Oswald came striding towards us, leading his horse. He bowed his head quickly and smiled. ‘Are you ready, Edgar?’ he asked.
I nodded. He swung up into his saddle and the three of us trotted past the waiting men to the head of the army. There were over five hundred Mercians and half that number of Northumbrians, the soldiers of Edwin and Morcar. The rest of the men were from the local area and from London. Some attached themselves to one or other of the earls, others to me, and most to Asgar, Sheriff of Middlesex. I glanced around for Merleswein but then remembered that he had been sent back north to ensure its loyalty to me.
At the front of the army waited Archbishop Stigand, Edwin and Morcar and all of the leading counsellors of the kingdom. Just behind them were a group of about two hundred men clad in iron mail, huge battle axes hanging from their belts.
‘Housecarls,’ I breathed.
‘Yes,’ said Oswald. ‘Like me, these were the men who were wounded at Stamford Bridge and could not march with Harold to Hastings. They are recovered now and are here to guard you.’
I stared at them in wonder. I had assumed that all of the Housecarls had died with Harold. But here they were, the last remnant of the royal bodyguard, the best trained and most feared warriors in the whole of Europe. They sat like rocks upon their horses and my normal guards seemed diminished beside them.
‘All of their comrades are dead,’ said Oswald, ‘fulfilling their oaths to King Harold. These men have made the same oath to you. None will desert you; all will serve you to their death.’
‘Will they ride with me into battle?’ I asked in awe.
Oswald shook his head. ‘If you were to ride into battle they would. But we will not risk you in such a venture. You are too young and too important. No, at this battle, Edwin and Morcar will lead the army. The Housecarls will keep you safe in sight of the field but not on it.’
‘No,’ I cried. ‘I am the king and I must lead my army.’ Hot tears sprung up, burning my eyes. I did not want Oswald or Godwin to see this so I tried to blink them away. My sight grew foggy and in the end I had to wipe my eyes with my sleeve. ‘Like a baby,’ I thought to myself.
When my vision cleared the first thing I saw was Oswald, staring silently at me. There was sorrow in his eyes. ‘We cannot risk it, Edgar. We have lost one king already to the Normans. We dare not lose another. It will be the end of England.’
‘But I’m not scared. I want to fight.’
‘Of course you do. You are the heir of Alfred and of Ironside. But today we must ask a greater courage of you. And that means not going into battle. It means staying safe, keeping out of harm’s way.’
‘But that makes me think that we’re not going to win the battle.’
I paused, waiting for a swift denial from Oswald. It did not come.
‘Oswald?’ I asked.
‘Battles are decided by God,’ he answered. ‘If it were down to the skill of warriors then William and not Harold would have died at Hastings. But it is God who decides.’
I turned my horse away. How could he talk like this?
Suddenly, in the distance, a horn blew. The hairs on the back of my neck rose up. It was a challenge, it was defiance, it was expectation.
I looked angrily at Oswald. He might doubt that we would win but surely the clamour of the horn promised victory.
Once more the horn blew and the army marched out.
It was a long while before I could speak again. The army had been on the march for over an hour and the weak sun had climbed high into the sky. Godwin started to talk about his friends and about his dog and I started to talk about Harold and how we used to play together on winter evenings before the feasting.
‘I wish I had met him,’ Godwin said.
‘He was my best friend,’ I said.
Godwin nodded thoughtfully.
Towards evening we noticed that a change had come over the army.
‘They have gone quiet,’ said Godwin.
I nodded and looked around. At the beginning of the march the men had seemed lighter-spirited, jostling each other, calling out and laughing. Now they marched in silence. Was this determination, I wondered? Or was it fear, or worse still, foreboding? Those who were not silent muttered into their beards, private words which they wanted none to overhear.
I began to feel anxious.
The Lost King: Resistance tells the story of the struggle against the Norman Conquerors. It is available worldwide from all Amazon, Kobo, Nook, Sony stores, Apple and WH Smith for $2.98. £1.92 or €1.68
The second book in the series, ‘Wasteland’ is also available. The third in the series will be published later this year.
- The Start of a Life-Long Friendship. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- ‘We’re going to fight the Normans.’ #SampleSunday (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)