VAGABOND by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

Vagabond is the second book (the first is Harlequin) in the ongoing story of Thomas of Hookton. It starts in the north of England, where Thomas, his French woman, Eleanor, who is now pregnant, and his friend the priest Father Hobbe, have travelled to Durham in search of information about Thomas’s mysterious father.

Once again, the story is full of such medieval outsiders as an English archer who is the bastard son of a half-mad priest with an aristocratic French background that includes rumours of Cathar ancestors and of knowledge of the Holy Grail; the beautiful widow of a French nobleman, now an outcast because of her low birth and the rumour that her mother was Jewish; and a mad Dominican Inquisitor, obsessed with the Grail,

In Durham, Thomas becomes involved in a battle with invading Scots led by Sir William Douglas, and after the battle it is Douglas’s nephew Robbie who accompanies Thomas back to Hookton and then on to Guernsey and so to Brittany.

What have they in common? They are both hunting Guy Vexille, Thomas’s cousin and arch-enemy, the murderer of Thomas’s father. Guy Vexille also murdered Robbie’s brother. But Vexille himself is now accompanied by a Dominican Inquisitor, Bernard de Taillebourg, who, in turn, is hunting Thomas. This is Vexille speaking of de Taillebourg when Thomas is their prisoner: ‘He likes burning people […] He does like it. I have watched him. He shudders as the flesh bubbles.’

You can’t get much worse than this priest, you think, as you read about de Taillebourg. But wait till you meet Cardinal Louis Bessières, de Taillebourg’s master. Here he is walking by the Seine on a sunny winter morning:

A legless man with wooden blocks on his stumps swung on short crutches across the road and held out a dirty hand towards the Cardinal whose servants rushed at the man with their staves. ‘No, no!’ the Cardinal called and felt in his purse for some coins. ‘God’s blessing on you, my son,’ he said. Cardinal Bessières liked giving alms, he liked the melting gratitude on the faces of the poor, and he especially liked their look of relief when he called off his servants a heartbeat before they used their staves. Sometimes the Cardinal paused just a fraction too long and he liked that too. But today was a warm, sunlit day stolen from a grey winter and so he was in a kindly mood.

And as always in Cornwell’s books, along with the great characters, such vivid descriptions of seiges and battles that you feel you were there. Another great read.

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