William Marshal galloped through the streets of Lincoln, a royal army at his back. The first of the enemy he reached was not a rebel but a French knight. His lance shattered against the man’s shield, knocking him to the ground. William bellowed an exhilarated war cry even as his ageing joints screamed at the impact. Then his sword was out and he was into the the thick of the fighting, just as he always had been.
“My lord Marshal, we need to decide what to do with the prisoners.”
William looked up from the steps of the church, the first place he had found to rest his weary bones. He recognised the face of the young nobleman in armour and a blue tabard, but couldn’t remember the name. Was he a Neville? One of those half-wild warriors from the Welsh Marches, maybe?
“How many prisoners?” he asked.
“Forty-six men of courtly rank,” the youngster replied. “Over three hundred knights.”
“And the infantry?” William forced himself to his feet. He should not have ached so much after such a short, bloodless battle, but here he was. And what was this blasted tickling in his throat?
“The infantry fled,” came the reply. “Rumour is the peasants have been killing them on the road.”
William nodded. He didn’t like to see more blood spilt than was needed. It went against honour, and dead men were less useful than living ones. But the position of their new king was vulnerable. Allow resistance to take hold against a child like Henry III and soon the country would descend into chaos.
As if they had not had enough of that under John.
“We may have to kill some,” he said.
By the look on his face, this young Neville – or was he an Arcourt? – was far less reluctant about executions.
They strode towards the centre of town, chainmail clinking as they went. A strange quiet had descended over Lincoln, no-one but the weary combatants in the streets.
A body lay in the centre of the square. Blood had stained the man’s white tabard until it was all one with the red chevrons of the Count of Perche.
“God protect us.” William looked down at the restful face of Thomas, Count of Perche. Too restful for a man cut down after barely twenty years. William remembered meeting him a few times, the young French noble looking at the old English knight with open admiration. Now here he was.
“This bloodshed needs to end,” William said, stifling a cough.
“I agree,” the Neville replied, apparently unmoved by the death of a man as young as himself. “I’ll call for the soldiers to assemble a gallows, make a clear warning out of-”
“No,” William replied. “Such violence will breed more of the same. We must do better to break the cycle.”
“My lord Marshal.” The Neville bowed his head. “I have nothing but respect for you as a knight and as our regent. Your reputation for honour is the greatest in Europe. You are an example to us all. But sometimes we must be more pragmatic. A lesson must be taught.”
Looking again at the body, William thought of all the young men who would die if this futile war continued. Was he being blinded to their fate by this one corpse? Was his fading mind finding ways to excuse more violence, to keep him on a path that both thrilled and appalled him?
“You are right,” he said, finally realising what he must do. Blood cried out for blood, as it always had. Treachery could not stand. “Begin work on-”
The tickling in his throat became too intense to resist. A fit of coughing buckled him over. He grasped at his chest with one hand while the other went to his mouth. The Neville and another soldier rushed to hold him up but he waved them away.
At last, the coughing subsided and he straightened. Taking his hand from his mouth, he saw blood speckling his fingers.
So that was how it would be. Death was coming, not at sword point, but through the creeping decay of the coming months.
It had been a good seventy years. What more could a man ask for?
He looked again at the pale young face of Thomas, Count of Perche.
A man could ask to leave life, not just death, in his wake.
“You’re right,” he said, turning with a steely gaze to the young Neville. No, not Neville, Braose. He remembered now, a sharp clarity grabbing him. “We must be pragmatic. That may not be the same as honourable, but neither does it equal vindictiveness. Keep the prisoners secure and we will use them to buy peace.”
“But my lord-”
“Enough,” William snapped. “Fetch ropes and guards. Find out which local castles have secure dungeons. We have a war to win, and there is more to that than killing.”
* * *
William Marshal was a real nobleman, and one of the few people to come out of King John’s reign looking good. In his seventies when John died and he became regent, Marshal ended a messy civil war through a combination of military prowess, political negotiation, and a willingness to let go of the bitterness of the previous two decades. By the standards of feudal overlords and professional killers, he was a genuinely good dude.
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