On the afternoon of a cold October day, I saw a lone horseman gallop into sight.
He struggled wearily up to the hall and climbed from his mount. The horse’s breath was coming in huge, painful gasps, its coat streaming with sweat, its mouth covered in white foam flecked with blood. The horse stood for a moment then slid to its knees. I stared at it in horror and hurried after the man.
It was dark in the hall, the only light coming from the fire to one side. At a table I could see many of the old men of the court, together with Archbishop Stigand. There was a rustle from behind a curtain and my mother and two sisters entered. No one moved and no one spoke. All had their eyes fixed upon the messenger.
Nobody spoke for a moment and then every tongue started up in a fury. I realised that I could not see very clearly. I would never see Harold again, never ride upon his horse or wrestle with him in the sunshine. I wiped my nose, trying frantically to prevent the tears from showing in my eyes.
My sight cleared at last and I saw that the counselmen were staring at me. Once again they were strangely silent.
‘No,’ said my mother. ‘He is still only a child. We cannot expect that of him.’ She hurried towards me and stood by my side.
A curl of fear fluttered in my stomach and I licked my lips nervously.
‘What about one of the great earls?’ someone said. ‘What of Edwin or Morcar? They have experience of command.’
An old thegn stood up and looked around as if searching for them. ‘Where are those great earls?’ he said with a sneer. ‘Skulking in the north when they should have been at the side of King Harold. How can such as they command the hearts of men?’
Again there was silence. I looked up and saw my sisters staring at me with pity in their eyes. A log shifted in the fire and sent sparks shooting into the air. A dog whined in its sleep, kicking its feet and then licking its muzzle time and time again. Outside, big drops of rain began to fall upon the earth, sounding like drums in distant hills. The men had bowed their heads and were staring at the table as if they would find there the answer to some troubling puzzle.
The archbishop glanced up and stared at me. I felt fixed by his eyes and could not look away. He stared, in silence, for long minutes. At last he sighed.
‘The blood of Alfred runs in Edgar’s veins,’ I heard him say. ‘He is the last of the line. It is my belief that he alone will be able to rally the kingdom to resist.’
‘He is not yet fourteen summers,’ said my mother. ‘He is only a child.’
‘I know,’ said the archbishop. ‘He will need the help of us all.’
He stood and paced towards me. Then he knelt upon the ground and held his hand aloft. ‘Hail King Edgar,’ he called.
None of the counsellors moved. I could see the look of doubt in their eyes. At last, however, one by one they came and knelt. Not one of them had rushed to do so.
‘Hail King Edgar,’ they cried. Most of the voices sounded hesitant and unsure.
The next few days have now become a hazy memory for me. There was rushing about, comings and goings of many men and lots of meetings where I was forced to sit and listen to the talk.
One morning I heard that Asgar, the sheriff of Middlesex had arrived at the palace. He was Harold’s standard bearer and I raced to see him. He had left for the coast a hale and vigorous man. He was carried back in a litter, so badly wounded he could barely walk.
I approached the litter nervously and he struggled out of it and on to his feet. ‘I pledge you my loyalty,’ he said.
I did not respond. ‘Harold?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘It is as you have heard, Edgar. He was slain on the battlefield, falling by the dragon flag.’
I hung my head and wept.
‘He died as he lived,’ Asgar said. ‘A true king, courageous and determined.’
‘Did you see him die?’ I asked at last.
Asgar nodded. He stared at the sky, recalling the scene. ‘Both Harold’s brothers were killed and as he saw this he lifted up his head in rage. An arrow hit him in the eye and he staggered. I raced towards him and caught him as he fell. But three Norman knights attacked and struck him down. No man could have survived this.’ Asgar shook his head sorrowfully at the memory.
‘As I laid Harold on the ground he spoke. “Edgar must be king now,” he said. “Tell him, I’m sorry.” They were his final words.’
Asgar gazed at me then bowed. ‘King Edgar,’ he said.