'The Last Chance' by Jack Hughes

The battle lulled. Those who stood breathed again and rallied to familiar faces; wondering what miracle had kept them alive, feeling guilty for it when they heard the agonised wails of those they left. Maddened voices cried out for death in the open spaces where weakening bodies flailed for missing limbs, or lay twisting around embedded arrows; men and horses in their bright-coloured surcoats and trappers inching their way into the silent motionlessness of those they were about to join. It was an appalling thing to watch.

Away from the carnage, their stern-faced master sat watching. His mud-streaked lancers slumped and sweated across tired mounts, their bodies as spent as his strategy. Lone arrows slashed the sky in hope, but the wooden wall held. Splintered, battered, but intact. Across his nocked shaft the archer saw them; the Saxons. They were quiet now. Spilled blood made them nervous, left them silent and ashen as the friends lying ragged and lifeless at their feet; waiting for the hail to come again. Older eyes were on him, he could feel their disapproval, heard them call him stupid when he drew too quick, then loosed too soon; ashamed to see his token effort fall short of the jostling Saxon hoarde. Other voices were less doubting, admired him for his spirit and glowing with fond memories of their own fading youth. Even the gruff old sergeants had been young too, once.

A cry broke the calm. Heads raised, breaths and weapons were drawn. A blare of horns brought the horses together and, again, the wall jostled; shields pulled in tight, the looks from behind them become glances. Lances sat back under Norman arms, and blistered Germanic hands tensed around worn and bloodied axes. Rage swelled, burning up fear. One was going in again, the other stood ready, two sides of the same madness. Sergeants roared conscripts back to readiness, spear and sword braced in trembling hands. With routine familairity the archer put a hand to his quiver. And felt his blood run cold. No arrows. Before him stood the Halescarls; the wild beasts still tethered to their Saxon lord. Huge, snarling monoliths of men hewn from stone, bearing axes that could split a horse, stirring a sickness in his empty stomach.

The army began to move. On the ground lay an arrow, and a chance. Grabbing it quickly he pulled back on his trusted bow. Soft wood groaned against hard, a tight band bit into his fingers. In the crowd he saw a face, drew a breath. And loosed. It was good, better than expected; climbing in a long graceful slightly curving arc. One eye on the horses, the other on the wall, the face he saw in the crowd dropped. The tide of lancers crashed against it, and the unbreakable cliff-face of Halescarls shook. The shield wall started to buckle. And for the first time since arriving in that God-forsaken land, the archer saw his dour master begin to smile.

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