The newly acclaimed young King Edgar has disobeyed orders to stay in safety and been caught up in the battle to defend London Bridge.
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.
His sword crashed down. I cowered and raised my arms above my head in a vain attempt to protect myself. The noise of the battle quietened, replaced by one single note, the slice of blade through air. Then a dull clang.
The sword had been stopped in its descent by the thrust of another. This man grabbed me by my hair and jerked me behind him, at the same time parrying the dreadful strokes of the Norman. Then he leapt up, stabbed the soldier through the neck and landed with a thud. He turned to me and cursed. It was Merleswein, Harold’s friend from Lincoln.
‘What are you doing here?’ he cried.
‘I came to see the battle.’
‘You almost saw your death.’
He grabbed me and pushed back through the crowd. It was hard going but Merleswein was a large and powerful man and in the end he did it. We reached the edge of the river and turned. To my joy the shield-wall had remained intact.
Merleswein led me to where a litter had been left on the river-bank like flotsam dumped by the tide.
‘I found him,’ he said to the figure sitting rigid in the litter. I saw that it was Asgar, the sheriff.
‘What were you thinking of?’ Asgar cried. ‘If you had died then all our hopes would have died with you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t want to stay helpless at the palace with Earl Edwin.’
‘I can’t blame you for that,’ said Asgar. ‘But you were told to stay there and it was foolish to do otherwise.’
‘But I am the king,’ I said.
‘A king sometimes performs tasks he does not want to,’ said Merleswein. ‘You would do well to remember that.’
I nodded my head miserably.
‘Merleswein,’ said Asgar urgently. ‘Did you see what happened at the shield wall?’
Merleswein shook his head. ‘I was too busy rescuing this one.’
‘The shield wall has been broken three times and three times some Normans got caught inside it when the wall reformed.’
‘What of it?’
‘We should set them a trap. The bastards did that to us at Hastings with their feigned retreats. Let us do the same to them. If we pretend to break we can allow as many of their horsemen in as we wish and then reform the wall.’
‘And slay them,’ said Merleswein, his eyes shining. He glanced at the English warriors. ‘But are they up to it?’ he asked. ‘This will need courage and discipline.’
‘We will get that from the guards and Morcar’s men,’ said Asgar. ‘The townsfolk can do the slaughter work.’
Merleswein nodded. ‘I’ll tell Oswald.’
He paused and turned to me. ‘And you stay here, Edgar. You showed courage but running from Asgar put him in a terrible situation. Stay with him now.’
I nodded and he raced off to spring the trap.
I looked sheepishly at Asgar who struggled out of his litter and gripped me on the shoulder. ‘Don’t look so miserable, Edgar,’ he said. ‘You’ve done a foolish thing but I doubt it will be your last. Just learn from it.’
Side by side we watched the battle. There was hard fighting and then the Normans drew off once again.
‘Merleswein’s reached Oswald,’ I cried. I could just make out the two men in hurried conference. Then they signalled Morcar to join them.
‘Do you think they’ll do it?’ I asked.
Asgar shrugged. At that moment I saw Merleswein point in our direction.
Then, once again, the Norman trumpet blared and the enemy leapt down upon our men.
A huge lump was in my throat as I watched what happened. Just as the first of the horsemen reached our line, the warriors turned and raced to either side. The speed of their charge carried the Normans through our first three lines and into an empty space which had opened up in the middle. About a hundred horse thundered in and then the trap was shut.
The shield-wall closed and the townsfolk turned as one and set upon the Normans. Within minutes the horsemen were slaughtered.
The tactic was obvious from our vantage point but could not have been so from the Normans. They charged once again and once again a hundred men were allowed into the wall and trapped.
Then, to my astonishment, they did the same again. This time, finally, the lesson dawned upon them and they drew off and gazed down upon our men. They had lost over three hundred men and horses, perhaps a third of their force.
‘What now you bastards?’ Asgar muttered to himself.
We watched for almost half an hour. But the cost had been too great for the enemy and they made no further move to attack. They had another plan. Bonfires were set alight and then, under the guard of the horsemen, foot-soldiers carried burning brands to the nearby houses and set them on fire.
Hundreds of householders fled from their homes as the autumn winds fanned the flames. I watched in rage as the whole of Southwark burnt. Then the Normans turned and rode away.
‘We won,’ I cried.
‘It’s victory of a sort,’ said Asgar.
We stood together as our men trooped back to the safety of the city. Last of all came Oswald, Merleswein and Morcar.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said to Oswald, ‘I did wrong in disobeying you.’
He opened his mouth to speak but my words had the impact I wished for and his anger was blunted. ‘Don’t do it again,’ he said. ‘Leave the heroics to Merleswein and me. Your job is to stay alive and to rule.’
They trudged off towards the city. But as he passed me Merleswein gave me a wink.
This extract is from ‘The Lost King: Resistance’. This is the first in a series of books about the Edgar Atheling, the heir to the throne of England who was proclaimed King a week after the Battle of Hastings.
His story, one of resistance to the Normans, was suppressed by the Norman chroniclers and is still largely forgotten. The novels are based on the little we know of the life of this forgotten hero.
‘The Lost King: Resistance‘ and ‘Wasteland’ are available as e-books from all outlets. I am currently writing the third ‘Warrior.’
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