It was winter. A cold morning wind blew from the sea bringing a
sour salt smell and a spitting rain that would inevitably sap the
power of the bowstrings if it did not let up.
"What it is," Jake said, "is a waste of goddamn time."
No one took any notice of him.
"Could have stayed in Brest," Jake grumbled, "been sitting by a
fire. Drinking ale."
Again he was ignored.
"Funny name for a town," Sam said after a long while. "Brest. I
like it, though." He looked at the archers. "Maybe we'll see the
Blackbird again?" he suggested.
"Maybe she'll put a bolt through your tongue," Will Skeat growled,
"and do us all a favor."
The Blackbird was a woman who fought from the town walls every time
the army made an assault. She was young, had black hair, wore a
black cloak and shot a crossbow. In the first assault, when Will
Skeat's archers had been in the vanguard of the attack and had lost
four men, they had been close enough to see the Blackbird clearly
and they had all thought her beautiful, though after a winter
campaign of failure, cold, mud and hunger, almost any woman looked
beautiful. Still, there was something special about the
"She doesn't load that crossbow herself," Sam said, unmoved by
"Of course she bloody doesn't," Jake said. "There ain't a woman
born that can crank a crossbow."
"Dozy Mary could," another man said. "Got muscles like a bullock,
"And she closes her eyes when she shoots," Sam said, still talking
of the Blackbird. "I noticed."
"That's because you weren't doing your goddamn job," Will Skeat
snarled, "so shut your mouth, Sam."
Sam was the youngest of Skeat's men. He claimed to be eighteen,
though he was really not sure because he had lost count. He was a
draper's son, had a cherubic face, brown curls and a heart as dark
as sin. He was a good archer though; no one could serve Will Skeat
without being good.
"Right, lads," Skeat said, "make ready."
He had seen the stir in the encampment behind them. The enemy would
notice it soon and the church bells would ring the alarm and the
town walls would fill with defenders armed with crossbows. The
crossbows would rip their bolts into the attackers and Skeat's job
today was to try to clear those crossbowmen off the wall with his
arrows. Some chance, he thought sourly. The defenders would crouch
behind their crenellations and so deny his men an opportunity to
aim, and doubtless this assault would end as the five other attacks
had finished, in failure.
It had been a whole campaign of failure. William Bohun, the Earl of
Northampton, who led this small English army, had launched the
winter expedition in hope of capturing a stronghold in northern
Brittany, but the assault on Carhaix had been a humiliating
failure, the defenders of Guingamp had laughed at the English, and
the walls of Lannion had repulsed every attack. They had captured
Tréguier, but as that town had no walls it was not much of an
achievement and no place to make a fortress. Now, at the bitter end
of the year, with nothing better to do, the Earl's army had fetched
up outside this small town, which was scarcely more than a walled
village, but even this miserable place had defied the army. The
Earl had launched attack after attack and all had been beaten back.
The English had been met by a storm of crossbow bolts, the scaling
ladders had been thrust from the ramparts and the defenders had
exulted in each failure.
"What is this goddamn place called?" Skeat asked.
"La Roche-Derrien," a tall archer answered.
"You would know, Tom," Skeat said, "you know everything."
"That is true, Will," Thomas said gravely, "quite literally true."
The other archers laughed.
"So if you know so bloody much," Skeat said, "tell me what this
goddamn town is called again."
"Daft bloody name," Skeat said. He was gray-haired, thin-faced and
had known nearly thirty years of fighting. He came from Yorkshire
and had begun his career as an archer fighting against the Scots.
He had been as lucky as he was skilled, and so he had taken
plunder, survived battles and risen in the ranks until he was
wealthy enough to raise his own band of soldiers. He now led
seventy men-at-arms and as many archers, whom he had contracted to
the Earl of Northampton's service which was why he was crouching
behind a wet hedge a hundred and fifty paces from the walls of a
town whose name he still could not remember. His men-at-arms were
in the camp, given a day's rest after leading the last failed
assault. Will Skeat hated failure.
"La Roche what?" he asked Thomas.
"What does that goddamn mean?"
"That, I confess, I do not know."
"Sweet Christ," Skeat said in mock wonder, "he doesn't know
"It is, however, close to derrière,which means arse,"
Thomas added. "The rock of the arse is my best translation."
Skeat opened his mouth to say something, but just then the first of
La Roche-Derrien's church bells sounded the alarm. It was the
cracked bell, the one that sounded so harsh, and within seconds the
other churches added their tolling so that the wet wind was filled
with their clangor. The noise was greeted by a subdued English
cheer as the assault troops came from the camp and pounded up the
road toward the town's southern gate. The leading men carried
ladders, the rest had swords and axes. The Earl of Northampton led
the assault, as he had led all the others, conspicuous in his plate
armor half covered by a surcoat showing his badge...
Excerpted from THE ARCHER'S TALE © Copyright 2001 by
Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All