The exhausted King, surrounded by his faithful Westmoreland, his two sons – Lord John of Lancaster, and a heavily bleeding Prince Hal paused for breath in the middle of what had turned out to be a ferociously contested battle.
‘Please Harry,’ he pleaded. ‘Withdraw: you’re bleeding too much.
John of Lancaster, go with him.’
‘I would not go, my lord, unless I were bleeding too,’ said Lord John.
‘I beg your majesty, advance.’ The Prince spoke with a sense of urgency. ‘Your army will lose heart if it sees you falling back.’
‘I will,’ the King said. ‘My Lord of Westmoreland, take him to his tent.’
‘Come, my lord. I’ll lead you to your tent,’ said Westmoreland.
‘Lead me, my lord? I don’t need your help. God forbid that a shallow scratch would drive the Prince of Wales from a field like this one, where great men – blood-soaked – are lying trampled upon, and rebels’ weapons are triumphing in their violence!’
‘We’ve rested for too long,’ Prince John said. ‘Come, cousin Westmoreland.’ He pointed towards the field of fighting men. ‘Our duty lies there. For God’s sake, come on!’
The King and Prince Hal watched them stride off to do more fighting.
‘By God, you’ve deceived me, Lancaster,’ the Prince exclaimed. ‘I had no idea you were so brave! I loved you as a brother before; now I respect you as a kindred soul.’
‘The King agreed. ‘I saw him corner Percy, and he carried himself more bravely than I would have expected of such an inexperienced soldier.’
‘Oh, this boy is an inspiration to us all!’ The Prince drew his sword and hurried toward the fray.
The King, left on his own, lowered his visor and also stepped forward. He had not gone far when he encountered a rebel leader.
‘Another king!’ the rebel declared. ‘They grow like Hydra’s heads the more we kill them the more they spring up. I am Douglas! And I bring death to everyone wearing those colours. Who are you, that’s impersonating a king?’
The King smiled. ‘The King himself! And it pains me, Douglas, that you ran into so many of my shadows, and not me. I have two sons in the field, looking for Percy and for you. But, since, as luck would have it, you’ve encountered me, I’ll fight you myself. So. Defend yourself.’
‘I fear that you’re another imposter; and yet you carry yourself like a king. Whoever you are, you’re mine, and with this I’ll defeat you.’ Douglas raised his sword.
Douglas, a generation younger than his opponent, soon had the King in trouble, in spite of the King’s power and experience. As Douglas was about to close in on the wounded King to deliver a mortal blow he heard a voice behind him.
‘Turn and face me, vile Scot.’ It was the Prince of Wales. ‘Or you’ll never face anything again. I’m thinking about the valiant Shirley, Stafford and Blunt. It is the Prince of Wales who’s threatening you, and I never promise anything I can’t deliver!’
In the ensuing fight Douglas was no match for the Prince’s determination and when he knew he was losing, instead of waiting to be killed, he turned and fled.
Hal knelt beside his breathless father. ‘Cheer up, my lord,’ he said. ‘How are you? Sir Nicholas Gawsey has called for help, and so has Clifton. I’m going straight to Clifton.’
‘Wait,’ his father said. ‘Get your breath back.’ The Prince sat down and his father took his hand. ‘You’ve redeemed your lost reputation, and shown that you care about me, by rescuing me,’ he said.
‘Oh God! Anyone who ever said I wished for your death did me a terrible injury. If I wanted that I would have left Douglas’ insulting hand alone. That would have killed you faster than all the poison in the world and it would have saved your son the hard work of treachery.’
The King put his hand out to his son for help to get up and Hal lifted him and saw with relief that he had emerged well from the encounter.
‘Go to Clifton,’ the King said. ‘I’ll go to Nicholas Gawsey.’
As the Prince made his way towards his men he was stopped by one of the rebels. ‘If I’m not mistaken, you’re Harry Monmouth,’ the rebel said.
‘You talk as though I would deny my name.’
‘My name is Harry Percy,’ the young rebel said.
‘Why then, I’m looking at a very brave rebel by that name. I am the Prince of Wales, and don’t think, Percy, that you can share in my glory any longer. Two stars can’t exist in the same orbit, nor can England handle a double reign of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.’
‘Nor will it, Harry,’ said Hotspur, ‘for the time has come to end one of us. I wish to God you had as great a reputation in warfare as I have.’
‘My reputation will be greater by the time I leave you. I’ll take all the budding honours from your helmet, and turn them into a garland for myself.’
Hotspur drew his sword. ‘I can’t take your vanity any longer.’
It was an evenly matched fight – two powerful, passionate young men fighting for high stakes. Each was able to defend himself against the skill of the other, while landing potentially lethal blows on each other.
While they struggled, locked in fierce combat, Falstaff appeared and, like a spectator at a game, shouted his support for his friend. ‘Come on, Hal. That’s it, Hal. This isn’t child’s play here, I can tell you!’
He noticed a rebel who looked as though he meant business coming towards him and he ran. The man gave chase, caught up with him and, at the first thrust, that dented his breast plate, Falstaff dropped his sword, clutched at his stomach, groaned, and then, with a big show of falling, dropped to the ground. He shook a leg then lay still with his eyes closed. His assailant gave him a kick then hurried away.
The Prince’s concentration didn’t waver for a moment and, seeing an opportunity, he made a thrust that brought Hotspur down. The young rebel lay on the ground, his blood draining away, making the earth around him red. Hal flung his sword aside and knelt down beside his dying adversary. Hotspur was fighting for breath. He gripped the Prince’s arm and looked intently into his eyes.
‘Oh, Harry, you’ve robbed me of my youth,’ he gasped. ‘I can accept the loss of my fragile life, but not the loss of all the honours you have won from me: that wounds my thoughts more than your sword wounds my flesh. But thoughts are the slaves of life, and life is at the mercy of time, and time, which is the stuff of the world, must end. Oh, I could make prophecies, but the cold hand of death lies heavily on my tongue. No, Percy. You are dust, and food for…’
His eyes closed and he went limp. Hal lowered his body gently to the ground.
‘… for worms, brave Percy,’ he said. ‘Farewell, brave soul. Look at how your misguided ambition has withered. When this body contained a soul, a kingdom was too small to hold it. But now two paces of wretched earth is more than enough room. This earth that you lie dead upon doesn’t have a single living man upon it as worthy as you. If you were alive I wouldn’t make a show of praising you with such enthusiasm. But let me cover your mangled face and I’ll thank myself on your behalf for doing these deserved rites of respect. Adieu, and take my praise of you to heaven. Let your shame sleep with you in the grave, and not be commemorated on your tombstone!’
As the Prince walked away he spied the companion of his London adventures lying, apparently dead, on the ground a short distance away.
‘What, old friend?’ he said. ‘Couldn’t all this flesh keep a little life in? Poor Jack, farewell. I could better have lost a better soldier. If I were in love with vanity, I’d would miss you. Death hasn’t struck such a fat deer today, though it has taken many dearer men in this violent fray. I’ll have you disembowelled soon; till then, lie here in blood, beside the great Percy.’
Falstaff lay, eyes tightly shut, until the Prince had gone then he opened them and got up and dusted himself off. ‘Disembowelled?’ he muttered. ‘If you gut me today I’ll allow you to salt me and eat me tomorrow.’ Damn! He’d had to counterfeit his death or that fiery Scot would have scotched him well and truly. Counterfeit? That was a lie, he was no counterfeiter. A dead man is a counterfeiter, rather, because a corpse is an imitation of a living man. But to counterfeit death in order to stay alive was not really counterfeiting but the most true and real form of living. Discretion was the better part of valour and it was in exercising that better part that he had saved his life.
He stared down at the dead hero. God’s wounds, he was scared of that volatile Percy! Even though he was dead. What if he were also counterfeiting and got up? He would definitely prove the better counterfeit. So he would make sure he was dead. Yes, and he would swear he had killed him. Why couldn’t Percy also get up, as he had? There was nothing that could stop him, except witnesses, and there were no witnesses.
‘Therefore, sirrah!’ he said. He drew his sword and stabbed the body in a thigh. ‘You’re coming with me, with a new wound in your thigh.’ He hoisted the body over his shoulder and started walking. The battle was all but over. Falstaff made his way slowly towards the king’s camp.
The royal brothers were inspecting the damage among their troops.
‘John, brother,’ said Hal, ‘ you’ve blooded your sword most bravely in
your first battle.’
Lancaster was about to respond but a strange sight was taking shape a short distance away.
‘Hang on! Who do we have here? Didn’t you say this fat man was dead?’
‘I did. I saw him on the ground, bleeding and dead.’ Hal called to the apparition. ‘Are you alive? Or is this some kind of dream, some illusion? Talk to us. We won’t trust our eyes without our ears. You aren’t what you seem to be.’
Falstaff dropped the body. ‘That’s for sure,’ he said. ‘I’m not a double man. But if I’m not Jack Falstaff, then I’m a knave. Here’s Percy. If your father will honour me for this, fine. If not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I expect to be made an earl or a duke for this, I’ll tell you that.’
Hal looked at him sternly. ‘Why, I killed Percy myself and I saw you dead.’
‘You did? Lord, Lord, what lies people like to tell these days! I grant you I had fallen and was out of breath, and so was he. But we both got up at the same time and fought for at least an hour, according to the Shrewsbury clock. If I am to be believed, good: if not, then let the guilt lie on the heads of those who are supposed to reward bravery. I swear on my life, I gave him this gash in the thigh. Damn, if he were alive and said I didn’t, I’d make him eat a piece of my sword!’
‘This is the weirdest story I’ve ever heard.’ Lancaster said.
‘This is the weirdest fellow, brother John. Come on then, carry your prize proudly on your back. As far as I’m concerned, if lying will help you out, I’ll decorate your lie as well as I can.’
The retreat sounded across the battle field.
‘A trumpet is blowing the retreat,’ said Hal. ‘We’ve won. Come on, brother. Let’s get to high ground and see which of our friends are alive, and which are dead.’
They started off and Falstaff hoisted the body on to his shoulders again. He would follow them and claim his reward. May God reward whoever rewarded him. If he grew into a great man he would grow thinner: he would diet, give up drinking wine, and live cleanly, as a nobleman should.