Winter, early 1231
Philip became aware of a shuffling sound. It was pitch dark, and eerily quiet. Except for the shuffling. A mouse, or a rat maybe? He strained his ears, trying to hear the tell-tale sounds of claws scratching, at the same time lifting his hand up from where it had hung lifeless over the side of the bed. He didn’t want to chance his fingers being nibbled. He had seen that before, rats nibbling at not-yet-dead men’s fingers and toes, as they lay wounded on muddy battlefields. The shuffling stopped. Philip held his breath, and listened. Nothing. He allowed himself to relax and closed his eyes to welcome back the oblivion of sleep.
What was that now? More shuffling, a flash of bright light shining into his barely closed eyes, and a very human-sounding ‘humph’ as someone sat down heavily close to his head. Philip was wide awake now, but did not stir or open his eyes to betray his alert state. He didn’t know where he was, or who his companion was, but he would not be taken unawares. He listened again. The man, whoever he was, was mumbling the same phrases over and over again. Was he in a prison cell with a madman?
He did not think he was chained. That was a bonus; it meant he could possibly make his escape. Keeping as still as possible, he reached out with his hand, the one hidden from the stranger by his own body, to feel for his sword belt. Gone. His knife? It had been tucked into the waistband of his linen braies.1 He felt beneath himself. There was no knife, no waistband and no braies! So they had taken his clothes? He was naked apart from the rough woollen tunic he wore, and that was definitely not his own. And they had his weapons? He would have to rely on his hands alone, then, to fight. He was confident that would be enough. He was not big in height or build, but he was strong, agile and fit. He had faced enough in the thirty or so years since his birth to know his own ability when it came to fighting.
Philip waited for his moment. He needed to time it right. The figure beside him shifted, and mumbling done, he began to sing softly. Philip held his breath. Wait… Singing? Nothing made sense, except that the music the stranger’s voice made was soul-stirringly beautiful. Perhaps he would just lie here and let the sound wash over him. He was so tired. Sleep beckoned and Philip felt himself relax. But as he relaxed he became aware of something else. A throbbing, gnawing pain in his left leg. He tried to quietly shift position to ease it, bending his knee slightly.
It took him a moment to realise it was he that had screamed out in agony. He tried to sit up to grab his knee, but moving his head produced a searing pain of its own, and he fell back onto the bed, sweating profusely. He was then aware of the gentle weight of a hand on his right shoulder.
‘Lie still, my friend, and the pain will become bearable again.’ The voice was low and musical, the touch reassuring, not threatening. Philip opened his eyes but could not focus through the pain and dim light. A face loomed and a hand holding a flickering candle hovered above his head.
‘There, now. It is good to see you awake, but I warrant you would rather not be. I will get you a draft to help you sleep again.’
‘Where am I? Who are you? What happened to me?’ Philip forced the questions through parched lips, his voice raspy and unrecognisable as his own. He was willing the throbbing in his head to stop. He needed to be able to think clearly.
‘All in good time, all in good time. Suffice it to say that you are safe here. In our hands and in God’s. I am Brother Clement, and you need to rest and recover. That is all you need to know for now… Here, can you take this?’ A hand snaked gently around behind his head, easing it up, and he felt the rim of a cup against his lips.
Could he trust this monk? He had met so-called holy men before who would not hesitate to poison a helpless man for their own ends. But did he have a choice? Death itself might be better than this agony. He opened his lips and drank. The draft was bitter, but sweetened with honey. He had drunk worse. Another cup followed, and he took a gulp of cool, clear water that soothed his parched throat and dry lips.
‘Lie back and let sleep take you. I will keep my vigil at your side. I’ll try not to disturb you again with my psalmody.’
Philip let himself be lowered back down. ‘It was the music of heaven,’ he sighed, as sleep overcame him again.
When Philip became aware of his surroundings again, the sun had risen; light was streaming through a small window, high above him. Trying not to move his head too much, he scanned his surroundings to get a picture of where he was. He could see wooden roof beams above him, and stone walls on two sides at least. Another high window opposite revealed a blue sky with small white clouds. Not an underground dungeon, then. He used his hands to decipher that he was lying on a simple bed of wooden sides, with rope stringing and a straw-filled mattress. It smelled clean. And he was covered with a clean blanket. His arms and legs were unshackled. So it was likely that he was not in a prison of any kind. He could hear sounds coming from outside, a cock crowing, hens clucking, a blackbird singing, and in the distance voices singing chant-like. Ah yes… It was beginning to make more sense. A man calling himself a brother had tended to him in the night. Clement… Was it? He was in a holy house of some sort. But where, exactly? And how had he got here? And why was he in such abominable pain? He needed answers, he needed more water, and he needed to… relieve himself. He groaned at the thought. His stomach grumbled. He needed food too.
‘Water, please. Is anyone there?’ It came out as a harsh whisper.
Nothing. He gingerly tried lifting his head a bit more; the pain was still there, but bearable. There was an empty stool and a small table alongside his bed, with the remains of a burned-out candle, and a cup. Philip tried to twist to reach his hand towards the cup. No! The searing pain as he tried to bend his left knee ripped through him, and he fell back onto the bed, breathing heavily.
‘There now, young man. Let me get that for you.’
A small figure dressed all in white, with a matching tonsured head of snow-white hair, bustled in. Philip recognised the kind voice from the night before and closed his eyes with relief. He hated being dependent on anyone, but as he drank thirstily from the cup proffered to his lips he was most grateful for the monk’s assistance.
‘Thank you.’ It sounded a bit more like his own voice now.
‘You are most welcome.’ The age-worn face smiled back at him. ‘We are pleased you decided to come back to us.’
‘Come back? Where have I been?’
‘My guess, my friend, is that you have likely been to hell and back. In your dreams, at least.’
Philip was still trying to think clearly. ‘Forgive me, I am struggling to understand.’
‘Do not worry yourself. There is time for making sense of the past, and time for planning for the future, but this is not that time. This is the present, and here we must attend to your needs as they are. Some food perhaps, and some water to wash yourself?’
‘I need to…’ Philip felt his face flush.
‘Of course,’ Clement smiled knowingly. ‘We can see to that also.’
Some time later, Philip lay back on the bed, exhausted. Clement had returned with a tall, broad, slightly younger-looking monk with laughing eyes. A little broth had eased the rumbling in his stomach, and another different-tasting draft had eased the pain as they ministered to his needs. Those ministrations included the cleansing and redressing of a wound above his left knee that Philip could not see but could definitely feel. The worst pain, however, was his left knee itself. He would ask about that in due time. The monks worked mostly in silence, nodding to one another more than speaking.
‘How long was I asleep?’ Philip broke the peace.
Brother Clement was rinsing the soiled dressings in a pail of clean water, his habit sleeves turned up to his elbows. ‘Well, now, that is a good question! We cannot be exactly sure but I would guess at least six days and nights, possibly more. Brother Hywel here brought you to our door five days ago, and you were definitely not awake then.’ He laughed a small laugh and smiled over at the other monk, who grinned back at him.
That long. ‘I was injured in a fight?’
‘It seems so. It was definitely a weapon of some sort made that dent in your head.’ Philip’s hand crept unbidden to the lump above his left ear. ‘That’s what most likely put you to sleep, although the fever that followed the wounding…’ he nodded towards Philip’s leg wound, ‘… is certainly what kept you asleep. You did not sleep peacefully, though. You fought many battles. At times both of us had to hold you still. You called out many names as well, and swore a time or two!’
The other monk had come to stand by his bedside, his hands on his hips. What had Clement called him? Hywel? A Welsh name. A momentary twinge of longing ran through Philip. Hywel was smiling.
‘Less said the better about those profanities you uttered. One or two of the brothers were shocked by what they heard coming from this room in the middle of the night.’
‘My knee?’ Philip turned his face slightly to ask Hywel the question. The monk’s face grew more serious.
‘We are concerned that the same weapon that split the skin above your knee also split your knee. That is why it hurts so to bend it.’
Philip took in this information, unsure as to what it would mean. ‘Will it mend?’
‘I believe so.’ Clement walked over to join them. ‘I have seen broken bones mend plenty of times, with rest and the right exercise. And now that the fever has passed, you stand a better chance of full recovery.’
‘I would trust what he says,’ laughed Hywel. ‘He is the infirmarer here. I am more a horse man myself. Give me a strained fetlock any day!’
Clement continued, ‘Your leg may not be as it was. But I am certain that you will be able to walk on it again, at least. You are young enough and strong enough, but you still have some recovery to fight for. At least now you can use your energy to fight the right battle, eh? Not the one in your dreams. And now I fear you must rest again.’ Clement pulled the light bed-covering up to Philip’s waist and nodded at Hywel. They both turned to leave.
‘You said before that you believe I went to hell and back?’
Clement paused and turned back to face Philip. ‘You were obviously in torment in your dreams and memories. You begged to die. You begged to die more than once, but we prayed that you would live. That you would choose to live. Every time you cried out in anguish in your dreams, every time it looked like you were fading away from us, I willed you to live. I whispered to you, “Choose life, choose life.”’
‘Why?’ Philip was still struggling to make sense of it all, his head fuzzy with exhaustion and the effects of whatever draft they had given him.
‘Because, my child, God’s will is for you to live. Your life can have meaning and purpose. There is always hope while there is life. But you have to choose. To live, and to hope. Choose hope, and I have every belief that you will not regret the life God leads you into.’
Philip had closed his eyes and was breathing evenly.
Clement was not even sure that Philip had heard all that he had said to him. He smiled sadly to himself. ‘And so the battle begins,’ he whispered, ‘but at least you are alive to fight it now.’ Clement stood watching the sleeping man for a moment longer. ‘I have hope that you can win the battle for the recovery of your body,’ he said, softly. ‘The recovery of your mind, soul and spirit – that I am still not sure of. That is another battle that only you can choose to fight.’
‘Come, brother,’ Hywel had paused in the doorway. ‘He needs our prayers now more than he needs our presence.’
Philip rode pell-mell into the fight. The horse beneath him was puffing and blowing, but Philip didn’t care about Noble’s exhaustion. Philip didn’t care about anything. His sword was raised above his head and he let out a great roar. If he was going to die, he was going to take at least one other with him. He was surrounded on all sides, but he would not go down without a fight. He welcomed death. He had had enough of life. Every fight they now faced, he made sure he was in the thick of it, hoping that an unseen blade or well-placed arrow would take him down before he realised it. Faced with a blade, instinct took over and Philip would fight to defend himself. He needed someone to take him out when he was not ready for them, or for a stray arrow to hit him in the neck. All around were heaving bodies, the sickening smell of blood, the clang of steel, the whinnying of terrified horses and the screams of dying men – blood-curdling screams. Sweat poured down Philip’s back and he swung his sword at the head of an approaching rider, making contact with his raised shield. He reached to grab the shield out of the way so that he could make his final thrust into his opponent’s face. He felt the rage rise up within him, the bloodlust, mixed with sheer terror. Noble stumbled slightly beneath him and Philip lost his hold on the rider’s shield. He used his leg strength to steady himself, and raised his sword arm again to strike, but as he did so the shield he had just lost hold of came hurtling towards his head, stunning him. As he slumped forward half-conscious in the saddle, he was aware of a sudden excruciating pain as the full weight of a broad sword made contact with his left leg. And then nothing. Blackness.
He was suddenly aware of the weight of something on his shoulder. Philip tensed again and furiously tried to free himself, but he could not move.
‘Wake up, my boy. You need to wake up.’ A firm voice. A flickering light shone in Philip’s face. He was being shaken gently by the shoulder. Philip opened his eyes slowly. His breathing was coming fast and shallow, and he was clutching the bed covers beneath him. Sweat trickled down between his shoulder blades and his forehead was drenched.
‘Lie still, now. Slow your breathing down. Relax. You are safe here.’ The voice came from just above him to the right. He turned to try to focus on where it was coming from. A dark, greying tonsure above a sun-weathered face, and concerned eyes framed with laughter lines. Hywel. He closed his eyes and relaxed his hands. His breathing slowed as he willed himself back to the present.
‘I was dreaming,’ he said hoarsely.
‘I guessed as much, by the way you screamed out. It made me come running, thinking you had tried to get out of bed again, only to find you thrashing about, fighting with your sheets.’ Hywel’s tone was light, and he held humour in his voice, but his eyes remained concerned. ‘You had many a dream like that one when you were in the throes of fever, and we couldn’t wake you then. I thought it best to bring you back to the present this time. You need your energy now for the real fights, not the imaginary ones,’ he continued, as he passed Philip a cup of water and handed him a clean cloth to wipe his face.
‘It was so real. A memory. It must have been the last fight, when I was wounded. I remember now how it happened.’ Philip shuddered, and his hand moved instinctively to touch his healing leg wound.
Hywel sat on the stool by Philip’s bed and put the candle on the table beside him, stretching his long legs out. His head was bowed and his hands folded in his lap. Is he waiting for my confession? Philip thought to himself. The older man certainly didn’t look in any hurry to leave him.
‘Do you know who I am?’ Philip broke the silence.
‘Do you know who you are?’ Hywel laughed quietly in response. ‘We weren’t sure if you would remember, with that blow to your head.’
Philip grimaced. ‘I am Philip de Braose,’ he announced, pausing to see what effect it had on the monk.
Hywel did not respond at all.
‘You know the de Braose name?’ Philip tried another tack.
Hywel looked up at him and sighed. ‘Every Welshman, most Englishmen and a fair number of the French know the de Braose name – and many fear it,’ he added as an aside. ‘So I can call you Philip, that is useful to know.’ He kept his tone light, as before.
Philip snorted. ‘Yes, that would be preferable to “boy”, at least.’
‘So I am right in assuming this last fight was not your first? You would have been trained to fight, carrying a name of such notoriety.’
‘I am a soldier. I have fought all over France. At first I fought for a cause I thought I believed in. But more recently I have fought for coin in my purse and for…’ Philip paused.
‘A longing for death?’ Hywel finished the thought for him.
‘Yes. I have seen so much, endured so much, been painfully betrayed. I have grown weary of this life and its cruelties. That last fight… I went into it wishing for it to be my last ever. For the misery of my life to be ended.’
‘We had guessed as much.’ Hywel spoke gently. ‘It seems God had other plans for you, though.’
Philip did not respond to that. He closed his eyes again and there was silence. He felt Hywel’s hand rest on his upper arm, squeezing it reassuringly.
After some minutes had passed, Philip spoke again. ‘How did I get here? I remember nothing after the blow… The pain.’
‘I found you. Rather, I found your horse. And I can never pass a good-looking horse by,’ Hywel laughed quietly. ‘He was standing by the roadside, complete with saddle and tack, but no rider. I went over to him, and he led me to you. You were lying seemingly dead in a ditch. I assume your horse had ridden from the fight, and somehow, God only knows how, you had managed to stay on his back long enough until he deposited you where I found you. I quickly surmised you were not dead, and managed to heave you back up onto the back of your poor horse – who took the indignity well, I must say. I led you both here. The rest you know.’
‘My horse. He is here?’ Philip gingerly lifted himself up onto his elbows. Hywel’s answer to that particular question was important to him.
‘Yes. He is here, enjoying himself in the stables in the company of the two mares I have just purchased. He is well fed and well rested. You do not need to worry about him.’
‘Noble,’ Philip breathed out, as he relaxed back down on to the bed.
‘Oh, is that his name? Suits him. He is a proud and somewhat stubborn old man!’
Philip closed his eyes. He needed to sleep again. ‘I will tell you more, I promise. You deserve that much.’
‘When you can, and not before. Sleep easy now, Philip. And God rest your troubled soul.’