Thursday, April 28, 2011
The Far Bridge
I had pulled an early watch and come back to camp to rest a little before the coming battle. I knew there would be fighting this day, as my king was restless. We had sailed from England and now waited to uphold our sovereign's lawful bid for the French throne. I had come without my liege lord, who was too ill to leave his keep. I, as his squire, must keep his honor bright and proudly wear the Mightrinwood colors. I raced to don the last of my armor as the trumpets blared.
All too soon I stood at the ford, sweating in the morning sun amidst a welter of knights and men-at-arms. I could feel the sweat trickling down my body beneath my gambesson. The anticipation and dread clawed at my stomach, threatening to bring forth the porridge I had hastily eaten for breakfast. This could be the day in which I met my Maker. I felt the talisman my sweetheart had given me resting beneath my jerkin. "For you, love, and for Mightrinwood, England, and God." I prayed, knowing that those around me did so as well. Who would come away from this fray whole and alive? I prayed that I would at least die with honor.
The trumpets rang out, heralding the coming of the king. We knelt as one as the king came to the fore. I heard nothing of his speech as the blood pounded in my ears and threatened to strangle the life from me. Soon it was over and we were rising to meet the glares of the assembled French knights. This ford lay at the back door to their heart. Whoever controlled it controlled the rich heartland of France.
Trumpets blared once more and we tightened our formations. I could see the pennons of the angry French tossing and snapping with the breeze which funneled up the river. Was that the Oriflamme, there behind the press? That banner meant there would be no quarter given. We would hold this nameless bridge or die trying. Acid rose in my throat, searing and raw. A shout rose around me and I added my hoarse voice to it. "For England and St. George!"
Again the trumpets blared and the two monstrous factions surged to the middle of the bridge. I was smashed from behind and knocked to my knees. I could only curl up beneath my shield and wait for a chance to rise again. I hoped I would not be trampled to death. The air was filled with the stench of unwashed bodies and the curses and cries of the wounded. Both sides bristled with spears and halberds, swords and maces. From somewhere behind us the English bowmen were hard at work sending cloud after cloud of the great clothyard arrows in a killing rain to fall upon the French.
The battle surged over me, the noise deafening, the stench cloying. I felt another's blood seeping through my gambesson. There was a tiny lull and then the battering on my shield came from a different direction. I peeked out and found myself staring up at the underbelly of a French knight. The French had moved over and past my hiding place and I was in enemy territory! Terror caught at my innards. Surely someone would dispatch me with his dagger before I could even make a single strike! I waited, in dread, for the sting of that dagger to enter my ribs or the 'snick' of one of our own arrows to find my heart.
At last a ceasefire rang out. The bridge was clogged with the dead and dying, stacked like wood in a bonfire. No progress could be made one way or the other. Both armies had fallen back while men dumped the bodies into the chill, black torrent of the river to clear the bridge. Now was my chance!
I struggled up and dragged the wounded knight on whose leg my head had rested, back across the gap. I could hear the astonished and angry French behind me. My heart lifted as my English mates cheered to see me rise. "The blood is not mine!" I yelled in amazement. They drew me back into their arms, pounding me on the back in brotherly bonhomie. We had somehow cheated Death's impartial scythe.
I turned. Now I was almost in the van of the new press. The French had an ax to grind with me, now. I could see the blood lust rise scarlet in their eyes as they searched me out in the second wave of men. They would be coming for me in vengeance. I breathed another plea to the Almighty that I would once again feel the tender arms of my sweetheart around me and breathe the clean air of Britain. The sheep would be lambing, back on the farm. Would I be there to sheer them in the fall?
Again the armies crashed together, the sound deafening--ominous with the cries of the wounded and dying. I could feel the tentative poking of several spears, trying to feel out my defenses. A halberd came over the top; it tried to hook my shield down to let the razor-sharp spears in. I knocked it away. Again. Again. Again. Spears thundered on my shield and skipped across my helm. Splinters of wood and droplets of blood and gobbets of other men's flesh filled the air.
I took every chance to catch the spear-men unaware. One good yank and a man could be rendered weaponless, allowing one of ours to end his life. Our own spear-men worked around and over me, hiding behind my trusted shield. Now and then they sent me a thankful smile as an incoming spear skipped harmlessly off, or I trapped it and sent it behind me for our own to use.
Inch by excruciating inch we crept across the bridge, stepping over the fallen, trying not to trip. The time dragged onward, seemingly forever. Hacking, slashing, bleeding, dying. My face and legs bled from a hundred cuts, but still I fought on. My muscles screamed from the effort of holding up the shield, from the sword, and from the battering of my men behind me and the spears and halberds in front.
At last we began to see the French weakening. The men in their rearguard had endured too many of our stinging arrows and were fleeing the field. At once our king bellowed a charge and we thudded into the French line, pushing, yelling, slicing into them; bludgeoning over them. I could see those eyes change from rank disdain to abject terror as we ran up their sharp spears to kill them.
All at once we were through, like a stopper removed from a dam. Into their backfield we raced, dispatching the wounded, imprisoning the survivors. I stopped, gasping for breath, when I found no enemy left to fight. I doubled over retching into the French dirt. At some time my colors had been torn from one shoulder and hung dripping with blood, sweat, and filth. I had not dishonored the Mightrinwood name.
I had done it! God had kept me alive to see the end--to see my fair one once again--to return to till my good English soil. Perhaps I might even reach home before the lambing was over!