March, Anno Domini 1204
The profane stench seared his nostrils and burned his eyes until they watered. Charles pushed backward against the uneven rock to force himself upward. With his fingertips, he could feel a rough ledge, but his whole hand slipped on the slime that coated it. Thrown off balance for a brief moment, Charles thought he would tumble down the shaft taking the men below with him.
Reaching out to the opposite wall, Charles used the pressure to stabilize his position. In an instant, he felt the burning sensation in his scraped fingers. He wasn’t wearing any gloves; they would have only been a hindrance against the slime and refuse that coated the wall. Without thinking, he emptied the air from his lungs but regretted it, as he would just have to draw in more breath, ingesting the foul air around him.
Below Charles, a man vomited, making his own reflexes spring into action. He clenched his throat, fighting it back down he could not show such weakness to his men. Not only did his lungs burn from holding his breath and sucking in so much putrid air, now his throat was on fire from his own vomit. As he closed his eyes to compose himself, he remembered in detail why he, French King Phillip II’s field marshal, was scaling the gardez l’eau drain of Chateau Gaillard.
Just hours ago he stood on the bank of the Seine looking up at the massive castle perched on the cliff high above him. The castle leered down at him, mocked him, grinned at him as if to say, “I shall never be taken.”
Some men believed twenty-three too young for the job of Maréchal de Champ, but Sir Charles de Valois proved himself time and time again. Coming from a minor noble family in the Vexin region, he rose to his present title rather quickly. King Philip took notice of the young man because of his ferocity in battle, his tactical skills, and his great loyalty. Charles’ military prowess spawned rumors that one day he might rise to the rank of Marshal of France, the commander of all the king’s armies.
Charles remembered the story of how, when Richard the Lionheart built Gaillard, Philip swore he would take it brick by brick if necessary. Richard replied that he would defend it even if it were made of butter. Right now it certainly seemed that Philip would have to take it brick by brick. Glaring, Charles wished the chateau was made of butter; then this siege would have been over months ago. Charles didn’t believe in ghosts; even with King Richard dead and buried, it seemed like he still protected his castle. Richard’s brother, King John, certainly hadn’t done much to defend Gaillard, the gateway to Angevin Normandy. The last time anyone saw John, he was sailing back to England, sulking the entire way.
Stones catapulted into the castle walls, and they made a thundering crunch as they hit and the earth shook. He wondered if they were the stones from the wall of the little peach orchard across the river, a reputed favorite spot of King Richard. It galled Charles that in eight months the French only captured the orchard and the outer bailey. However, the outer bailey was not the first obstacle Philip and his men faced. The town fell with ease, but the besiegers dealt with what they now called the Useless Mouths.
When King Philip began the siege, Gaillard’s castellan, Roger de Lacey, ordered all non-combatants out of the fortress. At first the French let them pass to the town below. The French found spies amongst them, and King Philip forbade any to pass through his lines. These people, old men, women, and children were trapped between the French lines and the silent walls of the castle. All winter, both sides watched as this hapless group starved in the muddy trenches. Shortly before the outer bailey fell, Philip took pity on the Useless Mouths, gave them food, and ordered them on through his lines.
The besiegers only managed to take the outer bailey a month ago, and then only when the curtain wall fell due to the mining underneath. Images of French men at arms trying to climb the outer wall with ladders flashed into Charles’ mind. The ladders came woefully short to reach the top, and the soldiers tried climbing up the rock wall. Many men plummeted to their deaths.
The mighty trebuchets below sprung loose another volley of stone projectiles. This time Charles imagined them as they hit their mark, and stone splintered and shattered, leaving pockmarks in the gray walls, the damage on the face of the castle that Richard referred to as his daughter. It lifted Charles’ spirits. If only Richard could see that, he thought. Still, the French remained firmly shut out of the middle bailey. No doubt, Richard would have been as proud as any father of his citadel. Her defenses performed exactly as designed.
Charles ran his filthy fingers through his golden-red hair, pulling it out of his face. Thinking about Richard made him uncomfortable. At court people often whispered the only reason he rose to his position was because he reminded Philip of Richard in temperament, skill, and looks. Often times, people said the two men could have passed for brothers. Charles never met Richard, so he didn’t know if this was true or not. He did know that for years the French and English fought over the territory of Vexin.
A crash and a sudden spray of rubble brought him back to his task in the drain. He had his mouth open when the spray came, and his mouth filled with the taste of stone and feces. Charles spat, scraped his tongue with his teeth, and spat again with no thought of those who were below, but he could hear that he wasn’t the only one to do so. Ready to be finished with what seemed a sentence in purgatory, he made his final push upward.
Emerging into the open air, Charles held his breath until he exited the garderobe and entered the chapel itself. Sharply, he let it out, purging himself of the foul and breathing in the cleansing air. The man behind him surfaced looking strange, freckled from head to foot in light and dark spots. A quick glance at himself confirmed that the sun did not cause the freckles.
Together they secured a rope around a heavy pillar, then tossed the rope back down the latrine for the other men climbing the drain. As Charles looked around, he found what he was looking for. He ordered the first two men who followed him to draw their swords and pointed to a grave. “There it is. Stand here with me and guard it,” he growled.
More men poured into the chapel searching for a way to exit. “The door is locked,” a young man-at-arms moaned.
“Well, what did you expect, they’d leave everything open for us? Break a window!” Charles grimaced.
“But it’s a chapel, sir.”
“Just break the window!” Charles’ face turned red. Time was vital, and this dolt wasted it.
Someone broke the window; Charles did not see who, and the French swarmed onto the castle grounds. Charles watched them go. From outside the chapel, he could hear the shouts and cries of battle, but he and the two other men remained at their post.
Aggravated, he butted his head backwards against the wall. He wanted to be out there with the men, fighting, not in here standing guard at a grave.
Within a matter of moments, the French surprised and overpowered the English at the drawbridge, and another moment saw hundreds of King Philip’s soldiers rushing into the castle, slaughtering Englishmen or taking them prisoner. A small group of English retreated to the inner bailey.
As the siege continued, Charles remained at his post by the grave, assigned there by the king himself. He could not help but wonder just what he had done to deserve such an ignominious duty.
Once the middle bailey fell, it did not take long for the inner bailey to fall, and then the castellan, Roger de Lacy surrendered the fortress. Still, Charles remained stationed at a grave.
Tall and graceful, the French King, Philip Augustus, entered the fortress to the shouts and cheers of his men, but he seemed to take little notice of them. He was a man in search of something.
Philip’s personal priest, a rotund man named Father Broase, hustled toward the king. “Your Highness, I think I have found it!”
“Is it her grave?” Philip asked, his brilliant blue eyes sparkling.
Broase huffed, still a little out of breath. “Yes, my lord, I believe so. We have found the chapel. I will show you.”
Without waiting for a reply, Broase turned and retraced his steps as fast as his stubby legs would allow.
They reached the chapel of Chateau Galliard with all the haste left in Broase. “There, my lord, there it is.” Broase pointed a crooked finger toward a grave maker.
Philip entered the chapel reverently. Other than the broken window, the chapel was spared damage from the battle, and as of yet not stripped of its ornamentation. The grave lay in front of and to the right of the altar. Charles and the two knights stood in front of the grave, swords still drawn. Philip went to the gravestone to which Broase pointed. The stone read:
Viscountess De Marseilles
Philip dropped to a knee and tenderly touched the letters on the cold stone in the floor. Charles noticed the king bite his lip and hold his breath. Then the King’s chest quivered, and a small whisper escaped his lips, “Anne.”
“Forgive me, sire, but I am puzzled.” Charles’ voice broke the spell. “You have just won a great battle. This was King Richard’s castle. They all said it could never be taken. Your men are celebrating! Yet, the first thing you do is come here to the chapel to find a grave. I am confused.”
Philip’s voice came with uncharacteristic compassion. “She was dearer to me than any sister.”
“But, my lord, I thought she was Richard’s mistress,” Charles griped.
Philip turned on Charles pointing a shaking finger at him. “You and I would have been lucky to have been loved by half such a woman.”
Charles dropped his head and apologized, not wanting to incur any more of King Philip’s wrath. “I am sorry, but I am afraid that I do not understand your meaning, sire.”
Broase intervened. “Perhaps, Sir Charles, it is best that we leave the king alone in the chapel. I am sure he could use this time alone with God. . . and you could use a bit of washing.”
Broase ushered Charles out of the chapel into the little entryway outside the chapel proper, and returned to get a chair. Looking back, Broase saw Philip take a seat on the cold stone floor next to the grave, prop his back against the wall, remove his sword and loosen his armor. Broase shut the door.
“I didn’t mean to anger the king,” Charles protested.
“You did not anger him; he just needs to be alone.” Broase set the chair down in front of the chapel door as if he guarded the door.
One of Charles’ men, who was now wet from head to foot, handed him a bucket of water. “This is insane,” Charles said, scrubbing his hands and face to get the now dry freckles off. “He needs to be with the men in victory! He is not making any sense! He ordered me to stand here and guard a grave instead of leading the men to the gate.” Charles lifted the bucket and poured clean water over his head.
“That grave is very important to the king. He wanted to trust it to his most loyal knight,” Broase tried to explain.
Charles shook his head. “A grave?”
“Long ago, King Philip and Richard were friends—long before he became a king—long before the crusade. And Anne, she was always there with them; Lady Anne, the woman who could bring the mighty warrior Richard to his knees.” Broase paused and gave a pained smile. “They met while Philip was still young. Richard was the Duke of Aquitaine then. Sit, sir, this will take some time.”
With apprehension, Charles took a seat in the narrow hallway.