Battle of Poitiers
September 19, 1356
Basil Manneville, Earl of Ashenwyck, lost count of the different banners on the enemy field. Every noble house in France was represented. The English were outnumbered three to one if he had to guess, but if it turned out to be five to one he'd not be surprised.
Behind him, a horse whinnied. Basil turned as his old friend, Guy rode up. Once the battle started, they’d be in the first line of mounted knights leading the charge with Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince.
Basil and Guy had each kept his own counsel that morning as they made ready. But for the first time in this campaign, Guy had tied several bright colored favors to his armor. The ribbons covered the length of his upper arm and were as different as the ladies who’d offered them.
Guy broke the silence. “Do you think the battle will be as bad as Crecy, or worse?” he asked, as he studied their enemy who continued to form up on the opposite plateau.
"We'll be lucky if it's only as bad as Crecy. I imagine it will be much worse. You shouldn't worry too much,” Basil said, eyeing the favors decorating Guy’s arm. “Half the ladies at court have lit candles for your safe return."
"I'm not worried, not about the French. I worry about the ladies. When I return, I must pace myself and some are bound to be disappointed." Guy said with a broad grin.
“You’re like a fine gardener. You go from flower to flower, cultivating the ladies. I envy you and your garden. At least there’ll be one who will weep for you.”
"You speak as though there are none who would mourn you."
"Only my brother,” Basil said. “I'm not like you. I never saw women as delicate flowers for me to gather. I gave them a rousing tumble or two and then put them from my mind."
A large company of French knights dismounted and handed the reins of their destriers to waiting squires. Horses and men made a muddy mess of the soft soil and wet grass. The knights removed axes and morning stars. They left their long swords in the scabbards on their saddles. Instead, they took arming swords, strapping the baldrics to their waists.
“They’re saving the best of the cavalry for the initial charge,” Guy said.
Basil nodded. “The rest will fight on foot, ready to rush through our weak spots.”
Priests in black robes walked among the English ranks blessing swords and bows, before the order to form three columns came. Prince Edward’s men lined up on the plateau at the edge of Nouaille Wood. Their position gave them clear view of the French forces which stretched as far as the eye could see.
A battle cry rang out.
Hidden behind a cover of hedges, Edward’s archers employed the same strategy his father used ten years earlier, at Crecy. The bowmen had dug a trench in front of the thicket to slow the oncoming cavalry.
The first charge of French men-at-arms and cavalry made for a gap in the hedge. The pounding of the approaching heavy horses thundered in Basil’s ears. The ground beneath him shuddered. The roar of men and beasts grew louder as though the earth were being ripped open. His mount, Saladin, stamped and snorted in anticipation. Basil murmured an order and tapped the horse’s flank with a golden spur. The warhorse ceased his prance and held steady.
English archers rained arrows down. Wounded horses squealed and reared, throwing their riders, while others fled, panicked, their massive hooves trampling on friend and foe. Men screamed and cried out in fear, in pain, dying. Metal clanged against metal. The deafening roar raged on, carnage and chaos ensued, the slaughtered piling up but a couple of lengths in front of the prince’s column.
Still the French came on in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Behind Edward, sword in hand, Basil spurred Saladin, and leaped the hedge. Too late he saw the glint from the enemy ax hack into his destrier's chest. The great mount's front legs collapsed as he landed and rolled to one side, trapping Basil.
The French knight struck swiftly. Basil parried the blow, and then slashed upward, burying his sword in the man's groin. Saladin pawed at the air as he struggled to rise, the movement crushed Basil's leg into the ground. Blinded with pain, he didn't see his enemy’s blade. One instant, then two, passed before he felt the searing pain. The force of the strike cut through his chain mail and into his neck.
Warm blood filled his mouth and spurted through his lips. The blood choking him, he turned his head and tried to spit. As he did, he saw Guy on his grey Percheron, fighting to reach him. Basil raised his sword and waved with all the strength he had left. He struggled to call out, to tell Guy to leave him. It was futile. He couldn't be heard over the melee.
Surrounded and pulled from his horse, Guy fell from Basil’s sight. Only the flashes of steel stayed in view, rising and falling, again and again.
A heavy boot came down on Basil’s chest, pinning him. As he arced his sword toward his enemy's leg, he felt the Frenchman's blade slice deep across his throat.
Then he felt nothing.
Badger Hollow Manor
Elinor stood in the kitchen head cocked, and listened for another...scream? The sound cut off midstream. All was quiet upstairs.
“Nora, Nora, Nora!" Her friend, Lucy, hurried down the stairs and skidded to a halt in the doorway. Hand to her chest and wild-eyed, she gasped to catch her breath. "I've just seen a ghost!" Arms stretched out, she repeated, “Ghost!” Wild flipping hand motions accompanied the declaration, as if the gesture helped define the word.
"I suppose you think that's funny, screaming like that. I was about to run upstairs. I thought you'd hurt yourself."
"I'm not trying to be funny. I did see a ghost, a knight-like ghost...a Galahad-Lancelot ghost. Cross my heart and hope to die, if you'll pardon the expression. At least it looked like a ghost.” She peered warily over her shoulder. “Oh, I don't know. It happened so fast."
Elinor looked too and saw nothing unusual. “Show me.”
She followed Lucy up the dark oak staircase. Lucy twitched with every creak of the steps as they went. At the top, she paused. Elinor urged her forward and both women moved to the center of the small hallway.
“Where was this ghost, because, I don’t see a thing,” Elinor asked. Under her breath, she said, “I never do,” as Lucy went to the door of the master bedroom and stopped.
She huddled next to Elinor in the doorway and peered around.
“Go on, I’m right here,” Elinor told her.
Lucy took a few tentative steps into room. She stood by the window which gave her a view of the bathroom too.
Elinor leaned against the doorjamb. “Well? Seems like a big nothing so far, no cold spots, no weird lights, no ectoplasmic figures.”
As far back as she could remember Elinor was fascinated by spirits and karma. How many places had she stayed hoping to see a ghost and didn’t? The Mermaid Inn in Rye, the Angel and Royal Hotel in Grantham, the Witchery in Edinburgh, all disappointed her. And now, her avowed non-believer friend claimed one appeared to her in Elinor's own home.
“I don’t know,” Lucy said at last and glanced around the room again. “I’m not sure what I saw.”
“Did you see a ghost or not?” Elinor asked, unsure if she wanted Lucy, the cynic, to say yes.
A gust of wind ruffled the sheer curtain behind Lucy, the hem brushing her elbow. She screamed and bolted past Elinor, down the stairs.
“It’s only the breeze,” Elinor called after her, but Lucy continued her dash for the kitchen.
Unafraid, Elinor walked around the bedroom. She dragged her hands over the newly plastered walls as she circled the room. It had needed a brighter and fresher look. The paint and repair work on the house was one of the first things she did after inheriting the manor.
Elinor checked the bathroom and second bedroom. Like her bedroom, everything seemed normal. At the top of the stairs, goose bumps suddenly dotted her skin and the hair on her arms stood end. Weird. She glanced back, but didn’t see anything strange, or more to the point, Lucy’s ghost. She shrugged and continued down
“What the devil are you playing at?” Basil snapped.
“I was experimenting,” Guy said, casually.
“Yes. I thought our ghostly presence might be more acceptable to your Elinor if she had a glimpse or two of us first. Soften her up for the main event, as they say nowadays.” Guy strode past Basil, not sparing him a second glance. “Revealing ourselves to her is your idea. I figured I’d contribute something too.”
“How does scaring the life out of her friend soften her up?”
“It doesn’t. I expected Elinor to come upstairs, not her friend,” Guy added, in the same nonchalant tone. “I guessed wrong.” He scrutinized Basil. “Since we’re on the subject, I never asked your reasons for us befriending Theresa. It seemed harmless enough, she being an old widow, but why her granddaughter?”
Basil had anticipated the question when he’d approached Guy about making their presence known to Elinor’s grandmother. Their previous experiences with mortals left them bitter. The women asked them to spy on their husbands or lovers. The men were worse. Driven by greed and lust for power, some wanted the knights to injure rivals, even commit murder on occasion and became belligerent when he and Guy refused. They avoided mortals for centuries as a result.
“I understood why you empathized with the loss of her son. He reminded you of Grevill,” Guy said.
“Yes. When Clarence limped in and removed the metal brace from his leg, yes, I thought of my brother.” Basil recalled the pain her son hid from Theresa. The nights Clarence lay in bed doubled over from the cancer destroying his bones. “He must have known, or at least suspected, he was dying.”
“I think, deep down, Theresa knew something was terribly wrong, that his illness was worse than he said. She may have even guessed he’d come home to die.”
“Her mind might’ve acknowledged the possibility, but not her heart. What parent can bear the thought of losing a child?”
Basil nodded. “She started to fade after Clarence died.”
Her desolation became Basil’s and her loneliness his. A lonely ghost, God’s teeth! He’d questioned how such a crazy phenomena could happen to him?
Basil gazed out from Elinor’s bedroom window at the ruin of Castle Ashenwyck, his home in life. The remains of the former fortress lay not far in the distance. He focused on the sight and tried to find a way to describe the emptiness that filled him at the time.
“Over the years, did you ever miss human contact, the warmth mortals are capable of?”
When Guy didn’t answer, Basil turned around. After a long pause, Guy finally admitted, “Yes, on rare occasions. Although, I never thought I would.”
Basil shared the sentiment. “After so many centuries of self-imposed isolation, I grew tired of being a shadow. I longed for mortal companionship. It felt good to ease Theresa’s solitude.”
“And Elinor? Why pursue her friendship? At her age, I doubt she’s lonely.”
Basil didn’t have a firm answer to explain the attraction Elinor held for him. “I enjoyed Theresa’s company. I know you did too. I believe there’s a lot of her in Elinor.”
“I appreciate her kindness. She’d come upon Theresa, alone, or so it must have appeared, engrossed in an odd one-sided conversation. When in truth, she was chatting with us. Elinor never mocked her for talking to herself or acting strange. She accepted her as she was.” Basil smiled as he remembered more about the encounters. “Sometimes, Elinor looked our way, and I swear she could see us, at least sense our presence.”
Guy didn’t look convinced. “You think engaging her friendship will be as pleasant as Theresa’s?”
“I hope so. I dread having to remove ourselves into the shadows again.”
Basil drifted out of the room, Guy right behind him.
“If you’d bothered to ask, before frightening the wits out of that Lucy woman, I’d have told you I already planned how to reveal ourselves.” Basil tipped his head toward the stairs. “Shall we? Hopefully, we won’t find Elinor’s Lucy in hysterics,” Basil said, as they descended.