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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 13

I do not like to remember my first battle, or any of the others, but they come back to me vividly—the sounds and smells almost more than what I saw. I do not understand how men can go into battle more than once. Though they cheer themselves with brave words, they must know, all save the youngest and least experienced, that at best they will come out with aching limbs and parched throats, and at worst with torn and broken bodies—or not come out at all, but lie stinking on the battlefield for the enemy and then common scavengers to strip and plunder. Even Jeanne soon felt as I did, I know, but she hid it well, and in time hid it even from herself.

At the beginning, though, until I knew what battle was, I was as eager for it as any young soldier. It was as if we were all in a dream at first, of military glory and of glory for God. The excitement, the talk of courage and conquest, the armor and the horses and weapons and banners—they acted on us like the strongest of wines. And we all thought God would protect us from harm.

How young we all were, and how in love with God and France and Jeanne!

Early on the morning of the fourth of May, the army came back from Blois, by the north bank this time, with Father Pasquerel at its head solemnly carrying the priests’ standard, and the other priests with him, singing as solemnly as they marched. With the army was such a swarming of beasts as I had never seen, sheep and pigs and cattle enough to feed a thousand cities. Carts came with them, bearing wine, and grain, and other provisions. The people of Orléans cheered when the men rode through the Burgundy Gate, and the English were nowhere in sight, as if they were subdued by the joy.

Later, while Jeanne and those of us of her household were back at the Bouchers’ having the first meal of the day with some of the captains, Dunois came in, his strong jaw firmly set, and strode quickly up to Jeanne. “Madame,” he said, “I have news that may be good or ill, depending on how eager you are for battle. The English Fastolf has been seen, bringing men; he is well on his way here, I am told, and will arrive soon.”

This Fastolf, I knew, had overcome French troops in February, when they had ambushed him as he carried salt herring and other goods to the English troops in Orléans for Lent.

“He is a good soldier, Jeanne,” said Dunois. “Why”—he leaned forward—“he managed to wound me in that February battle, and to chase La Hire away.”

“By my—by my sword,” shouted La Hire, “he did not chase me! I left of my own will, for supplies, and well you know it, Bastard!”

“Peace, peace,” said Jeanne, laughing. “That battle is long over; we must turn our minds to the next.”

“I like it not,” Jean said darkly, “for this Fastolf is feared much by the men.”

“Of whom you are one, brother, and so am I,” Pierre said quietly. “We must leave this business to the captains.”

“And to me.” Jeanne thumped her fists upon the table, then turned to Dunois. “Bastard, Bastard, in the name of God, I order you to let us know as soon as you hear of the arrival of Fastolf. If he gets through without my knowing, I promise that I will have your head cut off.”

“I do not doubt it, madame,” Dunois answered dryly, and we all chuckled at their exchange.

“So, my brave d’Aulon,” Jeanne said, turning to her squire, “and you, my brothers, and my younger brother’s page”—here she looked secretly at me, smiling—“what say you to a rest before this battle starts?”

We all agreed, though it was a restless rest for most, I think, with the promise of battle at its end.

Jeanne went to her second-floor room, and d’Aulon with her, and young Louis de Coutes went with d’Aulon. I went to the top floor, empty of children for once, and was still trying to think about the battle to come instead of how my own Louis might fare in it, when a cry rose from outside. I leaned out the window and saw a crowd assembled, shouting and waving, and at first could not tell what was amiss. Then I heard “Saint-Loup!” and “French dead!” and “Dunois!” and “We must fight!” People poured into the street, one or two with the small firearms called culverins and others carrying the long, thin ladders used for scaling walls. For a moment when I saw this I could not move, but my mind said to me, “It is the battle; go!” At last I went down to the second floor, and saw Jeanne struggling to don her armor while Madame Boucher and her daughter fumbled at assisting her. I thrust them aside, for by now I knew which buckle went to what strap, and helped her dress until d’Aulon, rubbing his eyes, burst in and in his turn thrust me aside to finish the task.

“Why did no one tell me French blood is being shed?” Jeanne cried. “Where is my horse? Louis, Louis!” she shouted to her page. “My horse, boy, my horse!”

The young de Coutes, stumbling over his own feet in his haste to obey, was out of the house before she had finished shouting and was soon in front of it again, upon her horse, and leading d’Aulon’s. He leapt off as she ran outside, and she leapt on as quickly as her armor allowed. “My standard!” she shouted, and poor de Coutes ran inside again and up the stairs, handing her the standard out the window of her room. As soon as she grasped it, she was off, while d’Aulon, cursing, was still struggling to mount.

Meanwhile, Pierre had raced around the side of the house without waiting for me. He brought up only his own horse, so I fetched Yarrow and followed him as he followed Jeanne. I could see sparks flying from her horse’s hooves ahead, and from Pierre’s, and no doubt they also flew from Yarrow’s.

Crowds of people, many armed and all shouting, ran with us to the Burgundy Gate—and the sight that met us there sobered me greatly, and sobered Jeanne as well. Men came through the gate on foot into the town, carrying wounded Frenchmen, and Jeanne’s face was pale and tight as they went by. “I can never see French blood,” I heard her say, “without my hair standing on end.”

“Here is work for you,” Pierre said to me, and indeed there was.

“This is my page,” Pierre said to those carrying the wounded. “He has some knowledge of healing and will help you till the dauphin’s surgeon arrives. He is young, but able.”

In the rush I had left my pouches of herbs behind, and had nothing for bandages, and no tools save my mother’s knife; I had even forgotten the sword Pierre had given me.

I slid down from Yarrow, and handed her reins to de Coutes, who had run after us on foot and had just arrived. “Take her,” I said to him, “and ride swiftly back to Monsieur Boucher’s and fetch the leather pouches you will find in the topmost room, and any old linen that Madame Boucher can spare. Tell her it is for bandages, for wounded Frenchmen.”

He nodded, and rode off.

Trembling inside, I said to the men carrying the wounded, “Lay them over there, against the walls away from the crowd, and show me the worst of them first.” I know not where I found the strength or the sense to say that, for my mouth was dry and I could not keep my hands from shaking as I bent over the first man and tried to pull his bloody doublet away from his heaving chest.

So it was that I spent my first battle tending the wounded, with what small art I had, stanching blood and binding wounds with cloth torn from ragged garments and from flags. As had happened before, as soon as I actually began, I lost my fear and all sense of myself, and simply worked, letting my hands do what my mind bade it, without questioning why. When a man died—and some few did—I was somehow able to cross myself quickly, and go on. I think it was because I had no choice, and no time to mourn or grieve.

In a while I became aware of a craggy-faced man in the long robe of an academic, his graying hair in a fringe around his bald and shiny head. He stood beside me, impatiently watching, and then his hand came down atop my hand, which probed a heavily bleeding thigh. Brusquely, he said, “No, no, you foolish boy, it is here.” I had been searching for a broken-off arrow that was deeply buried, and sure enough, the old man found it quickly and saved the poor soldier much pain.

“I am the dauphin’s surgeon,” this same man said when he had extracted the arrow and I had bound the man’s thigh. He spoke gruffly, as if he were indignant that someone less skilled than he were tending the wounded. “And you are?”

“Gabrielle of Domremy,” I said, making my voice as deep as I could.

“Well, my lad,” he said, still gruffly, “I know not where you learned our art, but despite your error, you are good at it.”

Surprised, I smiled and thanked him, and wondered what he would say if he knew that I probed for crossbow bolts the way Maman had taught me to probe for splinters, and that I fastened most wounds as if they were scythe cuts or the rips childbirth sometimes causes in women’s flesh. He—the surgeon, Nicolas d’Amboise, he was called—became the master and I the apprentice that day, though unofficially, and I learned much from watching him. He had no patience for things done carelessly, and I was sometimes awkward with trying to earn his praise. But he did give it, I soon learned, for honest effort and for work done well, and he taught me much, whenever there was time.

I know not how long it was before young de Coutes returned on Yarrow with my herbs and some old linen, or how many men we had served by the time Nicolas had examined the herbs, nodded his terse approval, and shown me a mixture or two I knew not of. But by day’s end, when the last men who could be helped were resting, I lifted my eyes wearily from them and saw smoke in the east. We learned from returning Frenchmen that Saint-Loup had seemed lost until Jeanne arrived, but that seeing her had put such heart into our men that they had attacked anew, and won the day. Saint-Loup was captured and burned; there was nothing left—and I marveled, as I stood there, exhausted and bloody, leaning against Yarrow’s flank, that so stout a fortress could fall in so short a time. “Some English men-at-arms,” Pierre told me as we rubbed our horses down, “tried to escape by donning the robes of priests. The men wanted to kill them, but Jeanne would not hear of it, and took them prisoner instead.” He shook his head, as if marveling at her mercy, but I was glad of it, for I had seen enough blood that day, and had begun to think that perhaps I was not suited for this adventure.

But I was in it now, and there was no way to turn back, for me or any of us.


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