Before there was the novel, there were the stories...

by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at

Monday, November 9, 2009

New Stories: Skirmish on the Road to Lincoln (Happened)

Viking dragon
bracelet available
from Crafty Celts.

See the video listed here to see wwhere this story took place.

With the sound of the envoy party's retreating hoofbeats the king and his commanders hurried to position themselves for engagement. Astride his war horse, Gúthgel?ca, Lawrence rode back and forth shouting orders. He directed his captains to form the lines on the upward slope of the road beyond the place where the Queen's escort had been ambushed. The road itself was not perfectly flat there, having slowly sunken since the Romans built it on the southern side towards the hollow where Josephine and Shannon had gone down to the brook. The rise gave the King's forces a slight advantage of height. As his men dismounted from their own horses, the animals were led away over the rise to where they could be tethered, out of sight of the enemy but within reach of the Crísliclandian forces. There the horses were double tethered to keep them from getting loose and running when they heard the shouts and the noise of battle.

Lawrence watched as his captains rode about to organize their men into a continuous shield wall. By Lawrence's direction every man carried a shield, a sword, and a spear. About one man in five carried a bow with several dozen arrows tucked into his belt. Some of his messmates, comprised of four to seven men, one an archer, who ate and fought together, carried extra arrows in their belts for their archers to use after their own were gone. These small groups formed into two, usually with half their number using sword or axe and shield forming the shield wall with the other half using spear or bow from the second and third ranks behind.

The men formed into their customary line formation with the front rank leaving their spears strapped to their horses. The second rank slung their shields on their backs and ready to use their spears with both hands to strike over and between the front rank's shields at the enemy, as there did not appear to be any enemy archers. If their spear stuck in an enemy or the shield man to their front fell wounded, then the spearman would draw his sword or axe and swing his shield around to his front and fill the gap.

Now the spearmen formed, resting the butt of their spears on the ground, so they could watch the enemy over the "V" formed between the overlapping shields of the front wall. The archers formed in the third line, also with their shields on their backs and sword or axe at their side slung from their belts, just in case their bow broke or the enemy got too close. These archers now gazed down the mild slope with satisfaction, knowing that the enemies' shield wall being somewhat lower on the slope would be that much more vulnerable to their arrows.

Each captain formed his three or four mess groups into a triple deep wall about ten paces behind the line Lawrence had designated as the battle line. The center company commander appointed Edwulf the "Hammer", a huge bull of a man, as "point man". Then half the company fell in to Edwulf's left and the rest to his right with the biggest and heaviest warriors in the center of the line by the huge man. Those to right of mighty Edwulf had their shields overlapped by the man to their left and overlapping the shield of the man to their right. Shields were over lapped in the opposite way to the left of Edwulf. The big man's face was set in a grim smile, showing the many gaps in his yellow teeth.

When his company was formed to his satisfaction, the captain of the center company led his men forward to the battle line. The captains on either side then brought their companies up even with the flank of the center company and over lapped their shields the same way as the center. Then the outer two companies moved into the line the same way. This caused the line to taper back slightly to the left and right forming a wedge whose purpose was to break the enemy wall and get in and behind it, negating the protection it offered. Often as not, success with this stratagem would cause the enemy to break and flee.

From the direction of the enemy the Crísliclandian forces suddenly heard a multitude of voices raised in derision and defiance. The sound was at once chilling and made even the oldest soldier's blood stir in his veins. Lawrence smiled grimly and buckled his helmet securely under his chin. "So they want to die!" he shouted to his army. "Who are we to refuse them?"

The soldiers before him began to strike their round heavy shields with their swords and axes and to cheer. The cheer became a chant of "Lawrence! Lawrence! Lawrence!"

He raised his hand for silence as the envoys returned. The King rode to them as they approached. The leader said in sharp tones, "My liege, they choose to keep the road for the victory and the spoils."

Lawrence nodded grimly and turned his horse back to the army. He gestured to Edred to talk to the envoys and get an estimate of the enemy forces. He rode to the shield wall and dismounted. A young companion took Gúthgel?ca's bridle. Lawrence stopped by his horse's head and put his hand on his muzzle and whispered reassurances into his ear. "I will be together with you again soon, my brother."

All afoot now, Lawrence and his captains gathered around Edred. "My lord, 'tis not a large force, only about fifty men."

The King's eyebrows went up. "Only fifty? Against our force more than twice the size? Either they are arrogant as hell or their scouts have failed in their duty."

The captains shook their heads, Aeric m commenting that all should be vigilant. "These Swedes are tricky. Better keep prepared for a surprise or some other means of putting his numbers to advantage somehow. It makes no sense."

The captains then melted back into their forces while the Kings companions came forward to stand with him for the ritual exchange with the leader of the opposing army. In minutes the enemy forces appeared, a single line of shield bearing men with spears and with swords or axes to hand. In front of the very middle of the enemy line Sven Ormyngel strode forward, likewise flanked by his chief warriors. The Swede was not tall but powerfully built. His long fair hair was scraggly and hung with clattering bones and rings. He wore his beard in two plaits tied with leather cords. He carried a huge axe. On his shield was painted a great dragon. As the line stopped at some distance from where the King's shield wall stood facing them, Ormyngel gestured to a man to accompany him, then swaggered elaborately forward, his warriors staying a few paces behind him.

Lawrence matched the Swede's every step, his companions keeping a similar formation behind him. Everyone in the small cadres on either side carried their shields upside down as a sign that they would not attack the other. His helm off, as Ormyngel's was, and pulling himself up to his considerable height, Lawrence swaggered as theatrically making the effort to let his shield hang on his arm loosely to indicate lack of concern for his defense.

The two leaders stopped several paces from each other and stared contemptuously at each other and, looking around at the enemy force, shook their head and made disparaging noises.

"Ormyngel, is it?" The King scoffed loud enough for all to hear. "Worm spawn? Worm food I think, ere the day is gone. Foolhardy to bring your tiny company to face the mighty men of Críslicland on their own road." He spat on the ground between them.

The man who had come up with the Swede translated the King's words into his language. Before he could respond through his interpreter, Lawrence laughed and shook his head at Ormyngel, "And you come to claim a land whose tongue you cannot understand? Mayhap you have a map you cannot decipher and are but lost?!" He made a show of laughing and slapping his knee.

The interpreter spoke up in a derisive tone that did the man credit for imitating his leader. "A man may come to his friends' aid, and these poor Britons were happy to have Ormyngel to help them send the pack of you Saxon pigs back squealing over the Trent. They weary of your unjust rule, my lord." The last word was sneered rather than spoken.

Lawrence shook his head and made his voice pitying. "'Struth, there has been much lost in translation. Did they not tell you that this land is rightfully part of my kingdom as part of what my Queen, their beloved Queen, brought to our marriage. That same Queen you so shamefully waylaid at this very spot?"

Once the King's words were made clear to him, Ormyngel's eyes grew wide with feigned surprise. "Queen?! That was the Queen? I thought her just a drab and sent her to entertain my warriors, so many of them so far from home and their women. Real women."

"What say you? That must have been your mother you found upon this road, for our Queen could slaughter half your men with one blow of her sword and frighten the rest away with one defiant look." Lawrence grinned maliciously.

Ormyngel now made a show of humor. "Well then I understand why they say the King of Críslicland is a woman, for he has been unmanned by the strength and power of his pretty little wife."

The King's companions stepped forward, pulling swords part way out of their sheaths as Ormyngel reached behind him unexpectedly and turned back holding a sword. He held it up and inspected it. His expression was contemptuous, amused. Through the interpreter he scoffed, "Saxon, what a pretty little sword this is. Is it yours? Did you lose it on the road? I found it and thought it must be a lady's sword. It must be yours then. Here, take it back. Use it to cut thread at your weaving or some other womanly task." Ormyngel gave the weapon one last grin, spat on it, and threw it on the ground between himself and Lawrence.

Lawrence stood with his fists clenched and stared at it . He knew it immediately. It was the sword he had had made for Josephine, made with the new lighter but stronger steel. It was not ornamented for she had not wanted anything but a sword for fighting. His face tightened and his eyes, looking back up at the Swede, flashed with anger.

"Sirrah, you are fortunate this day. You shall go to your reward in Valhalla and meet your god. Then you may take the opportunity to explain to him just why you fought and died so ignobly.,"

The Swedish commander looked about, feigning puzzlement. "Who is going to do this? These weaklings I see before me? We shall be feeding them to our god's ravens long ere any of us meet the god himself." He spat on the ground by the sword which lay there. He drew his sword and waited as Lawrence did the same. Each swung his blade up and around and down to slap the front of their shields with the flat. The two men spat again, then spun to go back to their lines. One of the King's companions quickly snatched the Queen's sword and followed the King back.

"My liege, what of the Queen?" Edred asked as he ran to help the King put his helm back on.

"Oh, he does not have her. I think he was surprised to hear she was even here at all." Lawrence's lips curled with scorn, but there was deadly anger in his eyes.

Edred accompanied the King back behind his lines where he mounted Gúthgel?ca again in order to watch the fighting from the higher vantage point. He held his shield firmly in front of his body. They had seen no archers with the Swedes company, but he was taking no chances.

The men on both sides now began to shout their own insults at their enemies, slapping their overlapped shields against each other's. The din grew as the men worked themselves into a killing frame of mind, to overcome their fear of the terrible shield wall, the most savage combat any man had ever known. In both lines random men came forward out of the line briefly to make lewd gestures and to turn their backs to indicate how little they feared the opposite line. The captains shouted them back to their shield walls, using voice, eyes and weapons to prod them into a solid unbreakable line.

Then Ormyngel's men were ordered to press forward. They came screaming and shouting like madmen and stopped at a point some twenty yards closer to the Crísliclandian lines. The left flank of the curved shield wall of the King moved forward and the opposing right flank of the enemy fell back to match.

The King's shield wall watched and listened as the enemy screamed and shouted and beat their shields to create a din that hammered on the senses. They saw but could not hear the arrows that flew from their own archers over their heads and onto the enemy's lines. The enemy's shields caught the arrows that reached them. An insignificant few were lightly wounded at this extreme range. The shouting and hammering never ceased.

The King watched as his right flank swung forward reversing their wedge formation and found the opposing left flank of the Swede's followed suit by falling back. Lawrence's men spread out and started to encircle the enemy's own fallen back flanks. The enemy laughed and jeered.

The King sat ahorse staring at the enemy lines. His own lines now bowed outward on both ends reversing their original wedge with the center of his shield wall closer to the King than the two flanks, while Ormyngel's had curled their wedge so far back on both flanks that it had them almost forming a concentric inner circle inside the Crísliclandian shield wall. "What is this?" he wondered. He saw how his own men were now threatening to encircle Ormyngel's men. "Why is he allowing this? What has he to gain?" Lawrence said aloud to an equally flummoxed Edred.

The King's heart raced as he realized that indeed there was some trick afoot. He shouted, "Forward! All lines!"

The Crísliclandian shield wall moved to meet the enemy, stopping at their captains' command just out of throwing axe range. Without any perceptible signal Ormyngel's forces suddenly stopped the shouting and screaming they had been doing for at least the past half hour to unnerve the King's men and went deadly silent. A chill went through every heart including the King's. Many of the soldiers in the King's front line flinched as a dozen, or about every fourth man in the Swede's own fore dashed forward holding aloft two axes each and cast them with all their might into the shields of the Crísliclandian middle. The axe men backed quickly to their own lines, a few falling prey to the archers of the King who loosed arrows from all three sides. The enemy forces stayed quiet, save for the cries and moans of the wounded.

The King stood in his stirrups staring at the enemy and glancing to where he could see Ormyngel on horse behind his own lines. He knew his men were ready for anything, but the oddness of the battle so far had him on edge.

All at once the sound of war cries arose from behind the King's troops! Lawrence whirled his horse around and saw a mob of mercenaries led by the Fleming Ricbeorht rushing towards him. Desperately Lawrence and his captains tried to form their men into a circular shield wall, but as Ormyngel's men rushed forward to join the forces attacking from behind, it was quickly obvious that the circle could not be formed fast enough.

Alert to the attack the young men stationed with the horses moved quickly to cut the tethers. Each man jumped to mount one horse and pull a second one with him to rush to the King's forces. Four of the companions who had stood near the King leapt astride the available horses, and all the now mounted men rode with him slashing through the enemy with as much ferocity as they could attain. Lawrence himself thrust and slashed mightily while growling and snarling at every man he encountered.

The King's men desperately formed three circles to mount a shield wall, finding themselves beset and fighting man to man with Ricbeorht's warriors. Archers, unable to take the time to use their bows, drew swords or seaxas and joined the hand to hand struggle.

Around him Lawrence heard the cries of wounded and dying men, his and the enemy's. On horse he and his few mounted warriors had the advantage of height, though at least one of the horses was itself wounded in the flank by a spear. In spite of his elevated position the King could not avoid the stench of gore and ripped guts that clambered to his nostrils.

Through the clanging of sword on sword, the thud of weapon on shield, and the shouting and cries, a single note sounded from an unseen horn on the edge of the woods. Those of Ricbeorht's and Ormyngel's men who survived, no more than four dozen warriors, evaporated from the mêlée and disappeared into the woods. Stunned the King's men stared, then some dashed to pursue the retreating enemy into the woods.

The mounted men with Lawrence stopped and looked around them, astonished at the brief engagement and its heavy toll. At least half of the Críslicland force was dead or severely wounded. Many of the remainder were badly bruised and exhausted. Lawrence and his horsemen circled the battleground to assess the losses, both their own and the enemy's.

Lawrence called to Edred who was bloody but had somehow escaped death in the chaos of battle and was running up to him. "Call the men back who followed them into the woods and set them in groups to guard our perimeter."

Aeric and the other captains gathered as Lawrence dismounted and gave his bridle to one of his companions. He asked the King, "What did they gain by that fiasco? They lost half their force and didn't do as much to us?"

Lawrence looked around the scene. Then he turned back slowly to gaze at Aeric. "Where is your horse, man?" he asked softly.

The group of commanders froze.

The King shook his head. "This wasn't a battle. It was a raid to capture the horses."

The men sagged as they realized the impact of the raid. All but the Gúthgel?ca and the other ten horses were gone. These were horses needed for hauling supplies and scouting. Horses that in a pinch can be eaten. Horses whose lack would cripple the King's ability to keep the road open while making it easy for the rebels to raid and run away before anyone on foot can do anything about it.

"Fifty lives for forty dead Kings' men and fifty horses was a very fair trade for the rebels." The King swore, then led his commanders into the mess of tangled limbs, gobs of congealing blood, and thickly swarming flies to start to sort the living from the dead, and to find out which friend, brother, comrade, and loyal soldier would be found among each.

Next: Limping Back to the Siege

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .