Hotspur was conferring with Worcester and the young Douglas in the rebel camp near Shrewsbury.
‘Well said, my noble Scot,’ he told Douglas. ‘If the truth wasn’t always being confused with flattery these days, I would praise you highly. No other soldier as inexperienced in battle could have gained such a universal reputation. By God, I can’t flatter: I despise flatterers. But you have a place in my heart that no other man has. Put me to the proof; test me.’
‘You are the epitome of honour,’ Douglas said, ‘and if any man challenges that, no matter how powerful, I’ll defy him.’
‘Do that. Well done.’
A messenger approached them. ‘What letters have you got?’ Hotspur nodded to Douglas. ‘I can only thank you.’
‘These letters come from your father.’
‘Letters from him? Why isn’t he here in person?’
‘He can’t come, my lord; he’s very sick.’
‘For God’s sake! How can he afford to be sick at a time like this? Who’s in charge of his army? Who’s bringing them here?’
‘His letters will tell you his plans, my lord, not I.’
‘Is he bedridden?’ said Worcester.
‘He was, sir, for four days before I left. And on the day I left, his doctors were extremely worried about him.’
‘I wish he’d waited till things were settled before he got sick,’ said Worcester. ‘We’ve never needed him to be well more than now.’
‘Sick now?’ exclaimed Hotspur. ‘Flag now? His illness is infecting our entire enterprise. It’s catching and has spread all the way here, to our camp. He writes that some internal illness…’ he continued reading it to himself ‘… and that his allies couldn’t be organised so quickly by one of his friends. Besides, he didn’t think it was fitting to delegate such a dangerous and important task to someone other than himself. But he also advises us to be bold and press on with our small alliance. For, as he writes, there’s no turning back now, since the King surely knows about all our plans. What do you say to that?’
‘Your father’s sickness is a serious handicap to us,’ Worcester said.
Hotspur said: ‘It’s a dangerous wound, like having a limb chopped off. And yet, I suppose, it’s not, really; the loss of my father seems worse than we’ll find it. Is it such a good idea to bet everything on one throw of the dice? Or to gamble such a rich stake on a single hazardous moment? No, because that would mean we had reached the bottom and end of hope, and the very limit of our fortunes.’
‘I agree, it would,’ Douglas said. ‘There’s a chance of a rich inheritance; we can take a risk now, based on the promise of success to come. That gives us the comfort of having something to fall back on.’
‘It gives us a refuge, a home we can always run to in case the devil or misfortune upsets these early plans,’ Hotspur said.
‘But still, I wish your father had been here,’ said Worcester. ‘This kind of enterprise can’t withstand any division. Some people who don’t know your father is sick will think that he has some kind of secret knowledge, or that he is loyal to the King, or that he doesn’t like the way we’re doing things. And imagine how that kind of mistrust could turn the tide of our more apprehensive supporters, and lead them to question our project. Because you know very well that the challenger must always avoid careful examination. We must seal every crack, every loophole, which scrutineers might use to see through us. Your father’s absence draws the curtains back and reveals frightening things to ignorant people who had never had any reason to be afraid before.’
‘You worry too much,’ Hotspur told him. ‘I’d rather think this about his absence: that it makes us shine and makes our great undertaking seem even more daring than it would if the Earl were here. People will think that if we can raise an army to challenge the King without his help, when we do have his help we’ll turn the whole kingdom upside down. Everything is fine, we’re all still in one piece.’
‘As much as we could have hoped,’ said Douglas. ‘In Scotland, we don’t even mention the word fear.’
Vernon arrived and Hotspur embraced him. ‘My cousin Vernon! Welcome, most heartily.’
‘I pray to God that what I have to say is worth welcoming, my lord. The Earl of Westmoreland is marching towards us with seven thousand men. Prince John is with him.’
‘That’s nothing to be worried about,’ said Hotspur. ‘What else?’
‘I’ve also heard that the King himself has set out, or at least plans to very soon, with a large and powerful force.’
‘He’ll be welcome too. Where’s his son, that sportsman, the madcap Prince of Wales, and his comrades, who don’t care about anything and have just allowed the world to pass them by?’
‘All equipped, all armed. All feathered, like ostriches; like eagles beating their wings after bathing; like glittering golden statues. They’re as spirited as the springtime; as gorgeous as the midsummer sun; as giddy as young goats; as wild as young bulls. I saw young Harry with his helmet on, his armor on his thighs. Powerfully armed, he rose from the ground like the winged god Mercury, and vaulted so effortlessly into his saddle it was as though an angel had dropped out of the clouds to stride a fiery Pegasus and bewitch the world with his superior horsemanship.’
‘Enough, enough!’ cried Hotspur. ‘This praise makes me sicker than the sun on a March day. Let them come, like sacrifices in their glory; we’ll offer them, hot and bleeding, to the fire-eyed goddess of smoky war. The war-god Mars will sit on his altar, up to his ears in blood. I am on fire, hearing that this rich prize is so near, and not yet ours. Come, get me my horse, that will carry me like a lightning bolt to close combat with the Prince of Wales. Harry against Harry, steaming horse against steaming horse; we’ll meet and never separate till one of us drops, a corpse. Oh, I wish that Glendower were here!’
‘There’s more news,’ said Vernon. ‘As I passed through the town of Worcester, I heard that Glendower won’t be able to get his army together for two more weeks.’
‘That’s the worst news so far,’ said Douglas.
‘Absolutely,’ said Worcester. ‘It has an ominous sound.’
‘What does the King’s whole force stretch to?’ said Hotspur.
‘About thirty thousand.’
Hotspur shrugged impatiently.’ Let it be forty. Even without my father and Glendower the force we have will be enough for such a great day. Come, let’s muster the troops right now. Doomsday is imminent. If we’re
all going to die, let’s die with conviction!’
‘Don’t talk about dying,’ Douglas said. ‘I’m not thinking about death or the hand of death at the moment!’