Bernard Cornwell – Vagabond

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Vagabond follows on from Harlequin and finds the archer Thomas of Hookton, survivor of the battle of Crecy, in England at the behest of the king to find out what he can about the existence and whereabouts of the ultimate McGuffin – the Holy Grail. As such it is the second book in the Cornwell’s ‘Grail trilogy’ which actually had a fourth instalment nine years after the third, Heretic, in the form of 1356 in 2012.

I read Heretic while on holiday in 2012 and said then that “Hopefully some day I will come across books 1 and 2.” Well I finally got there and I suppose I have completed reading the series. That said, I am intent on re-reading Heretic as I’m sure it will make more sense this time around and I expect I will have forgotten what happens as my memory isn’t great – for example, I just discovered that I’ve read Cornwell’s Sea Lord twice – once while on holiday in 2014 and then again this year with no inkling I was repeating myself. Doh.

So anyway Vagabond… The book opens with Thomas, his now pregnant French lover Eleanor and the priest Father Hobbe near Durham. They are intent on questioning an old monk, Brother Collimore, who once met Thomas’s father about the Holy Grail. In parallel, Cardinal Bessières has dispatched the Dominican Friar Bernard de Taillebourg to Durham to find out more about the whereabouts of the Holy Grail for France. Bernard de Taillebourg’s servant is Guy Vexille who murdered Thomas’s father when he stole the lance of St George (but was secretly also looking for the Grail).

Thomas is caught up in the Battle of Neville’s Cross, in which Scottish forces invaded northern England, because they thought the English army was mostly deployed in France and not protecting their domestic borders. While Thomas helps fight the invading Scots, Eleanor accompanies Father Hobbe to the monastry in Durham. Unfortunately the Dominican and Vexille beat them to it and both are killed by Vexille. The Scottish army is defeated and their king David II is captured and held for ransom.

Thomas discovers Eleanor and Father Hobbe have been murdered by Vexille and this adds to the growing list of people he needs to avenge. He is sent to Hookton to continue his quest and takes with him a ransomed Scottish noble Robbie Douglas who he becomes good friends with. There are shades of the Sharpe/Harper (and later Uhtred/Finnan) friendship in this pairing.

Thomas and Robbie meet up with his old friend Sir Giles and learn that the Dominican has also been to Hookton. Sir Giles gives Thomas a notebook of his father’s which mentions the Grail. The book contains passages written in various languages, including a section in Hebrew Thomas is unable to decipher. Thomas then gets a message from Eleanor’s father, Sir Guillaume, back in France that he has been declared an outlaw because of his actions at the battle of Crecy and that his castle is besieged.

Thomas and Robbie travel to France to provide what help they can to Sir Guillaume. They go about harassing the French army surrounding Sir Guillaume’s castle in a kind of Robin Hood style, ambushing outriders, causing confusion and some desertions from the army. Thomas and Robbie up the ante by sneaking into the French camp and silencing their artillery by blowing up their gunpowder store. Sir Guillaume escapes his castle with their help, along with the Jewish healer Mordecai who helps translate some of his father’s notes. However, after complications with their escape plan, they are forced to seek sanctuary with the English garrison at La Roche-Derrien. Thomas discovers that his old flame lady Jeanette is still there, but has fallen from grace and lost her house to the tricky lawyer.

Thomas volunteers to fulfil his promise to retrieve Jeanette’s kidnapped son from the Tower of Roncelets south of Rennes. Against orders to keep out of trouble, he leads a small raiding party to the tower. Unfortunately his movements are being tracked by the French Grail hunters and some men in his party turn on him in the night and take him to Bernard de Taillebourg. The Dominican questions Thomas about his father’s book and the Grail, and tortures him with red hot pokers. Thomas is burned and broken, and forced to tell his inquisitor everything he knows.

Thomas is then released in return for a ransom and brought back to health by Jenette and Mordecai. He spends weeks learning how to use his crippled hands on his bow and building up enough strength to pull the string back. All the while there are rumours and sightings of a large French and Breton army marching on La Roche-Derrien, the first of many garrisons that need to be defeated to win back that area of France from the English occupying forces. Letters are sent from La Roche-Derrien to the English army asking for urgent help.

The French lay siege by surrounding La Roche-Derrien with four makeshift forts where they have cover from the much-feared English archers and bombarding the walls with rocks fired from mighty trebuchets. They hope to defeat the English army when it is sent to relieve the town’s garrison. However, the French make some tactical blunders and when the garrison and townsfolk of La Roche-Derrien (who have benefitted from the English occupation) open one of the gates and rush to help the ambushed English army, the tide is turned. The French are defeated in one of the four camps and then routed from the other three.

During the action, Bernard de Taillebourg is killed by Robbie and Thomas, but the crippled William Skeat is killed by ‘the scarecrow’ Sir Geoffrey Carr who was prominent in the first book but hardly features in this one until he pops up at the end to cause trouble – trying to take the captured Lord of Roncelets from Jenette’s and Skeat’s custody. Carr meets a satisfying grizzly end and Thomas almost manages to fight Guy Vexelle but he gets away after suggesting that Thomas should join him on the quest for the Grail.

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