Ælfwine dodged the whirling axe, then lunged forward. His spear point slid into a gap in the axeman’s armor and stuck there. Releasing the spear, he drew his sword.
Unhorsed, his heavily armored knights were at a disadvantage. They had better protection, yes, but couldn’t move quickly and had already lost their greatest weapon—the momentum of their mounts.
The first attack had taken out a full tenth of his men. Out numbered, unable to retreat…
Shamed, but seeing no other answer save dying, he stepped back from the front line and pulled the battlehorn from his belt. The solemn call for surrender rang across the battlefield.
Ælfwine moved carefully among his men. His hand were bound before him, and they’d taken his weapons, but otherwise let him be. Those of his men would could walk had been gathered here at the edge of the forest, guarded by a double handful of warriors. The remaining ambushers moved carefully across the rocks, gathering dead and wounded alike.
He spoke briefly to each of the men he passed. Several had wore rough field dressings, but most still bled from wounds not dangerous enough to need immediate tending.
He found John and Damian near a tree trunk, as far away from the rocks as they could get. “Have you seen Hereweald?”
John shook his head but Damian said, “He took an arrow and went down. He’s out there somewhere… one way or another.”
Ælfwine looked back over the rocky slope, but saw no sign of his old friend.
“I will offer our parole. See if you can get the men organized. The faster we get the wounded the better.”
He left them to it, and headed for the nearest of their guards. “I am Sir Ælfwine Swithun, leader of these men. I wish to offer our parole”
The guard looked him up and down, then said, “Follow me.”
The guard led him to where an older warrior was directing the clean up from the battle. “This one says he wants to give parole.” the guard told him, then spat at Ælfwine’s feet.
The insult was unexpected, but Ælfwine knew better than to respond. Instead he offered a minimal bow to the warrior and said, “I am Sir Ælfwine Swithun. I offer our parole so we can help tend the wounded. We won’t seek to escape or fight back until I am able to discuss terms with Lady Mildþryð.”
“And I suppose you want your weapons back.”
Ælfwine stared. What game did the man think he playing? “Goodman, I have men there that may be dying. As do you.”
The man actually looked at him this time. “I think you actually mean that.” He held up a hand and Ælfwine bit back a sharp retort. “More than once now, we’ve had to deal with bastards who thought parole given to us who serve a woman meant nothing. You’re right, Sir Ælfwine, we both have wounded that need tending. But I can’t risk losing more warriors if I’m wrong about you.”
Ælfwine nodded. Mostly to buy time. If the man spoke truth – and Ælfwine had no reason to doubt him – than he would be a fool to accept their parole. But he seemed to want to believe Ælfwine. And hadn’t simply sent him back.
“Let my men aid you, and I will remain here as surety..” And under his blade.
The warrior was silent a moment. “Who is your second, Sir Ælfwine?”
He swallowed a sigh of relief. “Sir John and Sir Damian are organizing the men-at-arms to aid you. Sir Hereweald is among the wounded.”
The Anglish commander led him back to where his men waited and listened while he spoke with John and Damian. John tried to protest and Ælfwine stopped him. “Hereweald, John. And Estienne and Gosse and the others. I will be fine. Better than fine.” He smiled. “After all, you’ll be the ones laboring in the heat, while I get to laze back and watch you work.”
Damian, as predictably silent as John was argumentative, only nodded and held out his hands for his bindings to be cut.
The Anglish went back to his post and Ælfwine followed without prompting. He did his best to remain silent and out of the way while the Anglish directed the clean up and recovery. Trouble came only once, when the Anglish set his men to stripping their own dead. Luckily, John was on right there. He backhanded the worst of the protesters and started stripping the bodies himself.
The Anglish grunted and glanced at Ælfwine with a look of respect. Ælfwine gritted his teeth. “Was that a test, goodman?”
“No, that was getting this clusterfuck cleaned up and home as quickly as possible.” He flashed a quick grin. “If it gave me a chance to see the mettle of your men, that was extra.”
“What will become of our dead?”
“If we can, we’ll bring them home for burial. But we’ll need most of the horses for the wounded.” He shook his head. “For that I’m truly sorry, Sir Ælfwine. But we didn’t bring horses and not many of your own are fit to ride. At least some of our dead will probably be left here as well.”
But they had more horses. He didn’t give himself time for second thoughts. “Damian!”
The Anglish glared “What are you up to now, Norn?”
Before he could answer Damian came trotting up, trailed by a pair of suspicious Anglish warriors. “Damian, show them the camp.” He turned to the Anglish. “We have another score of horses. Some were injured yesterday in the rocks, but there should be enough.”
The Anglish stared at him for a long moment, then told off a handful of his men to follow Damian and bring back the horses. As well as anything else of value they found.
Ælfwine didn’t react to the last. He had expected it. But his men had to come first, no matter how much it cost him.
The Anglish grabbed Ælfwine’s arm and used his sword to slice through the ropes binding him. “Your wounded are there,” he jerked his chin. “Get them ready to travel. I want to get your men and all the wounded back to the keep before noon. Your knight and my men can bring the dead without us.”
“Thank you, goodman.”