I took a deep breath and hurried across the bridge. A few men, seeing my youth, called to me to stop but others must have taken me for a messenger. Most took no notice at all of a lone boy running with his dog.
I was half way across the bridge when a mighty roar sounded in front of me.
The Normans were here.
I bent my head and made a dash for it, joining the groups of men who were now racing across the bridge at redoubled speed. I was across in what seemed no time and stopped to look about me.
Directly in front of me were about three hundred men with Oswald, Morcar and their warriors at the front. It was the three hundred who had made the clamour and even now they were yelling defiance and shaking their fists in the air. I looked beyond them and saw, at about a furlong’s distance, the advance troops of the enemy.
There were huge numbers of Norman horsemen. The messenger had said a thousand but I had no way of counting them. They drew rein on the fields beyond Southwark, quieting their panting horses and forming up into ordered companies. My heart sank. How could any man on foot dare to face such huge horses and the mail-clad warrior astride them?
Yet this was what the men around me were going to do. Their numbers were growing by the moment. I heard Oswald’s voice crying out for them to form a shield wall. Most of the men were not seasoned warriors but townsfolk who bore arms only rarely and were not used to obeying commands. There was such confusion that had the Normans charged at that moment they would have sliced through us and over the bridge. Yet within a few minutes the wall had been formed and our warriors were striding out to extend it in an ever widening arc around the head of the bridge. The townsfolk still racing across the bridge packed the wall ever more firmly.
Despite the crush I was able to squeeze my way steadily towards the front. I was about three lines behind Oswald and Morcar when a distant horn blared. The Normans roared a battle-cry and charged down upon us.
‘King Edgar,’ I heard Oswald cry, ‘King Edgar and England.’
Half a thousand throats roared out the words. Tears filled my eyes at the sound and I had to shake my head to clear them.
At that moment a strange whistling filled the air and I glanced up to see hundreds of javelins hurtling through the sky. Our men hoisted their shields above their heads and most of the javelins thudded harmlessly into the toughened hide. But these shields were now useless and the men cast them aside, cursing angrily. Then they bent their legs and braced themselves.
The Normans’ usual tactic was to ride up, throw their javelins and then hurtle along their enemy’s line and back to safety. Now they were risking a direct charge. They must have thought the shield wall too weak to resist them. They were almost right.
A dull boom sounded as the Normans crashed onto the shields. I gasped in horror as the front row crumbled beneath the onslaught. Some men fell beneath the hammering hooves, some were speared by the Normans, others were crushed into the men behind them. Huge battle swords flailed in the sky, cutting down the men who tried to guard against them. I sensed a terrible panic begin to grip our men.
But at the front was a line of toughened warriors; my guards and Morcar’s thegns. They held. Swiftly they reformed the wall. It was like a gate clanging shut on sheep. A dozen Normans were trapped within the wall and our men cut them down with dreadful savagery. Within moments men and beasts were like butchered meat in the market-place.
But hoarse voices cried out in terror as a second charge thudded against the wall and it buckled even further. Again the horsemen broke through and again they slaughtered scores of our men before they too were cut down. A huge cheer of triumph sounded from our men.
I glanced around at the shield-wall and shuddered. Another charge like this and it would surely collapse. Rip growled and pressed himself close to me legs.
A third charge beat upon us and this time fifty horsemen broke through. Behind me I felt the pressure of bodies slacken as some men died and others broke and fled.
For the first time I had room to draw my sword. I turned and looked about. The ground was covered with dead and wounded. Something caught my eye. A horse slithered in the blood and mud in front of me. But then it righted itself and charged towards me. I’m dead, I thought. Like Harold.
The horseman levelled his spear at me and I jumped aside. As I did I spun round and slashed my sword against his leg. It was a lucky blow. Because of my height my sword struck beneath his mailed skirt. I felt the impact of the blade upon his flesh and saw a spurt of blood. He cried out and in a moment his horse had carried him past me.
I grinned in triumph and turned to see a second horseman charging down upon me. I froze in terror.
The Lost King: Resistance is available from most e-book outlets.