The Worm cowered, her eyes wide in terror. Then her head tilted, as if in recognition, and she crept to my side.
We raced out into an open space; the large grassy bailey enclosed by the outer walls. The Danes were fanning out, slashing and stabbing at anything in their path, human or animal. Terrible screams echoed from the walls. My Housecarls held together in a solid mass, shields pressed against their chins, swords bristling but not, for the moment, in use.
The Danes raced on. Everywhere I looked bodies fell beneath their blades. Some were soldiers, armed and fighting. Most were not. The Danes cared nothing whether their victims were men or women, young or old. They struck, they killed, they moved on. Hundreds more were pouring in behind us.
Ahead of us reared a stone fortress; the inner keep which was both living quarters and final sanctuary. This was, if anything, even more formidable than the outer castle walls and here there was no tiny hole for the Worm to breach. But the Danes had an answer for this.
The one weak point of any keep is its gate. This one was made of thick seasoned timber and large; wide enough for two men to enter side by side. A party of Danes crowded around the gate, several of them holding shields over their heads to protect them from any missiles hurled from above. Sheep skeins steeped in tallow were crammed into any crack that could be found in the door and then set alight. Burning brands, faggots and wood chips were banked up against the door.
Very swiftly a thick, black, acrid smoke billowed up and around the gate. This would serve two purposes. The smoke would be sucked up into the keep causing blindness and terror. The smouldering fire would gnaw away at the timbers and fatally weaken them.
I glanced around and saw that the inner bailey was now packed with Danish warriors and still more were racing in. A number of them leapt up the inner stairways and fought upon the battlements. I could hear screams from in front and behind, from the ground and the air. The castle was filled with dead and wounded and a swift and nauseous stench sprang up and choked me. Blood seeped across the hard packed earth and I almost lost my footing.
I heard the yell of many throats, a dull thud, the splintering of wood, a cheer. The Danes had breached the keep gate and poured through it, overpowering the desperate defenders within.
Earl Waltheof raced past me, swinging his battle-sword like a demon. I had thought until this time that he was a man of gentle nature but now I saw that the battle-fury of his ancestors had laid claim to his soul. He hacked and stabbed with brutal ferocity, cutting a furrow through his foes.
A small band of Normans gathered together close to the keep and for a while seemed likely to hold off their enemies. But Cnut led a charge which smashed and scattered them like chaff before a flail. He turned and saw Olaf heading for the keep and raced after him.
Despite the noise one dreadful note rose above all. I glanced to my left and saw Esbjorn swirling his battleaxe, his head held skywards, howling like a wolf. The Worm pressed herself close at the sound and I felt her body shiver. I almost gagged on the stench that clung about her but put my arm around her and pulled her close. She started, glanced up in surprise and remained still.
A few minutes later it was over. Cnut and Olaf strode through the shattered keep gate, dragging a bloodied figure between them. It was William Malet, who had so recently boasted that his castle was impregnable.
We followed Cnut across the gore of the bailey, out through the gate to where we had crouched in waiting before the dawn. Cnut pointed to the east and I followed his gaze.
Esbjorn’s plan had worked perfectly. On seeing our attack the warden of the second castle had thrown open its gates and sallied out to succour Malet. He had not seen the company of Danes hiding by his walls. They had leapt upon his rear and secured the open gate. The second castle fell in as little time as the first. We were triumphant.
Esbjorn trudged down the path towards us. He looked pointedly at my sword, unsheathed but unstained. His mocking gaze held mine and he shook his head as if in disbelief.
‘We Danes have won you a mighty victory, boy,’ he said. ‘Put your sword away now. The time for show is past and the weight of the blade must be tiring for you.’
I glared at him but could find no words to answer.
‘It is indeed a mighty victory,’ said Athelstan, smoothly. ‘All praise to our glorious allies. King Edgar will send news of the victory across the kingdom and summon his people to our cause.’
Esbjorn scowled at him. He knew too well the numbers of the English people. He also knew that he could never command them, but that I could.
‘Do is you wish,’ he said. ‘It matters not to me.’
He turned towards William Malet and crossed his arms while he silently regarded him. The Norman stared back, trying to appear proud but looking merely insolent.
‘Your stone walls were no match for us, Norman,’ Esbjorn said.
‘You won the castle by treachery,’ answered Malet. ‘I expect nothing nobler from savages like you.’
‘Savages like us?’ sneered Esbjorn. ‘I am of the royal house of Denmark. Your precious Duke is the bastard offspring of a Danish farmer. Tear away his French mask and you’ll find a Jutland hog.’
‘Take care, Viking,’ said Malet. ‘William is not a man to cross.’
‘I’ll feast on his entrails before the winter frost,’ said Esbjorn. He turned towards his nephews. ‘Keep the wealthy Normans for ransom and slay the others.’
‘There are no others,’ said Olaf. ‘We have killed them all.’
I heard these words with astonishment.
‘We spared only the two captains and their families,’ said Cnut.
Esbjorn gave a huge laugh. ‘So William will learn to fear the fury of the Danes,’ he said.
He turned but as he did so he caught sight of the Worm cowering beside me. ‘Chain that up,’ he told one of his warriors, ‘but let it have what the hounds won’t eat.’
I placed my hand upon Cnut’s shoulder. ‘You said your uncle might give this girl to me to seal our alliance,’ I said. ‘I should like that.’
Cnut stared at me. His blue eye looked as cold and unforgiving as a spike of ice. But his brown eye was as warm as a sun-ripe berry. A slow smile lit up his face.
‘Uncle,’ he called. ‘Prince Edgar has a soft spot for the Worm. How say you we give her to him as a plaything?’
Esbjorn stopped but did not glance round. I could sense him making careful calculation. ‘As you wish,’ he growled finally and strode away.
This extract is from ‘Wasteland’ the second novel in my series about Edgar Atheling and his struggle against William the Conqueror for the throne of England. It is available as an e-book from all retailers world-wide for $2.99 or equivalent in your local currency.
The third book in the series will be released this month.
- ‘You stay with me.’ #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- The Earthworm An Extract from ‘Wasteland’ #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- The Plan to take York Castle. #HistNov #SampleSunday (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Esbjorn the Dane. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- To the Danes at York. Wasteland. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)