t the council around the command campfire Horsa drew a map in the dirt.
“Our scouts have been able both to see and to hear about the succeeding incursions into the area of Grantham. It seems that the usurper’s men had taken over the fortress and all the small forts that serve primarily to offer shelter from Mercian raiding parties for the local farms. Thrydulf seems to have been poised for that little task well before Gaylorde ordered it..” The white haired and bearded man glanced at Jehan who nodded sourly.
Horsa went on. “It was but a short time after all these forts were taken that the Mercians arrived. That is much faster than I should think they could have formulated their plans, but I do not know. They easily took the three most southerly forts, nearest the border. The others here,” he indicated a crescent east of the three he had just drawn with a sweep of the stick he was using, “are still in the duke’s hands but will be quite easy to take, whether or not Mercia snatches them before we do.”
Earl Jehan of Grantham remarked, “At any rate, having to do this to prevent local raiding parties from harassing them from behind has forced the Mercians to take several days to get as far as they have.”
The king nodded, “Which has afforded us some extra time. So long as Seaxwulf was believed as the messenger from Edric in Lincoln, we should be entirely unexpected. Some luck on our side for once.”
Then Glethin the archer responded to a nod from Horsa by standing and taking the stick from him. “My scouts tell me Mercia is splitting its strength three ways, the smallest forces left to guard the forts so the peasants don’t flee and join Thrydulf’s command. The largest part, about half the entire force, is heading for Grantham now. They are discovering that Thrydulf has more or less stripped the land and towns of supplies, both no doubt to withstand a long siege and also to deprive the Mercians of any fresh food. They could not do much about the fresh water. It is there for all to take. But the Mercians will be forced to forage and hunt which takes a lot of manpower away from fighting. That is the third part of Mercia’s soldiers I referred to.”
Lawrence added his voice to the exposition. “Here is what I plan. I do not think Thrydulf will have any bands of men outside the walls of Grantham now. The bulk of the Mercian forces are too close. If he does, however, they are expecting Edric’s help, and they certainly are not expecting the king.” He flashed a grin at the commanders, then continued. “We need to find ways to hide who we are from both sides. Botopher will instruct the warriors to cover their shield insignia however they can. Grantham and its outlying forts is roughly a triangle.” The king outlined it on the makeshift map. “Horsa will take half our force and circle the west side of the triangle. I will take the other half and secure the east.”
Horsa took up the instruction. “Each of our forces will move extremely slowly and quietly. We must gather and carry all the supplies we will need. The last thing we want is for Mercia to get wind that we are encircling their backs. Let them watch to the north for a force from Lincoln.“
In the early morning of the next day the archers set out in two parties, one circling the triangle sun-wise and the other widdershins. As they quietly advanced spreading as much as communications would allow, they surprised and finished off a large number of foraging and hunting parties and several scouts. In the little villages if they dared enter they found people only too willing to point out the scouts or collaborators. “Mercia” was not a polite word in southwest Críslicland after decades of raids on their farms and villages.
Horsa’s and the king’s shield men advanced following the archers at some distance behind. They moved as silently as a force of men may, taking any Mercia parties or scouts that the archers missed on their way through. The archers were waiting at the halfway point just to the southeast of Grantham when first Horsa’s and then the king’s armies came into view, reduced by a small number of men set to take the eastern forts.
It was the day before Seaxwulf had told the traitorous Thrydulf the rescuers from Lincoln would arrive. The Larger part of the Mercians were already encamped around Grantham itself. Their commanders waited nervously for the foraging parties to return with food supplies and fresh meat, but they chalked the delay up to the foragers having to go further and further afield to find anything. They talked among themselves of making the siege as short as possible so they could get at the stored providence behind the walls of the fortress.
Horsa and the king now turned their sights and their armies north, paralleling each other as they marched in four columns, always keeping in view of signals from those other lines nearest them. Two of the columns followed roads, one had to pass cross-country, and one remaining had a mix of tracks and fields to traverse. Banners and trappings were nowhere in sight. Shields were covered or whitewashed.
Seaxwulf was to have informed Thrydulf that on the fifth day a horn blast would signal him to emerge with his forces attack the Mercian encampment that surrounded the fortress.
The king and Horsa were readying themselves and their forces for the "rescue". A scout from Glefin’s troop came running into the king’s command area.
“My lord, my lord,” he called out as best he could with the breath he still had. “The Mercians.. a force of them has left the encampment and is preparing to attack one of the eastern forts.”
Lawrence and Horsa exchanged looks and grins. “God be praised,” the king said. That leaves the encampment with fewer men. With Thrydulf on one side and all of us on the other, the Mercians do not have a chance.”
While Horsa and Jehan prepared to lead the attacks on the rear of the unsuspecting Mercian encampment the king and Botopher each prepared to lead a column of men against the small forts held by minimal forces on the south. The king first spoke to all his men, cheerfully warning them not to expect the battles to be so easy as the last two, earning himself appreciative laughter from the force. Then he called upon all to return Jehan to his rightful place as lord of Grantham. “Then shall we assist poor brave Botopher here in getting back his earldom. “
He raised an arm in the young man’s direction and made a comically sympathetic face. Botopher bowed dramatically and called out, “But sire! What of him who holds Lawrencium?”
Lawrence took his seaxa from his belt and made as if he was stabbing and twisting it, making a ripping sound with his mouth. The company roared their approval.
“Just as well we are attacking now, lord, since I think even Lawrencium could hear that cheer,” Botopher remarked when the men’s voices diminished.
“So long as Offa hears it in Lundenwic, I will be content,” the king replied.
Lawrence and the young earl took the small forts with ease, overwhelming the garrisons left to guard the farmers and their families who had taken refuge there. It was clear when they entered each that the captives had joined in the fight, pulling archers from the fortifications and killing Mercian soldiers who were hard pressed to confront armed attack from without and belt knives, clubs and tooth and nail from within.
Turning back to Grantham itself Lawrence found the two columns under the general and Lord Jehan well engaged with the soldiers of Mercia laying siege to the fortress. He sighed, “I should very much have enjoyed being here for the realization that they were under attack from behind. But there is another face I want to see when he knows who has him at bay.”
Botopher questioned, “Another face? Whose, sire?”
Botopher laughed. “I suspect Jehan would like that chance as well. I know I should.. and shall with mine own nemesis.”
Next: Retaking grantham, Part 2
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 http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com