The wheels would not stop spinning in the cold wind. From the frozen mire, Harold roused himself. Mist covered the ground, the cold mist of Yre, which rose from the chill swamp onto the fields. For the first time, he was glad of it, for he could not see more than ten meters in any direction, and even the daystar was a pale circle through the clouds.
The recruiter had come to them, strong young men and women all, and spoken of the glory of war. Harold cursed their stupidity and eagerness. The hard hours on the training-cycle, the weeks at camp where they roared over rough roads, peddling like mad on bare steel wheels, laden with armor, lances level and bared at the joust...
There was a romance to it. The First Volunteer Bicycle Cavalry.
Swifter than two legs, they rode over the roads, sometimes cutting cross country. At the swamp they hoisted their bikes and lances over their head and walked through water up to their chests, and carried on. You could cover well over a hundred miles a day, on a bicycle. To penetrate far and fast into the enemy's country. But after they had crossed out of the swamp, they were confronted by the armies of the Spindle. Twenty-five hundred archers, arrayed on three sides, with the swamp of Yre at their back.
It came as no surprise when the bugle was sounded, to mount up and ride. Straight on to death...
There were no tires to puncture, because there was no rubber. The First Volunteers were dressed light, with a suit of steel mail under their BDUs, and a jerkin of Kevlar with steel plates sewn around the center of mass, fore and aft, with a helmet much the same. At a distance, an aluminum arrow might not penetrate the mail, and the plate could stop an arrow even at close range.
But there was little protection for faces and eyes. Bike chains could be snarled, spokes snapped. They formed a wedge, pedaling like mad toward the enemy center, as the first wave of arrows darkened the sky. Steel rims churning up the thick earth of the farmer's fields.
Harold didn't remember how many arrows they had let loose. He knew that people had gone down to the left and right of him - from arrows, from some hidden rock or vine in the earth. Mobility was life; if you weren't moving, you were just a sitting target. They had drilled that into them too, in those weeks at camp.
He looked around at the scattered bodies, studded with arrows. The broken, upended machines with their lazily spinning wheels.
Some of them had reached the line. He remembered leveling his lance, held in the crook of his arm. All his mass and that of the bicycle, traveling at speed, concentrated on a single point - a good cavalryman could skewer through anything the enemy had. And he did. Harold remembered the startled looks on the faces of the boys he'd impaled, no older than himself. The weight of them had ripped the lance from his arm, though momentum carried him forward into their lines.
They had closed in on him, then. Too close for arrows. He had drawn his saber, kept pedaling, swinging at anyone that came in range. Archers had swords too, for just such work. If he could just break through the lines!
But no, he remembered. One of them had stuck a sword through his spokes, and he had been thrown forward with a sudden jerk. There had been a crash - into someone, he thought - and then nothing.
Harold looked around again, at the First Volunteers. There were arrows there - but no archers. Not even the bodies. Only him and his mates.
He laid a hand on the nearest wheel, to stop it spinning. The archers had left them all where they lay. Some of the bicycles should be good - or at least, if he could find two unbent wheels and a chain, he should be able to fix them with a frame. Every bike had its little tool-kit, under the seat.
There was still a war on, the last Volunteer thought to himself, as he began to scrounge. The bicycle cavalry isn't licked yet.