I was still lost in these thoughts when we came out of the forest. There below us stood the ordered ranks of the Norman army. I gasped. The Norman army was far larger than ours and ready for battle. And somehow I sensed that it was far more deadly.
In the centre of the field fluttered two flags. One I guessed belonged to the Duke of Normandy. The other was the White Dragon of England, stripped from our fallen warriors atHastings. Our men gazed upon this flag in silence.
Our army was drawn up as I had decreed; Edwin on the left flank, Morcar in the centre and my Housecarls and the men ofLondonto the right. All around me I could hear the snorts of the horses and the jangle and creak of their harnesses. It was the only sound in that whole vast army. I looked down the line to see if Edwin or Morcar would lead the army forward. But before any of our men made a move, a cry went up from some of the Housecarls. My gaze followed where they were pointing.
From the Norman army three men came riding slowly across the meadows towards us. The two men at the front were dressed like holy men, although underneath the garments of one I thought I could detect a glimpse of mail. The third, a herald holding a flag of truce, was dressed in full chain mail, a great black cloak billowing behind him.
‘Envoys from Duke William,’ said Oswald quietly. ‘But I do not think they are coming to sue for peace.’
Suddenly, with a tumult of hooves, the three men approached our foremost ranks. They halted a few yards away and one rode forward and called in a clear loud voice. ‘I come to parlay with the leaders of the English.’
I stared in utter astonishment. The envoy was Archbishop Stigand.
‘He must have been captured,’ I mumbled.
Oswald shook his head. ‘He must be a traitor,’ he said.
For a long breath no one in the English army moved. Then one horse stepped out from our centre and stood facing the Norman envoys. It was Morcar. A second horse broke ranks further to the left and trotted along the front of our army. I could see even from this distance that it was Edwin. When he reached his brother they bent their heads together for a while. Then, together they trotted out until they were half way between our men and the Normans. The five men spoke together for what seemed an age.
I heard a warning voice speak urgently in my head. ‘I should be there,’ I said to Oswald.
Oswald shook his head once. He did not speak but his hand reached out and grasped firm hold of my horse’s bridle.
Still the five men spoke together, their words a mystery to all the host of men watching. Then Morcar looked down the ranks. He kicked savagely at the flanks of his horse and came racing towards me. I felt Oswald’s grip tighten. Behind me I heard a long, low scraping noise. My Housecarls were sliding their swords from their scabbards.
I gazed intently at Morcar when he got close. His face looked drained of all blood and there was a strange, fay look in his eyes. ‘Edgar,’ he said quietly, ‘these men are envoys from theNormans. One is Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of Duke William. The other is Archbishop Stigand. They say that Duke William desires no more bloodshed and that he will embrace peace if we submit to him and acknowledge him to be our king.’
‘But I am the king,’ I said. My lips felt like ice.
Morcar did not answer. I looked up at Oswald. He stared impassively ahead, avoiding my gaze.
I turned back to the earl. ‘Morcar, tell me what I should do. I am the King of the English. The Witan proclaimed me so and I am of the blood of Alfred. Surely we should fight? What do you think? What should we do?’
For a long minute Morcar did not answer. Then he glanced back at the ranks of Englishmen as if weighing up their strength and courage.
‘Morcar?’ I whispered.
He shook his head sadly. ‘Our best warriors were slain atHastings,’ he said quietly, ‘and our greatest captain lies dead beside them. We have no warrior like Harold here to lead us. Until today I thought we should fight but now I see the strength of theNormansI begin to doubt. My brother is older and wiser than I and he counsels that we submit to Duke William.’
He paused and said bitterly. ‘Archbishop Stigand has done so already.’
Tears flooded my eyes. The world receded into a silent mist and all I could feel was the scalding heat of the tears and the sickness in my heart.
A gloved hand reached out for my shoulder. ‘You are brave young Edgar,’ said Morcar. ‘But the time for bravery is past. Now you must be wise as well. We must submit to theNormans.’
I blinked the greyness away from my eyes and gazed at him. ‘What must I do?’ I asked.
‘Ride with me to the envoys and they will take our message to Duke William.’
‘No,’ said Oswald.
Morcar’s eyes flashed angrily.
‘Be silent,’ he said. ‘What business is it of yours to speak?’
‘Edgar’s safety is my business,’ Oswald said. A low growl sounded from a hundred throats behind me. Morcar glanced quickly at the Housecarls and lifted his hand to placate Oswald’s anger.
‘So what would you have us do with him?’ he said. ‘Do you think that Duke William will be happy to see his rival for the throne slip away from this field?’
‘That is Duke William’s concern and not mine,’ said Oswald.
Morcar leaned across his saddle and spoke close to Oswald’s face. ‘Well it is my concern. Duke William is not the only one who wishes to avert bloodshed. I have fought two battles already this year and watched too many brave men drown in their own blood. Do you wish for more deaths upon your soul? Do you wish it upon Edgar’s?’
‘Stop,’ I cried. ‘Stop quarrelling.’
I turned to Oswald and shook my head. ‘I think that Morcar is right,’ I said at last. ‘Harold is not here with us. And I do not think that you will allow me to lead the charge. So I shall go to theNormansand I shall submit to them. But I would like you to come with me, please.’ Then I began to sob.
Straight away Morcar spurred his horse forward and held his shield across my face. No one except Oswald and him saw me weep. I do not know how long I cried but at length I felt Morcar smooth my hair. ‘Have done, Edgar. We must go to theNormans.’
I wiped my nose and nodded.
I felt dazed as our horses trudged along the line towards the envoys. I rode in the middle with Oswald to my right and Morcar to my left. Behind us, unbidden, came a score or more of my Housecarls. At length we reached the centre of our army. Edwin glanced swiftly at his brother who nodded once. We lined up facing theNormans. On their left was Archbishop Stigand, on the right the silent warrior cloaked in black and in the middle the lean figure of a man of god dressed in chain. He stepped forward a pace and stared at me.
‘Bishop Odo,’ Edwin said to him, ‘this is Edgar Atheling, grandson of Edmund Ironside. Will you take a message to Duke William that Edgar and the Earls Edwin and Morcar submit to him.’
Odo stared impassively at Edwin for a moment and then turned to the silent man who sat beside him. ‘They submit to you, my brother, they submit.’
The man cloaked in black pulled off his helmet.
‘I accept your submission,’ he said. ‘Be my loyal subjects and I shall be your just king.’
I was face to face with Duke William ofNormandy. He held the gaze of Edwin for a while, then looked Morcar up and down. At last he turned to look upon me. I was transfixed by his stare as if he was holding me captive merely with his eyes. He seemed to be trying to delve into my soul, to scan my every thought. I was a mouse cowering, ears flattened, watching helpless as the hawk swooped down to clutch.
‘I shall be a father to you, Edgar,’ he said at last.
And then I felt immense gratitude flood over me.