Viking 3: King’s Man, page 29
For the next five weeks my status at William’s court was ambiguous. I was neither a prisoner nor a free man. I was treated as if I was a minor retainer in the service of William, yet everywhere I was accompanied by an armed guard. All around me the preparations for the invasion continued apace, and in early August, when William moved with his retinue to Dives to begin the embarkation of his troops, I went with him.
The scene at Dives was the culmination of the months of preparation. The port lay at the mouth of a small river, and by the time I arrived almost the entire invasion fleet had mustered in the roadstead. I counted at least six hundred vessels, many of them simple barges specially designed to carry troops. Lines of tents had been erected on the beach, and the army engineers had built cookhouses, latrines and stables. Squads of shipwrights were putting the finishing touches to the transports, and there was a constant coming and going of messengers and despatch riders as the infantry and conroys mustered for their embarkation. I had wondered how the destriers, the heavy horses, would be loaded, and now I saw the method. The cavalry transports were brought up on to the gently sloping beaches at high tide, and anchored. The ebbing tide left the flat-bottomed barges stranded, and the carpenters then placed low ramps up which the horses were led – sometimes with difficulty – and then stabled in the barges with their feed and water. There the massive animals seemed content to stand and eat as the incoming tide refloated the vessels and they were warped out into the roadstead.
On the eleventh day of September the duke did have his ‘devil’s luck’, because, just at the time he had promised his invasion, the wind turned into the south-west as a gentle breeze, and held. At dusk William summoned me to his command tent, and, in the presence of his commanders, gestured towards the northern horizon.
‘Now you can tell your master,’ he said, ‘that William of Normandy keeps his word. Tomorrow we complete our loading and sail for England. You will be staying behind to make your final report.’
The following morning I watched the entire fleet raise anchor and, taking advantage of the flood tide, set out to sea. As I trudged back up the beach to where my guardian man-at-arms stood waiting, I felt I had served my liege lord well, and for the last time. When the opportunity came I would be king’s man for Harald no longer, and I would return to Sweden and seek out my twins. I was feeling old.
The man-at-arms was content to dawdle. It was pleasant on the coast, and he was in no hurry to return to his barracks at Rouen, so we spent the next few days at Dives. The place, now that the fleet had sailed, had a slightly desolate atmosphere. The beach where the barges had loaded still showed signs of the departure, and there were traces where the tents had stood, piles of horse droppings, grooves left by the carts that had brought the stores, and charred marks where cooking fires had burned. There was an air of finality. The roadstead was empty. Time was suspended while we waited to hear what was happening with the invasion.
The weather continued fair, with bright sunshine and a light south-west breeze, and to pass the time I arranged with a local fisherman to go out on his boat each morning when he checked his nets. There, ten days after I had watched the Norman fleet depart, we were bobbing gently on the sea when I identified a familiar profile. A small vessel was beating down towards us. Hard on the wind, she was making slow progress, but there was no mistaking her origin. She was a small trading ship, Danish- or Norwegian-built. As she tacked her way into the roadstead at Dives, I was sure that she had come to collect me, and that Harald must have received my letter.
I asked the fisherman to row me across so that we intercepted the vessel before she made her landfall. Standing up in the fishing boat, I called out a greeting, glad to speak Norse once again. I was still wearing my stolen monkish gown, so the vessel’s skipper must have thought it odd that a Christian priest spoke his language, but he spilled the wind from his sail and the vessel turned up into the wind so I could scramble aboard. The first person whom I saw on deck was Skule Konfrostre, the same young hothead who had boasted that the Norwegians would smash the English huscarls. I was perturbed to see that he was very agitated.
‘Is everything all right with Harald’s campaign?’ I asked, alarmed by his manner. ‘Has he landed safely on the English coast?’
‘Yes, yes, our fleet crossed from Norway in late August and safely reached the coast of Scotland. When I left him, Harald was advancing down the coast. He sent me to find out what was happening with the attack that Duke William promised. He has heard nothing further.’
‘You need not worry about that,’ I said complacently. ‘I watched Duke William’s fleet sail for England ten days ago. By now they should be well ashore and advancing inland. Godwinsson is caught in a trap.’
Skule looked at me as if I had lost my wits.
‘How is it, then, that only yesterday, as we passed southward along the coast, we saw the Norman fleet lying quietly at anchor some distance up the coast. The skipper knows the place. He says it is a port called St Valery, in the lands of the Duke of Ponthieu. They have not even crossed to England yet.’
I felt as if the deck had shifted beneath my feet. I, who had thought to deceive Duke William, had been the victim of a much greater deceit. Too late I thought back to the day that I had first suggested Harald’s plan for a coordinated attack. I recalled the armourer who had met me at the practice ground and how he had been so eager to tell me that Dives was the departure point for the invasion, and how, once I had that information, I had quickly been brought before the duke. To my chagrin I realised that my disguise as a monk had been penetrated far earlier than I knew, and that William and his advisers had thought up a scheme to turn my presence to their advantage: I was to be used to conceal the true direction and timing of the Norman attack. After I had revealed myself as King Harald’s envoy and suggested the coordinated campaign, William and his advisers must scarcely have believed their good luck. They had duped the King of Norway into landing on English soil to face Harold Godwinsson’s army, while the Normans hung back and waited to make their landing unopposed. It would not matter who won the first battle – Harald of Norway or Harold of England – because the victor would be weakened when he came to face Duke William and his conroys.
‘We must warn King Harald that he faces the English army on his own,’ I exclaimed, queasy with the knowledge of what a fool I had been. Then, to hide my humiliation, I added bitterly, ‘So now, Skule, you will learn what it’s like to face the huscarls and their axes.’
William, Duke of Normandy, had used me as a pawn.
THE VOYAGE NORTHWARD to warn Harald was a misery for me. I spent my time regretting how gullible I had been, then tormenting myself by imagining how I should have seen through William’s subterfuge. Worse, now that I knew the extent of the duke’s guile, his next move was clear to me: Godwinsson would have his spies in the duke’s camp, and the duke would make it possible for them to relay to their master the news that, for the time being, the Norman invasion was at a standstill. Thus, as soon as Harold was confident that the Normans posed no immediate threat, the English king would head north to beat back the Norwegian invaders. The prospect of what might follow a Norwegian defeat filled me with despair. From the day I had first met Harald of Norway long ago in Miklagard I had imagined him as the last, best champion for the Old Ways of the north. Often he had disappointed me, but he still retained an enduring quality. Despite his arrogance and his despotism, he remained the symbol of my yearning that it might be possible to restore the glories of the past.
‘Our fleet crossed from Norway to the Shetlands late in August,’ Skule Konfrostre confirmed as we journeyed, adding to my discomfort. ‘Two hundred longships we were, as well as smaller vessels, the largest fleet that Norway could muster. Such a spectacle! Harald has staked everything on this venture. Before we set sail, he went to the tomb of his ancestor St Olaf and prayed for success. Then he locked the door to the tomb and threw the keys into the River Nid, saying he would not return
‘If you are a Christian, my friend, you may well find yourself fighting other Christians,’ I retorted grumpily. ‘If Harald overwhelms the English, then his next enemy in line will be Duke William and his Norman knights, and they are convinced that the White Christ is on their side. The duke himself constantly wears a holy relic around his neck, and his senior army commander is a bishop. Mind you, he’s the duke’s half-brother, so I don’t suppose he was appointed for his religious qualities.’
‘I’m not a Christian,’ said Skule stubbornly. ‘As I said, Harald left nothing to chance. He did not forget the Old Gods either. He made sacrifices to them for victory, and he cut his hair and nails before we sailed, so that Naglfar will not benefit if we fail.’
I shivered at the mention of Naglfar, because the young Norwegian had touched on my darkest premonition. Naglfar is the ship of corpses. At Ragnarok, the day of the final dread battle when the Old Gods are defeated, Naglfar will be launched on the floods created by the writhings of the Midgard Serpent lying deep within the ocean. Built from the fingernails of dead men, Naglfar is a monstrous vessel, the largest ever known, big enough to ferry all the enemies of the Old Gods to the battlefield where the world as we know it will be destroyed. If Harald the Hard Ruler had trimmed his nails before sailing for England, then perhaps he foresaw his own death.
Our grey-bearded skipper’s opinion only added to my dejection. ‘The king should never have sailed in the first place,’ he interrupted. ‘He should have heeded the omens. Christian or otherwise, they all point towards disaster.’ The skipper, like many mariners, was swayed by omens and portents, and my silence only encouraged him to continue. ‘Harald himself had a warning dream. St Olaf appeared to him and advised him not to proceed. Said it would result in his death, and that’s not all.’ He looked at me, still in my black and white gown. ‘You’re not a White Christ priest, are you?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I am a follower of Odinn.’
‘Then let me tell you what Gyrdir saw on the very day the fleet sailed. Gyrdir’s a royal officer, and he was standing on the prow of the king’s ship, looking back over the fleet. It seemed to him that on the prow of every vessel was perched a bird, either an eagle or a black raven. And when he looked towards the Solund Islands, there, looming over the islands, was the figure of a huge ogress. She had a knife in one hand and a slaughtering trough in the other, and she was chanting these lines:
‘Norway’s warrior sea king
Has been enticed westward
To fill England’s graveyards
It’s all to my advantage
Birds of carrion follow
To feast on valiant seamen
They know there will be plenty,
And I’ll be there to help them.’
I felt sick to my stomach. I remembered the words of the message that I had sent to Harald. I had referred to him as ‘the feeder of eagle of sea of carrion vulture’. I had meant that Harald was the sea eagle, the image that I had held of him from the day I had first set eyes on him in Constantinople. Now I realised that the words in my letter could be interpreted to mean that he was the one who would deliver the carrion flesh of his own men to the ravens and eagles. If so, I was the one who had enticed him and his men to his doom with my letter from Normandy.
‘You said there were other portents?’ I asked shakily.
‘Several,’ the seaman replied, ‘but I can remember the details of only one. Another of the king’s men dreamed it. He saw our fleet sailing towards land. In the lead was King Harald’s longship flying its banner, and he knew that the land they were approaching was England. On the shoreline waited a great host of warriors, and in front of them was an ogress – perhaps it was the same one, I don’t know. This time she was riding a gigantic wolf, and the wolf held a bleeding human carcass in its jaws as easily as a terrier grips a rat. When Harald and his men came ashore, both sides joined battle, and the Norwegian warriors fell in swathes. The ogress collected up their corpses and hurled them, one by one, into the mouth of the great wolf until its jaws ran with blood as the beast gulped down its feast of victims.’
Now I knew for certain that my own power of second sight, dormant for so many years, had returned. When I had composed my report in Normandy, I had referred to Harald as a sea eagle and hidden Duke William’s identity under the guise of the wolf which the ogress Yggr rides. In doing so, I had touched unwittingly upon the future: every death among Harald’s men would be sustenance for the wolf, the name I had chosen for Duke William. Failing to recognise my own augury, I now quailed at the prospect that my premonition would prove correct. Should William emerge victorious, I would have helped put on the throne, not a possible champion of the Old Ways, but a voracious follower of the White Christ.
Even the weather conspired to depress me. The wind stayed as a gentle breeze from the south-west, so our ship ran speedily up the narrow sea between England and Frankia. I knew the same wind was ideal for William to launch his invasion, yet when we passed the port of St Valery and our skipper took the risk of sailing closer inshore to look into the roadstead, we saw the great assembly of William’s ships still riding quietly at anchor or securely hauled up on the beach. Clearly, the Duke of Normandy had no intention of making the crossing until he heard that Harold Godwinsson had turned his attention to countering the threat from Norway.
Thanks to that favourable wind we made a near-record passage, and my hopes of averting disaster rose when we encountered one of King Harald’s warships. It was patrolling off the river mouth into which Harald had led his fleet less than three days before. There were a few shouted exchanges between the two vessels, and Skule and I transferred hastily to the warship. Her captain, understanding the urgency of our mission, agreed to navigate the estuary at night and row up against the current. So it was that, a little after daybreak on the twenty-fifth of September, I came in sight of the muddy river foreshore where Norway’s massive invasion fleet lay anchored. To my relief, I saw that the fleet was intact. The river bank swarmed with men. Harald’s army, it seemed, was safe.
‘Where do I find the king?’ I demanded of the first soldier we met on landing. He was taken aback by the urgency in my tone, and looked at me in astonishment. I must have made a strange sight – an elderly bald priest, the hem of my white undergown spattered with river mud, and my sandals sinking in the ooze. ‘The king!’ I repeated. ‘Where is he?’
The soldier pointed up the slope. ‘Best ask one of his councillors,’ he answered. ‘You’ll find them over there.’
I slipped and slithered up the muddy bank, and hurried in the direction he indicated. Behind me I could hear Skule say, ‘Slow down, Thorgils, slow down. The king may be busy.’ I ignored him, though I was short of breath and painfully aware that my advancing years had taken their toll. I may have made a dreadful error in supplying false information to Harald, but I still desperately wanted to undo the harm I had done.
I saw a tent, larger and grander than the others, and hastened towards it. Standing outside was a group talking among themselves, and I recognised several of Harald’s councillors. They were in attendance on a young man, Harald’s son Olaf. Rudely I interrupted.
‘The king,’ I said, ‘I need to speak with him.’
Again the anxiety in my tone took my audience aback, until one of the councillors looked a little more closely.
‘Thorgils Leifsson, isn’t it? I didn’t recognise you at first. I’m sorry.’
I brushed aside his apology. It seemed to me that everyone was being fatally obtuse. My voice was quivering with emotion as I repeated my demand. I had to speak with the king. It was a matter of the greatest urgency.
‘Oh, the king,’ said the councillor, whom I now remembered as one of Harald’s sworn men from the Upplands. ‘You won’t find him here. He left at first light.’
I clenched my teeth in frustration. ‘Where did he go?’ I asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep my voice calm.
I seized him by the arm. ‘The meeting place, where’s that?’ I begged. ‘I need to speak with him, or at least with Marshal Ulf.’
That brought a different reaction. The Norwegian shook his head.
‘Ulf Ospaksson. Don’t you know? He died in late spring. Great loss. At his burial ceremony the king described him as the most loyal and valiant soldier he had ever known. Styrkar is the marshal now.’
Another chill swept over me. Ulf Ospaksson had been Harald’s marshal ever since Harald had come to the throne. Ulf was the most level-headed of the military advisers. It was Ulf who had opposed the idea of the invasion of England, and now that he was gone, there was no one to rein in Harald’s reckless ambition to be another Knut.
The blood was pounding in my ears.
‘Steady, Thorgils. Easy now.’ It was Skule behind me.
‘I must speak with Harald,’ I repeated. It seemed to me that I was wading through a swamp of indifference. ‘He has to reshape his campaign.’
‘Why are you so agitated, Thorgils?’ said one of the other councillors soothingly. ‘You’ve only just got here and already you’re wanting to change the king’s mind. Everything has been working out just as planned. These English troops aren’t as fearsome as their reputation. We gave them a thrashing just five days ago. We advanced on York as soon as we had got off our ships. The garrison came out to fight, led by a couple of their local earls. They blocked our road, and it was a fair fight, though perhaps we had a slight advantage in numbers. Harald led us brilliantly. Just as he always does. They came at us first. Hit us hard with a bold charge against our right wing. For a while it looked as if they might even overwhelm our men, but then Harald led the counter-attack and took them in the flank. Rolled up their line in double-quick time, and the next thing they knew we had them penned up against marshy ground, and nowhere to go. That was when we punished them. We killed so many that we walked on corpses as though the quagmire was solid ground. The city surrendered, of course, and now Harald’s gone off to collect the tribute and stores the city fathers promised, as well as hostages for good behaviour in the future. He won’t be long. You might as well stay here until he returns to camp. Or maybe you would prefer to give your information to Prince Olaf, who will tell his father when he gets back.’