The Vikings moved out from their woods. About twenty horses came into view and prepared to ride to where the wagon turned off the road. Decker opened fire first. Katie shot the horses and later said it was too bad. She had come to appreciate how important and helpful a good horse can be.
“With our cars and trucks, we have no real way to understand that in our day,” she said.
Lockhart agreed. “I remember the Kairos once saying that the dog might be man’s best friend, but the horse was always man’s best help, or something like that.”
In this case, only a few horses made it back behind the trees. A few more men ran to safety, but the three on the hill completely busted whatever idea the Vikings had of following the travelers on horseback.
Decker got up and moved to another spot where he could see a long way up the road. He snapped his scope on to the rifle and got in sniper position. “They might go up the road and try to cross over on foot in what they think is out of range.”
“We just need to hold them for a while to make sure the wagon gets a good head start.”
Katie understood but spoke, so Decker did not have to say anything. “But on foot, they can go across country, which the wagon really cannot do, and they might easily catch up.”
Lockhart did not really have an objection to Decker sniping the Vikings, especially if he could keep them from crossing the road. He just wanted to remind them that they were charged to kill as few people as possible, and only in self-defense. This counted, but it was close to the line. They might have all gone with the wagon and dealt with the Vikings if and when they showed up.
They waited a good twenty minutes before Decker opened fire. It took another five minutes before Vikings came across the field in front of them, yelling murder and screaming obscenities. Katie opened fire, and after a minute, they came to the outside of shotgun range. Lockhart added his fire to the mix. The thunder of the shotgun caused a couple of Vikings to almost pause, berserkers though they might be.
A dozen arrows came from the grass on the other side of the road. They fell short, but they were likely intended to make the travelers duck and give that much more time for the berserkers to arrive. The ploy did not work.
“Longbow has not been invented yet,” Katie mumbled to herself before she called. “Decker.” Decker turned and added his fire to the attackers. He flipped his rifle to automatic and began to fire three shot bursts. Katie did the same.
Lockhart shot the last man just below their position. “Time to ride,” he said, like he always said when they were on the road and spent a time walking and resting their horses. The horses stayed good, waiting in the field behind the sharpshooters. They reached the horses just in time as the Flesh Eater shuttle came over their position. It only paused a moment, maybe just long enough to scan them before it headed out after the crew with the wagon.
“Damn,” Decker said. Katie got on her watch communicator as Lockhart mounted and they rode off in the direction the wagon had gone.
Elgar rode at the head of his column of men which came in the middle of the line. His men were disciplined enough to keep up in their companies and not string out all over the road. He could not say the same for the King’s men or for Osric’s men from Dorset, but at least they kept up. It was either keep up or be trampled by the men from Somerset. He could not say the same about the men from Wiltunscir and Bearrocscir who strung out behind him for miles, like a bad tail on a kite. Some of those men would be lucky to arrive in Guildford by midnight.
“Lord,” Deerrunner rode up behind Elgar, young Marsham with him.
“Deerrunner,” Pinewood, who rode beside Elgar, acknowledged the Elder Elf.
Deerrunner and Marsham fit themselves in behind Elgar and Pinewood, Osfirth and Gwyn holding back to make room, and Deerrunner got straight to the point, a sure sign that he was getting older.
“The Vikings have crossed the Thames as reported, and they are resting and waiting for Ethelwulf to tire his men out trying to get there. They have set up in the field cut along the river from the old oak forest and put their right flank against the trees that remain, with their left flank against a natural bend in the river. They have boats on the riverbank they can use to cross back over the river if things go badly, but I expect the Danes imagine things will go well. They imagine they are safe from being outflanked by horsemen, like they were in Somerset. And the Vikings also imagine that face to face they can beat you Saxons like they beat Beorhtwulf of Mercia.”
“And well they might if we are not careful,” Elgar said.
Gwyn said something from the rear, and Deerrunner repeated it. “He says footmen are not hampered going through the woods. We can still hit their flank, just not with horses.”
Elgar shook his head. “Deerrunner, and Marsham. You can take your people into the woods and get bow ready. Lord Pinewood, too, maybe up in the trees. Tell Bogus that he and Piebald and whatever dwarfs are with them, and maybe Dumfries and whatever night people, can take the forest floor. Only two things. First, no arrow fire unless I give the word. Second, you can take whatever enemy Vikings go into the woods, but you are not allowed to come out of the woods unless I tell you to. Understood?”
“Yes Lord,” the two elves and the fairy said.
“We better go set up,” Deerrunner said. “No need to hurry, though, given the speed of your army.” He smiled. Elgar was not above giving the elf a snooty look.
Deerrunner and Marshman rushed off. Pinewood vanished. He had been floating along gently beside Elgar and simple presented a glamour of himself being big and riding on a horse. When he left, the illusion disappeared, and the fairy flew off faster than the men could see.
“Where are they going?” Osfirth asked. “Hey! What happened to Pinewood.”
“He had to go,” Elgar said. “I told him he should have thought of that before he left.” Elgar shrugged.
“No, really,” Osfirth turned to Gwyn. Gwyn, who knew some of the old Celtic stories told in the land, and who suspected, just shook his head.
“You don’t want to know.”
Most of the way down the front line, where the wagons of the women and children moved along well protected, and where the king rode, the king noticed the men ride up to Elgar and then ride away again. He turned to Osric and asked what that was all about. Osric, who had some small experience with Elgar’s strange friends, looked, squinted, stared, and finally answered.
“You don’t want to know.”
Boston stopped by the farmhouse and shouted, “Hello.” As she got down from her horse, she sensed the people there, and the fear they felt toward the Vikings they knew were roaming the area around the Thames. They were afraid, though they were miles from the river.
“We want no trouble,” a man said, as he came to the door, a spear clutched tightly in his hand. A woman holding a baby came to the door. A three or four-year-old boy held tightly to the woman’s dress.
“Good,” Boston said. “We don’t want any trouble either. There are Vikings blocking the road to Rochester. We are trying to get to the Winchester Road by cutting across country. Sorry about crossing your land, but we could sure use a guide who knows what farm trails to take. We have a wagon and need a good trail, you see?”
The man visibly relaxed when Sukki rode up. He lowered his weapon and stepped more into the light. “You are nuns? Why are women traveling the road alone? I think that would be very dangerous.”
“Not alone,” Boston said and pointed back to where the wagon came into view. “We would pay for a good guide,” she added.
William and Elder Stow hurried forward, leaving Lincoln, Alexis, Tony, and Nanette to bring the wagon. “Is there something wrong?” Elder Stow asked.
“No, Father,” Sukki said. “Boston is asking the man if he can guide us to the road.”
“Bishop Ceolnoth,” The farmer’s wife spouted and genuflected. She came out of the house to take and kiss the man’s hand.
“Please, woman. I am not the Pope,” William said and made her stand.
“And this is one of your priests?” the farmer guessed and pointed at Elder Stow.
“No such thing,” Elder Stow said. “I am the girl’s father.”
“Oh…” the Farmer did not know what to say.
“Bishop?” Alexis asked as she arrived.
“Yes,” William said. “But I have found I can get around easier as a simple monk. Wilimbro was my name, and men did call me William the Lesser for years before I got shoved into the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. I chose the name Ceolnoth. I needed a more Saxon sounding name for the role, but between us, I hope things don’t change.”
“Fair enough,” Lincoln said. He shook the man’s hand as if for the first time.
Tony came up with the wagon and got down to visit with the farmers. Nanette tied her horse to the back of the wagon and came forward. Lincoln shouted to them. ‘Turns out William is the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
“Okay,” the man said in an unhappy voice. “We were doing well. I would rather things not change, and you call me William for now.”
Boston looked at the man and said, “But you should understand, around us, things constantly change, and usually that means trouble.” In the timing of the little ones, the watch communicators went off and Katie began to shout about the Flesh Eater shuttle being on its way.
“I understand,” Elder Stow said, touching a spot on his belt. He had the screen device handy and turned it on. Everyone was well inside the screens. He set them for instant activation when he got the word, but he also made them permeable to radio waves, so they remained able to communicate. “Careful when you get nearby. The particle screen is up. It will take some time to lower the particle screen and still protect us from the Vr energy.”
“Roger, out,” Katie said even as the ship appeared over the farm.