This extract follows on from last week’s. Edgar leaves Esbjorn’s tent, furious that the Danish leader seems reluctant to fight against William the Conqueror.
Later that day we held a council of our own. It was a bitter blow to realise that Esbjorn was content to stay in his fastness instead of marching south to attack William. I could see all my dreams drifting away like the mist which wafted round us.
The heads of my counsellors were bowed towards the ground. Only Godwin’s head did not droop and he was watching me keenly.
For the first time ever I felt that my advisers were at a loss. We had all believed that the Danes would be like furies for attack. Yet now they seemed content to let William seize the initiative. I ran over various scenarios in my mind. All seemed to end in our defeat and William’s triumph.
Advise me please, I pleaded silently to my friends. Yet their heads remained bowed, their spirits crestfallen.
No words came. So, finally, I spoke.
‘We must decide,’ I said. My voice sounded dull and flat in the clammy, cloying air. But it had an effect, for one by one my counsellors looked up and gazed upon me.
‘Can we fight and defeat the Normans with our army alone?’ I asked.
‘I think we can,’ said Waltheof. ‘We should be able to increase our strength as we march south into Mercia.’
‘I don’t agree,’ said Merleswein. ‘The Normans are far more experienced warriors and better equipped. And we do not have a leader of the mettle of William. Our only hope is to face them with a larger army. We haven’t the time to gather together a large enough army before the winter settles in. We will have to wait for the spring and a new Danish fleet.’
My heart chilled at these words. ‘What do you say, Gospatric?’ I asked.
For a moment he did not answer, merely sat shaking his head as if in confusion. He sighed and stared at the ground.
‘I think Merleswein is right,’ he said. ‘There is too little time for us to gather a larger army. I do not know the men of Mercia and cannot be certain they will join with us.’
‘This astounds me,’ I said, sweeping my eyes across my counsellors. ‘For the last year you have led me to believe that I am King of the English. Now you tell me that the kingdom is not united, that my people will not join together to fight our enemy.’
‘I say they may not,’ said Gospatric. ‘At least not against the Normans and under an untried leader.’
‘But you expect them to fight alongside the Danes?’
Gospatric did not answer.
I looked at Athelstan last. He pondered my question for long moments.
‘I don’t agree about the Mercians not joining with us,’ he said at last. ‘Nor the men of Wessex. I am convinced that they will rally to your call.’
He rose and began to pace up and down. ‘If proof was needed of this then we have only to think of all the uprisings that are taking place throughout the land.’
‘There,’ I said. ‘Athelstan speaks wisely.’
Then I saw his eyes grow sad and he shook his head. ‘However, I agree that there may be too little time to gather an army large enough to take the field against William. Every moment we tarry here he will gather his strength. Ours will, inevitably, decline.’
‘Then why fight William?’ I said. ‘He has still not appeared and in fact he may well be closing in on York at this moment. Why don’t we seize the chance to make a sudden attack on some Norman army nearby? One that is not commanded by William.’
‘There is a Norman garrison at Lincoln,’ said Merleswein. Hope flickered in his eyes. ‘And as I was shire reeve I should be able to raise the locals easily enough.’
Athelstan nodded thoughtfully. ‘This may be worth considering. It will be a thorn in William’s side and will show that he can’t ignore us.’
‘And it will encourage other Englishmen to maintain the struggle,’ said Waltheof.
I sat back and sighed in relief. At least we would be doing something. And we would show Esbjorn and the Danes that we were not totally reliant upon them.
At that moment, one of my Housecarls approached. ‘We have a visitor,’ he said. ‘He demands to see you.’ There was a glint of amusement in his eyes which he tried to hide.
‘Then bring him here,’ I said, curious to know what had amused him so much. The Housecarl beckoned to some guards.
I peered into the mist and saw a small child approach. At least I thought it was. As the figure got closer, however, I realised that it was a grown man of middle years. He wore a scrawny beard and his hair was thinning.
I peered closer. He was little bigger than an eight year old. He folded his arms and surveyed us. Although tiny, his frame looked tough and wiry.
‘Which of you is King Edgar?’ he asked in a startlingly deep voice.
‘I am,’ said Godwin, slowly easing his knife from the sheath.
The little man turned to Godwin and looked him up and down. ‘I doubt it,’ he said.
He turned his gaze to me, waiting for an answer.
Wasteland is the second book in The Lost King series which starts with The Lost King: Resistance. Both e-books are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple, WH Smith and other outlets.
I am currently writing the third novel which will be published later this year.