Read King Henry's Champion Online

Authors: Griff Hosker

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction

King Henry's Champion (5 page)

When Ralph and the other nine archers reached the bank they knocked an arrow and the other eight ran to a line half way to the castle walls. This was the critical move. Ralph and his archers slew the next men foolish enough to try to leave the island. One of his archers fell, clutching the arrow which stuck out of his shoulder.  Ralph and his archers moved back towards the castle, two men supporting the wounded archer. The enemy moved across the river.  I saw that the ones who pursued the archers were lightly armed.  But behind them came the men at arms on horses.  As they moved into the river my archers released four arrows each.  They did not aim at the lightly armed men but the men at arms and their horses. Eight fell before the archers turned and made their way back to the castle.  They had but a hundred paces to go; my men could run almost as fast as a mailed man on a horse.

The pursuing rebels gave an exultant cheer and ran and rode after them. There were eleven archers in the castle as well as farmers and others who could use bows. Although they would not be as good as my archers they would deter an enemy.  The arrows rained down on the chasing men and they retreated back to the river bank to hold it for their fellows.

I had seen enough and I left with Edward. We made our way through the woods to the far side where I saw my men waiting. Leofric held my helmet and William my shield.  I donned them and mounted Star.  Today would be a day for a warhorse. We would be outnumbered but so far I had seen little evidence of war horse amongst our enemies. We formed our lines and waited. The sun rose steadily into the sky. We were patient. The Scots and the rebels had to be less than five hundred paces from us but we could not see them just as they could not see us.  I could just see the top of the castle.  There was one tower on the keep in the inner bailey.  Sir Roger’s standard fluttered from its top. The defenders would know where we were.

Dick came running up. He pointed behind him, “They are forming up and preparing to attack.” I waited for I knew he had more to tell me. “They have almost two hundred men on foot. They have ladders.  There are forty dismounted men at arms and they are leading the attack. The other fifty men at arms are with the twenty knights and their squires.  They are the rear ranks and they are mounted.”

“Good.  You know what to do.”

“Aye my lord.”

He ran off to organise his men.  They would harass the flank once our charge began. The numbers were less than I had expected.  Perhaps there were others waiting in Berwick to reinforce them once they had taken Norham. This might be the vanguard who would take Norham allowing the rest to flood south into England. I took the lance which William held. I nodded to him and he rode to take his place in the third rank. I spurred Star and he set off eagerly. The woods still hid us from the enemy. 

I raised my lance and the line of knights and men at arms followed me.  We kept straight lines and as close to each other as we could manage. When we cleared the woods I saw the rebels and Scots facing Norham.  Already the first of their attackers were trying to get across the ditch.  The newly planted stakes and steepened sides would come as a shock to them.  I had no doubt that they had been scouting the castle for some time.  The new work would be a surprise. A variety of missiles was raining down on them from the defenders on the curtain wall ramparts. With everyone’s attention on the castle I was able to swing Star around so that my line would attack the enemy square on.  They were two hundred paces from us.  We began to trot towards them. The sounds of the attack hid the noise of our advance.  Once we increased our speed they would hear us.

At a hundred and fifty paces we began to canter.  The hooves of the horses began to thunder and it was then that they turned and saw us. They began to revolve their whole formation of horsemen. They had a very long line.  It was longer than ours and we would be overlapped but there was no depth to it. Once we had broken their first line then we would be amongst their men on foot. I saw confusion as some riders came towards us only to be shouted back.  I watched as men ran to give lances and spears to the mounted men and all the time we were closing. At one hundred paces we lowered our lances. I held mine slightly behind me ready to punch with it. The enemy line began to move but by then it was too late.  At fifty paces I spurred Star and he leapt forward.

I saw a knight with a yellow shield crossed with three diagonal lines. He was coming for me.  My banner was right behind me carried by John. The yellow shield was my target.  I brought my own shield around so that it covered my left side and part of my chest.  Sir Edward was to my right and Sir Richard to my left. The last thirty paces of the charge went so quickly that I almost missed my strike.  I punched forward.  I aimed at the front cantle on his saddle.  I felt his lance clatter off my shield as mine entered his stomach. The enemy horses were not close together and his horse veered to my right. The knight’s falling body tore the lance from my hand and I drew my sword.

A quick glance to left and right told me that Sir Edward and Sir Richard were still with me.  Edward had his lance unbroken. We had broken through the horsemen.  The men at arms behind would exploit the gap and finish off any horsemen who had survived our initial attack. Those on foot turned as we broke through the thin line of horsemen. I leaned to the side and swept my sword horizontally at the axe wielding warrior who stood with his fellows to receive our charge. The speed of my approach made him swing early and my blade bit across his chest. He had no mail and my blade came away bloody. A spear clanged off my shield and jolted my arm. I saw that Sir Richard had killed the spearman. The men on foot were now trying to flee. They were crossing our line as they tried to get back to the river. They were caught between the castle and our horses.  They only had one option; retreat back to the river.

“Wheel left!”

I pulled Star’s reins to the left and he responded magnificently.  He brought me around to the rear of a man at arms. I laid his back open to the bone.  Star suddenly reared as another veered into his path. I leaned forward to keep my balance as my war horse trampled the soldier beneath his hooves. Sir Roger and the garrison had emerged from the gates and were butchering those who were still stranded in the ditch. I looked ahead and saw that there were many horsemen leading this headlong flight back to Scotland. Dick and his archers could not miss the targets which ran across their front.  Safe in the eaves of the woods, they released arrow after arrow into the massed men who fled before them.

My move had brought the whole of my line into one. Knights, men at arms and squires all rode together.  John was now at my side.  He held his reins and banner in his left hand and was hacking and chopping with his sword held in his right.  He had the joy of battle upon his face. We had to slow as we approached the river. No one would risk a war horse by charging into the rock filled river.  Besides we had won. I reined in and allowed Star to step gently into the water to drink.  He tossed his head and whinnied.  Like John he had the joy of battle in him.

My men reined in next to me and they began to cheer.  I raised my sword and they cheered even louder. I saw Dick and his archers mount up and they trotted across the river. Wulfric and the men at arms followed them.  They would drive the enemy back to Berwick. We did not want them rallying. Star began to drink and I took off my helmet. As always after such a battle I looked for my household knights.  I saw that they all lived.  Then I frowned I could not see William of Warkworth nor could I see Leofric and my son William. I handed my shield and helmet to John. “Wait here, I go to see Leofric and William.”

“They are not here?”

“I cannot see them.”

I turned Star and began to gallop back across the body littered field. Men were already marching across the battlefield and ending the lives of the wounded as well as taking weapons and treasures. Close to where we had struck the enemy horses I saw a knot of men. Their horses were close by.  I galloped towards them. I saw, to my great relief, Leofric and William, standing amongst them. They lived and they looked to be unwounded. I recognised the banner of William of Warkworth. He had been on the extreme left of my line, closest to the river. The men parted as I rode up and dismounted.  I saw William of Warkworth, my newest knight.  He was lying on the ground at an awkward angle.  A tendril of blood ran from his mouth. There were three of his men at arms dead beside him.  The rest stood with my squires.

I thought the Baron was dead but he opened his eyes and smiled, “Your son and squire are fine warriors, my lord. When I fell from my horse they and my own men at arms fought off the enemy who tried to finish me off.  They fought like lions. They will both be good knights; they have honour, courage and show great nobility.”

“I will get a priest to see to your wounds.”

He tried to shake his head but could not, “My back is broken.  I fear I am not long for this world. My brother serves Sir Henry de Vexin in Durham.  He should have my manor.” He winced, “With your permission, of course.”

“Of course.”

He smiled, “Thank you.  Tell him…” His eyes stared lifelessly at the sky.  He was dead.

“Go with God, my friend.” I turned to his men at arms.  “Take your lord back to Warkworth.  There is a church there?” They nodded, “Then have him buried and I will send to Durham for his brother.”

“Aye my lord.  He fought well.  It was just unlucky that he was thrown from his horse.”

“It is God’s will.” I turned to William. “Well done to both of you.  Have you any hurts?” They both shook their heads.  “Then take Star back and fetch me Scout.” I stroked the mane of my war horse, “You did well today.  You have earned your feed.  Give him some oats.”

I walked along the line of the enemy to see their dead knights.  There were just three of them and four squires. I saw the one I had killed and his squire lay just behind, the back of his head caved in.  That would have been the blow from Wulfric’s axe. There would be no ransom.  As I scanned the field I could not see any noble prisoners. I took off the helmets of the three dead knights.  I did not recognise any of them. Nor did I recognise either their livery or the devices on their shields. We had won but it was not the complete victory that I had hoped.  It was not the poor soldiers who we needed to kill, it was their masters and their men at arms. I walked towards the castle to speak with Sir Roger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

I heard hooves behind me and turned as William galloped up leading Scout. “That was quickly done.  Where is Leofric?”

“He is attending to Star.”

“Good then you may be my squire today.” I mounted.  “Show me your sword.” He took it out and I saw blood upon it.  “Did you kill today?”

He nodded, “The man was going to stick his spear in Sir William.  I ran him through from the back.” He hesitated, “Was it wrong to do so?”

“No, my son.  In war there are no rules.  You fight and you kill with anything you have to hand.  If possible we face our foes but on a battlefield such as this that is a luxury we can ill afford. Sir William told me what you did and I am proud of you.”

Sir Roger had mounted and joined us along with Ralph of Wales. “A great victory, my lord.”

“A victory, Sir Roger, but not as complete as I had planned.” I waved my hand around.  “They have lost three knights, perhaps twenty men at arms but the bulk of the dead are ordinary folk.  They are easily replaced. We have lost William of Warkworth and three men at arms. They are less easy to replace.” I looked at Ralph, “And our losses in the woods?”

“We lost two archers. They were Sir Hugh’s men and Alan of Thornaby suffered an arrow wound.  It is naught.”

“You and Dick had best find any arrows which remain undamaged.  I fear we will need your skills again.”

After they had gone I turned Scout to head towards the river and islands. “You think they will come again, my lord? I think Sir Roger thought it was all over.”

“I suspect so. When Dick returns he will let us know. If they have more men at Berwick, as I suspect they do, then they will return but they will know our numbers. Next time we will not be able to surprise them and they will come in force. I will have to find a new strategy.” I pointed to the castle.  “This is a fine position for a castle but you need to have one of stone.”

He nodded, “I think the Bishop had planned for a stone one but he died and…”

“And there is no replacement.  I know. I will press for the funds to be made available. It is short sighted to quibble over pennies.” The procrastination of the King was costing us dearly.

My knights and men at arms were by the river watering their horses.  The squires had fetched meat, cheese and ale. Sir Hugh had a huge grin on his face.  “There is no finer feeling than sending Scotsmen and rebels packing. We showed them.”

“We did indeed, Sir Hugh.”

He shook his head, “A shame there are no ransoms still there is plenty of armour and horses.”

Sir Harold said, “There were no war horses, my lord.”

“I know.  They did not expect to meet knights.” The thought made Sir Hugh Manningham frown. Does that mean they have more knights in Berwick and next time we may not be so lucky?”

“Had they had war horses we would have caught them.  Their palfreys were nimble beasts.”

“The river, my lord, we should make that an obstacle. If we put stakes across the ford they could not use it.” Sir Edward had a mind which used nature to help defence. He had been a soldier since he had been a child.  He knew how to war.

I waved my arm up and down stream. “This river is not deep. Stakes would stop horses only and they could swim them.  No Sir Edward, we need to stop them north of the river. We use our mobility. We have an effective garrison in Norham.” I turned to Sir Roger, “You could hold them next time eh?”

“We could now that we know how they will attack.  They will use ladders.  We need long poles to discourage them.”

Wulfric said, “Make the bottom of the ditches muddy, fill them with water.  The water will drain leaving the bottom muddy and then the ladders will slip and sink. Ladders are unstable in the best of times.”

Wulfric was the most experienced soldier I had and his advice was invaluable. I had just mounted Scout when Dick and his archers rode in. We all looked at him expectantly. “Well?”

“They regrouped at the castle.  There are more knights there.  This was just the vanguard, my lord. I saw the standard of Gospatric there.  They have many knights.”

Edward nodded, “That is why they fled at our attack.  They were to secure the crossing. You are right my lord, they will come again.”

“The question is when.” I looked at the sun. It was past noon. “Are they all in camp?”

“Yes my lord but their leaders went into the castle.”

“Does the camp have defences, Dick?”

“No, my lord.  They have sentries but it is a tented camp.”

“Good, then I have a plan.” I turned to my knights. “I want the horses and servants to go into Norham.  There is nothing to be gained from a camp in the woods. We rest and then I intend to make a night attack on their camp.  I want only those who have no wounds. Dick and his archers will silence the sentries.  We will walk our mounts to within four hundred paces of their camp and then we ride through it. We kill as many as we can and we drive off as many animals as possible. It weakens them and, I hope, destroys their will to fight. Use spears and not lances. Dick, have fire arrows readied.  It will cover our retreat.”

Dick said, “One more thing, my lord.  There is another island and ford just a mile to the east of us. There is another bend there.”

“Then when we retreat this night I want you to leave ten archers there as an outpost in case they try a different approach.”

I had John use the grindstone at the castle to put an edge on my sword and spears. “I will leave you, my banner and my son here tonight.” I saw the disappointment on his face. “A night attack is tricky. William was lucky today.  You guard him and my standard this night.”

“Aye, my lord.”

Sir Roger put his own chamber at my disposal and I slept, albeit fitfully. I kept waking and wondering if my decision was the right one. I had far too few men to do the job.  Should I have gathered all my knights? Then I realised that I would not have known of the danger before I left home. Perhaps the rebels and the Scots would not return.  We had more than bloodied their nose. What sent me to sleep was Athelstan’s voice in my head reminding me that I had to have faith in the men I led. 

Sir John and Sir Phillip had insisted on joining me; they argued that they would not be needed inside the castle.  I was grateful for their presence.  It gave me two more knights and two more squires. We left an hour after dark. I suspect John had spoken with William for he did not complain at being left behind. Dick rode ahead of us and, riding without armour, soon disappeared from view. I had ordered all my men to try to muffle anything which would alert the enemy. We carried long spears.  They were not as long as our lances but would be handier.  We rode in a column of twos to allow us to defend ourselves if we were ambushed.

Griff of Gwent suddenly appeared from the woods to the side. Not a word was needed.  His appearance told us that we were now a mile from the enemy camp.  We dismounted and led our horses. We had our helmets on our cantles for our ears would be needed.  There would be time enough to don them when we mounted once more.  The smell from the enemy fires alerted us to the proximity of the camp.  The aroma of roasting meat told us that they would be anticipating their food rather than an attack. Griff stopped and raised his hand to show us that we were close enough to mount. I donned my helmet. 

Dick had given us an accurate picture of what the camp was like and I had decided that we would charge through the camp in a column four men wide. We would split up once we neared the walls of the castle and then turn in opposite directions. It would be a figure of eight we performed. I aimed for the most effective shock we could achieve.  Dick and the archers would use the confusion to drive off the horses of the men at arms.  Those of the knights and the squires would be safely kept within the castle walls.

I mounted and my men all followed suit. I rode on the left side with Leofric next to me.  Gille of Gainford, Edward’s squire was next to him and then Sir Edward himself. I hoped the two squires were up to the challenge. Once mounted, I spurred Scout. This was not the place to risk Star. As we thundered towards the camp, some fifty paces away, I saw that the enemy had occupied a number of smaller camps within the large one.

That made our task easier. I would have to use my spear over my left side. As I spurred Scout on the sound of our hooves made men leap from their tents in surprise. I used an overhand grip to hold my spear. I stabbed down at the surprised Scot who was pulling up his breeks. The sound of our horses and the shouts from men who saw us caused confusion and consternation within the camp.  Men ran for weapons.  Others dived back into tents to don armour and helmets. My right hand worked so hard stabbing down that it ached from the effort. I had no idea of the damage I was doing but I felt flesh when I struck each time.  I was hurting the enemy. When I saw the castle walls appear I yelled, “Wheel!”

I jerked Scout to the left.  Leofric now protected my right. We charged at right angles to the road we had used. If there had been confusion before when we rode down the road, now we caused chaos. Our column had split into two and the enemy appeared leaderless. Some of Dick’s archers had followed us in and were now using the camp fires to burn the tents.  A pall of smoke began drifting across the camp. It disguised our numbers.  As we were freed from the constriction of riding in fours we began to extract a terrible price for the earlier attack on Norham. The spears were long enough to strike a man cowering on the floor.  As horses rode through tents the occupants fled to be speared and trampled.

One brave man at arms faced me with his shield and his axe.  As I stabbed him he smashed through the wooden shaft of the spear with his final blow then at Scout.  Leofric’s quick hands thrust his spear into the warrior’s back.  I drew my sword and leaned forward. The men before us were illuminated by the fires Dick’s men had started. They were easy to see. I jerked Scout’s head away from the stabbing spear and, as the spear hit the shoulder plate protecting my right shoulder, I took his head.

My old wound in my left arm began to ache.  This was the longest I had used a shield in some time.  I had been warned that it would be weak. I was just grateful that we were almost through the camp.  I saw the woods ahead. I slashed at the last two men I saw to my right and then I was in the woods.  I rode for ten paces and then, after reining Scout in, turned around. I saw Leofric.  He was grinning.  His spear was gone, shattered no doubt during the brief but furious mêlée.

I knew that the last man in my line would be Wulfric.  I had given him that most dangerous of roles for he relished the challenge and the honour of being the last man in the line. Along with Roger of Lincoln they were the most reliable of all my men.  When he and Roger arrived I headed towards the road.  Behind us we could smell the smoke and the burning.  We could hear the cries and the shouts from the camp. One thing was certain, they would not attack us in the morning.

When we reached the ford Dick was waiting.  He had thirty captured palfreys and sumpters with him.  He also had eight head of cattle and four sheep. He shook his head, “I am sorry, my lord, the rest ran off and we could not capture them.”

“Fear not you have done well.  We have added to our horses and it will take them some time to recapture the others.  Did you lose any men?”

“Michael of Hartburn. He fell from his horse and they butchered him.  His killers died.” His tone told me of the revenge his archers had extracted. My archers were not the men I would choose to cross.

It had been one of Harold’s archers had fallen.  He would be upset. I waited close to the castle as the riders rode past.  I saw that we had lost some men at arms.  None were of my retinue but I felt their loss nonetheless. Sir Phillip and his squire had both died in the attack.  They had come for glory and treasure.  They had their glory now.  I wondered if the manor of Elsdon was cursed. It seemed to bring the lords there no good fortune despite its fine aspect. Sir John of Rothbury was also wounded.  He would not be of much use until his wound was healed. All things taken into consideration it had gone as well as I could have expected.  Now I just waited for them to disband their army and go home.

Dawn was breaking. As I wearily led Scout through the gates of Norham I saw a relieved William.  He was no longer a child but not yet a man and I saw, in his face, the desire to rush down and embrace me on my safe return.  John had his hand firmly around his shoulders.  He would stop any such indiscretion. I nodded to Sir Roger, “We are safe for another day at least.  They will not attack today.”

Sir Roger came close and said, quietly, “Food, my lord, is scarce.  This time of year we have lean provender but with your men too…”

I smiled, “My archers have captured some animals.  We will butcher them.  The men can eat the meat and the women and children can make a stew from the bones and greens.  There should be plenty at this time of year.”

“Of course.” He looked relieved.  I wondered where I had acquired such knowledge.  I had grown up never worrying about where my food came from. Now I knew how to manufacture food from nothing.

I was mindful of Sir Roger’s comments as I ate my frugal meal in his hall.  It would take time to butcher and cook the animals. That would be a task for the day.  I decided that when Dick and his men went scouting this day they should hunt too. I hoped it would not be necessary. Perhaps we had bloodied the Scots enough but it paid to be prudent.

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