A force of O'Donnell's men formed a turtle defense. The outermost men in the formation held shields before, behind or on their sides, and those within this shell held shields above their own and the outermost men's heads. Confronting Ruallauh and his brothers was a solid mass of shields, thick wood with iron bosses and a plenitude of clan symbols.
Ruallauh went to meet his two brothers in front of their forces. "They are pretty well safe from my archers for the nonce," the eldest brother observed.
Ioruert strained to see the opposing forces. "Before they got behind their shields I made out foot soldiers with about half axes and shields and half bows and swords and shields. I may be mistaken but I thought there were more than I can see now. Those men a-horse may be a communications line. Or they may be planning a separate wave of attack. They're Irish so they will dismount to fight. But why spread out like that?" He wrinkled his brow.
"Well, at least we have equal benefit with him with this open terrain. Ioruert, take the fields with your mounted troops. That way you can match any influx of the same. He must have more horsemen than that. Cingen, take the side by the river, but stay this side of bowshot from the fortress. I will put my archers behind a shield-wall right here in the middle. Make sure your runners stay safe so we can communicate."
"We will need to hold this position, Ruallauh. We can't risk being backed into bowshot," Cingen cautioned.
His older brother nodded grimly. "We have to do this. The king needs his forces to take the fortress. Once that is done, I warrant these mercenaries will give up the fight." He sighed. "How I wish Rory was here. He would know the Irishman's tactics." He made the sign of the cross.
Ioruert saluted his two brothers. "God be with us."
MacDhui returned to his commander, seeing he was making small gestures with his hands as he considered his attack options. The Scot looked back at the enemy, seeing the formations that came together on the center, left and right. He waited.
O'Donnell began to think aloud, making the meaning of the gestures clear. "I could send the turtle straight and fast for the fortress, beat off the king and join with Malcolm's forces in the stronghold. Or I could entice them into the village or the woods by the river. Whatever I do, we will keep these farmers busy while the king's men attack the fort and fail."
"My lord?" MacDhui inserted. O'Donnell turned to look at him. "What if Malcolm is losing?"
O'Donnell barked a derisive laugh. "If he is losing, what are we doing here? Nay, I know Malcolm. He would not let victory come to the king so easily. But you are right to pose the possibility. Scratch the first plan. No sense getting ourselves locked up in the fortress if it is about to fall."
"We seem to be equal in force, my lord, but we are all trained mercenaries," MacDhui began.
"And they are all farmers barely able to wield a pitchfork, no less a sword. If we can draw them into attacking us, we will have few losses and many kills." O'Donnell looked at his companion and grinned. He struck him hard on the shoulder and said, "That is what we shall do. Give the orders."
While his own forces held tight to their positions, Ruallauh watched MacDhui ride to the other parts of the force, first to the commander of the turtle which formed directly in front of his archers. The Scot rode to the first of the line of horsemen spread out across from Ioruert's own cavalry and took position as the new leader. He called back orders to the captains of the shields and archers.
The turtle began to move as slowly as its namesake towards Ruallauh's position. He rode around to the back of his archers, dismounted, giving his horse's reins to a soldier, bent and strung his bow and pulled a few arrows from their quiver. He went to the fore of his archers and stuck the arrows in the ground. He notched the last to his bowstring, ready to loose at the foe. As he anticipated, from out of the turtle's shell popped up the Irish archers here and there to take aim at his own shield-wall. As he commanded, his bowmen targeted only those archers. Shots fired at the shell of shields were shots with no effect. However, eliminating the threat of one bow after another, he hoped the dead bodies would cause the turtle to trip and create openings for his own marksmen. In the rain, some men slipped and some fell. For his men this was no more than an inconvenience. The mass of men in the turtle were not that flexible, and fallen men were trampled and tripping their fellows.
Though Ioruert's horsemen harried the flank of the turtle, they could not risk the arrows that could take down their mounts and imperil themselves, so they could do little to stop it advancing. The turtle came slowly but inexorably. It could not be easily halted. In time, Ruallauh's men would have to retreat or engage. For now, the choice was the former. They moved as slowly as the turtle, keeping some distance between them. Ruallauh, glancing behind him, knew he could not stay with this strategy forever. He was relieved when a runner was at his side telling him that Cingen's men saw the king's second wave pour into the fortress and no more of Malcolm's defense on the remaining outer stockade.
From his own vantage point the king saw how slowly the mercenary forces moved and concluded that O'Donnell was hedging his wager by keeping out of the fortress. With a whoop of triumph, he ordered the last wave of reserves into the stronghold, himself at their head. The brothers would hold O'Donnell. At worst when the fortress fell, O'Donnell would act to save his own sorry arse and flee.
"Why don't they fight?" O'Donnell snarled to himself and urged the turtle onward. He eyed the battlements of the fortress, and he saw it. There were no archers on top. The king's allies could back away until they fell into the pitfalls, but there was almost no chance they would be attacked from behind. He glanced around quickly for MacDhui, but that man was engaged on the flank of the turtle and did not see his look. O'Donnell gritted his teeth. He almost regretted the strategy he set in motion, the creeping pace going straight to his nerves. At least once the enemy's back was to the fortress wall and they could back no further, he would have full advantage. They might attack, but it would be too late.
Ruallauh's men were all but stumbling backwards into the pits. Here to the left of where the earlier force attacked the pitfalls were still treacherous, hidden by brush and full of pointed stakes. O'Donnell heard screams as men in the back ranks slipped on the muddy ground and fell into the traps.
When the garrison of Malcolm's stolen fortress finished off the last of the king's soldiers they could stop from fleeing, they turned to congratulate themselves. The word went around that O'Donnell's forces had arrived and were engaging the king's army from behind. Men who had all but taken the first step to desert the garrison sighed inwardly and were glad they resisted the impulse. The day would be Malcolm's and the reward would be generous.
A shout and a sound of many men's voices conjoined in a chant of "Lawrence! Lawrence!" startled them out of their relief. Individual shouts of "Críslicland!" and "Affynshire!" confused them. Were the two not at war? Anyone glancing through the area of the palisade's breach saw a mass of men in a deep shield-wall. The lines of the king's men were augmented many times over. They came towards the garrison quickly, like an undulating wave about to crash down onto them. The defenders' officers tried to shout them into formation, but the chaos overwhelmed them. The loud chant, the stomping feet in the rain and mud, and the sheer numbers advancing against them were too much to face.
Those men who did not turn and flee at once tried to meet the onslaught and were cut down and trampled. The wave of shields, spears and swords crashed into the inner wall, the sheer weight and inertia making the old wall shudder. Some of the men atop it lost balance and fell, some inside the wall and some outside. The former lived only minutes longer than the latter. Axes, the specially outfitted spears, shields, and lines and lines of men hacked at the inner wall, tearing out timbers, slicing through hemp, while archers picked off those who stayed to defend the failing wall. All at once, a whole section of the old inner wall swayed and buckled, sending the few defenders left to meet their fellows' fates.
With a shout of triumph the king's soldiers climbed up and over what was left of the wall. The sounds of battle within resounded everywhere.
Still engaged outside the walls, O'Donnell heard a shout from inside the fortress, a shout that was picked up by dozens of voices. "The king is victorious! Malcolm is taken!" The cheer from within the walls was echoed by Ruallauh's men.
Grimly O'Donnell raised his hand and gave the order to start backing away. MacDhui was right to be cautious. Where they were, they could at least pull back and make their escape. All the cheer the battle gave him drained away like wine from a smashed pitcher. A spark of anger at Malcolm for this entire mess flashed in his eyes.
Trained fighting men all, the men in the turtle formation backed away in an orderly manner. Still armored in their shield shell, they were safe. Ruallauh saw his chance, as did his brother Ioruert, and the signal to attack and surround the turtle with the younger brother's force of horsemen was exchanged. Ioruert had not heard the shout from within the stockade, but he did not need to. Nothing less would have changed the onward push of the Irishmen.
The horsemen sped to the turtle, surrounding it in minutes. As far from the woods and the village as they were, Ioruert knew that any hidden force there would be unable to save the men in the armored formation.
As helmeted heads popped up from the turtle and saw the trap, the protected force disintegrated. The turtle's shell became fragmented forces, every man for himself. With little chance of even surviving, no reward, even if there would be one, was worth the risk. O'Donnell from behind and MacDhui from one side watched with horror as their forces were surrounded and cut down by the horsemen, the men at arms from the river's direction, and Ruallauh's own shield-wall advancing quickly to prevent any regrouping.
His sword already in his hand, O'Donnell screamed his frustration and anger, "God damn you sons of whores, get back to your units!" He engaged the first horseman who came at him, deftly parrying a blow from the man's axe and returning a deadly sword thrust to his back as the Irishman spun around. Men on foot came at him, and those he did not ward off or kill were dispatched by his own men. He saw a commander on horseback galloping straight at him. It must be one of the brothers, one of the cousins of the queen. He smiled triumphantly. If he could capture him and get away with him, the queen would pay generously to have his life spared. If he killed the man, at least he would have sated his desire for blood.
Ioruert saw the tall, broad-shouldered man on his magnificent horse, the signature drooping red moustache identifying him as the co-conspirator with Malcolm, Finn O'Donnell. He raised his sword and rushed the man. "This is for Rory, you bastard!" Ioruert screamed.
The two came together with a loud crash, horses reeling from the impact, but the able horsemen stayed securely mounted. Ioruert got in a thrust that earned him only one as hard in return. The two circled and struck again. Ioruert managed to draw blood from a blow to O'Donnell's right forearm. O'Donnell looked at the spreading crimson on his cut leather sleeve and grinned. He lifted his sword in the hand of that same arm and struck Ioruert so hard that it threw the younger man and unhorsed him. O'Donnell directed his mount straight at the fallen man, trampling him. He leaned down with his sword to dispatch him.
Ruallauh heard his brother's scream as he fell and as the horse put its hoof on his leg and broke the bone. He saw O'Donnell leaning to finish off Ioruert. He notched an arrow and let it fly so fast that it was almost in flight before he could form a concrete thought.
The arrow caught O'Donnell under his shoulder blade, the point coming out in front under his heart as he leaned down with his sword. He fell. His fall pushed the arrow even farther.
MacDhui's own heart stopped as he saw the man fall. With a cry, he jumped from his horse and ran to where the two men lay on the ground. Seeing O'Donnell was mortally wounded, he cried again and came down on the prone Ioruert with his sword, cutting into the man's thick leather armor with the sheer force of his anguish. He spun back to kneel at O'Donnell's side as he heard Ioruert gasp out his last breath. He took O'Donnell's shoulders and held the man to his own breast. "Finn, Finn, nay!" he sobbed.
Ruallauh made his way through the chaos of the slaughter of O'Donnell's remaining men. He found MacDhui kneeling and rocking the Irishman in his arms. He heard the Scot's cry when O'Donnell coughed blood and went completely limp, dead. Ruallauh, seeing his brother's corpse, roared his own fury. He drew his sword. MacDhui spun to face him but it was too late. His body fell across his dead lover's.
Three days later, their grotesque corpses were added to the ripening bodies of their allies. The two kings decided that the entire rebel dead would be thrown into the pits and covered over. Malcolm and his commanders were tossed in with no ceremony along with the mercenaries who fought alongside them.
O'Donnell and MacDhui were tossed in together. The inner wall of the pit caved in as they landed, side by side. The force of the moving earth shifted MacDhui's body so that before he was covered by shovelfuls of the loose dirt, he turned onto his side, his head resting on O'Donnell's shoulder. No one noticed.
Lawrence dusted off his hands. "Let the ancient dead disturb their rest with all the horror they can muster."