This extract from ‘The Lost King: Wasteland’ continues from last week
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.
‘I am Edgar,’ I said. ‘And who might you be?’
‘I am Eadric the Wild,’ said the man. ‘Thegn of Shropshire and leader of the army of the west.’
Godwin cried with laughter and the rest of my counsellors struggled to hide their amusement. The little man stared back with a mixture of patience and disdain.
‘Eadric the Wild?’ said Siward Barn. ‘The terror of the marches? The scourge of the Normans?’ He shook his head. ‘I like your humour. What are you; a fool, a jester?’
‘A warrior,’ said the little man. ‘And one who does not fear a hulking great dolt like you.’
Siward laughed. ‘Better a dolt than a doll,’ he said.
‘Stand up and say that,’ said the little man with a voice of ice.
Siward slapped his hand upon his thigh, glanced around at us and climbed to his feet.
He towered above the little man, his arms crossed and his legs wide. He was almost twice his height.
‘Oh what a brave Goliath,’ said the stranger. Then he kicked Siward in the shin.
Siward bent in pain. At the same time the little man darted round his legs and turned behind him. He crouched and then gave a great leap, landing upon Siward’s shoulders. He grabbed the big man’s hair in his left hand, like a bareback rider grasps a horse’s mane. Then he leaned over and stuck two fingers in each of Siward’s nostrils. He straightened his legs and leant back, dragging the powerful head skywards.
‘Come on cart-horse,’ Eadric yelled, ‘let’s train you to be ridden.’
We howled with laughter as we watched Siward lumber round in circles, thrashing his huge arms in a vain attempt to dislodge Eadric. He landed several heavy blows upon him but the little figure managed to keep his hold. And he never let go of the nostrils.
‘Do you submit?’ Eadric cried.
‘Not to a dwarf,’ yelled Siward.
Eadric pulled even harder on his nostrils, causing a wail of furious pain from Siward.
‘Come on cart-horse,’ Eadric repeated. ‘I shall break you to my will.’
At last Siward could do no more. He slowed his movements and held out his arms. ‘I submit,’ he gasped, ‘I submit.’
‘And you promise to be a faithful carthorse to Eadric the Wild?’ said the little man.
‘I promise, I promise. Just give me my nose back.’
The little man let go, leapt in the air, somersaulted and landed in front of me. My ribs ached with a laughter I had not experienced for years.
‘King Edgar,’ said the man. ‘I come in answer to your summons and pledge myself to your service. Together with my carthorse’
He glanced towards Siward who wiped the snot from his face, bellowed with laughter and clasped the little man around the shoulder.
‘Are you truly Eadric the Wild?’ I asked.
‘Oh I think he truly is,’ said Siward. ‘I think he truly is.’
Eadric told us that he had been in arms for over two years, his small forces launching lightning attacks upon any Normans they could find. He was so skilled a warrior, with such a ferocious reputation, that half a dozen garrisons were pent up behind their walls, too fearful to venture into the open.
‘But I can’t take the castles,’ he said. ‘When I received your message about the victory in York I determined to come and see you. I may not know how to conquer castles like you do but I can offer my experience and my strength.
‘Your summons has gone far and wide,’ he continued. ‘You know already that in every shire bands of men live like outlaws in the forests refusing to submit. They daren’t challenge the Normans in battle but they attack the unwary and melt back into their hiding places.’
‘Our great weakness,’ continued Eadric, ‘is that we are far distant from each other and don’t work in concert. We need a leader who will gather us together and challenge William once and for all.’
‘Is this why you have come here?’ I asked. ‘To find this leader?’
‘To see what manner of man he may be,’ Eadric answered.
I did not answer for a moment, wondering what he might think of me and of our army languishing at the side of the Danes.
‘Very welcome you are,’ I said at last. I peered into the mist. ‘Have you come with many men?’
‘My cousin Ealdred,’ Eadric answered, ‘and three of my warriors. We thought any more might attract attention from the Normans.’
I nodded. ‘You are all welcome, Eadric,’ I said. ‘Night is near. My guards will provide a tent for you. Please join us when we eat at sunset.’
Eadric bowed and followed one of my men into the mist.
‘Do you think he is who he says he is?’ asked Merleswein. ‘From what I hear, Eadric the Wild is a savage and desperate fighter. Can such a tiny man be he?’
‘Judging from what he did to Siward Barn I would say yes,’ said Gospatric.
‘And judging from my nostrils I would agree,’ said Siward.
I stared at his nose. The nostrils were bruised, bloody and raw. ‘The man is strong beyond his size,’ Siward said, ‘and I felt a cold fury in him, a fury which we should not under-estimate.’
‘Let us make him welcome,’ said Athelstan. ‘However, I do not think we should admit him to our counsels on such a short acquaintance.’
The last light of the day dwindled and we made our way to our evening meal. The food was not as tasty as that we had eaten at the house of Wulf but there was plenty of it and greater quantities of ale. Yet, even as we ate, I knew that it would not be easily replaced and that as the winter began to grip our supplies would get sparse. The great folly would be to sit here and wait for hunger to weaken and unman us.
Yet as the days drew on it became ever more certain that this was exactly what Esbjorn intended to do. Cnut, I felt, agreed that it would be better to attack but his voice was over-ruled.
So we made our own plans to attack. .
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.