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They were already two hours late. Two and a half if the scouts could be believed. They couldn’t be believed and likely the bastards were forming up behind us, axes at the ready. Not a damn thing we could do about it either. The bastards’ being the army of Danish raiders that were cutting a swathe through the countryside.
King Burgred’s purse had bought peace in the previous year, but our foe were restless and implacable. With a break in the weather, half the great army of Raiders splintered into a dozen war bands striking out in a dozen different directions. One town had been sacked and its ealdorman’s head nailed to he door of his mead hall. Timely intervention by the huscarls of Prince Aelfwyn, eldest son of Burgred of Mercia, sent them scurrying back towards Repton before another town could be lost. Reports said a score of the Prince’s own men fallen and at least five score regular soldiers lost as well.
Negotiations would begin again in spring, if the king could afford it. Until then, we were pulled from the Pictish marchlands and dispatched to cut them off from the main army.
The household guard was to harry them right into our ambush. Instead a persistent fog allowed them to slip past the horses and into the countryside. Where they were now was anyone’s guess. I scanned the small valley beneath us. It was shrouded in mist and shadow with the bottom barely visible through the gray tendrils. Below me, on one side of the valley stood half a hundred armed soldiers. Most of them were useless peasants armed with spear and buckler if their lord was generous. More likely was that they held sling and knife and were expected only to loose one volley before running. Crouched around small smokeless fires, they didn’t bother to hide their apprehension. They would slip away in ones and twos if something didn’t happen soon.
Somewhere above me on the hill were the companion troops of the younger Prince Aethelwyne, cousin to our Aelfwyn. The whole lot were far too young to have fought in the most recent wars; their armor was too new and weapons too shiny to be properly blooded. More reassuringly was a small band of Aelfwyn’s own household troops to help stiffen them up should it come to a fight. The whole bunch was nominally under the command of Aethelwyne, but the man was useless outside of a tavern dive. He was also the one I needed to talk to.
I rose from my crouched position and walked in the direction the Prince should be in. The fog grew thicker the further up one walked, whirling around me like water in a dream. The first man to appear out of the fog was Ceowulf, a Saxon lord of the court and leader of the household guards. He spat at my feet as I approached; I resisted the urge that place my boot firmly between his legs. He must have read my mind because he smiled suddenly, an ugly craggy toothed affair that sent a wash of garlic my way.
“What is it, geoguth?” I bristled at the appellation, but held my tongue. I knew my own worth and it was a considerable amount more than some common spearthrower.
“They’re late,” I stated.
“They’ll be here.”
“I’d like to speak to the Prince on behalf of our commander,” I said.
“Not happening,” Ceowulf replied. I glanced over his shoulder towards the Prince. In finer days he may have been handsome, but sloth and drink had taken their toll on him even at so early an age. No wonder his troops were so young, no one with even a half measure of wisdom would willingly follow him. Perhaps, he was a secret tactical genius. Like a flower waiting for the sun’s first ray to bloom, maybe this would be his moment to shine and reveal the next great commander of our age.
The man leaned over and vomited a great torrent of wine soaked bile. Ceowulf sighed. I stifled a laugh. Everyone else got busy looking elsewhere while the Prince composed himself somewhat. The look on Ceowulf’s face threatened to filet me so I got back to business.
“Prince Aelfwyn should’ve sent word by now. If he’s been held up then Aethelwyne should be prepared to assume command of this ambush.” We were the anvil for the Danish to throw themselves upon. If Aethelwyne was to be the hammer then I had little doubt that we would come away from this valley alive.
“Feeling skittish, mercenary?” Ceowulf asked. That toothless smile was back too.
“As it stands, we are outnumbered. This ambush is our only way of dealing with them.”
His smile wavered once the effect of my words sunk in. The man too drunk to even sit on a horse was in command. He gave the orders and our survival hinged upon him giving the right ones at the right moment. It was a prospect neither of us relished. Likely he would retreat as fast as his horse would carry him, Ceowulf and the huscarls with him, provided they could keep up. The irregulars and us mercenaries? It was a hard march back home with a Danish warband lurking somewhere out in the fog, bruised, but not broken by any means.
Ceowulf whistled through his scant teeth and a younger man came swaggering up to us as if we were a pair of evening madonnas. His shield was battered and spent while his spear looked ready for the fire pit .
“Check the perimeter, again.”
“We checked not an hour ago-“
“I said check it again,” Ceowulf growled. The man nodded then skulked off to bully someone else into doing it. Damn irregulars. There was five of them for every one of us in our little warband, each one more useless than the last.
“Irregulars.” He imbued the word with enough to bile to choke a hundred men. He caught my glance and frowned again. He was a seasoned warrior with a hearth and home to call his own. His like generally frowned on my types. Their anger made all the worse by how much they needed us in the field during the raid season. I smiled back.
“Tell your Thegn to keep alert. They’re late.” He stamped off into the wet underbrush. Moments later I could hear Ceowulf haranguing someone through the fog and the clatter of armored men moving. They were moving up the hill to find a better defensive position no doubt. Stragglers wandered into the fog after them, hoping for extra protection from the professional warriors. This did not bode well for our company of mercenaries. My mission was over despite not speaking with the Prince.
I shouldered my spear and buckler and made my way down the hill. Our merry band of soldiers occupied the valley floor. We were not household troops nor were we irregulars though warfare was a regular part of our existence. We were a private warband in the personal pay of Aelfwyn, self styled as Legio XIII under the command of our Thegn. We knew him by no other name than that. His past was as mysterious as the origin of our name.
Our company took shelter behind a low dirt wall with a shallow ditch in front. Our Thegn wasn’t pleased with the scant protection they offered, but it was the best to be done in such a short time. I whistled shrilly twice to announce my arrival to the watchers. The horse cart blocking the gate was pulled aside and I entered the camp. The men squatted by low fires, weapons close by and all still fully armored. Our numbers were severely reduced after a hard summer of fighting, but we were promised recruiting rights during the winter from a half score of towns closer inland. We would still give those bloody savages a nasty shock if they tried to roll over us like we were a pack of farm boys armed with pitchforks.
I approached the campfire shared by some of my mates. Morgant farted loudly then shuffled over to allow me a smelly spot by the fire. The warm shiver that overtook me was worth the smell. A few minutes by the fire, then I’d go see the Thegn to update him.
“Any progress?” someone asked.
“We’re on our own,” I replied.
The men began shaking their heads. This was a bad deal from the start. If peace was bought, why were we out here fighting? The old king was weakening with each passing week. Half a dozen times, we’d received word of his passing only for it to be dispelled by the next messenger. Better for him to die and pass the mantle to Aelfwyn. At least his son was willing to fight the army that encamped not thirty miles from the capital.
The muttering ceased as Clovis approached. He’d made sergeant the previous fall after Siegmud took a Pictish arrow. I farted then shifted over to allow him a spot by the fire. He was my best mate, but the others were still getting used him with authority.
“How was our paymaster?” he asked, squatting next to me.
“Occupied by higher things than mere survival.”
“Bedding a woman for the first time presumably or maybe how much longer his wine supply will last,” I replied. “We’re on our own if shit goes down. The man is useless.”
“No different from any other day then.”
“Except its Northmen,” I pointed out. “Not Briton rebels on the marchland or Picts raiding for cattle. Real deal warriors.” Big burly warriors swinging axes and howling like a pack of wolves in heat.
“You afraid?” I asked.
Clovis guffawed softly. None of us could afford fear in this line of work. He spat into the fire then hauled himself to his feet. No doubt, he’d deliver this message personally to our Thegn and the command staff. Not that there was much we could do. Our orders were clear: hold this position under threat of death. Also, in spite of death from any enemies that may come at us.
I cupped my hands closer to the fire, letting the warmth seep into my fingers until the burning became too intense. Good timing too, minute later the other sergeants appeared from the command tent and called us into battle ranks. Something had them spooked.
We dragged and moaned our way into battle ranks. The cane was not needed in a field situation, but we let it be known these false alarms were growing tiresome. My squad took its place at the left flank of the gate. We stood in loose formation, weapons at hand, but not at rigid attention. Likely nothing would come of this.
I grounded my shield and leaned on my spear. The waiting was always the worst part. Except for the battle itself of course. That was the worst part. But the waiting took longer.
The god did not see fit to let my malingering go unpunished.
A lone horse came thundering out of the fog. Its flank was cut in several places and it looked as if a line of gourds was tied to its tail. With its grayish white color, it almost seemed to blend and meld with the fog around. The poor beast was near mad with fear and exhaustion. It bucked and reared, its frenzied screams cutting me to the bone. The display was cut mercifully short as the horse calmed itself somewhat.
Clovis nudged the man next to him and nodded at the horse. He made a quick warding sign then leapt the turf wall. The horse was still frightened no doubt. It sidestepped away quickly as our man approached him. His fellows shouted encouragements and advice, peppered with a few lewd suggestions, on how to deal with the beast. It bucked again as he came closer, sending him tumbling to the ground.
“Put an arrow in it,” Clovis said. “Put the poor thing out of its misery ’fore it crushes the lad’s head.”
“Peace, Clovis,” the Thegn replied, appearing behind us suddenly. “I’ve been looking for a new horse and I like that one’s spirit. Besides, he’s already been caught.”
Our man had had the good sense to sheathe his sword the second time around and take a gentle approach to the frightened horse. He was now leading it by its traces towards us. Once within our camp, its disposition soured. Too many men mixed with the smell of sweat and fear and fire ash. It began to kick up again. Everyone backed away quickly, scrambling away from it before it could do any damage to an unwary skull.
I approached it for a better look of whatever was attached to its tail. They weren’t gourds or rocks. They were human heads, faces locked in the rigor of their final awful moments before death. I didn’t recognize any of them, but no doubt this was a warning from our foe hiding in the fog. An abrupt rear sent me fleeing for cover among my mates.
The Thegn approached the horse, speaking to it in what sounded like Latin or maybe Greek. Abruptly, the horse ceased its bucking; it still looked nervous, but no longer violent. The Thegn stripped his helmet off and placed a hand under its chin. He drew the horse closer to him until his forehead was against the horse’s, talking all the while. This was a side our Thegn didn’t often show us. He was an exceptional rider, but eschewed a horse in battle.
Within moments, the horse looked as placid as a dog by the fire, its whole body visibly relaxing as it whinnied pleasantly. The Thegn slipped around the horse and cut the heads free in one quick motion of his sword. For a moment after, he stood there patting its flank and talking to it. Then seeming to realize we were all watching he handed the beast off to another man for keeping. His slipped his helm back on and shouted out formation orders. We scrambled back into position just as a loud warcry sounded through the fog. It was echoed by innumerable others until it seemed we were assailed on all sides.
A whipcrack of orders formed us into some semblance of order behind the wall. It would hinder us as much it would hinder them. We wouldn’t be able to form a proper shield wall and engage in the push as custom dictated. Instead we must hold them at the walls long enough for the trap to close shut behind them.
They poured out of the fog like a gray river flooding its course. A salvo of javelins and sling stones cut down a scant few before they hit us with all the force of a winter gale. The wall checked their charge, but ultimately gave them the advantage.
Great bearded warriors leapt down on us from the wall like steel hailstones. Our front ranks were surrounded by the warriors in front and those attempting to leap atop them. We had precious few archers and they could do little to stem the tide. I couldn’t find a decent foothold as our ranks contracted. It seemed I was buffeted from side to side, unable to bring my spear to bear. I dared not let my shield drop, but there was little I could do otherwise.
I spared a glance over my shoulder. The Thegn was astride his new mount bareback, bellowing orders. The command staff ran forward to relay his orders. We were pulling back. I placed my hand on the shoulder of the man in front of me, my comrades doing the same around me. Slowly, we fought our way backwards. Ten steps. Twenty steps. Thirty steps and then we halted. More of their fighters jumped into our camp. Our boots dug deep rivets in the mud as we strained to hold them back. Our whole existence hinged on this moment. If we broke then none of us would make home alive.
“Hold! Hold!” Their axes and greatswords were of no use this close in the push. Not enough room to swing them once the their comrades started getting in their way. Our shorter swords made quick work of any with exposed flesh nearby. The pressure began to lessen on us until finally we came a dead stop. Beside me, Clovis grinned at me with that big set of pearly whites he was so proud to have.
As one we reversed our course and sent their first rank tumbling. Boots and swords made quick work of them as we advanced. Victory made them too confident. They were too disorganized to offer much resistance to a well formed shield wall. They were a tough lot still. An axe slipped through and brought down the man in front of me. I stepped into the snarling face of the Dane and jammed my seax into his exposed gut. Tough old bastard laughed like it was nothing and lifted his axe again for a killing blow. A spear point took him in the face, striking from behind me like a viper. He fell to the ground like a felled tree. I was muscled aside by another man and resumed my place in the middle ranks.
Our discipline was turning the battle in our favor. The more we pushed the closer we got to expelling them from our camp entirely. We kept up a steady pace behind our shields. Too few of them carried spears and the few who did knew nothing about its potential use.
The Danes were retreating freely now, unhindered by the horsemen assigned to crush them. Whatever trap we were the bait for had abandoned by our comrades on the hill. I strained for any sound that might indicate the huscarls’ arrival. There was none.
The last of them disengaged from us and retreated over the wall into the fog. They weren’t done, merely reforming for another attack later. I could hope they would take to the hills and try to find another way around to their camp. It was a dim hope, but I clung to it.
We attended to our wounded and dead, moving some to the physicians tent and some in a neat stack to the rear of the camp. Proper burials for them would come later once we were out of danger. The Legate hastily counted them then jogged off to inform the Thegn.
After this task, the rest of us took our leisure with whatever pack food we had. Many helped their comrades with the small wounds that didn’t require the physicians attention. I was uninjured this time so I retreated to an unoccupied place near the sidewall. I’d just taken a seat in the soft, unspoiled grass when Ceawlin approached me from the staff tent.
“Thegn wants you, Kestros.”
“I got time for a bite? I haven’t eaten all day,” I said, holding up the only slightly moldy cheese from my pack. I had been saving it for a special occasion. Living another day seemed a good enough reason.
I handed off my gear to him and made to trot towards the staff tent. The Thegn met me halfway through the camp, trailing his staff and looking vicious as a bear. Well, maybe not a bear so much as a wolf. A wolf made cold and hungry and desperate by the winter snows. A wolf with one foot still in the grave. Our physician, Beda, was attempting to bandage a bloody wound on the side of his head. This made all the more difficult by the hard pace the Thegn kept.
“Where were they?” he demanded. The stringent being applied to his wound caused his eye to twitch, but otherwise his face was the usual ghoulish stoicism. The man could stare down a forest fire without being singed.
“I couldn’t tell you, Thegn.” I honestly couldn’t. I’d been given no assurances by Ceowulf or his liege, not that I’d gotten close to him at any point. He stepped in closer and stared down that long hawkish nose at me. I resisted the urge to scuttle backward.
“Now look, Thegn-”
“Now look, fyrdman,” he said, loading the word with disdain. “When I send you to do something, I expect results. Now I sent you up there with one basic job. Ensure they would do their job. A yes or no question was all that was required. Now get back up there and find out where the fuck they were.”
“I said, get going,” he growled. I took a big gulp and stepped backwards into an approximation of attention.
“I demand my right to speak as free soldier of this company.” This stopped the Thegn short. His expression went from surprise to anger and back to surprise in the short time it took me to realize what a poor choice I had just made. A low growl escaped his throat. The Legate stepped between us quickly, hands held up to divide us. The young second in command of our company was the only man who dared something like that.
“He’s got a right, Thegn,” he said. “Its in the contract we all signed.” He was an even bigger stickler for tradition than I was. Our leader growled audibly and ran a hand through his lank black-gray hair.
“Go on then, speak, free soldier.” I ignored the disapproval in his voice and began the brief account of my visit to the hill.
“I couldn’t get close to our illustrious paymaster’s less than illustrious nephew. I got the assurances of Ceowulf they would be here, but he doesn’t have the final say in things despite his rank. Ultimately the decision to engage remains in the hands of Prince Aethelwyne.”
No reaction from our Thegn. His skeletal face mask remained impassive.
“Look, I’ll head back up there and bust some balls if need be,” I continued. Silence, but it seemed it was on the verge of emotion. He broke into a raspy chuckle. His staff echoed it to various degrees. The temperature around us warmed by several degrees. For a moment, I even felt like death was no longer imminent.
“All right, Kestros, you made your point. Get back to your section and have a bite to eat and a snooze if you can. Ceawlin, remind me to reread our charter too. I need to take out those clauses about free speech among the men. Maybe reinstate human sacrifices before battle too.” It was a joke, but the man had the comedic timing of a wet fart in a winter tent. After a few moments of expectant silence, his staff forced out some more laughter into existence. I grinned as well then began to back away again.
“Break out the pots,” the Thegn ordered, forgetting me immediately. “We have some time to lick our wounds and feed the men. Send the scouts out to watch our friends. Send them to me the moment they come back with anything worthwhile. Legate, take some men and head up the hill. Politely inquire as to the disposition of our noble commander and his men. Ha! Bust some balls indeed.”
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