On the hill to his right, trumpets blew. Others answered from the left. An ambush, on the long winding trail of men and machines? He hoped so. Any ambush from the flanks would have to cross furlongs of rough ground under five hundred ready crossbows.
The light horsemen burst instead from an olive grove a bare fifty yards in front of the Viking advance guard. Shef had barely time to see them, to note the wide-brimmed hats, the long ten-foot goads of the Camargue cowboys, dragged from home by the Emperor’s edict, when the goads dropped from the vertical to the charge, and all vanished in an instant pall of dust.
The Vikings were surprised but not dismayed. In instants swords were drawn, axes shifted to the striking hand. Automatically the loose straggle of the march shifted to a narrow front of raised shields and poised javelins. The cowboys made no effort to charge home but swerved and pounded down each flank. From the column of barebacked horses the goads darted, flicking at face or throat. Men screamed, reeled back into their messmates. The two columns of horses swerved round behind the footmen in a bewildering criss-cross, darted back, goads stabbing again at the weak points in the shaken line, at men still facing the wrong way, shaking their weapons and crying their war-cries to defy an enemy to stand foot to foot.
Crossbowmen had cocked their weapons, were running forward to find a place to shoot, running forward further in the hope of getting through the dust. Shef saw one kneel, take careful aim at a horseman curvetting twenty yards in front of him. The horseman slipped from his seat—he had no saddle—hung to the other side of his horse by mane and ankle. As the crossbowman shifted aim to bring down horse if not rider, another screaming Centaur burst from the dust, speared him between the shoulders, dipped the goad to clear the point and swept away, clearing a wall like a hunted stag and disappearing among the trees.
The trumpets blared again from either side, and men faced hastily in all directions. Nothing happened. Through the silence Shef could hear the wheezing noise of a man speared through the lungs. The dust settled on bodies lying in the road. Not many, a dozen, and as many more with their mates bending over them assessing the depth of a thrust. No sign of the enemy. Not a man or a horse left behind, and hardly a bolt shot at them or a blow struck. They could do it again any time. Shef began to shout orders to rally and re-organize his formations.
A long, hot delay on the dusty road while the wounded were loaded onto mules or carts, and the column began to move forward again. Shef had thought a little harder about the ambush problem. He had eight hundred crossbows, mixed in with another three hundred English halberdiers as close support, more trusted by the crossbowmen than their Viking allies. There were perhaps a thousand of the Vikings, heavy infantry of the sort that had decided so many battlefields before the coming of the Way to England. All the mules had been left aboard ship, their ton-and-a-quarter weight making Shef reluctant to move them unknown distances. Instead a dozen of the torsion dart-throwers, the weapons the Waymen called twist-shooters, trundled along behind their mule pairs, crews marching alongside. And then there was Steffi’s gang. Shef was no longer sure what they had with them, for they seemed to have become more and more secretive with the establishment of their own pendant and trade. They certainly had half a dozen catapults of the old lobbing traction type, knocked down into beams and rope for easy transport. No use on the march, but they had to be protected just the same.
The column moved forward now with a solid body of crossbowmen at the front, interspersed with halberdiers. More crossbows moved to the flanks, causing continual halts as they negotiated the walls of private villas and the gullies that occasionally ran in culverts under the stone road. In the center of the column, marching rather sullenly under the unwonted slur of needing protection, the Viking sword- and axe-men straggled along either side of the mule-train. If the cowboys came again, Shef reckoned, the crossbows would empty a few saddles as they charged and many more as they retreated. The halberds would hold off light horse, at least.