The fighting in France continues, for these are the opening rounds of the Hundred Years War. The Prologue (thirty pages long) tells the story of the seige and surrender of Calais in 1347. It was to stay in English hands for the next three centuries.
After the seige is over, Thomas of Hookton heads south into the County of Berat in Gascony with his Scottish friend Robbie Douglas and a band of English archers. He is under orders from the Earl of Northampton. He is to retake the fortress of Castillon d’Arbizon and make that his base while he carries on his quest for the Holy Grail, which he does not really believe in; in reality, Thomas seeks his cousin Guy Vexille, who murdered Thomas’s father, and later his wife. Vexille does believe in the existence of the Grail, and he thinks Thomas can lead him to it. They are in effect hunting each other, going round in circles.
When Thomas arrives in Berat, and takes control of Castillon d’Arbizon, he finds himself responsible for carrying out an execution by burning scheduled for next morning. When he asks why exactly the heretic was condemned, Father Medous, the priest, answers: ‘Cattle died,’ he said, ‘and she cursed a man’s wife.’
Thomas looked mildly surprised. ‘Cattle die in England,’ he said, ‘and I have cursed a man’s wife. Does that make me a heretic?’
‘She can tell the future!’ Medous protested.
‘What future did she see?’ Thomas asked.
‘Death.’ It was Lorret who answered. ‘She said the town would fill with corpses and we would lie in the streets unburied.’
In the end, he refuses to let them burn her. Why? Because the condemned woman, Genevieve, is young and beautiful? Thomas is not sure. After all, he is nothing if not orthodox in his beliefs. And the next thing he knows, he too is being excommunicated – for sheltering a heretic. But Genevieve is unimpressed: ‘Excommunication means nothing.’
‘It means everything,’ Thomas said sullenly. ‘It means no heaven and no God, no salvation and no hope, everything.’
After some more typically Bernard Cornwell action, a pestilence arrives in France from Italy. It is the Black Death, though people do not of course know that at the time: they just see Genevieve’s prophecy coming true all around them as the town becomes filled with the dead and the dying.
An excellent culmination to this exciting series; and the ending is totally satisfying on all counts.
PS I don’t usually do long quotes, but here is a passage I know I will always remember and would like to share:
‘Genevieve!’ he shouted. ‘Genevieve!’
Then he saw her.
Or rather, in the instant glare of a splintering streak of lightning, he saw a vision. He saw a woman, tall and silver and naked, standing with her arms raised to the sky’s white fire. The lightning went, yet the image of the woman stayed in Thomas’s head, glowing, and then the lightning struck again, slamming into the eastern hills, and Genevieve had her head back, her hair was unbound, and the water streamed from it like drops of liquid silver.
She was dancing naked beneath the lightning.
She did not like to be naked with him. She hated the scars that Father Roubert had seared into her arms and legs and down her back, yet now she danced naked, a slow dance, her face tilted back to the downpour, and Thomas watched in each successive lightning flash and he thought she was indeed a draga. She was the wild silver creature of the dark, the shining woman who was dangerous and beautiful and strange. Thomas crouched, gazing, thinking that his soul was in greater peril still for Father Medous had said the dragas were the devil’s creatures, yet he loved her too; and then the thunder filled the air to shake the hills and he squatted lower, his eyes fast closed. He was doomed, he thought, doomed, and that knowledge filled him with utter hopelessness.
‘Thomas.’ Genevieve was stooping in front of him now, her hands cradling his face. ‘Thomas.’
‘You’re a draga,’ he said, his eyes still closed.
‘I wish I was,’ she said. ‘I wish flowers would grow where I walked. But I’m not. I just danced under the lightning and the thunder spoke to me.’
He shuddered. ‘What did it say?’
She put her arms round him, comforting him. ‘That all will be well.’
He said nothing.
‘All will be well,’ Genevieve said again, ‘because the thunder does not lie if you dance to it. It is a promise, my love, it is a promise. That all will be well.’