to kill the dragon. It was England's lance, for Saint George was England's saint and that made it a very great treasure, even if it did hang in Hookton's spidery church roof. There were plenty of folk who said it could not have been Saint George's lance, but Thomas believed it was and he liked to imagine the dust churned by the hooves of Saint George's horse, and the dragon's breath stream-ing in hellish flame as the horse reared and the saint drew back the lance. The sunlight, bright as an angel's wing, would have been flaring about Saint George's helmet, and Thomas imagined the dragon's roar, the thrash of its scale-hooked tail, the horse screaming in terror, and he saw the saint stand in his stirrups before plunging the lance's silver tip down through the monster's armoured hide. Straight to the heart the lance went, and the dragon's squeals would have rung to heaven as it writhed and bled and died. Then the dust would have settled and the dragon's blood would have crusted on the desert sand, and Saint George must have hauled the lance free and somehow it ended up in Father Ralph's possession. But how? The priest would not say. But there it hung, a great dark lance, heavy enough to shatter a dragon's scales.
So that night Thomas prayed to Saint George while Jane, the black-haired beauty whose belly was just rounding with her unborn child, slept in the taproom of the alehouse, and Father Ralph cried aloud in his nightmare for fear of the demons that circled in the dark, and the vixens screamed on the hill as the endless waves clawed and sucked at the shingle on the Hook. It was the night before Easter. Thomas woke to the sound of the village cockerels and saw that the expensive candles had burned down almost to their pewter holders. A grey light filled the window above the white-fronted altar. One day, Father Ralph had promised the village, that window would be a blaze of coloured glass showing Saint George skewering the dragon with the silver-headed lance, but for now the stone frame was filled with horn panes that turned the air within the church as yellow as urine.
Thomas stood, needing to piss, and the first awful screams sounded from the village.
For Easter had come, Christ was risen and the French were ashore. The raiders came from Normandy in four boats that had sailed the night's west wind. Their leader, Sir Guillaume d'evecque, the Sieur d'evecque, was a seasoned warrior who had fought the English in Gascony and Flanders, and had twice led raids on England's southern coast. Both times he had brought his boats safe home with cargoes of wool, silver, livestock and women. He lived in a fine stone house on Caen's Ile Saint Jean, where he was known as the knight of the sea and of the land. He was thirty years old, broad in the chest, wind-burned and fair-haired, a cheerful, unreflective man who made his living by piracy at sea and knight-service on shore, and now he had come to Hookton.