I knew I wasn’t mad but I did wonder about the citizens of Exeter. Despite the well-armed Norman army camped like ghouls in front of their gates and despite William’s demonstration of the mercy of kings, they refused to submit to him. Once he had got over his astonishment, he laid siege to the city with a cold and deadly determination. Yet no matter how many attacks he sent against the walls, each one was repulsed with bloody losses. And each repulse made his rage burn hotter.
Six days into the siege the defenders grew even bolder.
Dawn broke, dank and misty. I awoke with a gasp. Every night now I suffered nightmares of knives cutting into eyes and flesh. Sometimes, the victim was the poor fat hostage, other times it was Morcar or Harold. This morning it had been me. I lay shivering on my bed and took comfort from the snores of Godwin close beside me.
I checked for the dagger which I now wore even when I slept and got up as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Godwin. I failed. He awoke in an instant and leapt to his feet, his own knife ready in his hand. ‘What’s the matter?’ he whispered.
‘I want a shit,’ I said. ‘It’s morning.’
We threw on our cloaks and struggled out into the dawn. The mist hung over the camp like a shroud. In the far distance we could hear rooks crying and the dull calls of cows. But they seemed heavy and flat, deadened by the murk. In the east the sky showed light where the sun should be but it could not pierce through.
Silently, we trudged through the camp to the latrines. We squatted down, peering through the gloom towards the city.
I heard a chink of metal.
‘What’s that?’ I whispered.
Godwin shook his head and stood slowly, one hand pulling up his breeches, the other pulling out his knife. I rose too and as I did so I caught in the distance the shadowy shapes of men stealing through the mist.
‘Hide,’ I muttered and pulled Godwin down beside me. We peered through tussocks of grass, squinting to make out what was happening. Then there came a movement and the ghostly shapes were no longer silent. They stormed into the camp, slashing and stabbing at the sleeping figures. The Normans tried to struggle up but for long minutes the attackers had the advantage and hacked and slew with little opposition. Then, a single horn blew and at the signal the attackers turned and fled.
The Normans were up like hounds on the hunt. But they had only chased a hundred yards when more attackers sprang up from the ground and drove into them. The cries were dreadful to hear and most of the Normans were felled. Once again the horn blew a blast and the attackers turned and raced back to the shelter of the walls.
William and Roger were out of their tents now and sent captains to stop any further pursuit. Godwin and I hurried back to the camp to ensure that no suspicion fell on us. In minutes the whole of the camp was armed and ready. The Normans were chaffing at the bit, eager to chase after the Englishmen and avenge their comrades. For a moment I thought that William was going to lose them but he called out for silence.
‘Chase after them and you are dead men,’ he cried. ‘They have learnt this tactic from us so make sure we don’t fall victim to our own ploys.’
A captain came up and whispered in his ear. William turned and addressed his men once again.
‘Eighty men have died this morning. That is more than enough. Master your anger and make sure that the next eighty to die are English scum.’
‘They say that a crisis shows a man in his true colours,’ said a quiet voice beside me.
I looked up in surprise. A thin, slight figure had approached without Godwin or me noticing. It was the thegn, Athelstan.
He stared at me. ‘You must be Edgar Atheling.’
He smiled and bowed low to me. ‘My lord,’ he said.
‘Stop it,’ I said. I glanced around nervously. ‘Don’t attract attention.’
He straightened up.
‘Perhaps you are right, he said. ‘But soon will come the time when the Normans will have to pay heed to you.’
I gazed into Athelstan’s eyes. They were grey, not a cold grey, but cool like the sea when the sun has been hidden by clouds. And they had a far-away look. It was as if he were standing in this world and peering into another.
He turned and strode off into the mist.
Later on I asked Godwin what he thought of Athelstan.
‘He’s all right.’
‘Yes.’ He pursed his lips for a moment and nodded. ‘I think you can trust him.’
‘Did you notice his eyes?’ I asked. ‘They seemed as if they were looking somewhere else.’
Godwin nodded. ‘Like my grandfather playing chess. He’d be plotting seven or eight moves down the game and working out what his opponent was going to do as well.’
‘Was your grandfather good at chess?’
- William of Normandy gives a lesson in diplomacy. #HistNov #SampleSunday (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
This sample is from The Lost King: Resistance. It is available as an e-book for all devices and your computer and smart-phone for $3.00 or £2.00. The third novel in the series will be published shortly.