Dawn was coming.
Rooks were beginning to stir in the trees and their hoarse cries were echoing through the woods and the last smoke from the cooking fires of the previous night was beginning to clear, hanging to the tops of the tents like ghosts clawing their way back from heaven.
The sky was changing from black to the cold dark blue that only dawn brings. No pretty shades of evening for this day, only hues of blue and black, fading slowly to grey as the sun saw fit to rise.
Thomas of the Black Wood stirred on his bed of sheepskins and pulled the woollen blanket around him to guard against the pre-dawn cold. Next to him a voice complained and pulled a corner back. Her warm, sleeping body felt welcome against his and he felt thankful that he had the joy of feeling the contact of another.
'So soft' He thought as she turned and moulded her body to his, wrapping her arms around his scarred, wiry frame. 'So soft, so warm.' He turned to face her and wrapped a stray piece of her long hair around his fingers.
Lying in the warmth, the thought hit him like rain down his neck. This could be his last dawn. Thomas had not slept much that night, and what time he had slept had been dogged with nightmares of such magnitude that they almost rivalled the things that he had seen within the past few months. Through the white canvas roof of his tent the blue light faded in and Thomas lay, trying not to think.
Outside, roused by the cold dawn, those men that had found respite in sleep began to stir. The soldiers rose like the dead, from under bushes and trees, bundles of sacking that looked as though discarded in the darkness now spewed forth men. The lucky ones who, by one way or another had managed to secure a place under canvas were now emerging, the brightly coloured tents flying their pennants looked almost cheerful until you remembered why they were there.
Like two fields of oddly shaped toadstools the two camps looked at each other across a valley. The same thing was no doubt happening there, and in both camps the air was now filled by the sound of clanging metal and the 'shink' of whetstones on blades that sent deer running into the woods and rooks into the air in a black cloud.
Thomas rose to his feet and walked to his table. As a captain of a household he was entitled not only to his own tent, but also a certain amount of limited luxury; a table, a couple of chairs and some skins to sleep on. He went to the bowl of water and splashed his face, being careful to avoid the red scar that was only just healing from a month before. The water settled and he regarded himself in the bowl, a drip from his short beard every now and again interrupting his contemplation. "You're just a boy really." Said a voice in his head. Not a mocking voice, or a harsh voice, just a voice. "Just a boy. You should be out there now putting the crop in…what'll we do in winter if there's no crop?" The voice had a point. He reached out for the strip of linen set by the bowl and dried his cold face. Who will plant it? Who will lift it if it gets planted? Maybe not him. Definitely not some of the poor devils out there. What exactly was he doing here anyway? He rubbed his face, not thinking and the fire of the scar returned. Reminded of the pain of steel through his face, he plunged his head into the icy water and his thoughts became clear once more.
He knew exactly what he was doing here. He was the bastard son of a lord and in the face of having no-one better to do it, his father had ceremoniously appointed him the captain of a group of criminals who had agreed to fight as a preferable option to having their eyes put out or their fingers cut off for poaching. In one fell swoop, the old scoundrel had emptied his jail and rid himself of a family embarrassment.
True, Thomas had seen these men fight like lions and with honour not befitting the scrapings of a jail. He owed his life to more then one of them. But still, there will be a time when their luck runs out and a warhammer breaks open their skulls like a nutshell. His hand unconsciously travelled up to his cheek and felt the stitching. He remembered the feeling of his skin opening under the sharp blade, and then the feeling of the yielding flesh of the man as his bastard sword – the fact that was his preferred weapon never failed to quietly amuse him – passed through his gut. Thomas didn't know whether the man had lived or died as he left him gurgling in the mud. He tried not to think about it. In the pits of the night he still heard the rattle of his lungs as he had turned his back on him in the godless hell of the battlefield. Every day he saw the man, lifted into the air by his sword, in every one of the walking dead in his household and in the clear water before him now.
He turned to see the sleeping face of Mary, peaceful in the dawn light. Thomas smiled to himself as he quietly pulled on his clothes and boots, "so beautiful" he thought. He threw down a couple of coins for the sleeping whore and strode out into the grey dawn.
What met the eyes of Thomas was not a pretty site, but then again it never was. Cookfires were springing back into life and the cadaverous inhabitants were in various states of dress about the camp. He could make out a few of his own men in the throng and smiled quietly to himself. All of them were of peasant stock and doubtful lineage although Thomas himself was the only among them that bore the true title of 'bastard', which strictly speaking slung him lower than any of them on the social ladder. Nevertheless he had been charged with them and they had served him well. There wasn't a whole man among them.
The ones that hadn't been part of the levied masses since they were young men were thieves and criminals and bore the disfigurements of their trade. Some couldn't close their mouths properly due to a well aimed blow from a polearm, some had only one eye, others such limps and keels that one wouldn't credit them with the ability to move beyond a crawl. That was often the opposition's last mistake. Old and practically crippled some of them were, but they carried with them on their ruined legs the weight of experience.
"Good morning my Lord"
Thomas snapped around to the source of the voice, ripped form his concentration by the intruder.
"Ah, good morning William. You slept well I trust?"
"Not as well as you my Lord I think" The boy's face broke into a Jack o' Lantern smile that summed up every seedy thought behind the grimy face.
"That will be enough William I think" Said Thomas sternly, suppressing the urge to smile at the lad. 'Lad' snorted Thomas's brain 'He's not much younger than you'. Once more William wrenched Thomas out of contemplation.
"One day I'll afford a whore as pretty as yours…and all night too, just like you sir." The boy's eyes had glazed slightly. Thomas considered bringing his pipe dream to an abrupt halt, but then thought better of it as the boy would be brought crashing down to earth soon enough. He had only been with the retinue for three weeks or so and had latched himself onto Thomas like some sort of gritty limpet. Thomas had felt it an annoyance at first, but after a few days had seen fit to make use of the lad and had employed him nominally as his squire.
"Do you wish to break your fast sir?"
"Not until after the men William, you know that."
"But today being what it is sir…the day of battle I thought…"
"Well I am afraid that you thought wrong William, now go and assist with the meal and bring mine when all is done. Today of all days the men need their strength."
With a bob of the head the boy ran through the muddied sea of tents and disappeared into the growing throng. A smile began to grow on Thomas's face as he watched the lad and then was quashed not only by the searing pain from his cheek, but also by the flashing vision of the black grimy face whitened with lime in a pit. Shivering and alone in the throng, Thomas pulled his doublet around him and went to meet with the other captains.