© Kyle R Fisher, 2021

JUDITH EXCERPT

Chapter 1

The bloodied hand axe arced gracefully around a path that would embed it directly into the side of Baldwin’s sweat-soaked skull. The Northman wielding it was no stranger to battle. A long, gray scar framed his face over the left eye and numerous emblems of freshly sprayed blood dotted his face and ragged beard. With his eyes wide and nostrils splayed like a warhorse rushing to the enemy, he grunted as he swung. The sound blended into the dozens of grunts and yells surrounding Baldwin that conveyed the poetry of war. This murky art surrounded him. It was in the bloodied corpses of Northmen and fellow countrymen that littered the battlefield and in the unmistakable dank smell of blood and entrails, like the butcher house on a hot summer day. Despite the long battle, Baldwin easily raised his shield to intercept the axe in a glancing blow, carrying the Northman’s arm upward. Rather than dropping his shield, Baldwin pressed it up and into the Northman’s shoulder, turning the man slightly and opening a vulnerable section of abdomen. With a quick jab of his long seax—the smaller blade better suited to close quarter battles than a broadsword—Baldwin opened a small hole between the man’s ribs. The Northman dropped back; feeling the stab, no doubt, but unaware he was already dead. Surging forward again, wary this time, he swung the axe in front of him, perhaps hoping to knock Baldwin off balance with its force. Baldwin easily leaned out of reach then pushed forward. He jabbed again, knowing the Northman would easily block it. It was no longer about striking him; it was about weakening him through blood loss. The growing red spot on the man’s filthy linen tunic pleased Baldwin. The Northman stepped back again and coughed, a trickle of blood on his lips. It would not be long now. Baldwin gave a rapid glance around to make sure none of this man’s pagan colleagues were within striking distance, and reengaged. He drove the small blade multiple times in different points of attack, making the Northman move his shield, each time a little slower. On what would be the final jab, too slowly. Baldwin buried the blade a full hand’s depth into the man’s chest and twisted as he pulled it out. The Northman dropped to the ground and Baldwin looked for his next opponent. The well-disciplined defensive shield wall first employed when these raiders breached Harlebec’s shores was gone, replaced by an open field melee. Pockets of men, two or three in number, faced off with each other, taking turns swinging heavy, sharp- edged weapons into leather-covered wooden shields. Now too close together to be effective, the initial efforts of the archers were instrumental in thinning the ranks of heathens as they raced ashore. Perspiration ran freely down faces, especially those wearing metal or leather helmets or the thick leather padding over their tunics. Unlike the first few fervent minutes of the battle, exhaustion was beginning to affect both sides. There was a slight hesitation before the next axe swing, a small delay in the block, a gathering of energy before the return strike. This was the point of the battle where Baldwin excelled. Nearby he saw a Frankish city garrison soldier, a man he recognized as one of the city’s lesser nobles, meet his end by one of the ruses these Northmen were fond of employing. As the two exchanged blows, he watched the Northman fall back out of sword range. As the garrison soldier rushed to attack, the Northman over-swung his long-handled axe. The soldier easily ducked the wide blade, but before Baldwin could move to assist the soldier, the Northman yanked the axe back. The bottom of the blade dug deeply into the soldiers back. He continued pulling forward, easily sliding the short blade in his other hand into the injured soldier’s chest. The man screamed in anguish as the Northman continued to bear the blade into the man’s chest, gaining pleasure in the sight of the Frankish soldier’s painful death. Baldwin moved forward to intercept before the Northmen had a chance to disengage. He could not save the soldier’s life, but he could ensure the Northman would not again employ that trick. Scanning the battlefield around him, he stepped over the corpse of the man he felled and moved in to attack. The glee in the Northman’s eyes disappeared, but it was not fear that took its place, for these Northmen were not afraid of death. Through the eye-guards of the man’s steel helmet, Baldwin saw the same look as the rabid animals that sometimes appeared on the fringes of camp. Baldwin was too late to gain advantage from the Northman’s entanglement with the dying Frank. The blond-bearded man easily ripped the small sword from the man’s chest and turned to face Baldwin. Blood ran in rivulets from the Frank’s mouth as his body thudded to the ground. This Northman was large and strong enough to wield a long-handled axe with one hand. His blood- spattered beard was knotted and tied off in multiple strands, looking like a great red hand with gnarled fingers hanging under his chin. With his surprise attack thwarted, Baldwin slowed his advance and shifted to a more defensive posture. These Northmen were clever fighters and this man, surely someone important from the metal helmet and chain mail tunic, was no exception. Instead of attempting the over-swing feint again, he swung the long axe in a fierce blow aimed directly at Baldwin’s shield. This man did not appear as weary as the others on the field of battle. Did he hope to cleave the shield in two and make a hole for his sword? Was his goal to embed the axe blade in Baldwin’s shield? Baldwin did not wait to find out. He had a clever plan of his own. He parried back a step and deflected the axe harmlessly to the side, but this Northman displayed great strength. Baldwin felt the vibration move from shield to fingers to arm. Another few blows like this and his grip on the shield would be in question. As always, he scanned for other opponents as he circled just out of range of the long axe. Always be aware of your surroundings, his father had drilled into him since he could lift a weapon and this counsel had saved his life more than once. The Northman’s next attack intensified, perhaps sensing fear in his opponent from the parry. He swung the axe, but Baldwin’s movements kept him out of range. Baldwin circled, ever wary of his surroundings. Soon the Northman was positioned correctly. At the next swing of the heavy axe, Baldwin pressed in, blocking with his shield, and moving the Northman backward. As the large man struck out with his seax, Baldwin blocked with his own and pressed harder. That is when the Northman’s heel collided with the body of the dead Frankish soldier. He tried to stay righted, but his momentum carried him backward and his other foot quickly met the corpse. Baldwin finally saw the rabid look fade from his eyes, replaced more with puzzlement than with fear. As his body fell backward, Baldwin rushed past, slicing into the man’s neck with the sharp edge of his seax. He felt the slight resistance of flesh and the bump of neck bone as he dragged the blade across. The dying Frank had received his vengeance and aided Baldwin in the process. Appearing in front of him was a lone Northman, wielding a short sword and a shield, this one nearly as large as the last. As he rushed to meet the enemy, Baldwin thought, what do they feed these pagans? The man slowed and waited for Baldwin to approach. When in range, the man swung his seax in a long, slashing cut, which Baldwin easily blocked, a little too easily. The seax was ineffective for slashing cuts and better suited to jabs. Those who fought with these tactics did not live long enough to boast of them. Baldwin suspected another ruse. Following the slashing cut, the Northman swung the edge of his shield toward Baldwin’s head. He could see the bloody strip of steel attached to the shield honed to a razor-sharp edge slice past his face. Baldwin’s suspicion had kept him a half step further away from the Northman than was his custom, allowing him to dodge the shield blade. This had worked for the Northman before, but Baldwin would make certain this heathen would fool no more Franks. With the Northman’s shield out of position, it was an easy matter to step forward and jab a hole in the Northman’s side. The man stumbled back and Baldwin jabbed the blade into his neck. He dropped to the ground in a spurt of red blood and Baldwin moved on. Four steps later he met another Northman, this one swinging a hand axe and carrying a shield. The red-haired man was young, still in his teens, and was visibly slow with his sword thrust. Another ruse? Baldwin thought, or is he as tired as he appears? With a cautious eye for tricks, Baldwin traded blows with the man. His increasing lag time betrayed the truth and Baldwin dispatched him with a fatal jab to the center of his chest. With another glance around to find an enemy, he spotted an older man exchanging heavy sword blows with a leather-helmeted Northman. He moved toward the pair to lend a hand, but could only watch in admiration as the older man not only kept pace with the young Northman but outmatched him. Soon the Northman’s parries were unsteady and his swings were noticeably slower; this raider, too, grew tired. As Baldwin reached them, the older man parried a late thrust and backhanded the double- edged blade across the man’s midsection. A light shove sent the injured man to the ground where he would no longer be a threat. “Do you require aid, old man?” he yelled to the victorious Frank standing nearby with nearly identical steel gray eyes and square jaw. The man brushed perspiration from his graying hair and cast a quick glance at Baldwin. “Surely not from a lickspigot like you,” he replied, all the while surveying the battlefield for combatants. His tone was sharp, but the half smile on his face revealed his true meaning. He tipped his head toward the bank of the River Lys, less than half a league to their north. “The battle turns in our favor. Look for them to break for the longboats.” Baldwin nodded to his father, Audacer, Count of Harlebec, as both men moved toward the many skirmishes occurring before them. Since Audacer had pointed it out, Baldwin could see the heathens were fewer and his fellow Franks had fared well. Many townspeople from the garrison lay on the ground with mortal wounds, men he knew. A few of the unfortunate souls still lived, but not for long. Somehow, the subdued groans and cries for help from the dying were always disturbingly audible over the din of clashing weapons and grunts of exertion. “Fresh reserves,” his father said, pointing his sword toward the longboats. Baldwin looked to see a dozen Northmen splashing toward them at a heavy pace. Audacer was right: the battle was turning in their favor, but these Northmen were not going to flee. Baldwin could see their tactic immediately. These fresh troops planned to make easy work of the tired Franks defending their lands. “Form up!” Audacer yelled to anyone nearby and available. Two other men appeared carrying shields and spears. Baldwin knew this limited number of soldiers would not last long against twelve fresh Northmen. He went with the first plan that came to mind. “Approach from the rear while I keep them occupied,” he said. Sheathing his sword, Baldwin stooped to retrieve a spear one of his unfortunate countrymen no longer needed. As he hoped, it was a heavy battle spear, and not the light throwing spear. He rushed toward the Northmen with his new weapon extended. They reacted as he had hoped by raising shields and longswords. The group fanned out and began to circle Baldwin, their smirks betraying the easy work they planned to make of him. Rather than engage, Baldwin used the spear to keep the pagans at a distance. Back and forth he whipped the spear, always threatening the man who dared to step closest. Even a spear-length away, he smelled the odor of nerves and effort on them. They were perhaps the less experienced raiders, left behind to guard their plundered loot from Ghent and the boats that contained it. Baldwin could not help but smile. These Northmen were fond of ruses but a true warrior learns from his opponents and the men of West Frankia had learned a few ruses of their own. To a man, the smirks dropped from their faces as Baldwin’s dodges and parries began to annoy them. Green they may be, they were still well-trained soldiers and Baldwin could see he was only seconds from losing blood. A concerted attack from multiple directions would overwhelm his sole weapon and he could feel the Northmen had no more patience with him. But it was too late. A Northman to Baldwin’s right dropped his shield and arched his back before releasing a wet scream. The pointed end of a sword sprouted from the front of his chest followed by a spurt of blood as it disappeared. Audacer’s face appeared behind the falling man with a grim smile of satisfaction. As the heathens reacted in brief shock to their comrade’s sudden death, Baldwin thrust the spear into the first Northman whose gaze did not meet his. To his left, two more heathens fell from the rearward spear thrusts of the garrison soldiers. The raiders’ shock was momentary and they wasted no time in defending themselves. As quickly as he had thrust it, Baldwin abandoned the spear and drew his sword. He engaged the nearest Northman with a furious attack, hearing Audacer’s blade meet the steel of an opponent. The two spearmen maintained a strong defense against several of the fresh Northmen, but the odds were against them. The Northmen could easily fight two men to one Frank for a deadly advantage. Baldwin pressed hard, but the Northman had skill. They traded blows to the shield with neither party gaining ground. He glanced around as the battle allowed, but to his amazement, no other heathens joined the fight. Curiosity burned within, him but he had no time to verify. The Northman grunted and released a heavy backhanded cut. Baldwin blocked it easily and returned with one of his own. The Northman’s shield intercepted it. Baldwin made no headway, but if the pagan hoped to take his advantage on tired Franks, he would find no reward with Baldwin. Known for their ability to remain strong long into the battle, both Baldwin and Audacer traded harmless blows with these two raiders. Baldwin spotted a soldier approaching on horseback, but he did not wear the ragtag apparel of a Northern raiders or the marginally identical leather armor of the town’s garrison. The soldier wore a chain mail tunic and metal helmet. With his shield strapped to his back, his sword shined brightly in the hot afternoon sun. This was one of the elite personal guards of their king. The Northman spotted the new threat and reacted by breaking off his engagement with Baldwin and running toward the shore. Baldwin looked around to see another group of the king’s soldiers approaching on horseback. In one swift movement, they each pulled their horses to a halt and slid to the ground. As they landed, their shields rolled around the carrying strap to alight in their hands, ready for use. A dozen more were already beating back the pagan scourge who had not yet retreated. The guard who approached Baldwin’s battle halfheartedly gave chase to his combatant, but the Northman had reached the water. As Baldwin watched, the invaders all began abandoning their combatants and dashing toward the boats. Those further south had to run the gauntlet of Franks between them and the boats and many did not make it. With no more Northmen to fight, the battle was over. The Northmen left alive were in their shallow-bottomed boats in the river’s middle. Without the sound of battle cries and metal striking metal, all Baldwin could hear were the groans of the dying and his own labored breathing. “St Salvator remains safe for another day,” Audacer said to his son, clapping a hand to his back. They were glad words, but Audacer’s lined face did not smile. “Thanks to the riders dispatched from Ghent,” Baldwin said. “I am afraid St Bavo’s Abbey did not fare so well.” Baldwin watched his father’s eyes roam the field of battle. Bodies littered the ground in patches of drying blood and the buzz of flies began to grow already. Most were Northmen, but too many were fellow Franks. These were friends and neighbors, people he knew. “At what cost?” Baldwin heard Audacer utter below his breath. “Indeed, father,” Baldwin said. “See to your commanders, I will see to the wounded.” Baldwin nodded toward the pocket of Franks converging on their position. His father was the count, the leader of these men. They would be seeking orders. Audacer nodded with the glint of a smile. “You will make a find count someday, Baldwin.” Baldwin moved toward the wounded, wiping the blood from his sword on the clothing of the first downed Northman he came to. He sheathed it and began looking for wounded countrymen who needed aid.
NEW
© Kyle R Fisher, 2021

JUDITH EXCERPT

Chapter 1

NEW
The bloodied hand axe arced gracefully around a path that would embed it directly into the side of Baldwin’s sweat-soaked skull. The Northman wielding it was no stranger to battle. A long, gray scar framed his face over the left eye and numerous emblems of freshly sprayed blood dotted his face and ragged beard. With his eyes wide and nostrils splayed like a warhorse rushing to the enemy, he grunted as he swung. The sound blended into the dozens of grunts and yells surrounding Baldwin that conveyed the poetry of war. This murky art surrounded him. It was in the bloodied corpses of Northmen and fellow countrymen that littered the battlefield and in the unmistakable dank smell of blood and entrails, like the butcher house on a hot summer day. Despite the long battle, Baldwin easily raised his shield to intercept the axe in a glancing blow, carrying the Northman’s arm upward. Rather than dropping his shield, Baldwin pressed it up and into the Northman’s shoulder, turning the man slightly and opening a vulnerable section of abdomen. With a quick jab of his long seax—the smaller blade better suited to close quarter battles than a broadsword—Baldwin opened a small hole between the man’s ribs. The Northman dropped back; feeling the stab, no doubt, but unaware he was already dead. Surging forward again, wary this time, he swung the axe in front of him, perhaps hoping to knock Baldwin off balance with its force. Baldwin easily leaned out of reach then pushed forward. He jabbed again, knowing the Northman would easily block it. It was no longer about striking him; it was about weakening him through blood loss. The growing red spot on the man’s filthy linen tunic pleased Baldwin. The Northman stepped back again and coughed, a trickle of blood on his lips. It would not be long now. Baldwin gave a rapid glance around to make sure none of this man’s pagan colleagues were within striking distance, and reengaged. He drove the small blade multiple times in different points of attack, making the Northman move his shield, each time a little slower. On what would be the final jab, too slowly. Baldwin buried the blade a full hand’s depth into the man’s chest and twisted as he pulled it out. The Northman dropped to the ground and Baldwin looked for his next opponent. The well-disciplined defensive shield wall first employed when these raiders breached Harlebec’s shores was gone, replaced by an open field melee. Pockets of men, two or three in number, faced off with each other, taking turns swinging heavy, sharp-edged weapons into leather-covered wooden shields. Now too close together to be effective, the initial efforts of the archers were instrumental in thinning the ranks of heathens as they raced ashore. Perspiration ran freely down faces, especially those wearing metal or leather helmets or the thick leather padding over their tunics. Unlike the first few fervent minutes of the battle, exhaustion was beginning to affect both sides. There was a slight hesitation before the next axe swing, a small delay in the block, a gathering of energy before the return strike. This was the point of the battle where Baldwin excelled. Nearby he saw a Frankish city garrison soldier, a man he recognized as one of the city’s lesser nobles, meet his end by one of the ruses these Northmen were fond of employing. As the two exchanged blows, he watched the Northman fall back out of sword range. As the garrison soldier rushed to attack, the Northman over-swung his long-handled axe. The soldier easily ducked the wide blade, but before Baldwin could move to assist the soldier, the Northman yanked the axe back. The bottom of the blade dug deeply into the soldiers back. He continued pulling forward, easily sliding the short blade in his other hand into the injured soldier’s chest. The man screamed in anguish as the Northman continued to bear the blade into the man’s chest, gaining pleasure in the sight of the Frankish soldier’s painful death. Baldwin moved forward to intercept before the Northmen had a chance to disengage. He could not save the soldier’s life, but he could ensure the Northman would not again employ that trick. Scanning the battlefield around him, he stepped over the corpse of the man he felled and moved in to attack. The glee in the Northman’s eyes disappeared, but it was not fear that took its place, for these Northmen were not afraid of death. Through the eye-guards of the man’s steel helmet, Baldwin saw the same look as the rabid animals that sometimes appeared on the fringes of camp. Baldwin was too late to gain advantage from the Northman’s entanglement with the dying Frank. The blond-bearded man easily ripped the small sword from the man’s chest and turned to face Baldwin. Blood ran in rivulets from the Frank’s mouth as his body thudded to the ground. This Northman was large and strong enough to wield a long-handled axe with one hand. His blood-spattered beard was knotted and tied off in multiple strands, looking like a great red hand with gnarled fingers hanging under his chin. With his surprise attack thwarted, Baldwin slowed his advance and shifted to a more defensive posture. These Northmen were clever fighters and this man, surely someone important from the metal helmet and chain mail tunic, was no exception. Instead of attempting the over-swing feint again, he swung the long axe in a fierce blow aimed directly at Baldwin’s shield. This man did not appear as weary as the others on the field of battle. Did he hope to cleave the shield in two and make a hole for his sword? Was his goal to embed the axe blade in Baldwin’s shield? Baldwin did not wait to find out. He had a clever plan of his own. He parried back a step and deflected the axe harmlessly to the side, but this Northman displayed great strength. Baldwin felt the vibration move from shield to fingers to arm. Another few blows like this and his grip on the shield would be in question. As always, he scanned for other opponents as he circled just out of range of the long axe. Always be aware of your surroundings, his father had drilled into him since he could lift a weapon and this counsel had saved his life more than once. The Northman’s next attack intensified, perhaps sensing fear in his opponent from the parry. He swung the axe, but Baldwin’s movements kept him out of range. Baldwin circled, ever wary of his surroundings. Soon the Northman was positioned correctly. At the next swing of the heavy axe, Baldwin pressed in, blocking with his shield, and moving the Northman backward. As the large man struck out with his seax, Baldwin blocked with his own and pressed harder. That is when the Northman’s heel collided with the body of the dead Frankish soldier. He tried to stay righted, but his momentum carried him backward and his other foot quickly met the corpse. Baldwin finally saw the rabid look fade from his eyes, replaced more with puzzlement than with fear. As his body fell backward, Baldwin rushed past, slicing into the man’s neck with the sharp edge of his seax. He felt the slight resistance of flesh and the bump of neck bone as he dragged the blade across. The dying Frank had received his vengeance and aided Baldwin in the process. Appearing in front of him was a lone Northman, wielding a short sword and a shield, this one nearly as large as the last. As he rushed to meet the enemy, Baldwin thought, what do they feed these pagans? The man slowed and waited for Baldwin to approach. When in range, the man swung his seax in a long, slashing cut, which Baldwin easily blocked, a little too easily. The seax was ineffective for slashing cuts and better suited to jabs. Those who fought with these tactics did not live long enough to boast of them. Baldwin suspected another ruse. Following the slashing cut, the Northman swung the edge of his shield toward Baldwin’s head. He could see the bloody strip of steel attached to the shield honed to a razor-sharp edge slice past his face. Baldwin’s suspicion had kept him a half step further away from the Northman than was his custom, allowing him to dodge the shield blade. This had worked for the Northman before, but Baldwin would make certain this heathen would fool no more Franks. With the Northman’s shield out of position, it was an easy matter to step forward and jab a hole in the Northman’s side. The man stumbled back and Baldwin jabbed the blade into his neck. He dropped to the ground in a spurt of red blood and Baldwin moved on. Four steps later he met another Northman, this one swinging a hand axe and carrying a shield. The red-haired man was young, still in his teens, and was visibly slow with his sword thrust. Another ruse? Baldwin thought, or is he as tired as he appears? With a cautious eye for tricks, Baldwin traded blows with the man. His increasing lag time betrayed the truth and Baldwin dispatched him with a fatal jab to the center of his chest. With another glance around to find an enemy, he spotted an older man exchanging heavy sword blows with a leather-helmeted Northman. He moved toward the pair to lend a hand, but could only watch in admiration as the older man not only kept pace with the young Northman but outmatched him. Soon the Northman’s parries were unsteady and his swings were noticeably slower; this raider, too, grew tired. As Baldwin reached them, the older man parried a late thrust and backhanded the double-edged blade across the man’s midsection. A light shove sent the injured man to the ground where he would no longer be a threat. “Do you require aid, old man?” he yelled to the victorious Frank standing nearby with nearly identical steel gray eyes and square jaw. The man brushed perspiration from his graying hair and cast a quick glance at Baldwin. “Surely not from a lickspigot like you,” he replied, all the while surveying the battlefield for combatants. His tone was sharp, but the half smile on his face revealed his true meaning. He tipped his head toward the bank of the River Lys, less than half a league to their north. “The battle turns in our favor. Look for them to break for the longboats.” Baldwin nodded to his father, Audacer, Count of Harlebec, as both men moved toward the many skirmishes occurring before them. Since Audacer had pointed it out, Baldwin could see the heathens were fewer and his fellow Franks had fared well. Many townspeople from the garrison lay on the ground with mortal wounds, men he knew. A few of the unfortunate souls still lived, but not for long. Somehow, the subdued groans and cries for help from the dying were always disturbingly audible over the din of clashing weapons and grunts of exertion. “Fresh reserves,” his father said, pointing his sword toward the longboats. Baldwin looked to see a dozen Northmen splashing toward them at a heavy pace. Audacer was right: the battle was turning in their favor, but these Northmen were not going to flee. Baldwin could see their tactic immediately. These fresh troops planned to make easy work of the tired Franks defending their lands. “Form up!” Audacer yelled to anyone nearby and available. Two other men appeared carrying shields and spears. Baldwin knew this limited number of soldiers would not last long against twelve fresh Northmen. He went with the first plan that came to mind. “Approach from the rear while I keep them occupied,” he said. Sheathing his sword, Baldwin stooped to retrieve a spear one of his unfortunate countrymen no longer needed. As he hoped, it was a heavy battle spear, and not the light throwing spear. He rushed toward the Northmen with his new weapon extended. They reacted as he had hoped by raising shields and longswords. The group fanned out and began to circle Baldwin, their smirks betraying the easy work they planned to make of him. Rather than engage, Baldwin used the spear to keep the pagans at a distance. Back and forth he whipped the spear, always threatening the man who dared to step closest. Even a spear-length away, he smelled the odor of nerves and effort on them. They were perhaps the less experienced raiders, left behind to guard their plundered loot from Ghent and the boats that contained it. Baldwin could not help but smile. These Northmen were fond of ruses but a true warrior learns from his opponents and the men of West Frankia had learned a few ruses of their own. To a man, the smirks dropped from their faces as Baldwin’s dodges and parries began to annoy them. Green they may be, they were still well- trained soldiers and Baldwin could see he was only seconds from losing blood. A concerted attack from multiple directions would overwhelm his sole weapon and he could feel the Northmen had no more patience with him. But it was too late. A Northman to Baldwin’s right dropped his shield and arched his back before releasing a wet scream. The pointed end of a sword sprouted from the front of his chest followed by a spurt of blood as it disappeared. Audacer’s face appeared behind the falling man with a grim smile of satisfaction. As the heathens reacted in brief shock to their comrade’s sudden death, Baldwin thrust the spear into the first Northman whose gaze did not meet his. To his left, two more heathens fell from the rearward spear thrusts of the garrison soldiers. The raiders’ shock was momentary and they wasted no time in defending themselves. As quickly as he had thrust it, Baldwin abandoned the spear and drew his sword. He engaged the nearest Northman with a furious attack, hearing Audacer’s blade meet the steel of an opponent. The two spearmen maintained a strong defense against several of the fresh Northmen, but the odds were against them. The Northmen could easily fight two men to one Frank for a deadly advantage. Baldwin pressed hard, but the Northman had skill. They traded blows to the shield with neither party gaining ground. He glanced around as the battle allowed, but to his amazement, no other heathens joined the fight. Curiosity burned within, him but he had no time to verify. The Northman grunted and released a heavy backhanded cut. Baldwin blocked it easily and returned with one of his own. The Northman’s shield intercepted it. Baldwin made no headway, but if the pagan hoped to take his advantage on tired Franks, he would find no reward with Baldwin. Known for their ability to remain strong long into the battle, both Baldwin and Audacer traded harmless blows with these two raiders. Baldwin spotted a soldier approaching on horseback, but he did not wear the ragtag apparel of a Northern raiders or the marginally identical leather armor of the town’s garrison. The soldier wore a chain mail tunic and metal helmet. With his shield strapped to his back, his sword shined brightly in the hot afternoon sun. This was one of the elite personal guards of their king. The Northman spotted the new threat and reacted by breaking off his engagement with Baldwin and running toward the shore. Baldwin looked around to see another group of the king’s soldiers approaching on horseback. In one swift movement, they each pulled their horses to a halt and slid to the ground. As they landed, their shields rolled around the carrying strap to alight in their hands, ready for use. A dozen more were already beating back the pagan scourge who had not yet retreated. The guard who approached Baldwin’s battle halfheartedly gave chase to his combatant, but the Northman had reached the water. As Baldwin watched, the invaders all began abandoning their combatants and dashing toward the boats. Those further south had to run the gauntlet of Franks between them and the boats and many did not make it. With no more Northmen to fight, the battle was over. The Northmen left alive were in their shallow-bottomed boats in the river’s middle. Without the sound of battle cries and metal striking metal, all Baldwin could hear were the groans of the dying and his own labored breathing. “St Salvator remains safe for another day,” Audacer said to his son, clapping a hand to his back. They were glad words, but Audacer’s lined face did not smile. “Thanks to the riders dispatched from Ghent,” Baldwin said. “I am afraid St Bavo’s Abbey did not fare so well.” Baldwin watched his father’s eyes roam the field of battle. Bodies littered the ground in patches of drying blood and the buzz of flies began to grow already. Most were Northmen, but too many were fellow Franks. These were friends and neighbors, people he knew. “At what cost?” Baldwin heard Audacer utter below his breath. “Indeed, father,” Baldwin said. “See to your commanders, I will see to the wounded.” Baldwin nodded toward the pocket of Franks converging on their position. His father was the count, the leader of these men. They would be seeking orders. Audacer nodded with the glint of a smile. “You will make a find count someday, Baldwin.” Baldwin moved toward the wounded, wiping the blood from his sword on the clothing of the first downed Northman he came to. He sheathed it and began looking for wounded countrymen who needed aid.
© Kyle R Fisher, 2021

JUDITH EXCERPT

Chapter 1 The bloodied hand axe arced gracefully around a path that would embed it directly into the side of Baldwin’s sweat-soaked skull. The Northman wielding it was no stranger to battle. A long, gray scar framed his face over the left eye and numerous emblems of freshly sprayed blood dotted his face and ragged beard. With his eyes wide and nostrils splayed like a warhorse rushing to the enemy, he grunted as he swung. The sound blended into the dozens of grunts and yells surrounding Baldwin that conveyed the poetry of war. This murky art surrounded him. It was in the bloodied corpses of Northmen and fellow countrymen that littered the battlefield and in the unmistakable dank smell of blood and entrails, like the butcher house on a hot summer day. Despite the long battle, Baldwin easily raised his shield to intercept the axe in a glancing blow, carrying the Northman’s arm upward. Rather than dropping his shield, Baldwin pressed it up and into the Northman’s shoulder, turning the man slightly and opening a vulnerable section of abdomen. With a quick jab of his long seax—the smaller blade better suited to close quarter battles than a broadsword—Baldwin opened a small hole between the man’s ribs. The Northman dropped back; feeling the stab, no doubt, but unaware he was already dead. Surging forward again, wary this time, he swung the axe in front of him, perhaps hoping to knock Baldwin off balance with its force. Baldwin easily leaned out of reach then pushed forward. He jabbed again, knowing the Northman would easily block it. It was no longer about striking him; it was about weakening him through blood loss. The growing red spot on the man’s filthy linen tunic pleased Baldwin. The Northman stepped back again and coughed, a trickle of blood on his lips. It would not be long now. Baldwin gave a rapid glance around to make sure none of this man’s pagan colleagues were within striking distance, and reengaged. He drove the small blade multiple times in different points of attack, making the Northman move his shield, each time a little slower. On what would be the final jab, too slowly. Baldwin buried the blade a full hand’s depth into the man’s chest and twisted as he pulled it out. The Northman dropped to the ground and Baldwin looked for his next opponent. The well-disciplined defensive shield wall first employed when these raiders breached Harlebec’s shores was gone, replaced by an open field melee. Pockets of men, two or three in number, faced off with each other, taking turns swinging heavy, sharp-edged weapons into leather-covered wooden shields. Now too close together to be effective, the initial efforts of the archers were instrumental in thinning the ranks of heathens as they raced ashore. Perspiration ran freely down faces, especially those wearing metal or leather helmets or the thick leather padding over their tunics. Unlike the first few fervent minutes of the battle, exhaustion was beginning to affect both sides. There was a slight hesitation before the next axe swing, a small delay in the block, a gathering of energy before the return strike. This was the point of the battle where Baldwin excelled. Nearby he saw a Frankish city garrison soldier, a man he recognized as one of the city’s lesser nobles, meet his end by one of the ruses these Northmen were fond of employing. As the two exchanged blows, he watched the Northman fall back out of sword range. As the garrison soldier rushed to attack, the Northman over- swung his long-handled axe. The soldier easily ducked the wide blade, but before Baldwin could move to assist the soldier, the Northman yanked the axe back. The bottom of the blade dug deeply into the soldiers back. He continued pulling forward, easily sliding the short blade in his other hand into the injured soldier’s chest. The man screamed in anguish as the Northman continued to bear the blade into the man’s chest, gaining pleasure in the sight of the Frankish soldier’s painful death. Baldwin moved forward to intercept before the Northmen had a chance to disengage. He could not save the soldier’s life, but he could ensure the Northman would not again employ that trick. Scanning the battlefield around him, he stepped over the corpse of the man he felled and moved in to attack. The glee in the Northman’s eyes disappeared, but it was not fear that took its place, for these Northmen were not afraid of death. Through the eye- guards of the man’s steel helmet, Baldwin saw the same look as the rabid animals that sometimes appeared on the fringes of camp. Baldwin was too late to gain advantage from the Northman’s entanglement with the dying Frank. The blond-bearded man easily ripped the small sword from the man’s chest and turned to face Baldwin. Blood ran in rivulets from the Frank’s mouth as his body thudded to the ground. This Northman was large and strong enough to wield a long-handled axe with one hand. His blood-spattered beard was knotted and tied off in multiple strands, looking like a great red hand with gnarled fingers hanging under his chin. With his surprise attack thwarted, Baldwin slowed his advance and shifted to a more defensive posture. These Northmen were clever fighters and this man, surely someone important from the metal helmet and chain mail tunic, was no exception. Instead of attempting the over-swing feint again, he swung the long axe in a fierce blow aimed directly at Baldwin’s shield. This man did not appear as weary as the others on the field of battle. Did he hope to cleave the shield in two and make a hole for his sword? Was his goal to embed the axe blade in Baldwin’s shield? Baldwin did not wait to find out. He had a clever plan of his own. He parried back a step and deflected the axe harmlessly to the side, but this Northman displayed great strength. Baldwin felt the vibration move from shield to fingers to arm. Another few blows like this and his grip on the shield would be in question. As always, he scanned for other opponents as he circled just out of range of the long axe. Always be aware of your surroundings, his father had drilled into him since he could lift a weapon and this counsel had saved his life more than once. The Northman’s next attack intensified, perhaps sensing fear in his opponent from the parry. He swung the axe, but Baldwin’s movements kept him out of range. Baldwin circled, ever wary of his surroundings. Soon the Northman was positioned correctly. At the next swing of the heavy axe, Baldwin pressed in, blocking with his shield, and moving the Northman backward. As the large man struck out with his seax, Baldwin blocked with his own and pressed harder. That is when the Northman’s heel collided with the body of the dead Frankish soldier. He tried to stay righted, but his momentum carried him backward and his other foot quickly met the corpse. Baldwin finally saw the rabid look fade from his eyes, replaced more with puzzlement than with fear. As his body fell backward, Baldwin rushed past, slicing into the man’s neck with the sharp edge of his seax. He felt the slight resistance of flesh and the bump of neck bone as he dragged the blade across. The dying Frank had received his vengeance and aided Baldwin in the process. Appearing in front of him was a lone Northman, wielding a short sword and a shield, this one nearly as large as the last. As he rushed to meet the enemy, Baldwin thought, what do they feed these pagans? The man slowed and waited for Baldwin to approach. When in range, the man swung his seax in a long, slashing cut, which Baldwin easily blocked, a little too easily. The seax was ineffective for slashing cuts and better suited to jabs. Those who fought with these tactics did not live long enough to boast of them. Baldwin suspected another ruse. Following the slashing cut, the Northman swung the edge of his shield toward Baldwin’s head. He could see the bloody strip of steel attached to the shield honed to a razor-sharp edge slice past his face. Baldwin’s suspicion had kept him a half step further away from the Northman than was his custom, allowing him to dodge the shield blade. This had worked for the Northman before, but Baldwin would make certain this heathen would fool no more Franks. With the Northman’s shield out of position, it was an easy matter to step forward and jab a hole in the Northman’s side. The man stumbled back and Baldwin jabbed the blade into his neck. He dropped to the ground in a spurt of red blood and Baldwin moved on. Four steps later he met another Northman, this one swinging a hand axe and carrying a shield. The red-haired man was young, still in his teens, and was visibly slow with his sword thrust. Another ruse? Baldwin thought, or is he as tired as he appears? With a cautious eye for tricks, Baldwin traded blows with the man. His increasing lag time betrayed the truth and Baldwin dispatched him with a fatal jab to the center of his chest. With another glance around to find an enemy, he spotted an older man exchanging heavy sword blows with a leather-helmeted Northman. He moved toward the pair to lend a hand, but could only watch in admiration as the older man not only kept pace with the young Northman but outmatched him. Soon the Northman’s parries were unsteady and his swings were noticeably slower; this raider, too, grew tired. As Baldwin reached them, the older man parried a late thrust and backhanded the double-edged blade across the man’s midsection. A light shove sent the injured man to the ground where he would no longer be a threat. “Do you require aid, old man?” he yelled to the victorious Frank standing nearby with nearly identical steel gray eyes and square jaw. The man brushed perspiration from his graying hair and cast a quick glance at Baldwin. “Surely not from a lickspigot like you,” he replied, all the while surveying the battlefield for combatants. His tone was sharp, but the half smile on his face revealed his true meaning. He tipped his head toward the bank of the River Lys, less than half a league to their north. “The battle turns in our favor. Look for them to break for the longboats.” Baldwin nodded to his father, Audacer, Count of Harlebec, as both men moved toward the many skirmishes occurring before them. Since Audacer had pointed it out, Baldwin could see the heathens were fewer and his fellow Franks had fared well. Many townspeople from the garrison lay on the ground with mortal wounds, men he knew. A few of the unfortunate souls still lived, but not for long. Somehow, the subdued groans and cries for help from the dying were always disturbingly audible over the din of clashing weapons and grunts of exertion. “Fresh reserves,” his father said, pointing his sword toward the longboats. Baldwin looked to see a dozen Northmen splashing toward them at a heavy pace. Audacer was right: the battle was turning in their favor, but these Northmen were not going to flee. Baldwin could see their tactic immediately. These fresh troops planned to make easy work of the tired Franks defending their lands. “Form up!” Audacer yelled to anyone nearby and available. Two other men appeared carrying shields and spears. Baldwin knew this limited number of soldiers would not last long against twelve fresh Northmen. He went with the first plan that came to mind. “Approach from the rear while I keep them occupied,” he said. Sheathing his sword, Baldwin stooped to retrieve a spear one of his unfortunate countrymen no longer needed. As he hoped, it was a heavy battle spear, and not the light throwing spear. He rushed toward the Northmen with his new weapon extended. They reacted as he had hoped by raising shields and longswords. The group fanned out and began to circle Baldwin, their smirks betraying the easy work they planned to make of him. Rather than engage, Baldwin used the spear to keep the pagans at a distance. Back and forth he whipped the spear, always threatening the man who dared to step closest. Even a spear- length away, he smelled the odor of nerves and effort on them. They were perhaps the less experienced raiders, left behind to guard their plundered loot from Ghent and the boats that contained it. Baldwin could not help but smile. These Northmen were fond of ruses but a true warrior learns from his opponents and the men of West Frankia had learned a few ruses of their own. To a man, the smirks dropped from their faces as Baldwin’s dodges and parries began to annoy them. Green they may be, they were still well-trained soldiers and Baldwin could see he was only seconds from losing blood. A concerted attack from multiple directions would overwhelm his sole weapon and he could feel the Northmen had no more patience with him. But it was too late. A Northman to Baldwin’s right dropped his shield and arched his back before releasing a wet scream. The pointed end of a sword sprouted from the front of his chest followed by a spurt of blood as it disappeared. Audacer’s face appeared behind the falling man with a grim smile of satisfaction. As the heathens reacted in brief shock to their comrade’s sudden death, Baldwin thrust the spear into the first Northman whose gaze did not meet his. To his left, two more heathens fell from the rearward spear thrusts of the garrison soldiers. The raiders’ shock was momentary and they wasted no time in defending themselves. As quickly as he had thrust it, Baldwin abandoned the spear and drew his sword. He engaged the nearest Northman with a furious attack, hearing Audacer’s blade meet the steel of an opponent. The two spearmen maintained a strong defense against several of the fresh Northmen, but the odds were against them. The Northmen could easily fight two men to one Frank for a deadly advantage. Baldwin pressed hard, but the Northman had skill. They traded blows to the shield with neither party gaining ground. He glanced around as the battle allowed, but to his amazement, no other heathens joined the fight. Curiosity burned within, him but he had no time to verify. The Northman grunted and released a heavy backhanded cut. Baldwin blocked it easily and returned with one of his own. The Northman’s shield intercepted it. Baldwin made no headway, but if the pagan hoped to take his advantage on tired Franks, he would find no reward with Baldwin. Known for their ability to remain strong long into the battle, both Baldwin and Audacer traded harmless blows with these two raiders. Baldwin spotted a soldier approaching on horseback, but he did not wear the ragtag apparel of a Northern raiders or the marginally identical leather armor of the town’s garrison. The soldier wore a chain mail tunic and metal helmet. With his shield strapped to his back, his sword shined brightly in the hot afternoon sun. This was one of the elite personal guards of their king. The Northman spotted the new threat and reacted by breaking off his engagement with Baldwin and running toward the shore. Baldwin looked around to see another group of the king’s soldiers approaching on horseback. In one swift movement, they each pulled their horses to a halt and slid to the ground. As they landed, their shields rolled around the carrying strap to alight in their hands, ready for use. A dozen more were already beating back the pagan scourge who had not yet retreated. The guard who approached Baldwin’s battle halfheartedly gave chase to his combatant, but the Northman had reached the water. As Baldwin watched, the invaders all began abandoning their combatants and dashing toward the boats. Those further south had to run the gauntlet of Franks between them and the boats and many did not make it. With no more Northmen to fight, the battle was over. The Northmen left alive were in their shallow- bottomed boats in the river’s middle. Without the sound of battle cries and metal striking metal, all Baldwin could hear were the groans of the dying and his own labored breathing. “St Salvator remains safe for another day,” Audacer said to his son, clapping a hand to his back. They were glad words, but Audacer’s lined face did not smile. “Thanks to the riders dispatched from Ghent,” Baldwin said. “I am afraid St Bavo’s Abbey did not fare so well.” Baldwin watched his father’s eyes roam the field of battle. Bodies littered the ground in patches of drying blood and the buzz of flies began to grow already. Most were Northmen, but too many were fellow Franks. These were friends and neighbors, people he knew. “At what cost?” Baldwin heard Audacer utter below his breath. “Indeed, father,” Baldwin said. “See to your commanders, I will see to the wounded.” Baldwin nodded toward the pocket of Franks converging on their position. His father was the count, the leader of these men. They would be seeking orders. Audacer nodded with the glint of a smile. “You will make a find count someday, Baldwin.” Baldwin moved toward the wounded, wiping the blood from his sword on the clothing of the first downed Northman he came to. He sheathed it and began looking for wounded countrymen who needed aid.
PURCHASE LINKS COMING SOON