Brenn watched the enemy fill the fields across the brook. Their numbers seemed vast, impossibly numerous even from such a distance. He knew, with a familiar chill of fear, that their numbers would only swell the closer they came. To be trapped amongst the oncoming horde, fending off blows on all sides… It was enough to turn his stomach and cause him to doubt the noble purpose which brought him there.
Am I really about to stake my whole life on nothing more than a promise? he wondered. And whose promise? A bishop, a man who never touched iron nor spilled blood in his life.
Further doubt was forestalled by a ripple passing through the ranks of armoured men around him. Men shuffled around under the weight of plate and mail to look over Brenn’s shoulder. He turned and saw the king nudging his horse between the disorderly ranks of his vanguard.
‘God save you, lord!’ a burly knight called. The pinched white line of scar tissue which stretched like a pale ribbon across his cheek marked him as a veteran.
Others took up the cry ‘God save the king!’ and Brenn felt his fear settle into determined certainty. He would fight. He wouldn’t run. His sword would see its work done.
‘Are you well, sir?’ a familiar voice asked.
He looked away from the king and saw the hairless face of his young squire. No more than a lad, a child in truth, his mother shouldn’t have sent him. But how else was a common washerwoman supposed to feed four children on her meagre earnings? Brenn nodded to him and clapped a heavy palm on the boy’s shoulder, hoping it would be enough to steady his nerve.
‘I’m well enough, lad. I’ll be better when this damned thing begins.’
There was a rumble of approval from the knights closest to him. They had all returned to watching the enemy’s advance. Teams of archers could be seen planting stakes around the ford, laughing as one of their number slipped and rolled down the muddy bank. He rose from the shallows with water streaming down his leather jerkin, cursing pouring forth from his mouth.
‘I don’t like the thought of slogging up that,’ the veteran muttered.
Brenn nodded in silent agreement. He could see it well enough in the main enemy host. Knights were unbuckling their armour and hitching their mounts to posts in the field. Some took packs from their squires and sat to eat in the morning sun. They don’t think we’ll get across, Brenn realised. They don’t think we’re mad enough to try.
Three shrill blasts of a hunting horn in the foremost ranks proved the enemy wrong. He heard the lad whimper behind him and prayed he wouldn’t loose his bowels in fright. The last thing he wanted was the stench of shit in his nose as he marched towards the brook. There would be enough of it before long; fear was ever the fastest way to ease a meal’s descent.
‘There’s the call,’ the veteran said, his commentary now becoming an irksome echo of Brenn’s thoughts. ‘Let’s show them how true men fight.’
Let’s show them how true men die, he thought. Tripping over their friend’s corpses, legs slick with shit and finding nothing but a yard of steel on the other end.
‘That’s right.’ Brenn raised his voice and found it strong with false conviction. ‘We’ll give them steel and death.’
Our deaths, I don’t doubt.
The army dragged itself toward the brook. Every man stepped forwards not because he desired to, not for craving blood or death, but because to leave a gap in the advance would be unthinkable. To halt or turn from the line would mark him instantly as a coward. The constant tramp of marching feet all around was a thundering challenge. Traitor. Coward. Fight. The din of iron plates clattering together and the slap of chainmail on legs raised its own accusation. Traitor. Coward. Fight.
Brenn hated the men around him, hated every one of them with a burning passion. They had committed no crime against him. They were his brothers in blood, brought to that place by the same compulsion which had forced his hand to take up the sword. But it was their advance, the crash of their feet striking the ground in unison which fastened the shackles around his legs and hauled the chain which bound him. Every step they took, the chain drew tighter, hauling him towards the ford where death waited.
‘Was it true?’ the boy asked, his voice sounding shrill and the telltale pinch of urine tainting Brenn’s nostrils. ‘What the bishop said, was it true?’
‘Yes, lad. This is a righteous war. Salvation awaits us over there.’
He gestured to the enemy position and cursed himself as his eyes followed the movement. More archers gathered around the crossing, planting arrows in the soft earth at the top of the bank. There was no urgency among them. They were content to wait and watch the knights advance.
Damned bishop, Brenn thought. Taking up the sword in righteous combat… It’ll earn me a seat in Heaven, will it? And you, with your books and your wine and your whores, what do you know of Heaven?
‘We’re there, sir.’ The lad fell back a step to walk behind Brenn and the knight felt his stomach clench.
The first brave fools rushed ahead as they reached the near bank, slowing to pick their way down into the shallows. He saw the archers flex their arms and point, so close he might have thrown a stone and knocked one of them flat. But the brook stood between them, a dozen armoured figures wading through the shallows as more tramped down into the murky water.
An archer stepped forward and drew the bowstring back to his cheek. Brenn had the sense of every eye on the battlefield watching the same point, a tip of honed iron wavering before it settled on its mark. Don’t drag it out, you bastard. The string hummed and the shaft flew, faster than Brenn’s eyes could follow. There was nothing to mark its progress until, after a second’s silence, the leading knight crashed into the shallows.
The race began. Brenn thrust his elbows into his comrades’ sides as he fought his way towards the steep bank. Already, the boots of the men in front had turned it into a slick wall of dark mud. Ahead of him, a tall man in fine Milanese plate lost his footing and tumbled into the ford, landing face-down in the muck and thrashing for a few moments before he choked on the brackish water.
‘Stay close to me,’ Brenn shouted, not knowing if his squire was close enough to hear.
Arrows flew into their packed ranks as they heaved through the chill stream, stepping over the backs of the fallen. Men toppled into his path with the feathered shafts sprouting from their throats, eyes, groins, any gap in their iron casings. Soon there was no way around or over. He walked on those who had gone before, pressing their faces under the surface and feeling them writhe underfoot. God forgive me, but I won’t die here.
Then the wet chill was gone from his legs and there was nothing in front except a slope of sodden earth and the leering faces of the bowmen above. Glancing back, Brenn saw the remnants of the army straggling through the brook. They still haven’t fled, he realised with a trace of pride touching his heart. They must be as mad as I am. Then he saw the young face in his shadow, a heavy mace in his boyish hand. There was terror in the lad’s eyes, a determined terror.
Brenn lunged at the bank, gripped the mud in hard fingers and swung his longsword at the nearest archer’s leg. The blade whipped through the air in a blur. A yard of sharpened steel, but still too short. The point buried itself in the bank. He heard the enemy laugh and saw sunlight glinting on an arrowhead before it punched through his visor.
His vision was a blur of blood-misted water, but something moved below the diminishing sun. A small shape leapt up from where Brenn had fallen, something short and vicious clutched in its hand. One of the archers fell and then another as the lad scrambled up the bank, unhindered by plate or mail. Heavy feet pressed over the knight’s chest, but he was beyond pain or regret.
He tried to laugh and breathed in a mouthful of sour-tasting water. Salvation? It tastes like shit to me.