Friday, 29 March 2013

"To Britain's Shores" - Chapter 7 part 2 - the Battle of Heatham Wold

Part 2: Battle

I grab a spear off Theobald, who usually carries several. At least I can wield it two-handed if my wrist isn't up to swinging a sword. Aelfric leads the way at an easy lope round the far side of the woods. "If they come our way, we're in trouble...", I point out.

He nods. "Aye. But they won't." A grin, and he taps the side of his nose. "Like I told you. They're over fond of that shieldwall of theirs, and they'll want to make us fight them uphill with numbers on their side. And they think we're a bunch of crazy heathens who'll just charge their front."

His confidence is infectious. I flex my wrist against its tight strapping, wince a bit. "But we'll still have to fight them on the hill."

Aelfric just grins. "Sure. But fighting on three sides at once, their shieldwall's not worth much."

"Be careful." 
I smile at Ecgwine. He always says that now: it's something of a ritual between us. "You too. May the Christ watch over you." I touch my fingers to my lips, to the cross I'd given him, now hanging from a thong round his neck, then bend to pick up my bow and quiver, and start walking. No goodbyes. It would be an admission that we might not be coming back. "Sithric, Marcus, Wulfstan, to me." We set off at a quick run to the stone circle, Beornwulf's band and Cormac's group of shirtless, blue-painted spearmen to our left, Ecgwine's larger group to our right. It's a measure of how much he's gone up in Aelfric's sight that he has a dozen or more under him now, and old Theobald isn't needed to mind him any more.  
Wulfstan, the youngest of the three, pauses as we step inside the circle of upright, mossy grey stones, turns back to look at me, eyes wide. "Is this safe, Lavinia?"
I've been wondering the same, but I'm not about to let on, make my voice firm and sure. "The Christ is stronger than the old gods." Not that it stops me making the sign of the cross when Wulfstan turns away. After all, if He's stronger, how come the Saex and their thunder God are beating the Christian Britons? 
We take up positions using the overgrown stones as cover, wait. Up onto the hill come the Britons' hearthguard, strong, tall, with spears, shields with Christ's symbols on. I choose a shaft, touch fingers to my cross and then its point, nock it, take in a breath and draw, slow and even as old Sextus taught me. Sithric and I loose at about the same time, the others a heartbeat or two later, and two of the Britons stumble and fall, one clutching at an arrow in his throat.  
"Fine shootin', for sure, lass..." Cormac, skirting the edge of the woods to our left with his little knot of javelinmen, blue and white striped trews clearly visible amid the undergrowth.  
I just grin at him, wait for another target, but the Britons look alarmed, one pointing at us, and begin to edge back.  Beornwulf's men move across our line of sight, joining up with Ecgwine's, and when next I have chance to look across one of the wild Irishmen is down, the rest hurling their light spears at the Britons' archers before skirting further along the edge of the wood. I beckon to my little group. "To me: across to the woods..." It'll give us a better line of sight on the hill, and besides, I might be able to do something for the downed Irishman. 

We skirt the woods at an easy, ground-eating pace, till Aelfric holds up a hand. "Hold. Listen."

Theobald snorts. "Don't hear anything much. Do you, Godric?"

I grin, as it dawns on me. "No. And you won't. The plan's working." No Britons crashing through the woods towards us, and more importantly, no sounds of battle. "They won't come off the hill now..."

I reach the spot where the Irishman fell: too late. An arrow has taken him just to the left of the breastbone, a clean shot that dins those blue eyes for ever. I kneel and close them, and settle in a crouch. The British archers, none much older than Sithric, are up on the hill across an open slope, and I duck as an a arrow feathers the tree about an armspan above my head. I have never liked this - the big warriors rarely carry bows, and consider us a nuisance as much as anything. Their lads, on the other hand, seem to consider being shot at by a girl some kind of personal insult. If they but knew. But then, even Wulfhere doesn't, nor Ecgwine...
To our right, Beornwulf's group stand their ground at the bottom of the slope. He brandishes his spear, raps it against his shield. "Odin. Odin." The warriors take up the chant and the rhythm, almost a low taunting rumble like thunder, a rhythmic beating of metal on wood. Above them, the banner old Martha fashioned, the grey wolf Fenris, flaps in the breeze. On the hill, the Briton's little Lord, Maximus, fingers his sword and glares, shifting from foot to foot.

Now I can hear it, a steady chanting. Aelfric grins, sidesteps round one of the trees. "Ready?"

Last time he asked me that I got my wrist sprained. "Always." I heft the spear I've borrowed from Theobald experimentally. "Let's go."

We fetch up at the edge of the wood, to find their Tribune[1], his hearthguard ... rather fewer of them than I expected, to tell the truth... and some warriors, formed upslope of us on the hill. Aelfric grabs my shoulder. "Wait..." Out of the corner of my eye I see Cormac's Irish, and Lavinia and her little band of bowmen, further along the treeline, arrows and javelins finding the Briton's archers, the last of whom drops as I watch.  The Young Wolf raps his sword on his shield, takes up Beornwulf's chant. "Odin... Odin..."

The Britons' resolve breaks first, whether because their Tribune waves them forward or because they don't want to stand up on the hill and get shot at I don't know, but they charge downslope to where we're waiting on the edge of the wood, yelling and screaming as they come. Just fine by me - I'd rather brace a spear with two hands than swing a sword with one right now. It's touch and go for a moment, but we hold fast, and they start to falter. "NOW!" roars Aelfric, and we countercharge: I don't care if my wrist hurts, as the hearthguard break and flee before us as we run up the hill. 

--

"What now?" I ask. as we survey the hill top. 

There's a goodly number of dead Britons, but the rest have fled, our taunts in their ears as they run for the safety of their town. Cormac, and some of our lads, are going over the bodies for their weapons and armour. The former seems to be engaged in a discussion with Ecgwine and Lavinia over whether the latter is going to take a rather fine red cloak one of the Britons was wearing. Aelfric picks up a sword, weighs it in his hand with a thoughtful frown, tosses it to me hilt-first. I almost miss the catch, left-handed. "Try that. Nice workmanship, and better balanced than your old cleaver."

I make a face. "I happen to like my old cleaver, thank you." He's right though. Much easier on the wrist. "That wasn't what I meant."

The Young Wolf looks over to where the walls of the Britons' city are visible in the distance. "We wait it out. Keep them from getting aid, and they'll surrender to us in time."

[1] Yes, I know Andrucius is now a Praefect. Godric doesn't. :D

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