WASTELAND BOOK 2 OF THE LOST KING SERIES
We continued our journey south. Every mile that we journeyed more men from the surrounding area joined us. When we neared the city our followers numbered more than six thousand. There were only about five hundred Normans in the two castles which towered on either side of the Ouse. We began to scent an easy victory.
But that was not all we smelled. We were two miles from York when the morning air brought the stench of burning to us. We ordered the army to halt while the leaders, protected by a heavy guard, galloped ahead to see the cause. What we saw astonished us.
The Normans had burned every house in a wide circle in front of the two castles. Because of the autumn winds the blaze had spread further than perhaps they had intended. I guessed that half the houses of York were aflame. Those nearest the castles were like tottering wrecks, timbers blackened, roofs fallen in and every last possession utterly consumed. Those further away were less damaged but, even as we watched, fierce flames took hold and gobbled up thatch and furnishings.
From out of the gates fled a swarm of people. They bore little bundles, presumably all that they had snatched from the flames. They were making their way north and west. I glanced that way and could see more people hurrying across the fields. They were trying to put as much distance as possible between them and the fires.
‘I wonder if there’s anyone left in the city?’ said Merleswein.
‘Only the dead,’ muttered Gospatric. ‘And the Normans.’
‘My poor people,’ I whispered. Was I responsible for this, I wondered.
My eyes were moist but I wasn’t sure whether that was from despair or because of the sharp sting of smoke. I glanced south of the city to see if people were fleeing that way. To my surprise the roads were empty. Then I saw why.
A mile to the south the river was filled with the mightiest fleet I had ever seen. The Danes had made good their promise. They had brought their fleet inland and were ready to join us against the Normans.
I glanced at my friends. Merleswein was beaming with delight. Athelstan was staring ahead, almost as if surprised by the sight. Gospatric shook his head in wonder.
‘I think we will soon be masters of the city,’ said Waltheof quietly.
‘What’s left of it,’ Athelstan muttered under his breath.
We sent messengers to tell our army to halt for the night.
‘But they are not to carouse,’ said Merleswein. ‘Tell the thegns to make sure that every man goes to sleep with his weapon close by. They will need to post watchmen around the camp in case of sudden attack.’
‘One of us should go back,’ said Athelstan, ‘to make sure that all is done as Merleswein says.’
Nobody moved for we all wished to ride into the Danish camp to make contact with Cnut. At length Arnkell volunteered to go back with his two sons. I smiled to think that someone as fat and unwarlike as he believed that he could command so many rough warriors. But no one else seemed to share my amusement and Merleswein looked positively relieved that he had volunteered. We wished him good speed and then headed south for the Danish lines.
The Danes had brought the whole of their fleet close up to Fulford. Here the river bent first to the east then to the west before regaining its southward flow, making two tongues of land, one either side of the river. The Danes had fortified this with a palisade which turned the tongues of land into man-made islands with the river flowing through the centre. Here they made their camp. I was surprised to see that, unlike us, they had hundreds of tents. Camp fires were blazing and armed men stalked the palisade.
‘They have chosen a marvellous position,’ said Merleswein. ‘The ships are protected from attack yet, should they have to, they can easily make good their escape.’
‘They look well equipped,’ said Athelstan. ‘This is no pirate army but something much more deadly.’
‘Thank God they are on our side then,’ said Siward Bane.
Athelstan smiled grimly.
We cantered along the Danish palisade until we saw a gateway. The guards had spotted us a good while before and more Danes filed onto the walls every step we got closer. By the time we reached the gate and pulled to a halt there must have been five hundred warriors staring at us. They watched in silence which was unnerving. Someone had forged these wild men into an army.
That someone appeared on the walls. The Danes above the gate shuffled anxiously and made room for two figures. Clambering up to the palisade we saw Cnut accompanied by an older man. Cnut was tall and well made but the figure beside him made him look a child in comparison.
He was a man in his middle age but a middle age of strength and potency. He was six foot tall and four wide. He looked more like an ox on hind legs than a human. He was dressed completely in scarlet save for a huge black cloak which the strong wind caused to flap round him like the wings of a raven. His hair was as red as copper and so was his beard which was plaited like a young girl’s locks. His arms were thick and long and in his savage, hook-nosed face flashed one stabbing eye. This was Esbjorn, brother of King Svein of Denmark. The monks of his kingdom called him the Scourge of Satan. Even from this distance an air of brute power billowed from him. Apart from Cnut no man stood close to him.
He glanced once at his nephew who nodded and ordered that the gates be opened. As we rode into the camp I felt Esbjorn’s eye burn into me like a brand.