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Thick air settled like a sodden mantle upon the rising heat of the summer morning. The dusky blue sky above hung low and heavy, promising rain. Great black buzzards sat patiently high up in the oak and ash trees, as if summoned by the banshees to come and collect the dead. And there would be many souls to collect this day.
From where Stefan de Valrey sat upon his mighty warhorse Fallon, he had a clear view of the valley below, the forest that edged it, and the Black Mountains that rose behind it like great slumbering giants. Behind him rose the gray stone of Hereford Castle, not yet complete. Before him, a respectable showing of soldiers worked feverishly, fortifying the castle defenses. Behind the castle walls, a greater force stood, several garrisons of ready Norman soldiers, and surrounding them, high upon the ramparts, hundreds of seasoned archers.
Far off in the distance, a sea of standards mingled in a tapestry of colors, as both Welsh and Saxon, unified against Normandy, marched in a steady cadence straight toward them. Though they were leagues away, their intention was clear. Like a swarm of locusts, they burned a wide swath of destruction behind them. Their destination: Hereford Castle.
But they would be hard-pressed to breach the stalwart fortress and the seasoned knights who waited behind the stone walls. Of that Stefan was sure. 'Twas for that simple reason he and his men were summoned by William fitz Osbern, the Norman Earl of Hereford. He had insisted that his cousin the king, William the Conqueror, send his most highly trained guard, les morts, to fight beside him against the defiant Saxon, Earl Edric, and the two Welsh kings, Rhiwallon and Bleddyn, who came with hopes of slaying Normans, plundering the countryside and sending a message to Normandy that they would never submit.
Stefan's lip curled in a snarl. Fools! All of them! The Conqueror could not be defeated! The Welsh would regret their decision to ally with Edric. William dealt harshly with any man who thwarted him. Stefan checked his anger as his wrath mounted. For he learned years ago never to go into battle any way but completely composed. It had kept him alive all of his eight and twenty years; it would keep him alive this day.
In a silent salute, he touched his mailed fingertips to his helm and nodded ever so slightly toward the encroaching horde. A worthy opponent, no doubt. But there was no doubt in Stefan's mind who would be the victor at the end of the day. And the day, but a handful of hours old, promised a worthy exchange. Even now, despite the vastness of yonder army, and the activity that accompanied them, it was eerily quiet. 'Twas a sensation Stefan relished: the deadly calm before all hell broke lose.
"The Welsh and Saxons grow bolder each day!" Stefan called to his brother Blood Swords. His eyes narrowed beneath his helm as he turned to his left. Rohan, Warner, and Thorin, the bastard son of the late Norse king Harald Hardrada, nodded in unison, their narrowed gazes focused where his had just been. Stefan looked to his right, to Ioan, Wulfson, Rorick, and Rhys, their faces mirroring his own. Each of them sat astride a great black warhorse, each of them mailed in black, each of them weaponed with bow, arrow, sword, and lance, and Thorin, as always, fondled the handle of his great battle-ax, Beowulf.
Stefan himself fondled the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword. Aye, many would die upon its honed edges this day. Instead of apprehension, excitement filled him as it always did before battle. 'Twas what drove him, 'twas his life, his purpose. He was not a gentle man, but then, neither was war gentle, nor the men beside him he called brother. All warriors at heart, they would die as they lived, by the sword.
He turned his attention back to the oncoming force. Most men would have realized they were outnumbered and fled across the drawbridge, calling for the portcullis to be dropped and prepared for a siege, but not Stefan, nor his brothers-in-arms. His gaze swept just ahead to the wall of Norman soldiers, then over his right shoulder to the high ramparts of Hereford Castle, to the archers who stood at the ready. Fitz Osbern himself would command from above, while Stefan had been given the command of the knights. When the enemy was within the longest range of the archers, a hailstorm of arrows would rain upon them. Once they had been softened, the archers would adjust and continue their barrage into the forest, whilst the foot soldiers marched forward flanked by a wall of steel and horseflesh. Then, and only when the heat of battle reached its zenith, hell's fury would be unleashed when the Blood Swords gave the command to their destriers to engage. Once afield, any living soul that crossed their path would pray for a quick and painless death.
It was a familiar routine, and one Stefan enjoyed immensely, for when it was the Blood Swords' turn, they faced what was left of the enemy's elite, and though there were none more fearsome than they, Stefan never felt good about slaying an ill-matched opponent. So, he was content to await his turn.
Fallon tossed his head, champing on his bit. Stefan patted the great horse on the side of the neck. "Patience, lad, we shall play soon enough."
"Richard is a fool of an overlord here." Warner seethed, "His heavy hand has brought this upon us today."
"Aye," Stefan agreed. "His greed has set this war into motion. Had fitz Osbern paid more attention to his ambitious vassal, we would not be in such a precarious position."
"Despite Richard's arrogance," Rohan rumbled. "Edric is a madman to thwart William! He will lose all."
"More hides for William to take for his loyal vassals, eh, Stefan?" Wulfson asked.
Stefan's heart thudded in excitement against his chest at the mention of land. He nodded. "You and Rohan have done well for yourselves. 'Tis land we all seek, Wulf. With mine, I will breed the finest horses in Christendom!"
"Hah!" Rorick chortled. "What of a wife?" Stefan scowled. He preferred the company of his horses over women. Horses were loyal to their master. Women were not. He'd learned the lesson well as a young man, from a noblewoman who had not only given her body to him but pledged her undying love and then her troth, only to take it back at his sire's refusal to acknowledge him. The day she married a wealthy Saxon noble had been the day he sold his sword to the highest bidder and swore that the day he took a wife it would be on his terms alone. "Nay, I am not like Wulf and Rohan. I prefer my solitude. And well you know I have no trust for the fairer of the sexes."
Rorick reached over and slapped him on the back. "Aye, I feel your pain, brother. But you must admit, there is no sweeter ride than between the soft thighs of a maid."
Stefan smiled: a rare gesture. "Agreed." He focused back on the gathering army below and scowled. His heart continued to thud against his chest, but not because of thoughts of a soft ride on a fair damsel. "More swarm."
"Look." Thorin pointed toward the western horizon and the great billows of black smoke that rose up into the thick air behind the encroaching army. A sultry breeze rose up and caressed Stefan's cheek, like a woman after a robust session of lovemaking. He grunted at the thought.
"They are scourging all of Herefordshire," Wulfson muttered.
Stefan nodded, and leveled his lance. "Aye, and they will pay handsomely for the privilege." He turned his horse and gestured for his men to follow. "If we are to beat the Welsh we must do more than soften them with arrows and charge them in the open. If we wait for them to come close to the castle walls, by their sheer numbers they can pin us and hold us at a gross disadvantage. A siege is not in our best interest. We must find a way to destroy them en masse before they reach the outer limits of the castle grounds."
The Blood Swords nodded and came together as one, and as they were wont to do, they devised a treacherous plan of action.
Several hours later, Stefan stood with his brothers high on the rampart walls of Hereford Castle. "If your plan does not work, Valrey, your men will die this day," William fitz Osbern said flatly.
Stefan turned to the Norman cousin of the Conqueror and curbed the sneer from his lips. Greed, not honor, drove the bastard. "Time will tell." And as the words left Stefan's mouth the first standard poked through the wood at the edge of the wide meadow surrounding the castle. He smiled tightly and softly said, "Now watch and learn."
Fitz Osbern moved to the edge of the stone rampart and stood with Stefan and his brothers, watching as Welsh and Saxon approached.
When the wide swath, more than thirty men deep, cleared the forest edge and marched into the open field, Stefan raised his hand and a loud horn blew. All at once, score after score of shallow blinds popped up from the meadow ground and Norman soldiers burst onto the field, stabbing and hacking the enemy taking them completely by surprise. Confusion reigned amongst the Welsh and Saxon forces. Stefan grinned.
Lying low in the grass farther back, a deadly band of archers stood and let loose on the enemy, then dropped back to their hiding places amongst the tall grass. Stefan raised his hand again, the horn sounded, and the Norman soldiers dropped and rolled, disappearing beneath the thatched blinds just as quickly as they had popped up. As the Welsh army scattered in confusion, the nearly two hundred Norman archers facing the battlefield just outside the castle walls let loose with another hailstorm of arrows. Screams and curses tore across the field. Another barrage of arrows followed, the reward more screams and, now, wild panic. Stefan raised his hand again and the horn blew once more. The blinds opened up, the soldiers emerged, stabbing and hacking at the enemy. And as before, just as quickly as they appeared, they vanished, and the ground was still. The scene replayed itself out repeatedly until the enemy was able to stabilize themselves and pull back.
Stefan frowned. Before they regrouped, for every Welsh and Saxon soldier who fell, three replaced him.
"Lower the bridge and send the first wave of soldiers!" Fitz Osbern called down to his captain, who waited in the bailey. The huge gate slowly lifted and the heavy bridge lowered. Nearly half of the garrisons charged out to meet the enemy.
"Send the first cavalry group!" Stefan called out. He watched as the archers continued to land their arrows just ahead of the Norman foot soldiers. As the regrouped Welsh and Saxon army came into view, Stefan cautiously watched, and his concern grew. Despite the scores of knights engaging alongside the foot soldiers, and the continued onslaught of arrows into the forest, the Normans on the field began to falter.
"Instruct the archers to shoot into the forest, to stay the flow!" Stefan called to fitz Osbern .
Fitz Osbern scowled, not liking Stefan's interference.
"Do it now!" Stefan commanded.
The command was given, and the result was immediate. With the flow of soldiers staunched, the Normans, sorely outnumbered, gained the time to do what they did best. Fight.
As the battle raged, Stefan watched, his hand gripping and ungripping the leather hilt of his sword. He smiled as he noticed each one of the Blood Swords fondle their hilts as well. They could not help it. 'Twas in their blood.
Stefan turned his attention back to the battle scene playing out before him. The archer's cache of arrows had grown dangerously low, and so the hailstorm into the forest edge was not so quick or heavy. The Welsh took advantage of it. They broke the Norman line, and when they did, fitz Osbern 's men began to break ranks.
"They falter!" Stefan cried. "To horse, men!" The Blood Swords followed him down the narrow stone stairway to the bailey where their horses awaited them.
" 'Tis too early!" Fitz Osbern yelled after them.
Stefan turned on his heel and looked up at the Earl.
"If we do not go to rally the men and show them we can win the day, all will be lost!" He turned and hurried to his horse.
When the portcullis slowly raised, the creaking sound of the turning chain on wheel overriding the din of battle, the eight knights sat astride, four abreast, a most fearsome sight. Stefan, flanked by Thorin on his left and Rorick and Warner to his right, was followed up by Wulfson, Rohan, Ioan, and Rhys at his back.
The heavy bridge lowered, and before it hit dirt, the eight black knights, with lances at the ready and battle cries booming across the field, thundered out to meet their enemy. As the Red Sea had for Moses, so the soldiers before them parted. In a tight formation, they rode out, and with each stride in practiced precision, they moved an inch further apart until they fanned out in a tight semi-circle. In that formation, they began to hack a swath across the field. As bodies fell, a renewed fervor swept through the Norman army.
Each time they regrouped, the Blood Swords raised their battle cry, and like the plague, they destroyed every living being in their path. But as the battle raged, the Blood Swords became the focus of the Welsh kings Rhiwallon and Bleddyn, who watched from the forest edge.
Over time, the tight formation loosened; and when Stefan hacked off the arm of the soldier who would have done the same to him, he cast his gaze to his right, then his left. His brothers were so heavily embedded in the thick of battle that he could not distinguish them.
He turned in his saddle, and with a mighty arc and swipe, separated yet another English head from the shoulders it had rested upon its entire life.
Sweat ran in rivulets down his face, stinging his eyes. He blinked, and spurred Fallon deeper into the fray. His hawk-sharp gaze swept the field of battle, locating then resting on the backs of his fellow Blood Swords up ahead, and he saw they too were as deep into the combined forces of Welsh and Saxon as he. He did not allow the fact that they had become separated to deter him from the task: secure Hereford Castle by any means necessary.
He watched as Wulfson, Ioan, Thorin, Warner, Rohan, and Rorick hacked their way through a gantlet of foot soldiers. As Stefan urged his horse forward, he narrowed his gaze. More Welsh erupted from the surrounding forests to swallow them up. Concern gnawed at his gut. He called to Rhys to his right, and pointed with his bloody sword toward the descending hordes running with the velocity of the wind at his brothers up ahead.
Rhys reined his horse around to flank the right column as it raced forward, while Stefan circled around the left. Both men sheathed their swords and drew their longbows and let loose, one after the other, scores of arrows on the attacking men. Stefan did not have the time to admire his work, as one man fell for each arrow he notched. He did not look to see if Rhys was as accurate, for he knew from years of riding and fighting together there were few who could best the young knight.
Once his quiver was depleted, Stefan reined up the black and drew his broadsword again, and with his other hand he grasped a deadly pike and pulled it from the carcass of a downed Welshman. He twirled it around in his large hand until it fit comfortably in his grip. Then he scanned the horizon for his brothers amongst the hordes. When he could not locate them, for the first time since the eight of them had fled that hellhole of a prison in Iberia, Stefan knew that Madam Death lurked on the horizon for not one of them, but for all of them.
Rage infused him. They would not fall to these cowards!
Stefan cast a quick glance over to Rhys, who had moved in, and as Stefan had, grabbed a pike from a dead man. In his other hand he held his sword at the ready. Each of their mounts was as highly trained in the art of war as were their masters. With both hands free to wield weapons, the knights controlled their mounts with their legs and body movement.
"To the Blood Swords!" Stefan yelled above the din of battle. As they came together, a force of nature to be reckoned with, they let loose their battle cry. The buzzards that waited patiently in the trees above scattered high into the hot summer sky.
And as his brothers came into view, Stefan watched in horror as they were swarmed by scores of Welsh. He roared his fury that he should lose any one of them, and as he hacked his way toward them, the sharp burn of a blade sliced into his thigh. He turned in his saddle to see the flat end of several swords flash before his eyes. Pain seared his face, and then the world went black.
Copyright © 2009 by Karin Tabke