The bugle sounded. Jarvis turned to his troopers and delivered his orders.
“Second troop. At the trot, by sixes, forward.”
The men kicked their mounts and as one the column of horseman made their way into the valley. Swords were drawn, the rasp of steel resounding through the ranks as men prepared to do battle – bright, flashing, curved blades with razor sharp edges that could cleave a man in two. The troopers rode shoulder to shoulder the horses jostling one another as the soldiers fought to maintain their spacing. In order to ensure maximum devastation among the enemy it was necessary to attack en masse. The physical shock of hundreds of mounted men crashing into a fixed formation would destroy its resolve, turning staunch, disciplined, defenders into a panicked rabble, making them easy prey for the lancers who’d skewer them like rats. Back in Pickerington they’d practiced for weeks, charging line-abreast, the locals coming out to watch them, as they raced their horses across the common ground. Children waved and cheered as the regiment dashed across the green fields with nothing to bar their way except an invisible enemy. Today would be different. The enemy they were about to meet wouldn’t be quite as forgiving as the hay-stuffed sacks they’d attacked back in Yorkshire.
“Keep it together lads. Steady as they go,” he spoke with authority; wary of maintaining the line, he coaxed his soldiers forward. The jangle of harness and thud of hooves filled Jarvis’ ears. He could feel Butcher breathing easily beneath him, the animal’s brute strength fortifying his own courage. He heard a distant thud followed by a whoosh. To the front of the cavalry formation a pillar of dust erupted from the valley floor, a glut of dirt and sand that hung in the airless hollow of the valley like a dirty brown specter. Soon there were more, and as they trotted forward the artillery strikes came thick and fast.
“Steady lads, steady.”
The cannon fire would be merciless once the barrage enveloped them and the killing began. Recognizing the danger ahead he braced himself for what they were about to experience. With a mile of open terrain to ride before they engaged with the Russians, they end of the valley was still barely visible. The bugle sounded once more, ordering the riders into close order.
“Push together Yorks. Don’t give the bastards any room to breathe.”
They were ready for the off, the riders willing the bugler to blow the charge. Months of harsh, arduous training had taught the troopers not to waste their mounts, to save their energy and momentum until they were upon the enemy. Scared to death, but brave as lions, men cursed and urged their horses forward.
“Stick ‘em the Yorks,” went up the battle cry, as men gritted their teeth, grasped their weapons tighter and leaned into their mounts.
The first rounds crashed into the cavalry, the screams of the wounded and dying tearing at the air. The terrifying whoosh followed by the audible splatter as cannon balls ripped through bone and sinew, leaving nothing but a fine mist of blood that coated those lucky enough not to be hit.
“Push to-bloody-gether. Fill the gaps you bastards,” screamed a smoke-blackened Sergeant covered in the blood and guts of a fellow trooper. Men screamed, horses whinnied and all around riders and animals ploughed into the ground. Huge swathes opened in the ranks of charging men as the guns carried off four and five troopers at a time. Red clouds hung in the air where only moments before riders had been.
The bugler finally sounded the charge and soldiers spurred their mounts.
“Ride you buggers. Fucking ride.” Screamed Jarvis.
Now they were off, a mad dash, a pell-mell of horse and warrior headed towards the Russian guns. The smoke from the spent charges was so thick that it was impossible to see more than a few yards in front – the expelled cannon fire, and the dust it created, clouded the valley offering the riders an imaginary protective barrier. If they couldn’t see the Russian gunners then they couldn’t see them. Unfortunately the iron balls that decimated the ranks and wreaked havocs on the bodies of the cavalrymen didn’t need eyes, and ruthlessly sought the horseman out anyway
At the bugle the lancers had lowered their weapons, and racing ahead of the horses was a steel tipped hedge-of-death that would rip and tear the gunners. They’d make the bastards pay for what they’d done. Jarvis kicked Butcher harder and as one they moved forward, man and beast coming together in one fluid motion, running for their lives, racing for the torment to end.
“Come on boys.”
The rider to Jarvis’ left suddenly exploded, the sticky slap of flesh and brains coated him but it didn’t matter, it was too surreal. Death rode with them in the charge; the more the merrier, they’d need his sword when they reached the end of the valley. Behind them lay a carpet of corpses, dead and wounded men disemboweled and limbless, crushed under their horses. Lame and crippled animals dragged their flanks through the dust as they tried to rejoin the charge. Loose horses were everywhere, scattered throughout the ranks trying to force their way into the gaps wrought by the guns. Several times he’d had to use his sword to fend them off to prevent himself from being dismounted.
“Get back, damn you,” he cursed as he brought the flat of his blade down onto the neck of a rogue horse, that quickly sprinted from the fray.
They could just about make out the gunners now, see the Russians sponging their weapons and loading their shot. Grey coated figures that rushed in and out of the smoke, the bright flash of cannon as they erupted directly to their front, the scream of man, the splash of flesh.
As black as night, smoke billowed around the remains of the brigade, who undeterred powered forward, driven on by instinct, hate and a lust for revenge. Butcher jumped through the fog of war, beating the solid packed earth beneath his hooves.
Breaking like waves on rocks, the lancers crashed through the abyss and out the other side. Suddenly they were among the guns. Men were shouting and screaming and running for cover, the horses pounding the stragglers beneath their hooves. A face leapt in front of Jarvis and he bought his saber down in a bone-crunching stroke. The man’s face split open, the skin peeling back to reveal the skull as the blade sliced through blood and sinew. Everywhere the men of the regiment were fighting for their lives slashing, and stabbing, thrusting and blooding the blades that for so long had remained sheathed. Gripped in mortal combat the Light Brigade killed.
He pulled on Butcher’s reins and the horse responded instantly. A Russian with a raised musket about to fire collapsed as Jarvis leant forward in his saddle and speared him through the neck. Without a sound the man dropped to his knees and fell face first into the dust. The Russians were in completed disorder jumping the barricades and running for their lives. Some hid beneath their gun carriages only to be sought out by lancers who with their mean, vicious, shafts stabbed and skewered them where they cowered. A Russian with a large moustache grabbed Butchers bridle in an attempt to pull him down but the horse simply turned, opened its mouth, and bit down on the man’s face, turning him into a bloody screaming mass. The ride was forgotten the battle euphoric as the men of the Yorkshire Horse sought out and killed those who’d killed them.
“Stick it to the bastards. Come on the Yorks!” Went up the cry.
Jarvis found himself in the eye of the storm. The melee of weapons and uniforms that had surrounded him was suddenly gone as Butcher carried him through the line of cannon. All around him men were fighting to the death, gripped in mortal combat, the screams of the wounded and the clash of steel was terrifying. Russians tripped over great-coats as they rushed to escape the killing ground, the insatiable blades of the British offering them no quarter. Their blood lust was up and the Russian bastards would pay for putting them through hell.
A trumpet sounded but it wasn’t a call Jarvis recognized. From their front came the thunder of hooves as the Russians cavalry counterattacked. Outnumbered he pulled on Butcher’s reins, kicked its flanks and headed back into the smoke. Once again he was amongst the dying; the sound of steel beating against steel rattled his teeth and pounded his brain – only the guns were silent. A man in a red-coat with white cross belts appeared out of the mist. Unswerving Butcher crashed into the rider’s horse. Nearly falling but managing to regain its footing, the great horse maneuvered its way up and around the Russian cavalrist. Jarvis felt the blast of heat and saw the flash of flame as a pistol was pointed and fired at point-blank range. He felt the stinging sear of powder as it coursed across his cheek, the rush of the bullet’s passage as it missed its mark. He swung his sword arm and felt the weapon bite. The Russian screamed in his face, the stench of tobacco and strong black tea thick on the dying man’s breath. He twisted the blade, felt it come loose and spurred the horse.
“Come on lads. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The bugle sounded the retreat and joining together with the remnants of other charge survivors Butcher accelerated away in the direction from which they’d come. Before them, Jarvis saw the wraiths of the enemy and of smoke-blinded and bewildered men, some on foot some on horse, stumbling and screaming for help men begged for help. But there was no charity to be had that day, it was every man for himself and Jarvis new they’d be lucky to make it out alive. Blood dripped from a wound above his eye and his arm ached from where a Russian sabre had hit him as he’d raced through the guns.
Behind him he could hear the thud of hooves and the clatter of equipment. Not knowing if they were Russian or British Jarvis didn’t look back. It was a hell-ride of panicked fear as the remnants of the Light Brigade did their best to escape the revenging hand of an able foe. Just when they thought they were safe and beyond swords reach the guns started up again.
The Russian artilleryman had run back to their positions, picked up their tools and were loading and shooting their cannon into the smoke as fast as they could, not caring whether the crashing shells hit their own cavalry or that of the British. The horrendous swoosh and splat of flesh once again filled his ears and Jarvis gripped Butcher with all his might.
Two Russians appeared before him. There was no choice he had to go through them. He raised his arm, sabre in hand and screamed his derision. Spittle flew from his mouth, his eyes fixed, his lips curled in murder. It was them or him;
“Stick ‘em the Yorks,” he bellowed.