Agincourt - October 25th, 1414 – mid-morning
The field churned with mud. Horses were screaming in pain as arrows bit deeply into their hide. Rearing, leaping, falling. Heavily armoured men, my friends and comrades, thrown from the saddle only to be trampled by their wildly plunging mounts. Chaos. Utter chaos.
And in the thick of it all, desperately trying to steer a terrified mount towards the distant English lines and out of the path of the devastating hail of the longbowmen’s arrows; that is where I found myself. I possessed a surpassing equestrian skill almost unequalled on the field of combat. By God! I could cut those filthy curs to ribbons for the Maypole before I was done!
The ranks were thinning out now. Not that I had outpaced them, but rather that the casualties were of such a staggering degree that few men had made it thus far with me. I could see the eyes of the enemy knights. Grim with fatigue, dark with sleepless nights and malnourishment, but also joyous as they saw the flower of French chivalry slaughtered by their welsh yeomen. They stood there. Waiting. Waiting to finish off any of us who negotiated the course of death.
Drawing my massive broad sword, I spurred my horse’ flanks yet once more – and realized as I did so that the poor beast would be as bloodied by my own urgings for speed as he would have been if struck by one of the many arrows that rained down around us. Poor Hermes. He would not soon forget the insult done to him by my heels this day.
I had counselled d’Albret, Constable of all France and commander of this engagement; counseled him to avoid this battle. This field. This death. The ground was wet from several days’ rain and the hooves dug deeply into the sodden grass and mud. The pace was excruciating.
The English, though in desperate straits themselves, were well-positioned and there was no denying that the opposing commander, King Henry V no less, was a motivator of men and brilliant tactician. No, the time to strike would be later, I had said. Wait for famine to leach their strength, for disease to lay them low, for internal strife and ultimately rebellion to do its job for the people of France.
But no. d'Albret had insisted that a glorious battle and victory upon the field of combat would forever end this ruthless and bloody war. With Henry captured the ransom would be astronomical and would stand the monarchy in great stead for the future. “Break their backs!” he had ordered. “Destroy them all and bring their king to me in chains.”
This was not to be. Not on this field and facing this determination. I rose in my stirrups, drew a great breath, and hurled a curse at the English King.
“I will see you dead. One way or another, I will see your kingdom crumble and your fortunes fade. This I swear by almighty God, and I will suffer no rest until I see this accomplished, and more.”
Arthur, an Englishman who counted himself among the ranks of the King’s longbowmen from Wales, saw the lone knight break free from the morass of bodies and spur his horse towards their lines. He methodically pulled a broad, steel-tipped arrow from the ground beside him. This was an arrow reserved especially for such a circumstance, an arrow to penetrate the armour of a fully-clad knight. Calmly he put the nock to his bowstring, drew the massive bow back with his powerful arm, sighted carefully along the line.
The knight had drawn his sword and now rose in his stirrups to yell something in French. Arthur was too far away, and the battle noise was too loud. He couldn’t hear what the man was shouting. No matter. He cared not a whit.
Arthur, also known as Longarm, loosed the shaft and watched with deep satisfaction as it flew true to the target, punched through the thick breastplate and drove straight into the enemy's heart. The foreign knight screamed once, and then fell lifeless from his mount. A second arrow, from another archer, speared through the unfortunate creature's neck a moment later.
Pulling another arrow from the ground, Longarm began to scan the field for his next target. In all, perhaps five seconds had elapsed.
Separation. Pain. Disorientation. Falling as if forever. Darkness. The depths of the abyss. And then, in the far distance, a light. A light that shone so bright I could hardly bare to look at it. And then?
I felt as though I was a child, sleeping comfortably in his mother’s arms. I felt lifted. Lightened. Unburdened. Joyous in a measure and degree that I had never experienced in my entire life. And with that thought came the sudden realisation.
I am dead.
The sense of bliss shattered. Dead. But I swore an oath with my last breath. My dying breath.
“Would you return to the world of men to fulfill your oath?” It was a disembodied voice. A voice full of caring and love and compassion, in measure with the feelings that had just departed...and perhaps even more. It was all-encompassing.
“I would.” My voice sounded thin. Weak.
“Would you return, knowing that you have no flesh, no substance; that you will appear as a wraith or a ghost to those with whom you would speak?”
“I would.” How could I not? I had sworn an oath.
“So be it. Had fate dealt with you more gently, had I not had a need for you to rise to this higher challenge, you would have had your quiet rest. That day will come, but not now, not yet. Go now. Guide those who sit on the throne of France. Guide them to the glory. Guide them with wisdom, compassion, even ruthlessness at times when it is called for. Guide them through the centuries. Guide them to love me, and love themselves. Make them strong above all others. Let them wreak vengence unto my enemies, and succour the weak.”
“I will do all you ask, Lord;” for I knew who it was who spoke thus to me. “All this and more. I pledge...” I was about to say ‘my life’ but knew that this had already been lost to me. “...my soul.”
Ile de France - December 31st, 1418 – nearing midnight
And I found myself in a dimly lit bedchamber. A small fire burned merrily away in the hearth to chase away the winter chill, but while I could see it I knew that none of its warmth would reach me. Nothing of physical substance would ever again touch me. Touch me. Move me. Feel me.
Lying in fitful sleep on the canopied bed lay a man I knew as Charles. For some strange reason I never thought of them by their title or rank. To me they would always be just Charles, or Henri, or...well, that will come later. To the human world, this one was known as Charles VI. To me, he was simply Charles; an indifferent leader of men, with no particular strengths or weaknesses with regards to his skills or abilities.
I prayed that, at very least, he would see me and hear me. With an effort I made myself visible to him. It took great concentration as I could, when relaxed, simultaneously see the entire realm from the grandest overview to the smallest infinitesimal detail. I had been doing so for a week or so now, just to get my bearings. But to make myself appear to them, to him, I had to really focus on placing myself in one place and time. Even then, I knew, I would seem thin and transparent. A ghost, as the voice had said.
I hovered closer to him and waited for him to start from sleep. Eventually he did, and saw me. He cringed back with terror at the unexpected apparition. He made the sign of the cross and began to pray, rapidly reciting the words to the Apostles Creed.
“Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem; Creatorem coeli et terrae.
Et in Jesum Christum, Filium ejus unicum, Dominum nostrum; qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria virgine; passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus; descendit ad inferna; tertia die resurrexit a mortuis; ascendit ad coelos; sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis; inde venturus (est) judicare vivos et mortuos.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum; sanctam ecclesiam catholicam; sanctorum communionem; remissionem peccatorum; carnis resurrectionem; vitam oeternam.”
“Amen” we said in unison.
I had let the words wash over me. Strangely, they gave me more comfort, more solace than they seemed to do for him. I believe in one God, omnipotent; creator of heaven and earth...
“Charles,” I said. “I am here to help you.”
He merely gaped at me, though I could sense that he had heard my words.
“I am to guide you along the path of righteousness; to make both you and your people strong. I offer you counsel, and you will pay heed to my words and do your very best to carry out the tasks I shall give you.”
“But who are you?”
I paused for a moment. There was no sense in telling him my birth name, and potentially much harm could come of it for I had been known to him, if not by him, and in my lifetime would have presented a threat to his crown. It would, I thought, be an inappropriate jest to assume the role of Spiritum Sanctum, a jest that the Almighty might take an objection to.
“You will call me l’Eminence Grise.”
He nodded, once, disappointed, and waited for me to continue.
“Perhaps you should ring for a servant to bring you some mulled wine,” I suggested. “This could take quite some time.”