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These are some of rapier17's tales about his mercenary character Giacomo. Sorry 'bout how long they are, I didn't make them.

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Battle Nerves

The dice fell on the upturned shield rattling, tumbling, colliding and seperating. As they came to rest, six pairs of eyes stared at the wooden squares. A couple of coins were placed on to the shield by one of players, who scooped up the dice and tossed them down on to the shield. Once again they danced and rolled across the uneven surface, eventually coming to a halt.
Standing over the shield Giacomo, Mercenary Captain, watched the money change hands and the game continue. His attention was only half on the dice rolls, his eyes constantly flicking up to stare at the dust that rose over the ridge. His scouts had ridden back to the Company twenty minutes beforehand, give or take, and after the initial rush of activity to pull on armour and check weapons, his men had settled down to wait it out until the Swadians reached them.

Running his hand through his beard, Giacomo turned away from the dice players and looked over their position. Where he stood was at the centre of what would be his defensive position, where his fourty crossbowmen would face down the might of the enemy's charge with barrages of steel tipped bolts. To his left, where the ground dropped severely to flatten out behind their ridge, his men-at-arms were still being armed and armoured by their squires, whilst several of the crossbowmen walked the heavy destriers up and down the grassland to warm the animals muscles. Lances lay in the grass, along with shields, each one bearing the Company's field and symbol, a white wolfs head backed by a gray dagger on a black field.

Folding his arms, he shivered against the cold breeze that drifted along the ridge. Nearly summer and still the wind was cold, easily finding its way through both linen tunics he wore. The woollen grey trousers he was clad in held out far better against elements, but that was fine for his legs, as the fighting would be hot enough as it was without the heat of wearing a woollen tunic making it even more uncomfortable. At least with the lighter weight linen it would help to keep him cooller, even if he felt cold.

Above him in the blue sky, a cloud drifted over the sun, plunging the ridge into shadow, which made Giacomo shiver once more. Once the cloud had passed over he felt the intense heat of the sun smother itself over his skin. Arms still crossed, he slowly moved over the ridge to where the Company's sole wagon, laden with food, equipment and the paychest stood with horses ready in case the worst happened. The Sergeant guarding the wagon picked something up from the wagons bed as Giacomo approached and unceremoniously tossed a bundle at his Captain, who lost in his own thoughts staggered as the heavy padded coat hit him, the sweat-stained material filling his nostrils with its stench.

He grabbed at the padded jacket, pulled it away from his face and swallowed nervously. Fear always upset his stomach when he began to equip himself for battle. Positioning his men, choosing where to fight and how, preparing traps and surprises for the enemy all seemed like a game, given a grim reality when faced with the prospect that shortly steel would cross steel, blood would be spilt, bodies mangled by blades and bolts, lives broken or taken away in moments. He could feel the tension inside him, tieing his stomach into knots, making his muscles shiver. He looked up at the bright, clear sun, with eyes half closed. Let me live, whatever or whoever is up there, let me live.

His bowels churned inside himself as he looked up at the Sergeant, a Rhodok man who was clad in a coat of mail, a long sword buckled to his belt, who seemed completely at ease, stacking the crates and barrels as far forward in the wagon as possible to make space where casualties could be placed. Glancing to his left he could see the Company's doctor, a small Swadian with a bald head, clad in an apron spattered with black patches. Blood, all Giacomo could think, mens blood, womens blood, Hells, probably even childrens blood. How much more would coat that apron after today?. He looked away as the doctor laid out his tools, a series of knives and saws, tongs and probes. The sawbones looked up and caught the Captains gaze and gave him a nod. Giacomo looked hurriedly away, pulling on his padded jacket as he moved up to the wagons tail. Sat neatly on the wagons rear was his sword, pick, dagger, short sword and shield, with his arming cap on top. A leather belt, three inches thick with two buckles, lay coiled like a snake next to the weapons. The Sergeant, who must have placed the equipment so neatly for his Captain, ignored him completely as Giacomo tried to thank him.

Having buckled the jacket, he swung his arms to make sure he would not be hindered by the garment, or that the clothing beneath had gathered at one spot which might annoy and distract him. Satisfied he unfolded the thick arming cap and pulled it over his long hair, which lay tied in a tail, falling down his back like a glossy wave of golden brown silk. Tieing the straps of the arming cap firmly beneath his chin, he picked up the leather belt and the short sword, threading the scabbards leather loop on to the belt. The weapon was known amongst the Company as 'Butcher' because of its similarity with carving knives. Its single edge was sharper than a razor, whilsts it tip would pierce leather and cloth as though they were butter. It hung just over his right thigh, the scabbard trailing past his leg. When he ran it banged against the limb, but he could live with the annoyance and bruising for the speed that the weapons placement gave when he drew it.

Hauling the scabbarded sword off of the wagons bedding, he lifted the hilt to his lips, kissing the elongated, faceted pommel for luck. The sword was his favourite weapon, forged by a master, a beautiful blade he'd taken from the body of a Noble who had found one day that he needed it no longer. It's blade was just over three feet long, narrow and flexible but strong enough to take a hit from a heavier weapon. The quillons on the hilt angled gently towards the blade, whilst the grip was covered in lambs leather, dyed black. What Giacomo loved about the weapon was how functional and unadorned it was. It's beauty was in the brilliance of its forging, not through exterior adornments.
He drew it a short way from the scabbards mouth, relishing the slight resistance of the fleece lined scabbard, his eyes caught as ever to the wispy lines on the steel from its forging. He slid the weapon fully into the scabbard and buckled it into place on the belt, where it would hang over his right hip.

Next came the knife, which sat just over his right buttock, where his right hand could grab and draw it quickly and efficiently. It was an odd weapon to Calradia, a ballock knife, which Giacomo had brought with him on his travels. It's blade was double-edged, with a narrow tip. Like the 'Butcher' it was wickedly sharp, and mostly used for meals, but it was useful in a tight spot in a melee. Its wooden hilt was varnished and capped with bronze, which was kept polished so that it shone like gold. Giacomo had been told that where the knife was most commonly used it was often held in the shield hand along with a buckler.

The last weapon was his pick, a weapon he hated as much as he loved it. It was a brutal weapon, with a lead weighted hammer head one side, and on the other a long spike, a length of square metal that ended in a long sharp tip. It was not a weapon with finesse, it lacked balance, but it went through most armour so easily that he rarely used his sword in battle, at least not against armoured foes. Problem was when it became trapped and he'd have to discard it.

He stared at the pick as he buckled on his belt. It was the first weapon he'd use and the first he'd discard. Depending on the situation he'd move on to the sword if the fighting was spaced and he had room to wield it, otherwise it would be the 'Butcher', with which he could thrust out from behind his shield into an opponents vitals whilst keeping himself covered with the large board shield.
As he set to buckling the belt, he felt the weight settle above his hips. When he started moving around it would feel odd at first, he'd be almost sluggish but after a few moments his body would be comfortable with the extra pressure.

Snatching up the pick and his shield, he made his way back up to the ridge, where the doctors two assistants walked amongst the men, each with two pails. The first pail contained salt, whilst the second water, and in each pail was a cup. The cup in the salt pail would be filled with water, then three pinches of salt would be added and each man forced to drink the vile mixture fully. Then the second cup containing water would be given to them, which they'd empty down their throats, would be refilled from the pail, and then emptied once again. Giacomo nodded with satisfaction. He'd seen soldiers pass out in the midst of combat through dehydration, had seem men stagger around after battles fighting headaches and migraines brought on by a lack of liquid and so each man was forced before battle to drink water drawn from a nearby water source if possible. If there was not one available then the salt was mixed with watered ale, which tasted even worse.

Giacomo walked amongst his men, exchanging greetings, grinning and joking with them as he moved from group to group. He stopped to stand and stare at the dust cloud that was ever so much closer than it had been. A wide valley seperated them from that far ridge, perfect for the Swadian horsemen, which was why he had ordered his men to prepare several traps for them, including a long ditch filled with spikes, loosely covered in grass. It looked odd, he knew, but at the speed the horsemen would be coming at, with the limited vision from their closed helms, they'd never see it, or if they did it would be far too late. He just hoped the Rhodok reinforcements would reach him in time. He scratched at his beard, as his grey eyes stared at the ridge. The approaching force was large, larger, he was sure, than his Company.

"Captain? Your orders sir, if you would." He turned to find one of the doctors assistants behind him with his pails and the knowledge of what was coming almost made him gag. He could order the man away, but no, that would not work. He'd been very strict with his orders, that he must drink the disgusting mixture along with his men, and if he tried to avoid it then he was to be hounded until he did it. He hated himself for that stipulation but the gathered Sergeants had been there and it had sounded good to put himself on the same level as the mercenary soldiers. Now he was not so sure. He put down his shield and pick, readying himself for the ordeal.

The grey liquid swam inside the clay mug, grains of salt spinning in their own private whirlpool. He took the mug, closed his eyes and raised the beaker to his lips. He could smell the liquid, and whilst his mind screamed at him not to do it, he tipped the salt water into his mouth and almost gagged. The bitter taste tore at his mouth, burning his throat. He forced himself to swallow, feeling it make its way down his gullet. He opened his eyes looked into the cup and groaned. It was still half full, he could feel his stomach rebelling. The assistant was looking at him expectantly, he could sense the Company's eyes upon him, and mustering his courage he downed the rest of it. Resisting the urge to throw down the mug and grab at the one filled with water, he passed the cup back to the assistant. Say something, his mind urged, do something like a hero would in a book, some gesture, anything, just do it!. Instead he mumbled his thanks and took the proffered cup of water. The clay was cool to the touch and when he gulped at the water it tasted sweet after the bitter aftertaste of the salt. It slipped down his throat easily, a cool stream to scour his throat. He passed the cup back to the assistant who refilled it.

Nodding his thanks, Giacomo sipped at the water as he stared at the ridge. Anytime now, they will crest that ridge and we'll see what and how many we face. The fear he had felt earlier had disappeared, replaced with a keen impatience to get the damned thing done, to have it over. His fingers tapped at the earthenware mug as he stared. He wondered what his father would have advised. Guillame had been a very successful Guard Captain back home, a grizzled veteran who had been awarded his rise to the ranks of lesser nobility by his service to the local Lord. He had a lot of sense in that head of his, his mother would remind him, knew far more 'bout fighting battles than half the Lords in the lands. She'd always been convinced that Giacomo's father should have been a Captain in the Kings Royal Guard, but Giacomo knew his father would never have taken up such a role. Bumlickers, he'd exclaim, Good fer cleaning the Kings arse, standin' still looking pretty and not much damned bloody else.

As he watched the far crest, a vision crept into Giacomo's mind, a memory of a day when his father had been trying to teach him to play chess. The sun had beat down on them from the flawless blue sky, a small wind had stirred at the leaves of grass and provoked a gentle rustling sound from the leaves on the trees. His mother and sister had been sat upon a bench embroidering, whilst the kitchen girl had been peeling vegetables. His father, a man who played chess as efficiently as he fought in war, had routed him several times already, and with a look of irritation had barked A good commander never draws his weapon. His men are his weapons, and how well he wields 'em will win or lose the battle.

A glint of light reflected on a polished surface, beneath the looming dust cloud, dragged him back to the present. The enemy had arrived.

The Battle

Count Delinard, Lord of Uxkhal, Marshal & Knight-Commander of King Harlaus' guard turned his eyes away from the far ridge. He had watched as the advance guard of horsemen had been torn to pieces by the crossbow bolts, had seen the horses plunge to the ground with blood coursing their flanks. Men lay still, dead or dieing, dotted amongst fallen shields and weapons.
He turned his horse to face the expectant ranks that stood before him. Farmers with pitchforks or woodaxes, footmen with spear and shield, crossbowmen ready with their deadly weapons, the professional infantry in their mail, bastard and great swords in hand. The red of Swadia's flag rippled above the Marshall, snapping and pulling at the stave that held it high. In the afternoon light the banner looked more like a sea of blood, pulsating and flowing.

"Swadians!" The voice roared, forged by lungs that had shouted orders for over thirty years of battle. "Swadians, rise up and hear me! Once more on to the field we march, once more we take up arms to rid these lands of those that oppose us!" His great fist, clad in its mail mitten, struck against his breast. "Us! You, the true sons of Calradia, the only people worthy of this land, will you let these villains, these bandits, raiders of your homes, murderers of your loved ones, will you them stand against you?"
As the wind whipped as his hair, Delinard tried to suppress a smile as the army in front of him roared its protest, four hundred men roaring, the cacophony of noise making his horse prick up its ears.

"We will win today, we will triumph. First we will smash them with horse!" He balled his hand into a fist and smashed it into his palm. "Then you will kill them! Summon up your blo-u-u-d! For Swadia, for Harlaus!"

His sword sang as he hauled it from the scabbard and punched it into the air, the gesture provoking fresh bellows from the Swadians. The polished blade was like fire in the sunlight, whilst the mail coat, burnished until it shone, gleamed brighter than silver. He lowered the blade to his side, and beckoned with his free hand to two squires, unarmoured and mounted on light horses who acted as his messengers.

"Instruct the cavalry to form in front of the infantry, and to advance on the third note from the horn. They are to smash through their line, surround the enemy and keep them in place until the infantry arrives to slaughter them. No prisoners. Understood? Then get moving!"

As the squires galloped off to the flanks where the Knights and Men-At-Arms, mounted on tall destriers, armoured in the finest plate and mail the Swadian smiths could forge, with long lances in hand and swords hung at their belts, waited for their orders. Of his army, it was only the cavalry Delinard trusted to implement his will on the battlefield. The infantry were capable, but the ground-shaking, massed horsemen of Swadia were the only ones who would reliably break an opponent. He stared up at the ridge where the mercenary crossbowmen waited. Their accurate volleys had torn apart the light cavalry, ripping the best of three squadrons apart. Balling his hand he thumped it against the saddle. There was no need, none at all, for the scouts to have charged the enemy, but the fools had seen their chance for glory and had paid the bloody price. Serve them right. he thought bitterly.

-----

On the Swadian left, beneath another red banner, sat Lady Rosewitha, feeling rather bothered with the delay. The gambison under her mail itched, and sweat ran down the nape of her neck. She felt hot and sticky from the perspiration, the weight of her armour pushing down on her shoulders, whilst her hair beneath the arming cap was soaked with sweat. Her mare, as if sensing its mistresses agitation, whinnied softly, pawing at the ground with a hoof.

She could see the enemy at the top of the ridge ahead of them, a scant eight hundred yards away. There was a flag fluttering above the crossbowmen, some form of white animals head on a black background. A dog? Cat? Wolf? She didn't recognise it, and she doubted whether the owner of the badge was a Noble, more likely just the badge of a common mercenary.
A strand of pitch black hair managed to free itself from the arming cap, it's tip curling up, poking at her eye. She brushed it away, wiping at the sweat that caked her forehead, though the leather pad of her mail mitten just agravated her skin, making it feel abrased.

"M'Lady?" She twisted in her saddle towards the voice. One of her Knights, a Sir Joen, held out a skin filled with water. Her throat suddenly felt dry, while her tongue seemed stuck to her pallet. Gratefully Rosewitha took the proffered skin and bit the stopper from its neck. Lifting it to her lips, she felt the cool water dribble across her dry lips, and unable to help herself, squeezed the skin, squirting the liquid greedily into her mouth. She drank until she had to stop for air, savoring the feeling of the cold water in her parched throat as she passed the skin across to Sir Joen, who twisted round in his saddle to throw the skin to the man behind him.

"How long do you think they'll keep us roasting here? We waiting for them to die of old age up there?" The grumble, coming from Rosewitha's right belonged to another of the knights, Sir Leone of Dhirim. He always had something to complain about, never happy it seemed. "Something's a-happening though. S'one of those fancy boys givin' old Clais his marching orders. Reckon we'll be shoved right into the thick of. You know what Delly's like, straight in with us and damn the infantry. Bloody right too." The sing-song voice of the lazy Sir Denils settled itself on Rosewitha's ears. If his voice was not so lovely to hear, she thought, he'd be really, -really- annoying. Still, he's right, something is happening.

Count Clais, commander of Swadias cavalry this day, was beckoning his commanders to him, reluctantly including Rosewitha in his summons. Rosewitha and Clais mutually disliked each other. She knew his was reasonable, women were supposed to stay in the home, raise the children, plan the social calender, discuss the weather. That would be so...dull, her mind moaned at her as she slowly walked her horse towards Clais, disdaining to hurry as the other commanders had. Imagine it, sat in a drafty Keep, with little children screaming and crying.She visibly shuddered. There were those amongst Swadia's Nobles who found the fact she was a fighting woman quite alluring, but most of them were either ugly, poor, had bad hygiene or were just too boring.

"Feeling a touch of fear, m'Lady Rosewitha?" Clais' sneer was soaked in venom. He'd seen her flinch, she realised. She hurried to compose a response but Clais was already speaking again, addressing the half dozen commanders. "Delinard's orders are that we move in front of the infantry and charge the ridge. We ride over them, tear them apart and then encircle them so that they can't escape. Should be easy enough, I know at least most of you are capable." Unable to help themselves, the other commanders looked uneasily at Rosewitha, who ignored them. "To your men Gentlemen, let us get ourselves moving. Lady Rosewitha perhaps you and your men would prefer to act as our reserve, I'm sure they've no real belly for a fight."

"If you have such little confidence in your men and their capabilities that you wish a reserve, then I'll gladly take such a position. At least Delinard will be able to see who his competant commanders are then when you fail and I take the field in your stead." The words blurted out of her mouth before she could stop them, and before the shocked Clais could respond she turned the horse and kicked her heels back. Brilliant, now I'll be in trouble after the battle. She pushed the thought away and suppressed her anger as she reached her men.

"So what is going on?" Sir Denils asked, idly inspecting his plated gauntlets rivets. Rosewitha straightened her back and cleared her throat. "Count Clais, in his infinite wisdom, wishes us to be a reserve. We'll form in the centre behind the other squadrons, and if they fail, we push on through and show them what we, this squadron, can do. We'll not just break those bastards at the top of that ridge, we'll do it in full view of the army, and they'll see our badge at the top of that hill, not Clais, nor any of those others, but ours."

The short, impassioned speech recieved little response, and Rosewitha felt a little deflated. "So...bottom line is, we charge up there, knock them about and then the infantry come up and kill 'em off. Delinard's usual tactics then." Denils shrugged. "Being a reserve isn't too bad, 'least we don't get shot at quite so much."

"Yes, but we're not where the glory is, are we? We'll be climbing up that slope whilst the others'll be getting first pick on the loot." The growling voice of Leone rolled out into the silence Denils words had left. "Shut it Leone, you're always whining." Joen raised his voice so that the whole squadron, ten knights and twenty Men-At-Arms, with ten Squires carrying spare shields, swords and lances. "Helms on! Make sure you fasten them firmly. Keep your lines, when we charge we arrive as one. What do we arrive as?"

"ONE!" came the barked reply. Joen nodded and unbuckled his own great helm from where it hung on his saddle. Rosewitha scrabbled with her own full-faced helm, pulling it over the soaked arming cap. Instantly her world was plunged into darkness, then her eyes slowly adjusted to the small light filtering in through the eye holes. Her breathing echoed inside the helm, whilst all external sound was muffled and given a metallic edge. She felt a hand tapping at her leg. She looked down and managed to make out one of the squires handing something wide and flat up to her. Holding her left arm straight down, she waited for the squire to finish sliding the leather straps of the shield over her forearm. She grabbed with her hand at the metal handle, feeling it through the leather palm of her mitten. At the second tap, this time on her right leg, she leaned down, and felt the restriction of the leather chin strap as the squire tightened it. She straightened and pulled the sword from its scabbard, the metal scrapping on the lip. Raising the blade above her head, she tapped gently back with her boots, urging the mare forward.

Now that she had become accustomed to the helms limited vision, she twisted her head to spy one of Clais' footmen waving to her. She turned the horse and trotted towards the soldier, feeling the ground tremble as her men followed behind her.

As the massive bulk of cavalry trotted in front of the infantry, the peasants cheered them hoarse. This was the might of Swadia, in plate and mail, on massive mounts, with bright swords and long lances, colourful tabards and bright shields. Swadia's pride was being brought to bear on sixty mercenaries, a little excessive some of the older, more experienced soldiers thought, but a fantastic display of strength.

Delinard, unable to resist the moment, rode forward to inspect the cavalry. He trotted his enormous destrier down the Knights front rank, left hand raised in response to the cheers or salutes that came from the horsemen. As he passed Clais's division, he slowed, his eyes noting the fourty horsemen stood behind the line. His eyes flickered up to the red banner above the squadron, a white rose on a blood red field.

"Smart thinking Lady Rosewitha, makes good sense to have a reserve. Good luck to you m'Lady, and good hunting!" Rosewitha bobbed her helmed head in response to Delinards comment, feeling the chinstrap dig into the soft skin. She watched as Delinard rode out of her field of vision, and swallowed nervously. There may only be sixty mercenaries ahead of them, but enough crossbow bolts would fly that a single one could kill her. In her armour she was no different in appearance than her men, not that she believed the crossbowman would spare her even if they knew. Her stomach felt uneasy, feeling as though butterflies flew amoke inside her, whilst her mouth was dry once again. The helm was hot and sweat was running freely down her forehead, the salty liquid stinging her dry lips. She just wanted to get it done, to get out of her armour and lay in the sun, to wear light linen clothing that was comfortable and didn't stick to her skin.
A sound to her right, as deep as it was loud, made her twist her head in its direction. She could see nothing but mounted horsemen. Then a second sound, more musical this time, erupted from the same direction. A horn, a battlehorn. Then came the third note, and Swadia's finest warriors, armed with sharp weapons, in their shining armour, high upon horses bred to carry them and their armour into battle, lurched forward as the thunder of hooves began.

Instantly her dry mouth and throat were forgotten, the itching of her clothing of no consequence. Even the weight of her shield and mail were distant to her thoughts, as she felt the vibration of her horses hooves hammer at the ground, mixed with the muffled strikes of over two hundred horsemens hooves on the ground. Each hoof, shod with iron, hammered at the firm ground.
She pulled her sword free of its scabbard, gripping it tightly with her mail mitten. Now she was used to the helms restrictions, she could make out more through the eye holes. The sky above was a deep blue, barely a whisp of cloud, whilst the grass they rode over was thick and a deep green. The clink and rattle of armour and weaponary rose jauntily over the sound of hooves. The range was closing, and she rose up, standing in her stirrups to punch the sword into the air, her men responding with a deep roar. Almost in response, death, powered by fourty powerful crossbows, sent on its way by the finest mercenary marksmen in Calradia, flew towards the horsemen. And struck.

The noise exploded over the sound of hooves, the heads of the steel-tipped crossbow bolts hammering through armour and shields. They plunged into horse and man alike, causing beast and rider to tumble across the ground, their screams challenging the thunder of hooves, as the rest of the cavalry climbed, as one, moving faster. A second volley flew towards the horsemen, the quarrels slashing into men and horse once again, the impact causing the lines to ripple as more men and horses fell. The succeeding ranks leapt the piles of dead and dying and continued their charge. For all the power of the crossbow bolts, they were too few to stop the Swadian charge.

Clapping her heels back, Rosewitha urged her horse onwards. The elation of the charge was upon her. She felt invincible, a Goddess of War, unstoppable, unkillable. Every shock of a hoof hitting the ground sounded like a beat of death coming from the jaws of the Hells. This was what she lived for, not the comforts of a bored wife in a castle, to ride towards death and laugh in its face. To feel the ground shake with the thunder of hooves, the excitement that ran through her veins. She felt her horse tense itself, then sail through the air as it leapt over the remains of the Light Cavalry. The horse felt as though it hung in midair for an eternity, the world sailing past, then came the impact as the mare landed comfortably and rode on. Another volley of crossbow bolts tore into the Swadians, but their blood was up now and an impudent band of mercenaries could never hope to stop them. They were Swadians best, their finest, but unbeknown to them, they were flanked.

------

The Rhodok infantry had marched hard, hurrying to reach the blocking force of mercenaries. They'd been hurried along paths and roads, moving as quickly as they could, carrying only their weapons and ammunition. They'd not stopped to break their fast, hardly stopped briefly for water, but otherwise had been kept marching, onwards to where the mercenaries blocked the pass. The weaker men had fallen out of line miles back, hobbling on blistered and bloodied feet, but just under a hundred remained, each man a credited marksman with his heavy crossbow.

Each ridge had seemed taller than the previous, their muscles ached whilst lungs burned, stomachs felt tightened from lack of food, but the Sergeants and Captains kept their men moving. As they'd hauled themselves up yet another slope, one of the Captains, unable to resist riding ahead to check the ground, rose up on to the ridge and took in the scene that lay before him. To his right, clinging to their ridge, was the mercenary Company, their banner fluttering in the wind, to his centre lay the open ground of the slope, littered here and there by bodies and horses, whilst to his left, a line of cavalrymen stood before blocks of infantrymen. Then three blasts of a horn rose up to his eerie and the line of cavalrymen moved. He turned his horse savagely and kicked his heels back.

-----

Rosewitha didn't see the right flank of the cavalry charge falter as a hundred crossbow bolts hammered into it, ripping the line into shreds, nor did she see the mercenary cavalrymen, lances lowered, charge down the hillside, aiming for the broken mass of horsemen. All she could see was the line of horsemen in front of her, whilst from further up the ridge, the crossbow bolts still flew. They were now no more than a hundred yards from the crossbowmen, and as one, the remaining Swadian cavalrymen lowered their lance points and bellowed their warcry, hammering back spurs to release the destriers to their devestating charge.

At the full gallop a Knight wearing a closed helm can see little. He can make out the blurred shapes of others, can see the sky and the ground, but none of the horsemen could see the long trench covered in grass, until the first Knights crashed into it. Sharpened spikes smashed through the soft tissue of the hooves, causing the destriers to pull up, screaming in agony and confusion. The second line, so close behind the first, crashed into it, forcing the horses in front further onto the spikes, fresh screams of agony coming from the beasts lungs. Blood misted in the air as the horses reared, blood flowing from the punctures. Still the crossbow bolts tore into them, adding to the confusion.

On the Swadian right, the mercenary cavalry, having purposefully flanked the trench, crashed into the disorganised ranks, the twenty horsemen easily cutting a swath through the still ranks, whilst the volleys from the Rhodoks high on the flank continued to fly, their bolts now ripping into the centre of the line, where more men and horse fell.

Lady Rosewitha was surprised to see the line ahead falter, the horses rearing and plunging. They were less than fourty yards from the mercenaries, and she dug her heels back to coax more speed from the animal, when the mare shuddered. Her scream tore at Rosewitha's soul as the beast stumbled, lost its footing and crashed onto its forelegs, the impact breaking its legs. The horse slid forward, its momentum and weight still propelling it on. Rosewitha kicked her feet free of the stirrups and tried to launch herself from the saddle, but her foot caught on the reins and as she hit the ground, the leather yanked at her boot, pulling her along on her back behind the rapidly slowing horse.

When she finally came to a halt, just behind the lines ahead of her, she curled into a ball as her knights looked for gaps in the dead and launched their horses, sailing over the piles of dead and the trench, to land on firm ground, where the crossbowmen, close enough to pick their spots, took each man down with well aimed shots.

Freeing her foot, Rosewitha sat up, gasping for breath. She yanked off the mail mittens, her sword and shield having been lost when the horse fell, and fumbled with the leather strap. Her chest felt empty, the impact having driven the air from her body. The buckle refused to shift, and she began to panic, her breathing quickening whilst her muscles shivered. Elation had turned to concern, concern to fear. Her hands were shaking so much that she could not shfit the straps fastening. Her hand dropped to her belt and shakily drew her dagger. Carefully, she lifted the point inside her helm and began to saw at the leather. It did not take long for the dagger to slice through the strap, and she tossed the dagger aside, and hauled the helm from her head.
The air was thick with sweat, stench of saddle sores and blood, whilst the screams of injured men and horses punctured the air. She filled her lungs, near choking on the stench. Drawing up her legs to her chin, she wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her face in the mail armour, that covered her limbs, smelling the lanolin used to keep the links greased and free of rust, could smell the sweat from the soaked gambison.

At length, she raised her head, to see her mare laying next to her, its eyes wide and rolling, its breathing laboured. She crawled across the flattened grass and looked closer at the horse. Three bolts stuck from the mares chest, each with blood leaving its trail over the white hide. She groaned to herself as the mare tried to beat the ground with its hooves as a fresh wave of agony struck, but the beasts forelegs were both broken, whilst the rear legs were trapped beneath the corpse of another horse. Sitting herself next to the mare, she carefully lifted the horses head and slid her legs beneath its neck, to support the weight. The head was heavy, saliva and froth dribbled from the mares mouth. As the horse tried to neigh, Rosewitha made hushing noises, and stroked at its forehead, feeling the stiff hairs of the hide against her skin. A tear welled at the corner of her eyem then fell to roll down her cheek, trailing a path through the sweat and grime. She continued to stroke the horses head, feeling its breath hammering at her legs, as it flared its nostrils, ears pricked up.

Looking up, she could see a mass of fallen horses and men ahead of her, and individual men trying to climb the hill on foot, and one by one they fell back, peppered with crossbow bolts. She could make out the green tabard of Sir Leone, who always complained if it was hot or cold, dry or wet, who was cynical of everything and who rarely smiled, yet she could see him climbing, hunched behind his shield as though into a storm, crossbow bolts sticking from his armour. A shout rose from the mercenary ranks. "He's mine!"

A single figure, clad in dark cloth armour, with a large board shield and a wicked looking spiked hammer, broke through the mercenary ranks, and legs pumping, ran full tilt at Sir Leone. Rosewitha tore her gaze away as the spike hammered down hard into Sir Leone's helmet, the high-pitched screech of metal rising above the screams of horses. The soldier abandoned the hammer in the helm, and hauling his sword from its scabbard he continued down the hill, past the knights slowly falling corpse.

The other crossbowmen, following their leaders example, abandoned crossbows, drew swords, picks, and glaives and ran down the hill after their Captain. They covered the short distance quickly, and the blacksmith sound of blade on blade, steel on armour, sword on shield resounded. The screams began again, as the dismounted Swadian knights, trapped under horses, wounded or dazed were cut down mercilessly by the mercenaries.

-----

Lord Clais took one look at the mercenaries advancing on his squadrons before turning his horse and ramming his spurs back savagly. The tired horse obeyed, taking its master down the slope in long strides, free of the carnage and back to where the infantry stood, shocked and stunned at the butchery on the slope above them. Lord Clais knew he should have obeyed his duty and gone on to the line, even alone, but he was a sensible man, and death was not yet going to claim him.

-----

Rosewitha swatted at the flies that flew around her dieing horses head. The horses breathing had slowed, and the eyes had stopped their fearful rolling, the lids half closed. She could hear the weapons still doing their work just twenty yards from her, knew that she could rise up and flee, but she felt drained, exhausted both physically and mentally. She had spent the last of her familys fortune on raising the troop of Knights and Men-At-Arms, feeding & arming them, finding them lodging until her chance to prove her worth and earn a fiefdom from King Harlaus, but instead she was reduced to caring for her dieing horse as though it were a sleeping child. She began to hum as she stroked the horses neck. Elsebeth, a pretty name for a pretty horse. A pretty horse reduced to agony on a warm field filled with gore. The horse had been a present from Harlaus on her acceptance as a Vassal, one of his own animals as a consolation after his refusal to award her a village or Keep of her own in his name. The mare had a white pelt, as pure as snow. A calm, docile animal, but strong and agile.

She softly broke into a childs rhyme, singing to the horse. The wheel on the mill goes round and round, round and round, round and round. The wheel on the mill goes round and round, all day long. A song she'd used to sing with her sister in her fathers castle, the two of them giggling as they sang, a childs song, happy and far removed on the field of death. The stone in the mill grinds and grinds, grinds and grinds, grinds and grinds, the stone in the mill grinds and grinds, all day long.

So removed was she from what was happening around her that it was not until the sixth verse that she realised someone was watching, more listening. Her voice faltered and stopped as she twisted round. The pungent smell of the mans quilted coat stung her nostrils, a mix of sweat and blood. His face was smeared with blood and sweat, grey eyes reddened. Sweat dripped from his moustache and beard whilst whisps of hair were stuck to his skin. The arming cap on his head had turned grey with moisture. In his hand was a bloodied sword and in the other was a large rectangular shield, painted black, with a white wolfs head backed by a grey dagger.

He sheathed the sword and carefully put down the shield, and without a word knelt, feeling the horses neck for a pulse with his fingers. The man looked up at Roswitha, his face solemn. "Your horse is, ahm... dead m'Lady. I'm sorry."

Sorry?! the word burst through her mind like a meteor. She wanted to scream at him, to beat him into the ground for the loss of her fortune, her men, their horses. She wanted to protest at the injustice of it all, that she was alive whilst her loyal friends were dead, that they had lost. But No words came to her. She stared at him, feeling lost, for some reason expecting him to break into laughter at her misfortune, but the eyes were clear of any guile or mischief. He looked away, down at the horse and gently patted its neck. When he looked back up, he seemed sadder. "A beautiful animal, m'Lady. What was her name?"

Rosewitha struggled to speak, but the words only hurt her throat. She managed to whisper the horses name hoarsly. He nodded slowly. "Elsebeth, a beautiful name for a beautiful animal. If you wish to remain with the body for a short while, I will allow you, but I must first make you aware that you are my prisoner now, to be held for ransom. You will come to no harm and recieve every possible comfort we can give you. I will await a short distance away for when you are ready to come with us."

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