By the light of the guttering fire I can still see his face, flecked with blood and the exhaustion of the battle. I was silent while he spoke to me throughout much of the night. I shall remember his story to tell to my son, as my Father, Cynewulf of the Grey Shore, has told it to me.
“By the end of the fourth day, my Lord Cyddic had completed the rape of the land around the Town the British call Verulamium. My throat was hoarse from the smoke of a hundred farms and I was sick of fighting. We’d taken their cattle as easily as we had taken their lives. All that remains was to cross the Colne and bring their cattle and treasure home.
“I went with the Henga, the other life-ward to Lord Cyddic, to a route to the farmland we now call home. The Colne was fast flowing from rain and had a black glow which signalled to me it would be hard to cross. Henga and I spent a time looking, wading, trying to find a ford, searching the muddy ground of the bank for the tracks of the British cattle’s usual crossing.
“My Lord Cyddic came and joined me. He was confident we could cross by the linden wood to the west, but I thought it an evil place. The banks were slick and wet. The crossing would be to a narrow place on the far side. I showed him the water – deep, black, fast. I warned him that our enemy was nearby and chasing us hard to take their cattle, their treasure and their pride back.
“He laughed hard, his voice like a rasp of steel. He chided me for being too cautious, saying that was the way of a life-ward – his closest warrior sworn to protect a Lord with his own life. He smiled at me, bidding me join him first on the far bank.
“Ravens curse me that I did not stop him then.
“We forded in the ice water, the Hearth-guard with us. The rocks were slippery as Picts under our feet and it took us a while to cross.
“I climbed the bank first, and heard the first of the British arrows before I could see it. As I snarled at the enemy, seeing them cringe before me, I knew it would take far more than my anger to scatter the British. As our Hearth-guard crossed, our formation ragged, I could see the enemy forming their shield-wall on the hill, better placed than ourselves.
“Harried by the javelins of the enemy, and scourged by their arrows, I dragged the Hearth-guard forward, shouting to Brytnoth and Wulfstan to hurry. They had crossed, but our blood-foe was assembled before us. And with a shout to their Christ-God, they charged us.
“I drew the edge of the Roman’s sword across my tongue, tasted my blood and goaded them forth to meet my blade. I am used to such show to scare the boys and old men. But I know that it will not be enough to terrify the British Lord for long. I crossed to stand beside by Lord Cyddic, and he smiled at me, knowing that if he should die I would be welcoming him into the Raven Hall after this world.
“In the beat of an eagle’s wing, they were among us, their shield pushing us back to the river, their helmets half-hiding their eyes from my war-stare. We beat them back easily the first time, breaking their spears and their swords, but not their line. They came again, and again.
“We stood fast, though Wulfstan and Brytnoth were wounded. A British spear pierced my Lord Cyddic’s side, although the spearman died a terrible death under my sword. Man was not borne to kill my life-ward under my eyes, my Lord Cyddic told me as he wiped his blood on my face from his wounded hand.
“We charged and broke them at last, our axes and swords biting their ranks and killing their hopes. Only one of their warbands stood our onslaught, Ravens curse them.
“Their farmers dragged their feet forward at the end of the fight, another wall behind out backs while we still fought our foes. Unable to meet us warrior against warrior, they now use tricks against us. No true Saxon fights against a man whose face he cannot see.
“Another arrow flew from a bowman not 20 paces away. Henga took the arrow in his throat, standing before Lord Cyddic and selling his life. No greater death can any life-ward have than that. After I had cut down the bowman, Lord Cyddic called me back. I shielded my Lord from the field as our Hearth-guard followed us still fighting. Such is the way of a life-ward that his Lord’s safety is his only thought. Bitterly I left the battle, hungry for more. Even the sight of the British shield wall, broken and dead was little treasure from this fight.”
I looked into my Father’s eyes as the ashes grew and the fire died by morning. One day I will be a life-ward like my Father, Cynewulf, and my son after me.
So, there you have it. The story of Cynewulf and Cyddic, the latest in the series of Dux Brittaniarum play-test games from Lard Island.
It was an incredibly tough fight between the well-formed British shield-wall and the Saxon Hearth-guard pressing forward from the only ford in the river. In the sloping, close terrain, each side was focused on a desperate struggle over a small piece of hillside in a fight which was in the balance for an hour. First the British shield-wall was broken, then the Saxon troops literally collapsed from shock and wounds inflicted in the fighting.
The game ended with Lord Cyddic falling wounded and being saved only by the heroism of his life-ward Henga. Cyddic was killed in the fight, only the play of a “Life-ward” or “Armour Bright” card sparing him from his grave. As with the other play-test games in the series, a lot of the events like this arose from play of the event cards in the Card Deck, complemented by the other action on the tabletop.
A great, close game in what is proving to be a really challenging and finely balanced set of rules.