Breaking the Order
The sun broke through a veil of clouds, illuminating the golden heads of wheat rustling in the wind. Pierre swung his sickle, toppling a row of stalks. He stood up and stretched. Surveying the field before him, he figured there’d be another week of harvesting. That didn’t stop his lord from demanding his tribute in three days, half a moon earlier than last year.
Judging by the shadows, there were a few hours until midday. He needed to quicken his pace. Pierre sighed and swung his sickle once more. There was naught he could do about it. His lot possessed but one role in this world: to serve their liege. Their own needs were secondary. But that’s how God ordained the world to function, and so it must be.
All around were his fellow villagers: men dressed in woolen tunics and trousers, women in linen gowns and wimples. Some swung sickles like him. Others were hunched over, collecting the fallen stalks and loading them onto a wooden cart. His lord’s manor loomed over them, surrounded by stone walls and nestled atop a hill, his banner fluttering from the tall keep.
A rider galloped towards them. His black mantle billowed, his leather boots spurring his piebald horse forward. He yanked on the reins and reared to a halt, dust drifting from the trail behind him. The rider removed his hood, his dark eyes studying them like a herd of pack animals. Sewn onto his mantle was his lord’s heraldry: a red shield with a white diagonal stripe.
“Your lord demands all men with steel and shield to report to the manor walls.” He passed a sweeping, almost disdainful look over them and kicked his spurs into the horse, galloping off in the direction of the nearest village.
Pierre watched as he disappeared in a cloud of dust. By the time he turned around, his fellow villagers burst into chatter. Were they being invaded? Was their lord starting a new campaign? Many exchanged nervous glances, knowing what either would entail.
Someone nudged Pierre.
“If he’s looking for men-at-arms, he’s come to the wrong place,” said Eugene, his face tanned and creased with deep wrinkles. He wore a gray tunic, his leather boots cracked and caked with dirt. “Eh, Pierre. You hear me?”
Pierre ignored him. He was sick of this life. Sick of toiling endlessly, year after year in these fields, only to return to an empty hut. He was only thirty years of age, but it felt like he’d lived an eternity. He heard of peasants winning their freedom in battle, those that dared to take the risk. He’d saved almost half the coin necessary to become a freeman. It only took thirteen years. Thirteen years of never having a drink, never owning more than one cow, wearing his clothes until they were threadbare. He figured it’d take another thirteen years to save what his lord required. But what if he could win his freedom earlier?
“Les ongles de dieu. Are you jesting? Or just mad?”
“No. I’m going to fight.”
“The only sword you possess is the one hanging between your legs. What will you do, pull it out and scare the enemy into retreat?”
“Go bugger yourself,” Pierre replied, not even feigning a smile. “I mean it.”
“Did you hear the herald? The lord wants men with sword and shield. You possess none of these.”
Pierre spun around and trotted towards the village, Eugene’s taunts growing dimmer as he rounded the trail.
He can go bugger himself sideways. All of them. If they were content with being serfs for the rest of their short lives, so be it. He wasn’t. If he could make a name for himself in battle, he could leave all of this behind. And even if he didn’t, war would be a welcome respite from the drudgery of his life. He knew the stories from the bards that passed through. The battles. The heroes. The glory.
And he wanted to be part of it.
He thought of Jeanne of Arc. She was of low birth. And now she was the most famous damsel in all of France. She gave counsel to the king, accompanied his army, fought in his battles. If a woman could attain such glory, why couldn’t he?
And then there was Marcel the Magnificent, who saved his lord’s life when he was unseated during battle, slaying those around him and dragging him to safety. He was granted his freedom, living out his days as a small landholder, free of all tribute.
Approaching the village, he passed the blacksmith’s shop, the clang of his hammer echoing within, black smoke pouring from the chimney. Across sat the mill, built of stone, its slanted roof covered with clay shingles. Its waterwheel spun round, lifting and dumping buckets from the adjacent river. The chapel stood behind, its wooden steeple reaching into the sky, topped with a copper cross.
He passed over a stone bridge, his eyes falling on his hut, crafted of mud and timber, its thatched roof constructed with reeds. To its right was a small enclosure holding his cow, Amée.
Pierre sighed. Did he really want to see this through? The coin he’d saved wouldn’t be enough to purchase arms. He’d have to sell Amée. Which meant starving to death if the campaign ended early.
He entered his hut. An ashy hearth sat in the middle of a dirt floor, surrounded by a stool and a few iron pots. To his left was the wooden pen where Amée stayed each night. On the opposite side was a straw bed with a log for a pillow, a wooden chest pushed against the wall. Pierre walked towards the chest and opened it. Inside was a blue wimple. He held it in his hands and placed it over his breast, closing his eyes and reciting a prayer.
It’d been five years since she left him. He could still see her pale and puffy face, her dress stained with blood, their newborn babe resting in her arms, tiny and covered in black splotches. God, he missed her so much.
He folded the wimple and placed it in his pocket, pushing the chest aside and digging into the earth with his hands, piling the dirt beside him. He pulled out a cloth purse. Loosening its drawstrings, he examined the coin inside, dumping it in his palm and clenching his fist, feeling the cool copper on his skin. He slid it back inside, casting what he hoped was his last glance at his home.
Not long afterward he stood inside the blacksmith’s shop. A fire blazed in a brick forge; a bellow mounted to its left. Hanging from the stone walls were farming tools: spades, shovels, scythes, a few swords and shields mixed amongst them. In the middle, a burly figure stood over an anvil, swinging a hammer onto a red-hot horseshoe he held with a pair of tongs, its clang ringing in Pierre’s ears.
“Martin,” he shouted. “Martin!”
The blacksmith glanced up and returned to the horseshoe. He had a mop of black hair, sweat dotting his square face. He wore a leather apron over his broad chest, his arms thick and hairy. After a few more swings, he lifted his tongs, inspected the horseshoe, and headed to a bucket, steam hissing as he placed it inside.
“Aye, Pierre,” he called, placing his tongs on a workbench and walking towards him. “Shouldn’t you be in the field? Lord Beaumont wants his share in three days. I don’t think he’d appreciate you pausing midday.”
“No pause, Martin. I’m here for something.”
“And what would that be? Another blade for your sickle? Yours shouldn’t be worn out already.”
“A sword. A shield. Armor.” Pierre muttered the words weakly. He realized how foolish his request sounded. He’d never picked up a sword, let alone use one in combat. He had not the faintest idea of swordplay. Sure, he and his copains had dueled with sticks when they were boys. But steel was different.
Martin looked him up and down like a mythical beast had wandered into his shop. He laughed, shaking the smithy as much as his hammer a few moments earlier. “I don’t believe a sword will help you harvest any quicker. Quit jesting, what do you need?”
“A sword. A shield. Armor.” he repeated. “Our lord is raising an army. I intend to fight on his behalf.”
“You intend to die on his behalf. Ami, save the wars for the trained men. They can afford it. We have no place on the battlefield. The only field we’re fit for is the farm. Don’t go trying to break the order now.”
Pierre’s face reddened. “The only order I’m trying to break is the one I’ve been stuck in my whole life.”
“And that’s what we’re meant for, Pierre. We each have our role in this world. That’s how God made it. To go against His will is folly.”
“Then why has God willed you to craft these weapons?”
Martin fell silent for a moment. “God works in ways beyond our understanding. I was born into this work. It’s all I know. Just as you’ve been born a serf.” He pressed his lips together. “Come on, Pierre. I know you don’t indulge in drink. You’re miserly with your coin. How long will it take to buy your freedom?”
As much as he admired Martin, he didn’t want to reason with him. “I’ll give you all I have. Plus Amée.”
“Compain.” Martin sighed and examined the walls of his shop. “How much coin?”
“12 sous and 8 deniers.”
“And your cow? Are you certain?”
“So that’s another 8 sous, 5 deniers.”
“Aye, Pierre. You cannot have all three. It can’t be done. I’ll sell you a sword and shield. But no armor. You couldn’t afford that even in three lifetimes.”
“Fine. I’ll go without armor.”
“I can give you a gambeson. It won’t do much against the thrust of a sword, but it will protect you nonetheless.”
“Thank you, Martin.”
“The shield’s a buckler. Not that worn, either. The straps I made only a year ago. And the wood is strong.” He paused. “But the sword…it’s not my finest work. If you had more coin, it’d be a different tale. I have steel fit for a king. But I promise you, it’ll hold.”
Pierre held the sword in his palms. The swords he’d always imagined were polished and gleaming, like gazing into a still pond in the afternoon sun. Their edges were thin and sharper than any sickle he’d swung. The handles were wrapped in leather, their hilts ornately carved. In his dreams, he could feel the power of the sword in his hands, radiating through his entire body.
The sword he held in his hands looked nothing like his dreams. Brown spots marred its surface, its edge chipped in three places. Cloth covered its handle, the hilt crafted from wood.
He slipped his arm through the straps of his buckler, feeling leather and wood against his skin. He thrust it upwards, pretending to block an incoming blow.
“Ah, ami,” Martin said, wagging his finger at him. “Once you block a strike, make sure to bring your sword down upon your enemy. They’ll have left themselves exposed. But no matter what, do not attempt to parry an overhand with your sword. You carry a shield for a reason. Use it.”
“How do you know so much about swordplay?” Pierre asked him.
“I don’t.” He laughed again. “But I’ve seen knights at practice whilst visiting our lord’s manor. Only fencers parry. Soldiers do not. Remember, for it may save your life.”
“Don’t let me forget your gambeson.” Martin went to a chest and reached inside, pulling out a quilted jacket with four buckles slashed across the chest, its collar high and sleeves long. “Try it on.”
With a little assistance from Martin, he was soon fitted with what he came for. He bent his knees slightly, raising his shield deliberately, followed by a measured overhand of his sword.
“My knees are shaking just looking at you,” Martin said, clapping his hand on the counter. “But seriously, the battle will be much different than here in my shop. It will move much quicker. It’ll be more chaotic.” He looked him over. “I can still give you your coin back -”
“Thank you, ami,” Pierre said, turning around and glancing back at him. “May we cross paths again.”
Martin gave him a solemn nod. “Christ be with you,” he called as Pierre exited the sweltering confines of his shop. He was starting to get lightheaded in there, his body drenched in sweat.
It was time to present himself for the mustering. Passing through the only place he’d ever known, Pierre kept his focus on his lord’s manor, its banner hanging limp atop the stone keep, the wind no longer blowing.
Doubts besieged his mind as he trudged through the village. He still had time to turn around. Maybe he should. But the thought of living his whole life without knowing what could’ve happened spurred him forward. This could be his only chance. He was going to take it.
As he approached the manor, Pierre heard clang of steel behind the walls. Two guards in mail and surcoats stood on either side of the gate.
“What do we have here?” one of them asked.
“I’m here to fight for my lord.”
The guards passed a glance at each other and laughed. “Get back to the field, peasant. That’s where you’re needed.”
Pierre stiffened. “I’m told our lord requires men with steel and shield. I have both.”
“The only steel you should be wielding is your sickle. The only enemy you should be fighting is that wheat field over there.” He turned and glanced at his comrade, chuckling. “But you’re right, peasant. You have steel and shield.”
They made no move to let him pass.
“So may I enter?”
The guard shook his head. “No, you may not. Our lord doesn’t want the likes of you sullying his great estate. You can wait here until the mustering.”
As Pierre waited outside the gate, he observed knights arriving on warhorses, dressed in surcoats emblazoned with their heraldry, followed by squires and pack horses carrying their supplies. Some arrived on foot, wearing mismatched armor and carrying their equipment themselves, likely mercenaries or those seeking to earn favor. They were ordered to wait outside like Pierre, while their knightly brethren were ushered inside.
By the time the mustering began, the sun had retreated into the western sky, casting long shadows along the stone walls of the manor. A man riding a brown courser passed through the gate. He wore a white surcoat bearing a red cross over his ringmail. His squire hurried abreast, carrying his bascinet and sword. The knight’s sandy hair fell to his shoulders, a trimmed beard covering his square jaw.
By now there were at least two hundred men waiting outside the gates. The knight examined them. “Assemble yourselves in rows of thirty in that field over there,” he shouted, pointing behind them. No one flinched. It was as if they were all waiting for someone to move first. The knight sniffed, his mouth curving into a grimace. “Well, what are you waiting for?” He spurred his horse forward, forcing them to clear a path. “Allez-y!”
Pierre headed towards the field, holding his sword in one hand, his shield slung over his back. Soon he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his new compagnons in the front row. “Tighter!” yelled the knight, circling their ranks. “This formation has more holes than a tomme of gruyere. Tighten up!”
A flourish of trumpets erupted from the manor. Mounted knights arranged themselves in two columns on both sides of the gate. Between the columns rode two men carrying his lord’s standard on tall flagpoles, followed by two heralds. His lord arrived soon after, sitting atop a black destrier fitted in steel barding. The sun reflected off his plate armor as he strode with his longsword in one gauntlet, his reins in the other. Atop his head was a helmet with a horizontal slit. As he passed his knights, they turned their horses and followed in a procession.
Pierre had never seen anything like it. It was like Roland the Valiant was riding towards him. The majesty of his horse’s gait, the dignified manner in which he sat astride his saddle, the glimmer of his armor in the afternoon sun; it was breathtaking. If he could win glory and earn even a scantling of what his lord possessed, he’d live the rest of his days in content.
His lord surveyed the assembled men before him, moving his horse along the front of the line. Pierre saw nothing but darkness within the slit of his helm, not a sound escaping from the holes dotting his visor. He made two passes before nodding at the man who’d ordered them into formation. Then he departed.
“D’accord, soldiers. Time to march. Follow the flags,” the knight shouted. “And march to the beat of the drum. Anyone out of order will be digging the latrines when we make camp.”
Drums echoed through the still air. Pierre concentrated on each step, his foot hitting the ground with each thud of the bass drum. He stared directly ahead, seeing nothing but meadows and fields before him. For hours they marched, through grasslands, stalks of wheat, beans, and barley, past villages big and small, each with their own lord’s manor. As they passed by, they were met with more knights and infantry, increasing their ranks three-fold.
The drums ceased their pounding. By now the sun was a red orb on the horizon. The formation halted.
“Make camp!” the knight captain shouted at them. “We resume at dawn tomorrow.”
As the troops dispersed, Pierre found himself alone. He gazed behind him, seeing a long baggage train. Men unloaded wagons and pack saddles, erected tents, some dwarfing the size of Pierre’s own home. Groups of knights peeled off in each direction, while others headed towards the forest with axes slung over their shoulders.
Pierre had neither tent nor blanket. He hadn’t even brought any food; such was his haste to present himself before his lord. He was used to hunger, but how much longer could he go without eating? With sword in hand and shield across his back, Pierre headed towards the forest, hoping to find something to satisfy his appetite.
Before he could leave the confines of the emerging camp, he was stopped by two knights. One wore a black surcoat with a white cross, holding his helmet under his arm. His cheek bore a scar, his hair brown and coarse, along with his beard. The other wore a blue surcoat with the fleur-de-lis embroidered in gold. He was of a darker complexion, with brown eyes and hair falling to his ears.
“Halt, peasant,” the one in blue ordered. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To find some food, my lord,” Pierre replied. “By the forest over there.”
“No, you’re not.”
Pierre froze, unsure what to say. Judging by their elaborate armor and finely woven coats, they were undoubtedly men of high rank. He waited for them to speak.
“I’ve chosen you for the highest honor a man of your rank can attain,” the one with the scar said. He turned to his companion and snickered.
Pierre’s heart began to beat faster. Had they noticed him marching? What was the honor they wished to bestow upon him? He straightened his back. “I am pleased to serve you, my lord.”
The men howled in laughter. “Now, soldier, the honor we’re granting you is of utmost importance. You’re one of a select few. Are you sure you’re fit for this duty?”
“Yes, my lord. Please. How may I serve you?”
The men laughed even harder, the one in the blue surcoat clapping the other on the back with his gauntlet.
“Get over to the baggage train and grab a shovel. You’re on latrine duty.”
Pierre’s heart sank to his stomach. He bit his lip to stop it from quivering. “But – I, I never fell out of formation.”
“But I never fell out of formation,” he replied, mocking him in his peasant’s dialect. “What do I care? Get over there and don’t make me ask you again.”
Pierre hung his head, absorbing the peals of laughter thrown in his face. “I’ll show you,” he muttered.
“Wait. What did you say?” The knight sounded surprised, an edge creeping into his voice. “I didn’t quite hear you, peasant.”
“Tomorrow. I’ll show all of you.”
They burst into laughter. “Show us what? How quickly you’ll get carved to pieces?” He shook his head like he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “Grab a shovel and start digging. That’s the last time I ask you.” He glanced at his companion beside him. “Come, let us find some camp whores.” He pushed his comrade forward and they headed off, still laughing.
For two hours, Pierre dug a latrine amongst his companions. By the time he finished, sweat covered his body, his muscles sore and aching. The hunger in his belly had disappeared, too. By now, tents bearing the heraldry of their occupants were awash in the glow of fires. Men cooked food or sharpened their swords on whetstones. Others played dice or told loud stories and drank beer. Pierre surveyed his surroundings, finding a spot away from everyone where he could sleep.
He placed his sword on the grass and sat down. Laying his head against his shield, he stared into the night sky. The heavens stared back at him. God, I know everything in this world has a place. A purpose. That the order you’ve created cannot be broken. But please, I beg you, grant a peasant a higher place in your divine chain. I’ve taken no women since my wife’s death. I’ve never taken a sip of beer. I’ve never coveted my neighbor’s possessions, nor stolen, even when I was hungry. Please, God, grant me your favor tomorrow.
For the rest of the night, Pierre stared at the stars, waiting for a sign. Despite his exhaustion, he couldn’t fall asleep. His guts coiled, his neck and shoulders taut. Every time he felt like he was finally drifting off, he was awoken by the shouts of drunken gamblers, or the gallop of new riders joining the camp. When his eyes finally closed, the eastern horizon was just beginning to glow orange.
Trumpets flourished. It was time to break camp. Within an hour, the tents were disassembled and loaded onto wagons; their formation created anew. The pulse of drums reverberated through the misty air. And they marched forward.
As the mists dissipated, the day grew hotter. Again, Pierre found himself on the front line. He stared ahead, his sword at his side, his feet pressing into the soft earth.
They approached a hill in the distance. The drums ceased. He saw something atop its crest, but couldn’t make it out. Pierre squinted. It was an army. Their ranks stretched along its surface, standards flapping in the wind, faint echoes of trumpets drifting down from their position.
Their side responded with trumpet blasts of their own. The captain rode down the line. He held his sword high, a helmet affixed atop his head. “Tighten up, you bastards! Shoulder-to-shoulder! Don’t move until you hear the drums. Don’t charge until you hear the flourish.” He rode off, shouting the same command as he galloped away.
Pierre glanced both ways. Their line was growing longer as soldiers rushed into position. On either side, large contingents of mounted knights formed their own ranks, their armor shining in the morning sun, lances raised to the sky.
A cold sweat seeped from every pore, his stomach twisting. He clenched his sword with a sweaty palm, bracing his shield before him, practicing the move Martin had shown him. Block and downward swing. Block and downward swing. Do not parry an overhand. You carry a shield for a reason. Use it.
He could do this. He could win glory and raise himself from this low position in life. His wife’s image flashed before him, her dress stained with blood, her face pale and puffy, their newborn babe resting in her arms, tiny and covered in black splotches. He saw himself in the field, swinging his sickle, toppling row after row of wheat, the sun making its daily pilgrimage across the sky, casting its long shadows. He thought of Marcel the Magnificent, of Jeanne of Arc. Soon his name would be among their ranks. This battle would decide everything.
The ground began to vibrate under his feet. He heard a faint sound, a rumble growing in intensity. He peered ahead. The army was marching down the hill, their tall shields before them. The noise became thunderous as a thick division of cavalry peeled around the right side of the hill. His stomach tightened, his breath stuck in his throat. He felt the fear spreading through his compagnones, thick as the morning mist. He braced himself, planting his feet into the earth, ready to spring into action once he heard the pounding of drums.
Finally they came. He moved forward, raising his shield. Arrows flew overhead, some landing in front of him, protruding from the thick grass. Others hit the men beside him. They shrieked, falling among the line, men hurrying to replace them. Their side responded with volleys of their own, falling upon the enemy ranks.
The opposing army was now only a hundred yards away. Pierre heard a monumental crash to his right as the cavalry smashed into their flank. Still, they continued forward, closing the ground between them.
The sun peaked above the forest to their right, its rays blinding him. He squinted and peered ahead. The army was only thirty feet away.
Pierre charged, a scream bursting from his lips. The army before him stepped back and planted themselves, their shields acting as a wall. They were now only feet away.
Pierre raised his sword. This was the culmination of his entire life, of all the pain and suffering he’d endured, the loss, the heartache. This was the moment to end it all. He brought his sword crashing upon his enemy’s shield, splinters bursting into the air. In response, the soldier swung his sword overhead. Pierre moved to parry, realizing his mistake.
His sword shattered.
Pierre stared at the wooden hilt in his hand, the sword no more than jagged steel. His stomach loosened. He glanced down, seeing a blood-spattered lance jutting from his gambeson. The hilt dropped from his hand. He sank to his knees, trampled by the soldiers rushing in to take his place.
Matt Dennis is an English teacher dreaming of becoming a professional author. When he’s not marking essays, he’s writing short stories and putting the finishing touches on a novel manuscript. Matt is a graduate of York University, earning a BA in English and History with Magna Cum Laude honors. Matt’s stories are packed with natural dialogue, vivid description, and incisive commentary about the world we inhabit.