Read King Henry's Champion Online

Authors: Griff Hosker

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

King Henry's Champion (7 page)

 

 

 

Chapter 5

The lightly armed men tried to race across the field.  I saw them struggle.  The horses behind would find it even harder.  The men on foot had small shields. In their hands they carried axes and hatchets. The stakes were well within range of my archers. I saw that they had sent fifty men across while the horses plodded their way behind.  Gospatric would wait until a path had been cleared and then they would charge. I saw the banners of the knights.  One or two were obviously Scottish but the majority were English; they were rebels.

I shouted, knowing that my captain of archers would hear, “On my command, Dick.”

“Aye my lord.”

I waited until the men reached the stakes before I shouted, “Release!”

Disappointingly less than half of the arrows found a mark.  The rain on the strings and flights meant that they had a much shorter range.  Eight men were struck.  Two stayed down.  Dick sent four more flights over before I heard him shout.  “Change strings!” They all carried spares.  The hiatus as they changed bow strings allowed the enemy to tear out and destroy a third of the stakes but they had paid a terrible price.  The arrows and bolts from the castle meant that the ones closest to the river had all been driven from the stakes which remained while Ralph had taken his archers closer to the road and driven those back with their bows as well as their swords.  The twenty odd survivors were forced to retreat when Dick’s fresh bow strings took their toll.

They had made a gap of forty paces in the centre of our lines of stakes. Their horses would be able to charge us. I heard the enemy horn sound.  “They come, my fine fellows, but we will hold them.  We have beaten them twice.  The third time pays all!”

My men cheered.  It was cold and wet and miserable. We were outnumbered. We stood a good chance of dying on this muddy rise but we were in good heart.  Men who have never tasted defeat have confidence in abundance.

I saw that the bodies of the dead lay in the gap through which the horses would have to come.  They would find that obstacle tricky. It was clear to me that they had a tight line as they approached and were knee to knee.  They were still walking. When I saw slight gaps appear I knew that they were trotting.  Wulfric shouted, “Ready spears!”

I held my spear so that the bottom was resting against my right foot which was behind my left. When they closed I would put my left hand on the spear as well. In these slippery conditions I would need to brace myself. I had my mail mittens on which protected the back of my hands and my fingers.  My palm was bare and the shaft of the spear felt greasy.  The men who charged us would have exactly the same problem.  Their lances risked sliding backwards through their hands when they struck.

The enemy were now less than a hundred paces from us and were moving faster than they had been.  Gaps appeared.  Then the ones on the flanks realised that they had stakes before them and they moved in towards the centre.  Where there had been gaps there were now none but rather than helping them it made them get in each other’s way. As they reached the ground which was churned up already I saw one squire lose control of his horse.  It slipped on the mud and the press of horses behind meant it pitched forward throwing the squire high in the air. His body crunched into a stake, impaling him like a dead crow.  His horse brought down three other riders and their front rank was in confusion.  Still they came but the fallen horses, the mud, the stakes and the dead bodies meant that they came at us at a walk.

Wulfric shouted, “Ready!  Second rank thrust!”

Spears appeared over my left and right shoulder.  I held the spear with my left hand.  The action brought my shield around to cover my chest. A knight with a blue shield and a red fess aimed his lance and horse at me.  His lance struck my shield but there was no power behind it for his hand slipped.  His horse was forced forward by the press of riders behind and my spear sank into his chest. The horse’s muzzle was a hand span from my face and the beast screamed in pain.  It was not a war horse else I would have suffered his teeth. I leaned forward as the spears behind jabbed into its head. It fell backwards.  The knight could not get out of his stirrups and he fell with the horse.  My spear broken, I released it and drew my sword. The knights who fell were trampled by horses maddened by jabbing spears.

I saw, down the line, that we had held them.  Some of the enemy had drawn their swords having shattered their spears but the defensive hedgehog of spears kept them at bay. The knight who had been pitched from the horse I had killed lay stunned at my feet.  I saw his eyes open. I stepped forward and put my sword to his throat.  “Yield or die!”

“I yield! I yield!”

Sir Edward and Sir Richard who flanked me saw my movement and they too stepped forward.  It was then that the small slope came to our aid.  The horses could not gather purchase and we pushed horses and riders down the gentle but slippery ground. They ran into the wall of riders and men behind. I saw arrows plunging down into the men at arms and knights at the rear. Dick and Ralph had closed the range so that even with wet bow strings they were hurting our enemy. Beyond them I saw the foot trying to make their way across the field now churned into an almost impossible morass by horses and mailed knights.

I stabbed upwards under the arm of a knight who was trying to control his horse. There was no mail to protect him there and I saw the tip of my sword emerge through his neck.  I withdrew it and he slumped to the side.  His foot was still in the stirrup and his horse reared.  I had to step back to avoid its hooves. Instead they struck the knight next to the panicked horse.  He too fell. The panicked horse turned away from the spears and tried to run away, dragging the knight with it.

I seized the chance.  The rebels were trapped by the stakes to the side and their weight of numbers. The maddened horse was creating space for us. I yelled, “Attack!” It was the signal for everyone to move forward.  The archers were the first to attack.  Using their short swords and daggers they ran amongst the knights evading the flailing blows of men trying to control horses which were sliding around as though on ice. The archers found the places the mail did not cover and they slit the throats of horses. The men at arms who were waiting behind us in the second rank had unbroken spears and, moving forward, they used their weapons to good effect. Like me they went for the weakness under the arms and beneath the helmets. I blocked an axe with my shield, feeling the ache in my shoulder, and then I forced my sword between the cantle and the shield. It struck mail and I leaned into it.  I felt a push behind me as John added his weight.  The rider fell sideways off his horse.  The rain washed the blood from my sword.

I slapped the horse on the rump and pushed it out of the way. When it ran I stepped through the gap.  It was now a confused battlefield but the enemy were surrounded.  Until their foot soldiers could aid them they were outnumbered and surrounded. I heard voices crying for mercy. Whoever led, for I did not see Gospatric’s banner, must have decided they had failed and a horn sounded.  Those at the back fell back and headed for their own lines.

There were just horses before us and the foot who were less than a hundred paces from us. “Squires, take these horses to the rear.  Wulfric, attack!”

I was tired and it was hard moving through the sucking soil which threatened to drag me down but we had to break the will of these warriors who had yet to fight. I now understood why the enemy had found it so hard to get to us. It took an age to move my feet. I saw the archers led by Dick and Ralph.  They had strung their bows and were loosing at a distance of less than fifty paces.  Even with wet strings they could not miss. The warriors on foot tried to get at their tormentors but the cloying mud stopped them. They turned and followed the departing horses.  Dick and his men made their way on the drier ground to continue their torment.  They used the dry road which ran alongside the field across which the doomed charge had failed. I stopped.  We had broken them.

I turned and raised my sword.  My men all cheered.  As I looked up in the sky I saw a lightening of the clouds and the rain lessened. God was on our side.

I sheathed my sword and took off my helmet. The knight who had surrendered to me had extricated himself from his dead horse.  He was kneeling and stroking its head, “He was a fine horse.  I shall miss him.  I will never have such a faithful steed again.” He took out his sword and handed it to me. “I am Sir Hugo of Fife and I am your prisoner. I take it I am to be ransomed?”

I nodded, “Does your squire live?”

He shrugged, “In this mess it is hard to know.”

“I will send men to ask for truce.” I waved my hand along the line.  I could see enemy knights looking forlornly around the field.  We had many prisoners. “You are not the only one. Where is the Earl of Northumberland?”

He shook his head, “He brought us here but did not lead the charge. One of his sons did.” He pointed to the knight whom I had slain under his arm.  “He lies there.  He was brave enough.  His father wants a throne but does not wish to risk his life to get one.” The rain had now stopped.  We both took off our coifs. “You are the Earl of Cleveland are you not?”

“I am.”

“We have heard of you but we thought you too far away to be of concern to us. When you attacked our camp there were those who had fought you and they said that it had to be you who led.  You do things differently.”

I nodded, “I do not come from this island.  I was brought up in the east.”

“That explains it.”

“How much can your family afford?”

He looked at me in surprise, “You do not demand a ridiculously high sum?”

“Why should I do that?  It would make your family my blood enemies. I have enough enemies as it is.  Besides you were unlucky.  You had to surrender. If I think you have not paid enough ransom then you will be my enemy and I have a long memory and an even longer arm.” 

“It is what I have heard of you. Fear not I am an honest knight and you will be paid what you deserve. It is a pity we are on opposite sides, my lord.”

I smiled, “Were that true, Sir Hugo, then you would not have tried to take this land.  This is England and I defend my home.”

I sent John and Wulfric to the Scots to arrange the ransoms.  John was proud of the honour and Wulfric would keep them safe. Although we had lost men it had not been as bad as it might have been.  I did not feel proud of the victory.  It was the weather which had won it for us. We had been resolute and held our ground but if it had been dry we would have suffered more losses.

The hostages were taken into the castle.  The enemy wounded were despatched.  A dozen men at arms had also surrendered.  I would have to give thought to those.  I was not the kind of leader who killed his enemies out of hand.

It was late afternoon when a column of eight riders appeared.  They were led by John and Wulfric and I did not worry.  They stopped and Wulfric said, “This is the Earl of Gospatric, he would speak with you.  The others are those who will take the demands for ransoms.”

“Then take them to the castle.”

They left and Gospatric dismounted. I could see now why he had not led the charge.  He was older than I and he was overweight. I pitied his horse. He took off his helmet and handed it to his squire who remained with the horse.  “Come, let us talk.” I was not certain that I needed to speak with him but I acceded to his request.  I had learned that such men often let slip vital information without knowing.

We walked towards the river.  Once we had passed the muddy morass it became slightly easier to walk, “You were lucky today, Cleveland.  The ground helped you.”

“And perhaps it was your incompetence too.”

His head whipped around and there was anger on his face, “That is an insult!”

“If you wish satisfaction from me then draw your sword and we shall decide that here.” He glowered and then shook his head.  “It was you who asked for this conference not me. We won the day.  I have yet to decide if I ought to take Berwick as punishment.”

This time his look was one of worry, “Your King would not like that.”

“Is he not your King too? Or do you wear King David’s coat this day?” He said nothing.  We had reached the river. I noticed that it was brown and the level much higher than it had been. It would be harder to ford now.  We were safe from any further attack. “Come, what is it you wish to say?  I have pressing matters to attend to.”

“Why not join with us?”

I refrained from giving him the retort that was in my head.  I could learn much here.  “Who are us?”

“Those of us who have lands in England: Comyn, Buchan, de Brus. We have many supporters. You are not Norman.  You are like me, descended from the Housecarls of England. You control the land from the Tees to the border.  You are the most powerful lord of the north.  With you as an ally we could rule the disputed land twixt Scotland and England.”

“With you as King?”

“And why not? I have more right to it than the son of a bastard!” I stood and began to head back to the castle. His voice was pleading, “Well, what is your answer?”

I stopped and faced him, “You swore an oath to King Henry and he gave you lands. Unlike you I believe that an oath is binding unto death. I am tempted to take you now in chains to the Tower so that the King himself can dispense justice.”

He suddenly looked afraid, “You cannot! I came here in good faith under truce!”

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