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As the papal wars of the Western Schism rage across Europe, a young man takes his first step on the journey of a lifetime.

Geoffrey Hotspur dreams of knighthood. As an English orphan-squire bonded to the court of Sir John of Gaunt, uncle of the English King Richard II, his prospects are few.

An inveterate gambler already deep in debt, young Geoffrey accepts an invitation to participate in a raid on French lands. His plans go awry, however, after a deadly street brawl results in his banishment from court. As further punishment, he is ordered to join a royal commission bound for Florence.

Accompanied by Jean Lagoustine, a mysterious Frenchman whose intentions towards the young squire are not all they appear to be, the ship upon which they journey is waylaid by corsairs. Barely escaping with their lives, Geoffrey and Jean find themselves forming part of a company of Catalonian crossbowmen en route to enlist with the Roman papal army.

Intrigue and betrayal dominate the war between the two popes, and the young squire's understanding of faith and fidelity are soon challenged. The need to do right inspires Geoffrey to take a personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. With little more than his wits and a sword, the young squire must find a way to fulfill his duty to his lord, to his faith and to himself. As the war culminates in the final battle for the throne of St. Peter, will Geoffrey find that a knighthood is worth the risk to his honor?

Book One of the English Free Company Series

Avignon, France
March 1394

The gaming hall at the Blue Boar alehouse was a riot of men of manifold ranks placing bets, exchanging silver and hazarding odds, but the moment the squire dressed in a blue-grey doublet rattled a small leather drum, all matters were dropped and silence ensued. It was now the turn of Geoffrey Hotspur to throw the dice.

"How many wagers are gathered for my cast, Roger?" Geoffrey asked his friend and fellow squire.

"Throw and we shall find out," Roger answered, affecting indifference. "The mystery lies in the result, not in the act."

Geoffrey paid his friend no mind for he was already scrutinizing excited faces and listening for fat purses. He was sure Lady Fortuna would grant him a big win on this night, but he felt compelled to stoke the fires of enthusiasm to make himself worthy of such a favour. To frustrate the anxious players, he leisurely adjusted the pleats of his doublet, which was still buttoned to the neck. Its color suggested integrity, and it went well with his grey hose and blue cap.

Geoffrey shook the dice in rhythm with his agitated heart, while raising and lowering the leather drum as a priest would a chalice. He was about to make his cast when he pulled back and again turned towards his friend and asked, "How much was the butcher up before it all came undone for him?"

The crowd jeered, with the most vulgar making rude gestures and indiscreet references to the caster's mother, while others shouted to him to throw the dice. Those endowed with better sense than to bet on this tricky game simply laughed at the squire's impudence. When no answer came forth, not even from the unfortunate butcher, Geoffrey fixed his gaze on the Gamesmaster, whom he found standing on a raised platform that gave him the full view of his gaming hall.

He lost seven sous and a penny," Roger whispered as several bettors began to bandy about exaggerated numbers despite the interdict. This was far more than the poor butcher's monthly earnings, even as a papal victualler.

"Is that all? Seven paltry sous? Mercy of God, I thought it was a bishop's ransom!" But Geoffrey was no longer looking at his fellow player, for his blue eyes were now fixed on the remaining bettors. The crowd laughed, but soon the call went up again for Geoffrey to cast, with cries of "main point!" and "have at us!"

The caster acquiesced. Confident of his success at plucking more silver from the crowd than what might have been without his antics, Geoffrey gave the drum a final shake before throwing the dice onto a small leather mat.

"The main point rolled is 'five'," the Gamesmaster announced and inscribed the result on a slate.

"That's too bad, Geoff," Roger said and clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder. It was quite an effort, since not only was he shorter than his fellow squire, his own shoulders were sore from that day's sword practice.

"Why is it too bad?" Geoffrey asked. "No, it's not my lucky number, but I will wager on these spots nonetheless."

"The number is five. Should you not pass the drum?"

Geoffrey guffawed and returned Roger's shoulder embrace. "Did I knock that much sense out of you with my shield today? It was quite a blow, and for that I am sorry. You are like a brother to me. But let me remind you that you are in the Blue Boar: 'Five to nine are fine; less or more abhor', so have faith." Geoffrey twisted his head to face the crowd. "Does my main point stand?"

The crowd gave a roar of approval and the Gamesmaster nodded.

"Still, five is nothing to boast about," Roger said.

"You worry too much. No, it doesn't look good for my chance point, but that should bring the wagers up now, shouldn't it? And that's what we want!"

Geoffrey threw a few sharp glances at those players he knew to be freer with their silver and rubbed his aquiline nose. The longer he cast without definitive result, the higher the pile of coins. The Gamesmaster nodded for one of his retainers to collect the pot.

"Tell us how generous your patrons are, Gamesmaster!" Geoffrey shouted.

The Gamesmaster did the sums on his slate before announcing a sum of four gros, three half-gros and six pennies.

"That's not even three sous, you tight-fisted bastards!" Geoffrey chided. "You'll have to do better than that or I will abandon my next cast and publicly charge you all with meanness and cheating on your tithes!"

"I suggest you pray before you cast again, boy," someone said, "because now I'm betting against you."

Geoffrey's eyes darted around the circle until they found the face that belonged to the voice.

"What makes you think I haven't been praying, old man? Do you not see how I make the sign of the cross as I cast?"

A chuckle rippled around the circle, but most players and watchers were discussing odds on the squire taking the pot with his next cast.

Be mindful," Roger whispered. "He is the duke's man. A knight in good standing."

Geoffrey raised his eyebrows and smiled genially. He scrutinized the man and recognized the high quality of his green doublet, wide belt that sagged well below his belly and wool cap that was popular at court. He might have been one of those knights whose armor he would clean, Geoffrey thought, in the days before he was made a squire.

"I see that you cast the most difficult number to repeat, now let us have that chance point already, since I know you'll have to make enough crosses to bless us all!"

"Then let it be so!"

Geoffrey snapped his wrist and threw the dice tumble to the far end of the mat. Each die showed three spots – a neutral result, a sentiment confirmed by the low murmur of the crowd. Some were pleased that the tall squire would have to continue, including the squire himself, who with a fiercely challenging glance all but commanded the remaining players to increase their wagers for the next cast.

"Thank the Lord it wasn't a seven," Roger said, "and now we can forget about that awful five." He shifted uncomfortably. Despite the Holy Peace between the kings of England and France, the English were only tolerated in Avignon. This was the home of Pope Clement VII, the French claimant in the war for St. Peter's throne, while King Richard supported Pope Boniface in Rome, who was Italian. So, Roger knew that it would not take much for someone in the hall to decide to set upon the two squires.

"Such strange numbers tonight," Geoffrey mumbled. "I was expecting a seven, but this is good. As our green knight just said, I should have a long series of casts ahead of me."

"Unless you throw out, of course."

"I'll throw you out if you don't cease with the dark thoughts. Instead, look how the trickle of silver has become a torrent. Now that is a prayer against me."

Geoffrey did not ask the Gamesmaster to recite the tallies. He merely rattled the dice while he silently counted up to his lucky number. He would not risk blowing into the drum for fear of aiding demon luck in dissipating this good charm. Then, with great care and attention, he trickled the ivory cubes onto the mat.

Someone breathed out "twelve." Several players crossed themselves. It was a very dangerous number to throw for future luck in the game, but for now it did not matter. The "twelve" gave courage to a few more players to lodge bets while two timid players, who had dropped out after the first round, re-entered for the third. Once everyone was satisfied, the Gamesmaster announced that the pot was just over ten sous.

"Half a pound of silver already!" Geoffrey cried. "By Jesus' noble passion, shake those coins for me so that I can hear them. I am in want of inspiration!"

"You are in want of my wrath," the green knight warned and he threw the dice back at Geoffrey. "Again!"

For the next two casts Geoffrey's lucky number – "nine" – cancelled out the curse of "twelve". Wagering peaked and dropped, filling the pot to a full pound, which someone argued was the largest single collection of wagers the Blue Boar had seen in a week. The Gamesmaster was about to duly mark the new amounts when he saw that his slate was full, so he called a short break until one of his retainers brought him another.
"That's quite the pool of silver, Geoff," Roger said. "You know you could pass the drum and call it even. Remember, a little loss is better than a long sorrow."

Geoffrey shook his head. "Would you submit at the first knockdown in a pass of arms? A poor knight you will make. No, we must have a result."

Roger ran his hand through the thick, dark curls on his head. He was keeping his hair long, while Geoffrey had decided to closely crop his, as few of the knights at court were doing.

"You remember that we are wanted at court tonight," Roger said. "His lordship the Duke of Lancaster will be present, which means that he will have something very important to say."

"What? Has he finally decided which pope to support? You know as well as I that he is a vassal of both his majesties, Richard and Charles, so it doesn't matter."

"I believe it's something else," Roger tried to explain, but Geoffrey was no longer listening.

Then it happened. Once the awkward dance of the dice was over, the players counted and recounted the spots that mattered. A groan went up. Geoffrey had made his point. He shouted and threw his purse at the feet of the Gamesmaster. "Load it up! And a round of your best ale for those who bet against me!"

It was a good win, so good that between the ritual congratulations and hearty backslaps a desperate few touched Geoffrey's casting hand in the hope of sparking their own luck. Most of the patrons knew Geoffrey well. He frequented gaming halls throughout Avignon and made aggressive wagers, but what distinguished him most was his height. Geoffrey towered over most men, a feature made all the more striking by his narrow frame and youthful look. He was eighteen or nineteen years old and like his fellow squires, he was expecting to be apprenticed to a knight this campaign season.

"What will you do with all that silver, squire?" the green knight shouted. A serving maid brought in a wooden platter laden with pewter tankards.

"I should spend it on drunken harlotry, of course," was Geoffrey's vulgar reply with an eye on the maid. Even the stoic Gamesmaster allowed himself to chuckle along with the crowd.

"Maybe this victory is the Lord's way of telling you to put that money away for your marriage," a player joked.

"Nonsense!" Geoffrey cried. Then, posing as a grave supplicant, he added, "Don't you know that wagering is a sin? Our Lord would never send me such a brutish message."

Roger started to say something to deflate his friend's exuberance, but the Gamesmaster anticipated him.

"Play on, good squire, for the dice grow cold. Lady Fortuna is an impatient mistress."

Roger tried again. He had been friends with the orphan Geoffrey Hotspur for about ten years, ever since the duke had paired them at the onset of squire training, so he knew how Geoffrey could let loose his passions.

"The dice will still be here tomorrow," Roger said.

"But I am here tonight! Have some ale, Rog."

The next series of casts ended in a hurry. After making the fortunate "seven" on the main point, Geoffrey threw, or crabbed, out on the chance point with an unexpected "three". However, his losses were small – not more than a sou and a half, as the players had wearied of the squire's good luck and so had shied away from early wagering. Satisfied that he had successfully demonstrated his prowess, Geoffrey grandly passed the drum.

The dice quickly traveled the circle. The mood darkened with two successive throws of "twelve". Geoffrey threw out twice in a row, losing him half his first-round winnings. Another small victory for the squire was then eaten up by his generous bets against other casters, as Geoffrey began to make it a point of honor to add two pennies to the highest wager.

"Why don't you encourage Lady Fortuna to turn her radiant face once more to me, Rog?" Geoffrey asked half in jest. "You refuse to partake of the game, yet without pain of conscience you drink the free ale and share in the good cheer. Why, if I didn't know you better I'd swear you were a Franciscan."

Roger laughed and confessed his negligence. However, after Geoffrey lost for a third time in a row, Roger fretfully peered through the slats of a shuttered window in order to gauge the hour.

"Don't forget we're expected at court before vespers, which should be upon us very soon. If the evensong bells catch us in this hall, it will be too late. Did you hear me, Geoff?"

"What? Oh yes, yes, Roger, right after I win back my money." Geoffrey then drew Roger aside and whispered. "My lucky number is back. I saw the serving maid bring in nine tankards and the dice just showed me another nine at the bottom of the drum. That hasn't happened for more rounds than I care to remember. It's true!"

Roger sighed. "Should I ask the Gamesmaster how much you are up or down? I see that the green knight has left. That does not bode well."

"Does it matter how much I'm up or down? The Gamesmaster is still preaching at his lectern. On my oath, I am not some petty tinsmith who needs to count his grubby black pennies every time the sun shines. I don't finger my purse like a friar. If I win, I shall share; if I lose, I shall return what is owed. Please, do not trouble your conscience for my sake, as it will do your humors no good." Geoffrey held up the leather drum before Roger's face and rattled it.

"I do not wish to be late for court – that is all – but it would serve your interests if you were sure of enough silver to buy those bits of armor you still need. No knight would take you on campaign with what paltry gear you have now."

"Very true, my friend, but there is plenty of time for all that. The campaign season cannot start for another month." Geoffrey cocked his cap to show that he was in earnest about staying.

"Your cast, monsieur!" the Gamesmaster ordered.

Roger grabbed Geoffrey's casting hand. "Check your purse, for all that is holy! Campaign or no campaign, do you really want to lose what little you have, and your dignity to boot?"

Geoffrey wrestled his hand away, causing him to spill the dice. "Look what you have done, fool! My luck is sure to turn sour now. If it will keep you from making more mischief, I will do as you say." Geoffrey dumped the contents of his purse in his hand and raked through the coins. "It seems as though I shall shortly be in need of silver," Geoffrey announced, "and I pray that one of the good gentlemen here will honor himself by sharing his so that I might continue." He assumed that he was few pounds down, but only the Gamesmaster knew the true figure and Geoffrey would not lower himself to ask.

"He can wager on tick," the Gamesmaster said. "I will allow it."

"But at what price?" Roger asked. "If he borrows three pounds now, will you be demanding six when time is called?"

The Gamesmaster reviewed his slates. "No," he said at last. "I shall demand no percentage on any amount the good squire shall require of me. I trust that he will honor any debt he might incur, and with speed. Let him play on and have Fate make the result."

"My word is my bond and any statement of wager I might make is as good as gold," Geoffrey said.

Roger took Geoffrey aside and said sternly, "Had you some property to serve as surety, then I would bite my tongue, but you have no family to stand behind you and his lordship pays no one's bills." He regretted having to remind his friend that he was an orphan, but his posturing had left him no choice.

"You cut me to the quick, Rog, but I forgive you." Geoffrey turned back to the Gamesmaster. "Pay him no mind."

The Gamesmaster nodded to acknowledge the pledge then gestured that the casting should continue. The Gamesmaster's credit line unleashed whatever restraint Geoffrey had for wagering, but the results did not improve: for every one gros Geoffrey won, he lost three. At the first peel of the evensong bells the Gamesmaster called time.

"Let us play on, for the love of Christ and his most pure mother!" Geoffrey cried as he watched the crowd melt away. Several serving maids entered and began to collect the gaming gear.

The Gamesmaster stepped off his dais and approached Geoffrey and Roger. "That is all, I'm afraid. My license forbids any and all manner of gaming between evensong and the woman's curfew, and I am not a man to defy the authorities."

Geoffrey felt the frustration of the moment welling up inside his breast. His eyes darkened, but he held himself with the decorum of his station and declared himself quit for the day. He made a slight but not undignified bow to the Gamesmaster and then turned to Roger to say that they were leaving. However, at their first motion towards the hall's only exit, two men in full harness moved to block it.

"And what about your debt, good sir knight?" the Gamesmaster asked with that light touch of sarcasm for which he was known.

"What is owed?" Roger asked.

"Ten pounds of silver."

Roger's mouth dropped, but Geoffrey looked unaffected by the immense ransom."You will be repaid," Geoffrey declared and he drew himself up to his full height. "I honor all my debts, however base. You can rest assured that when I have collected the agreed amount, it shall come to you. Have faith in my fidelity."

"My rest comes with the debt's rest, I assure you. You have one month to settle with me," was the Gamesmaster's cold reply.

"You shall have it when the good Lord has blest me with it."

"Let me repeat the contract in full so that you are not confused. You have one month to repay the precise amount of money you owe me, in good silver, and if the whole sum does not reach me in time, then the debt will grow by four sous for every week you delay redemption."

Roger nearly burst with indignation. "There was no such contract! You said no percentage. Ten pounds of silver in thirty days? It can't be done!" The Gamesmaster gave no indication that he was intimidated by either squire. He lifted his slates and pointed at the figures.

"I did indeed say no percentage, but the duration of the offer was never stipulated. Now it is. The offer is good for one month only. In truth, you should be thanking me for granting your friend such generous terms, as I could make just cause for putting him in the gaol until someone redeems his debt."

"Very well. Let us make it so. I will stand as surety for my friend," Roger declared. "My name is strong enough. What say you to my offer?"

"I do not deny that Swynford is a strong name. If that is your desire, then …"

Geoffrey put a hand on his friend's arm. "It is agreed, monsieur Gamesmaster," he said. "I accept your conditions."

The Gamesmaster gave a curt not and allowed Geoffrey and Roger to leave the Blue Boar unmolested.

Once the squires were gone, the Gamesmaster turned to his guards and ordered: "Find Jean and tell him that I have work for him, now."

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Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9567901-5-6
Dimensions: 229 x 152mm
Page Count: 408

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9567901-6-3
Dimensions: 210 x 148mm
Page Count: 424

Format: eBook (ePUB and ePDF)
ISBN: 978-0-9567901-7-0

 

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