Dunois had had enough. The enemy were baying for blood, his townsmen were starving, and he had seriously considered starting to pray to the saints for a miracle, like the more illiterate of his godforsaken countrymen. And then Chinon sent him, in reply to his most earnest entreaties – this. But when he turned around, his dark face betrayed none of his thoughts.
‘I am the king’s most humble servant,’ he said, ‘ and this lady shall be accommodated here, and she shall be given an honoured place in the counsels of this city.’ He uttered the word lady viciously, as if it were a coarse insult.
The tall, ungainly girl said nothing. The awkwardness of the farm still clung to her, except for a certain something in her eyes which alarmed those who looked into them too closely. The count dismissed them with a weary wave of his hand and wished heartily that he could get back to his Aristotle – but no, there was a war council meeting very soon. He sighed.
Now, a week later, he regretted his half-hearted acceptance of the royal court’s insane commands. He should have told her to go drown herself in the Loire. He should have quoted her favourite Scripture at her and convinced her that women did not fight. For that fool, that crazy religious village woman had somehow – he still didn’t know how – convinced those other fools in his war chamber to lead an attack upon the surrounding forts. Of course, the first few had been easy – as the enemy, taken by surprise at the sudden madness that seemed to possess them, had given way. But she had insisted on retaking fort after fort, until Dunois threw up his hands and told her to do it on her own. Regard for the king and his favourites was one thing and sheer foolhardiness was another. We will be the laughing-stock of the Burgundians, he thought gloomily as the company rode on to Les Tourelles.
They had still not managed to penetrate the wooden outer defences of the castle. Hundreds of men worked to fill the ditches with inflammable brushwood, but were constantly beaten back by a hail of arrows and small shot. Dunois’ face was grey in the pale morning light.
It went on and on — the stench of blood, the screams of the wounded – and above them all, hardly less confident than at the beginning of the battle – that peasant woman’s shrill voice. “To France!” Dunois smiled grimly to himself. Nothing had changed materially, they were still (literally) stuck in the same damned ditch since morning, and yet how the soldiers’ eyes lit up when they heard her, as though she was some angel from on high! Let her be wounded on the field of battle once and all that childish play-acting would soon cease, he thought brutally. And yet, what was the harm? If France could be “saved” not by careful diplomacy but by a female standard bearer with a crudely drawn picture of the saints on her banner, then good for her.
Suddenly, the general perceived that a few ladders had been placed against the fort’s imposing walls. The white standard clambered slowly upwards. That woman has some courage, he thought. Pity she’s an idiot.
He was just turning away to talk to his lieutenant when he heard the twang of a bow. The white banner stopped, and slowly fell. A yell of triumph went up from the defenders.
‘That does it,’ he thought. ‘Now this army of superstitious fools will throw down their weapons and run.’
They brought her back from the shadow of the walls, still conscious, the arrow stuck in her shoulder at a shocking angle.
‘It is only a flesh wound,’ she gasped.
‘Wait,’ the general said coolly enough. Part of him was filled with disgust at the situation, and part marvelled at the girl’s strength. What the hell do they mix in the bread of Domremy? But by the time they had managed to extricate the arrow from where it was lodged between her neck and shoulders, her voice was hoarse from screaming, and she was shivering uncontrollably.
Good, he thought. And then, Why? What part of me is glad to see her fail?
‘I am calling back the troops. We will try tomorrow, again,’ he said, peeping into the tent. ‘Where –‘
For she was readying herself as if to go out into battle again, with her esquire’s aid.
‘You fool !’ he snapped at her. ‘You’re the only chance of victory we have – we will have, that is, tomorrow. Do you want to go out today and die?’
‘I have been praying, and the saints have told me to,’ was the calm answer.
Dunois wanted to beat his head against a wall, but walls were wanting. He followed her outside.
She had rushed towards Le Basque, who held her banner aloft unsteadily, and snatched it out of his hand. ‘To the saints !’ she cried weakly, ‘To the saints, and to France !’
In the gleam of the westering sun the banner seemed touched by fire. They gazed at her in amazement : lords from the once-proud castles of the Loire, tough townsmen from Poitiers, hardy country folk from the war-torn East. And suddenly, they moved to make a final desperate attack upon the mocking grey walls.
‘Nay, to you, Jehanne, who are indeed skilled at using men’s superstitions in your favour,’ whispered Dunois, disbelieving, as Les Tourelles finally fell to his forces.