Out Of The Dark – Snippet 04
Henry watched through merciless eyes, fingering the scars on his face, as the French struggled forward. Their heavy mail and plate armor might defeat his archers’ arrows, but those same arrows forced the advancing French to close their helmet visors and keep their heads down lest the same thing happen to them as had happened to Henry and Percy at Shrewsbury. Visibility, as Henry knew from harsh personal experience, was hugely restricted under those circumstances, and just breathing through a visor’s airholes could become a tortuous ordeal, especially for someone fighting his way through knee-deep mud in the hot, sweaty prison of his armor. Exhaustion was going to be a factor, he thought coldly, and so was crowding. As they advanced towards him, the field narrowed. They piled in on one another, packing closer and closer together, and the more congested their formation became, the more it slowed.
And not even the best armor could stop all arrows. Men were going down — dead, wounded, sometimes simply fallen and unable to rise in the mud — and those still on their feet became even more tightly packed, their formation even more confused, as they tried to avoid treading the casualties yet deeper into the mire. Even those still upright were being battered by the incessant impacts of thousands of arrows. They might not penetrate their targets’ armor, but arrows driven from longbows with pulls of a hundred and forty and even two hundred pounds hit a man like the blows of a sledgehammer. The painful battering, added to all of the advancing Frenchmen’s other miseries, had to have an effect.
Garsul’s skin twitched in disbelief. It was no longer shock; he was beyond that by now. No, this was duller than that. Almost numbing.
Despite everything, the lurching French advance had finally reached the English lines. They were so tight packed by the time they did that none of them could even take a full stride forward any longer. By Garsul’s estimate, they’d probably been slowed by at least seventy percent simply because of the crowding. Yet, despite that, they’d covered the three hundred agonizing yards between them and their enemies somehow.
The French men-at-arms were exhausted; Henry’s were rested and ready. The short English line of men-at-arms was four deep, and their supporting archers continued to fire — now into the French flanks — until they literally ran out of arrows. Yet even so, when the first line crunched into the English position, the outnumbered English were driven back by sheer weight of numbers. Not far, but back. Yet they fought savagely for each yard they were forced to yield, and the French formation was so crowded that many of its individual soldiers could find no room to use their personal weapons. Then the second French line drove into the melee, and the congestion got only worse.
At which point the longbow men, arrows exhausted, swarmed over the French flanks and rear with hatchets, swords, daggers, mauls, pickaxes, and hammers. They were unarmored, true, but that meant they were far more mobile than their heavily armored, mud-mired opponents, and if they lacked the protective visored helms of their foes, they also had unimpaired vision.
Worse, they were fresh, while many of the French were so exhausted from their long slog through the mud, the heat, and the lack of oxygen in their closed helmets that they could scarcely even lift their weapons. The situation could have been specifically designed — indeed, it had been, by Henry — to negate the heavily armored men-at-arms’ advantages in close combat, and when a Frenchman went down, even if he’d only stumbled and fallen, he couldn’t get back up under the longbow men’s mercilessly murderous attack.
“Clahrdu!” Hartyr muttered the better part of three human hours later. “It doesn’t seem… How could anyone …?”
His voice trailed off, and Garsul shook himself. “Humans” weren’t Barthoni. In fact, despite his own decades- long commitment to Survey and his belief that all sentient species should be treated with dignity and respect, he couldn’t really think of them as “people” at all. Joraym was right about that, and it shamed Garsul somewhere deep down inside to admit the xenoanthropologist was correct about his prejudices. But even so, they were sentients, and what these “English” and “French” had done to one another was going to leave him with nightmares for the rest of his life.
He didn’t envy the Council when it read the confidential report he was going to have to file, either.
There were literal heaps of bodies, some taller than Garsul himself, piled in front of the “English” position. Clahrdu only knew how many of the French had simply suffocated, drowned in mud, or been crushed to death by the weight of their own dead, and the third and final French line had declined to advance. Sensibly, in Garsul’s opinion, given what had already happened to three-quarters of their armored warriors. It seemed incredible, preposterous, that such an outnumbered force could have so decisively defeated such an overwhelming foe, yet the English had, and the evidence of their ferocity and bloodthirstiness was horrifying.
“Do you still think they’re simply ‘juvenile’ and ‘immature,’ Joraym?” he heard Ship Commander Syrahk ask bitingly.
“I don’t know.” The xenoanthropologist sounded badly shaken. “I mean, they are juvenile and immature — they couldn’t be any other way at their current level of advancement. But this — !” Joraym tossed his head in a Barthon gesture of bafflement. “I’ve never read anything in the literature about this kind of brutality.”
“Let’s not get too carried away,” Kurgahr put in. The ship commander and xenoanthropologist both looked at him disbelievingly, and he snorted. “I’m not trying to make excuses for anything we’ve just seen, but I’ve read enough history to know this sort of conduct isn’t entirely unheard of among other species. For that matter, there were periods in our own pretechnic era when we did some things we’d be horrified to admit to today. Not over simple political disagreements, perhaps, and nothing remotely as bad as this, but when herds were faced with starvation conditions and forced to fight for range, they were capable of some pretty horrific actions. And I think if you looked into the histories of some of our omnivorous fellow citizens you might find some pretty bloody episodes there, as well.”
“And then there’s the Shongairi,” Garsul pointed out. A symphony of scowls greeted the remark, and he shrugged his upper shoulders. “I’m just saying these creatures at least have the excuse of their social and technical primitivism. The Shongairi don’t.”
“Well, true,” Joraym said in the tone of someone trying very hard to be detached, “but the Shongairi are bound to be a little . . . twisted, you know.
I mean, they are . . . carnivores.” The xenoanthropologist’s distaste for the
near-obscene term was evident. “I hate to say it, but these ‘humans’ are omnivores. They don’t have that excuse, Garsul.”
“I know, but—”
“Wait!” Syrahk interrupted. “Something’s happening!”
Henry looked up at the messenger’s cry. The king was on his knees, beside the pallet on which his youngest brother Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, lay. Humphrey was barely three weeks past his twenty-fifth birthday, and Henry had personally led his guard to Humphrey’s rescue when he went down. They’d gotten him out of the maelstrom and back to the surgeons, but he’d been wounded in the abdomen, and belly wounds were fatal far more often than not.
“What is it?” the king asked harshly now, fatigue and worry over his brother shadowing even his indomitable visage.
“My Liege, I think the French are regrouping!”
Henry rose abruptly, striding through his protective cordon of knights and men-at-arms to see for himself. The French rearguard had never advanced, but now the third line was stirring, and his jaw tightened. There were almost as many men in that line as in his entire army, and his archers’ arrows were exhausted. It would take hours to get more of them up from the baggage train, and in the meantime his men were weary and out of formation and their prisoners were still unsecured. Literally thousands of armored Frenchmen lay in the mud — exhausted and fallen, perhaps, but unwounded — and their weapons lay with them.
Henry looked up the length of the field at the remaining French host and his nostrils flared.
“Fetch me Baron de Camoys!” he commanded.
“At once, Your Majesty!”
A messenger hurried off and returned minutes later with Sir Thomas de Camoys, who’d commanded the English left wing throughout the battle. With the death of Edmund of Norwich, the Duke of York, who’d commanded the right wing (and who, like hundreds of Frenchmen, had suffocated under a crushing pile of dead men and horses), Baron de Camoys had become Henry’s senior field commander.
“Your Majesty,” de Camoys said, bowing, and Henry jabbed a gauntleted finger at the stirring French third line.
“Those bastards mean to attack us, Baron,” the king said flatly, his scarred face grim, “and we cannot chance what will happen here” — the same hand indicated the mud-mired Frenchmen heaped and piled before the English line — “when they do.”
This time, Garsul did vomit.
Perhaps it was simply cumulative revulsion. Perhaps it was more than that. Whatever it was, when the English began methodically slaughtering the helpless French men-at-arms and knights, thrusting daggers through visors or using axes and hammers and mattocks to literally hack open their armored carapaces and get at the men within, it was too much.
He turned away from the display at last.
“Kill the audio!” he said harshly. “We don’t need to hear this!”
The sound of screams, babbled pleas for mercy, and prayers cut off abruptly, and Garsul shook himself.
Clahrdu, he thought sickly. Clahrdu, preserve me. Of Your mercy, grant that I never see anything like this again! I thought those “secret orders” of mine undermined everything Survey stands for, but not now. Now I know how wise the Council truly was to issue them!
“We’re done on this world,” he said, his voice flat. “We’ve got all the physical data we need, and Clahrdu knows we’ve got more ‘societal’ data than any sane being is ever going to want to look at. Ship Commander,” he looked at Syrahk, “I want us out of orbit and headed home within two day segments.”