Out Of The Dark – Snippet 03
Charles d’Albret was not a happy man.
He and his principal subordinates (inasmuch as fifteenth-century French noblemen could truly conceive of the concept of being subordinate to anyone other than — possibly — God) had prepared a battle plan. None of them had been blind to the defensive advantages of the English position, and they’d had a plenitude of experience with what English bowmen could do. Those Welsh and English bastards had demonstrated only too often that no other archers in Europe could match their lethal range and rate of fire. Worse, theirs was a weapon which let commonly born men, men of no blood, kill even the most aristocratic of foes. That was one reason French armies routinely chopped off the fingers of captured archers’ right hands . . . on those rare occasions when they weren’t in the mood for more inventive penalties, at least.
This time the Constable had almost as many archers — counting his mercenary Genoese crossbowmen — as Henry, however, and his initial plan had been to deploy them across his entire front to give the English a taste of their own medicine. It would be hard on his own archers, given the superiority of the longbow, but better them than their more nobly born betters. Besides, whatever else happened, the unarmored English archers would take serious losses of their own in the exchange, which was the entire point. Once casualties had shaken their formation, his armored cavalry would fall upon them and break the bastards up, at which point the English would be lost.
But after three motionless hours of glaring at one another, some of his mounted troops had dismounted to rest, or to water their horses, or to water themselves. God knew plate armor was a stifling, oven like burden, even in October, so it was easy enough to understand their actions. Yet it meant they were out of position, unable to launch the charge which would have devastated Henry’s army if they’d managed to catch him on the move, when the English surprised them all with their sudden advance. By the time Charles had been able to reform his troops with some eye towards launching that sort of attack, Henry had stopped and those nasty, pointed stakes were back in place to protect his archers’ frontage.
At which point, at a range of three hundred yards, they opened fire.
Every one of the watching Barthoni flinched, almost in unison, as the first flights of arrows streaked into the French formation. The audio pickups Joraym and Kurgahr had requested brought them the screams and cries of wounded humans and their four-footed riding beasts — their “horses” — with hideous clarity. And no Barthon could have witnessed the sudden eruption of blood from rent and torn bodies without feeling physically ill. Yet, for all their revulsion, they couldn’t look away, either. It was like watching some natural catastrophe — an avalanche, perhaps, sliding down to engulf and destroy. But this “natural catastrophe” was the result of willfully perverted intelligence, and somehow that made it even more mesmerizing.
“There!” Kurgahr said suddenly, pointing at the display. “I wondered when they’d do that!” He twitched his head in the Barthon gesture of resignation.
“Insane or not, what’s about to happen to those English is going to be ugly.”
The historian had a pronounced gift for understatement, Garsul thought grimly, watching the better part of two thousand mounted knights charge the English line. It occurred to him that it probably would have been better to attack the English before they could settle into their new position, but the French charge began only after the English had begun pelting them with arrows. Still, it shouldn’t matter all that much. It was clear from the display that the knights’ armor was more than sufficient to turn the vast majority of the arrows sleeting towards them.
Charles d’Albret swore viciously as his heavy cavalry pelted towards the English line. Now they attacked!
Yet even as he swore, the Constable knew it would have been foolish to expect any other response. That heavy rain of arrows was unlikely to kill or even wound many of those heavily armored men, but their horses were quite another matter. No cavalry in the world could stand in place under the aimed fire of seven thousand longbows, each firing as many as twelve shafts a minute. Its only options were to attack or run away to get out of range of those
deadly horse-killing bows, and these were French knights. Running away was
out of the question.
Not that attacking was any better option, when all was said.
The muddy field slowed the charging horse men, and the English arrows continued to slash into them. Unlike their riders, only the horses’ heads were truly armored, and they began to go down. Each fallen animal formed its own individual obstacle for its companions, but the wounded and panicked horses were almost worse. Many of them were uncontrollable, rearing and bolting with the maddening pain of their injuries, and the charge came apart in confusion, mud, mire, blood, and bodies. Unable to close with the English, the cavalry retreated back the way they’d come, which churned the already muddy earth into a slick, slithery morass dotted with dead and wounded horses like reefs in a sea of muck.
Henry watched the French cavalry recoil and smiled thinly. He knew all about the goading, maddening effect of archery. Even the best armored knight or man-at-arms could be killed or wounded under the wrong circumstances. The scars on his own face were the result of a Welsh rebel’s arrow which had hit a sixteen-year-old Prince Henry in the face at the Battle of Shrewsbury. For that matter, Sir Henry Percy, the rebels’ commander at Shrewsbury, had also been hit in the face. In his case, however, the experience had proved fatal.
The king saw very few armored bodies lying about in the mud, and most of those he did see appeared to be pinned by dead horses or injured when their mounts went down, rather than felled by arrow fire. But it was unlikely the French would simply stand there and take the English fire, and even if they managed to reorder their formation to get their own archers into position to engage, crossbowmen could never match the combination of his longbows’ range and rate of fire. Which meant….
Garsul felt the others’ shocked disbelief. It seemed ridiculous — impossible! — that such a thundering mass of heavily armored warriors could have been routed by nothing more than arrows propelled by muscle powered bows.
Still, the French mounted troops were only a portion of their total force, and it was obvious the mounted men’s comrades intended to avenge their repulse.
Charles d’Albret’s original battle plan had become a thing of the past. There was no way he could have reorganized his own forces under that plunging arrow fire. Partly because of the arrows themselves, but even more because of the nature of his army. The nobles and knights arrayed on the field had too many defeats to avenge, their numerical advantage was too overwhelming, and the taunting yells and yelps of contempt from the commoner longbow men which had pursued the retreating cavalry were too much for men of blood to stomach.
And so they advanced.
The first French line, with almost five thousand dismounted knights and men-at-arms, was personally commanded by Constable d’Albret, along with Marshal Boucicault and the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, while the Count of Vendome and Sir Clignet de Brebant commanded its supporting cavalry wings. The second line was commanded by the Dukes of Bar and Alencon and the Count of Nevers, following in the first line’s wake, and a third line, under the Counts of Dammartin and Fauconberg, was ready behind the second. All told, ten thousand armored men-at-arms, including the very flower of the French aristocracy, stood poised to crush the mere fifteen hundred English men-at-arms arrayed against them, and once those English men-at-arms had been disposed of, the archers would be easy meat.
“I don’t believe it,” Kurgahr said flatly.
“Perhaps that’s because we’ve had technology for so long,” Garsul replied, still unable to look away from the display. “How long has it been since a few thousand Barthoni tried to walk across a muddy field together?” He snorted harshly. “Especially a muddy field like this one!”
The rain-soaked, plowed earth had been churned into mud by the French cavalry; now the marching feet of thousands of men-at-arms turned the mud into watery muck. What would have been slow going under any circumstances became a nightmare ordeal for men wearing fifty and sixty pounds of unventilated, sunbaked armor. Some of the men in the center of the field found themselves wading through liquid mud that was literally knee-deep, and even as they slogged slowly forward, the drumbeat of English arrows continued to slam into them.