Or maybe they had. They had determined everything else about this battle so far. With a fear so deep it was like a spasm in his breast, Shef remembered King Charles the Bald and how he had pressed on and on in an attempt to capture machines temptingly waved in front of him. Now he was doing the same. But it was his enemy, this time, who knew the ground and had a plan, he who was thrusting forward confident in superior weaponry.
“Hold it,” he shouted, “steady, close up and shoot. Stop running!” His voice reached only those nearest to him, the rest saw their enemies wavering, rushed on to close with them and take revenge for their fear.
“That’ll do,” remarked Bruno, and nodded to his trumpeter. Out of the dead ground between crossbows and onagers, from behind olive groves and villa walls, came the heavy horse which were the glory of the Imperial army, mail gleaming, steel hooves striking sparks from the stone, lance-points lowered. Each group drove straight for their enemies, making no attempt to form a concerted line. Their charge came home from no more than fifty yards, five terrified heartbeats to an unarmored man charged by war-stallions.
Shef, a little behind the rashest of the crossbows, saw them stop, hesitate, and then almost to a man turn and run, leaping from side to side on the stony hillside to avoid the lances behind them. One man dropped to one knee, swung up his crossbow. As he pulled trigger a lance struck him, lifted him off the ground, the bolt flying straight up in the sky. The lancers came on with the skill of men in the saddle from childhood, lances driving, then as they broke or remained fixed in sprawling bodies, whirling broadswords from the scabbards on their saddles. Shef realized suddenly that one rider had singled him out as a target. Their eyes met, and then the horse was leaping towards him, foam flecking its muzzle as the rider drove home the long spiked spurs. Shef groped for a crossbow, reached towards his belt, realized that he was once again unarmed except for a belt-knife. Running was a disgrace, he would be hacked down from behind, a laughingstock to the future. Try to dodge the blow?
An arm thrust him stumbling aside, a broad metal-clad back filled his view. It was Styrr, run gasping up in the heat from the Viking column behind. The Frank—he did not wear the Lance of a Lanzenritter on his shield—swerved his charger with knee-pressure alone to pass Styrr on his right, sword high for the downstroke. As he did so Styrr’s own right arm swung with terrible force, the axe-blow with all a man’s weight concentrated and flung with hatred behind the iron head. Aimed at the horse—not the rider. The chunk of cleaver on butcher’s block and the lancer was falling forwards over his horse’s head, rolling in a ball and coming up at Shef’s very feet. Without thought Shef hit him with clenched fist on the side of the jaw, as the long-dead Karli had shown him in the swamps of the Ditmarsh. As the lancer staggered back Styrr freed a blade, stabbed him in the back of the neck, turned instantly to face any new foe.
The hillside was clear again, horsemen vanished as if they had been sorcerers’ illusions. Back into cover. As Shef looked around to see what had happened an onager stone passed his head so close the displaced air snapped his neck back. All too fast, he thought dazedly. Before one thing’s settled another’s started.
Styrr grunted as he tried to free his axe from where it was buried deep in the war-horse’s skull, grunted again, worked a corner free and dragged it loose. He looked at the blade with concern, then grinned.
“Never done that before,” he said. “What’s next?” The Vikings, Shef remembered, could be beaten but never panicked. He looked round, began once more to call out orders. One thing was clear. He would advance no further into a maze of traps. The question was, could he now disengage?
The well is poisoned,” said Hund.
Shef stared at him, stared down into the bucket Hund had just examined. Green slime caked the bucket, the water was filthy. That did not matter, he could drink it. He had thought he was about to die of thirst when he reached the village of the heretics, had refused to drink. This was worse. There was no pride involved, it was water, it looked all right…