During the course of the afternoon and well into the evening my troops came together under the command of two senior knights, Feremundus and Baldrid. They practised and practised again, in open and closed formation. They practised the changing of horses and they practised the defence of knights unhorsed. Then they practised with archers and infantry in advance and retreat. They practised with their leaders taken away from them to test their lieutenants in command. They practised until I was satisfied that they had grasped all my requirements and then, leaving them to practise some more, I went off to do some practice of my own.
To one side of the grounds was a line of posts set into the earth. They were as high as a man and padded with straw covered in leather – these were for practising sword fighting.
All the stands were in use so I stood and watched for a while until one became empty. The sword-master, Gaudulfus, spotted me and came over to speak.
‘Will you be taking a turn, Prince Robert?’ he asked with a grin.
‘I will,’ I replied, ‘and you will give me the chance for revenge, no doubt?’
He laughed and threw me a practice pole before issuing a challenge.
‘Then warm up before I bend your head again, kind prince.’
I laughed at that but it brought back a painful memory. The last time we had practised together I had left with a sore head when he caught me a crafty blow. I stripped to the waist and took up the pole. It was the length of a long-sword but was weighted at the end to develop muscles in the arms, shoulders and grip.
Going to the empty post, and taking a deep breath, I commenced the exercises. Standing firm, I swept the pole from the right to whack the post, and then from the left, and followed by a strike from above and then a thrust to the middle. Moving lazily at first, I quickly developed into a rhythm, then increased the strike rate and the force with which I was smacking the battered leather padding. Thwack, thwack, cut and thrust. Repeat – thwack, thwack, cut and thrust. Very shortly I was breathing heavily and sweating profusely – thwack, thwack, cut and thrust, repeat, repeat, breathe and sweat. My broad shoulders and speed of arm were rapidly reducing the practice post to shredded leather. I was determined to carry on but the pole struck wood and broke in half.
Satisfied that I had warmed up sufficiently, I stopped for a breather, and a new pole, and looked about the field. To my surprise I found that I had attracted an audience; they were gathered behind me.
It seemed that the lady Adelize had been persuaded to escort some of her household ladies down to the training grounds to watch the proceedings. Stopping near the sword posts, they’d arrived in time to catch me at my business.
I turned round and gave the ladies a bow with the frayed remnants of the wooden sword held over one shoulder. I could see that I was causing a bit of a stir with the curious crowd of women. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it; after all, I had plenty to show off. Short legs I may have, but there were not many men who could match me in the shoulder width. Then behind the fragrant court ladies I spotted a pair sitting on horses watching; it was the dark one with her brother. I could see what would set the Welshwoman apart from the normal court women – she was in breeches and sat to horse like a man. I wondered what other surprises she was holding in reserve. I walked over to greet them with my curiosity fully stimulated.
‘Good afternoon, my lady, you seem comfortable up there.’
‘Good afternoon to you, my lord, I am quite comfortable at the riding, see. You seem occupied yourself – do you not like that post then?’ she said, glancing at the scattering of wood splinters.
I laughed. ‘I intend no harm to trees, tis only that on the post I see the face of someone I am not fond of and seek to wipe the smile off it.’
She laughed in turn, her perfect teeth shining brightly in the afternoon; they contrasted sharply with her eyes, which seemed to be very dark, even in the glare of the sun. Turning to her companion she said, ‘See, brother! Do not let Prince Robert envisage your face, it could prove painful.’
I turned my attention to him; he was as dark in the hair as his sister and even though he was shaven, his beard showed up on his skin. He was well suited to the small horse he was riding and carried a longbow across his back; this then was our expert archer. He nodded at me, only to receive a kick on the shin from his sister. She said something to him that sounded like a whispered ‘Dismount’ and he leapt off his horse and stood in front of me.
He had an uncanny stare. It was quite neutral but he was in no way overawed and nodded politely as he said simply, ‘Tywysog.’
I looked him up and down: he had broad shoulders indicative of his craft no doubt, but was narrow in the hip and a shade taller than me with that black hair grown down over his shoulders.
I held his gaze but spoke to his sister.
‘Does he have a name, Lady Tegwin?’
‘Of course he does!’ She spoke sharply, ‘Angawdd! Speak to Prince Robert.’ She moved her horse closer and I am sure that her foot again threatened her now flustered sibling.
He spoke. ‘Sorry, my lord. I am Angawdd, your captain of archers.’
Unsurprisingly he had the same musical dialect as the lady Tegwin, although he was more hesitant in his speech than she.
‘Then welcome, Captain Angawdd, we have much work to do and I will see more of you later.’
I nodded to the woman.
‘Lady Tegwin, will I see you later?’
‘Of course, if you wish,’ she replied with a tantalising grin.
I smiled and said simply, ‘I wish.’
Turning away, I heard Angawdd say to her: ‘Well sister! Is that your journey worthwhile then? Himself displaying his muscles for all to admire?’
‘He looks very handy with that pole thing, do you see?’
‘He’s very good with pole things… I wonder if he can hold a bow.’
‘Hmmph!’ she replied. ‘I prefer poles, don’t you know?’
‘I know,’ he sniffed. ‘Just don’t get hurt.’
Gaudulfus called across from where he had been coaching the young squires.
‘Are you ready, my lord?’ He had a very rough edge to his speech; many years of training and shouting at his pupils had wrought havoc with his voice but it still carried well.
‘I am,’ I replied shortly. It was time for revenge.
These training fights did not last more than a blink; not many could withstand more than a blow from the poles. It was wise to yield immediately, and learn from your mistakes, rather than try to continue and risk serious injury.
He came over towards me. He was as well-built as me – but really not as pretty – and very experienced, and this was his main asset because against his fifty years I had speed on my side. But he knew a few tricks.
He brought his class of tyros with him, saying, ‘Come on, lads! Let’s see what youth can do over experience.’
We offered our poles as a salute and stood alert waiting for the first move. I feinted to the left and he moved his pole to parry but I immediately turned right to be side-on to him, and grasping the pole with both hands drove it into his stomach – winded, he fell to his knees. I lifted the pole above his head and dotted it gently on top of his shiny pate: end of exercise.
I helped him up when he was able to breath properly again and I turned to his disappointed class.
‘In case you get the wrong idea, lads, the score this month is two-one to age.’
‘Aye!’ the recovering tutor added. ‘And don’t forget to cheat. You will only get the one chance, so be sure you take yours before your foe does.’
I put my arm around his shoulders.
‘So who is cheating, ancient one?’
‘Pokes in the belly count as cheating. At my age it ruins my drinking capacity.’
‘We can’t have that, dear friend. From now on, belly poking is strictly forbidden. I shall make a rule especially for you.’
‘Thank you, my prince, you are a merciful lord.’
‘Tis a failing,’ I responded, not entirely in jest.
Gaudulfus turned to his pupils and asked them a question.
‘What lesson have we learned today, my eager tyros?’
‘Do not fight Prince Robert?’ responded one smart youth.
‘Aye!’ replied the sword-master. ‘But the other is the thrust, this is the most deadly. Blows from above or from the side will be met by shield or sword and diverted – and,’ he emphasised, ‘will leave you open to a thrust from sword or spear. A thrust is not so easily parried. Remember, in the face of a Saxon shield wall, battle-axes will be raining down on you from above while spears and swords will be thrust at your legs. Beating down upon their shields is futile and will see you on your knees in an eye-blink.’
‘On your knees because your ankles will be missing,’ I added for clarity’s sake, and left them to ponder Gaudulfus’s wisdom.
By now the sun was failing so I signalled an end to the day’s training. Most of the army went galloping down to the river Soar and dived in – some still on horseback. All would end up naked to freshen themselves in readiness for an evening’s drinking. There would be ample food and drink. I always victualled my men properly as well as paying them a fair rate; these were mostly professional soldiers and well worth their stipends – their very expensive stipends. I was also employing a number using the Saxon fyrd system – a pool of semi-trained foot-soldiers available on demand – as a way to defray the cost of keeping a standing army. A few of them were with me today; farmers and tradesmen they were. I gave them fair recompense for not attending their land and trade to ensure that they would remain available when I needed them.