Viking 3: King’s Man, page 30
‘No,’ I said firmly, ‘my message is for Harald himself, and it cannot wait. Can someone arrange for me to have a horse so that I can try to overtake the army?’
The councillor shrugged. ‘We didn’t bring many horses with us on the fleet – we needed the ship space for men and weapons. But we’ve captured a few animals locally, and if you look around the camp, maybe you’ll find one that suits. Harald can’t have gone far.’
I lost more time trying to locate a horse, and succeeded only in finding a starveling pack pony. But the scrawny little creature was better than nothing, and before the troops had finished their breakfast I was riding away from the ships and along the trail that Harald and his army had taken as they marched north.
‘Tell him we need some good juicy cattle,’ a soldier yelled after me as I left the outskirts of the camp. ‘Something to get our teeth into instead of stale bread and mouldy cheese. And as much beer as he can bring back. This weather makes a man thirsty.’
The soldier was right. The air had a dry, still feel. The sky was cloudless, and soon the heat would be intense. Already the ground was cracked in many places, baked hard by the sun, and I could feel my pony’s unshod hooves hammering down on the unyielding surface.
It was easy to follow the army’s trail. The dust was churned up where the foot soldiers had tramped along, and occasionally there were piles of dung left by the horses that Harald and his leading men were riding. Their road followed the line of a small river, the track keeping to the higher ground on its left bank, and on both sides the low hills were desiccated and brown from the summer drought. From time to time I could see the footmarks where men had left the track and gone down to the water’s edge to slake their thirst. I saw nothing of the soldiery themselves, except at one place where I came across a small detachment of men guarding a pile of weapons and armour. At first I thought it was captured material left behind by the enemy, but then I recognised that the weaponry and shields and the thick leather jerkins sewn with plates of metal belonged to our own men. They must have taken them off and left them there, under guard, as it was too hot to march in such heavy gear.
The soldiers told me that Harald and his army were not far ahead, and sure enough I saw them in the distance when I topped the next rise and found myself looking across a bend on the river. The army was waiting on the far bank. Side tracks converged on the main road shortly before it crossed a wooden bridge, and from there the main road continued on up the far slope and over the crest of the hill, leading directly to the city of York. It was a natural crossroads and I could see why the place had been chosen for the assembly point where the men of York would bring their tribute.
I kicked my pony into one last effort, and came down into the valley. A handful of Harald’s troops had not yet crossed the bridge, and my haste attracted their curious glances as I scurried past. Most of the men were sprawling on the ground in the sunshine. Many had stripped off their shirts and were bare-chested. Swords, helmets and shields lay where they had casually put them aside. A score of men were standing in the shallows of the river, splashing water on themselves to keep cool.
I clattered across the worn grey planks of the bridge. For a moment I thought of dismounting. The bridge was in poor repair, and there were wide cracks between the planks, but the little pony was sure-footed, and a moment later I was riding up the slope of the far bank towards a knot of men gathered around the royal standard. Even if the flag, Land Ravager, had not been flying from its pole, I would have recognised the little group as Harald’s entourage. Harald himself was visible, towering above most men. His long yellow hair and drooping moustaches were unmistakable.
I slid off the pony’s back, stumbling as my feet touched ground. It had taken me half the morning to reach Harald, and I felt stiff and saddle sore. I brushed aside the bodyguard who tried to intercept me as I approached Harald and his little group. They too looked completely at ease. Doubtless they were contemplating the pleasant task of how best to divide up the spoils. Among them I saw Tostig, half-brother of the English king. Until recently he had ruled these lands as its earl, but had been deposed. Now he had thrown in his lot with Harald, anticipating that he would regain his former title.
‘My lord,’ I called out as I approached the little group. ‘I am glad to see you well. I have news from Frankia.’
Everyone in the little group turned to look at me. I realised that my voice had sounded cracked and harsh. My throat was dry and dusty from my ride.
‘Thorgils. What brings you here?’ asked Harald. There was an angry edge to his question. He was staring down at me from his great height, obviously irritated. I knew that he was thinking I had abandoned my responsibilities. He would have preferred me to stay in Normandy, to act as his intermediary in dealing with Duke William.
‘I had no choice, my lord. There are developments which you must know at once. I could not trust anyone else to bring the news.’
‘What news is that?’ Harald was scowling.
I decided that I had to be blunt. I needed to shock Harald into changing his plans, even if it meant drawing down his wrath on me.
‘Duke William has betrayed you, my lord,’ I said, adding hastily, ‘It was my error. He used me as a tool to deceive you. He made me believe that he had agreed to your offer, and that he would time his invasion to coincide with yours. But that was never his intention. His fleet has not yet sailed. He is deliberately hanging back, giving time for the English king to attack you.’
For a long moment Harald’s expression did not change. He continued to scowl at me, and then – to my surprise – he threw back his head and laughed.
‘So Bastard William deceived me, did he? Well, so be it. Now I know what he is like, and that knowledge will be useful when we meet face to face and decide who really takes the realm of England. I’ll make him regret his treachery. But he has miscalculated. Whoever beats Harold Godwinsson will hold the advantage. There’s nothing like a recent victory to put heart into one’s troops, and the English will follow the first victor. As soon as I have disposed of Harold Godwinsson, I’ll drive William of Normandy back into the sea if he is so bold as to make his invasion. When he hears of my victory he may even cancel his invasion plans altogether.’
Once more, I sensed that I was swimming against a tide of events, and there was little that I could do.
‘Duke William will not set aside his invasion, my lord. He has planned it down to the last detail, trained his troops, rehearsed, and committed all his resources to it. He may have as many as eight thousand fighting men. For him, there is no going back.’
‘Nor for me,’ Harald snapped. ‘I came to take the realm of England and that is what I’ll do.’
I fell silent, not knowing what to say.
Tostig intervened. ‘Harold is far away. He has to march the length of England if he is to meet us on the battlefield. In the meantime our army will grow stronger. As people hear about us they will join our cause. Many in this region have Norse blood in their veins and trace their line back to the time of great Knut. The English will prefer to throw in their lot with us than with a gang of plundering Normans.’
Somewhere near us, a horse neighed. It was one of the handful of small Norwegian horses which Harald had brought with him. They were sturdy animals, ideal for long journeys across bleak moorland, but by no means as powerful as the battle chargers that I had seen in Normandy. I was wondering how they would withstand a charge of Norman knights, when someone said, ‘At last! The good burghers of York are finally showing up.’
Everyone in our little group looked westward, up the slope of the hill towards the unseen city. A faint cloud of dust could be seen beyond the distant crest. The horse neighed again.
The first figures to come over the brow of the hill were indistinct, no more than dark shapes. I wiped away the sweat that was trickling down into my eyes. The black and white costume of a follower of the Rule could be very hot on a warm day. I should find myself a light cotton shirt and
‘That’s not a cattle herd,’ commented Styrkar, Harald’s new marshal. ‘Looks more like troops.’
‘Reinforcements from the fleet, sent up by Prince Olaf so as not to miss the division of the booty.’ The speaker sounded a little resentful.
‘Where did they get all those horses, I wonder?’ asked a veteran, a note of puzzlement in his voice as he stared into the distance. ‘That’s cavalry, and a lot of it.’
King Harald had turned and was facing up the hill. ‘Styrkar,’ he asked softly. ‘Did we post any sentinels on the hill?’
‘No, my lord. I did not consider it necessary. Our scouts reported only a few peasants in the area.’
‘Those are not peasants.’
Tostig was also watching the new arrivals. More and more men, both mounted and on foot, were coming over the brow of the hill. The leading ranks were beginning to descend the slope, fanning out to make room for those behind them.
‘If I didn’t know otherwise, I would say those are royal huscarls,’ said Tostig. ‘But that’s impossible. Harold Godwinsson would always keep his huscarls with him. They are pledged to serve the king and guard his person.’ He turned to me. ‘When did you say Harold would know that the Norman fleet was delayed and was staying on in Frankia?’
‘I didn’t say,’ I replied, ‘but my guess is that Duke William deliberately planted that information on Harold soon after he left Dives. That would be about twelve days ago.’
Styrkar was making his calculation. ‘Let’s say it was ten days ago, and then allow Godwinsson two days in which to consult his councillors and make his plans. That would give him a little more than a week to march north and get here. It’s difficult but not impossible. Those troops could be led by Harold Godwinsson himself.’
‘If it is Harold,’ said Tostig, ‘it might be wise to fall back to our ships and gather the rest of our forces.’
But Harald seemed unperturbed. ‘Well, if it does prove to be Harold, then he’s got here by forced marches, and his troops will be footsore and weary. That makes them ripe for slaughter.’
He gave a snort of confidence, and I could see how his faith in his own success as a military commander was unshakeable. In the past decade he had never lost a major fight, and now he was certain that his battle luck would hold. Godwinsson, as far as Harald was concerned, was offering himself for defeat. With growing dread, I knew differently. I recalled the details of my nightmare on the night before Harald returned from Kiev on his splendid ship with silken sails. I had dreamed of a great fleet and its tall commander struck down by an arrow at the moment of victory, and when I had voiced my fears, I had been told that I had seen the death of the Greek general Maniakes, Harald’s near double. Now, far too late, the image sprang into my mind of the great assembly of Harald’s longships drawn up on shore or lying at anchor in the shallows of the river just ten miles away. That spectacle, I knew with absolute certainty, was the true fulfilment of my dream. Yet again I had failed. Years ago I should have warned Harald about the macabre portent.
‘If it is Harold Godwinsson, then we had better get the formalities concluded,’ Harald continued. He looked about him, caught my eye, and said, ‘Thorgils. You’re just the man. You can be my herald in your black and white gown.’ He smiled grimly. ‘They won’t attack a man of the cloth, even if he’s a fraud. Ride out and ask for a parlay.’
Knowing that I was being swept along by events over which I had no control, I walked back to where my pack pony was hopefully nuzzling the earth, trying to find a few wisps of dried-up grass. I felt that I was no more than a puppet in some vast and cruel game being played out by unseen powers. My legs ached as I hauled myself back on to the wooden saddle and plucked on the rope reins. Reluctantly, the pony lifted its head and began to walk. Its legs, too, were stiff and painful. Slowly, almost apologetically, the little pony and I climbed up the slope. Ahead of us, more and more English foot soldiers and cavalry were appearing over the ridge and taking up their positions across the hillside. The Norwegians below me were no longer relaxing in the sunshine. They had scrambled to their feet and were searching for the weapons and shields they had laid aside. There was no sense of order or discipline. They looked towards Harald and his councillors, waiting for instructions, and they watched me on my pony slowly plod towards the hostile army.
I noted a cluster of banners among the English cavalry, and veered in that direction. As I rode along the front rank of the English line, the foot soldiers called out, asking what I wanted. I ignored them. Around the banners was a group of some twenty men. All were mounted. I made a mental note to tell Harald that many of the English troops now massing behind their leaders were also on horseback. That would explain how Harold Godwinsson had managed to travel so quickly and take us by surprise. At least a third of his force were cavalry, and I guessed that the remainder were levies that he had collected locally.
The gleam of a sword hilt caught my attention, a dull yellow glint among the riders. I looked again, and knew that the ranks of horsemen nearest the banners were royal huscarls, Godwinsson’s personal force, the finest troops in England. Since Knut’s time they had carried gold-hilted swords. Many of them also carried spears, while others had long-handled axes dangling from their saddles. I wondered whether they would choose to fight on horseback or on foot.
‘King Harald of Norway wishes to talk with your leader,’ I called out when I was close enough to the group around the banners for them to hear me distinctly. They were English nobles, all wearing costly chain-mail shirts and helmets decorated with badges of rank. Their horses were tall, strong-boned animals, not nearly as massive as the Norman destriers, but far superior to the smaller Norwegian horses in Harald’s army.
I reined in my little pack pony and waited at a safe distance. I saw the group confer among themselves, and then half a dozen came forward at a trot. Among them a tall, heavily moustached man rode a particularly handsome chestnut stallion. There was something about his bearing, the way that he sat in the saddle, that told me at once that this was Harold Godwinsson himself, the king of England, though he was careful to remain among his companions as if he was just another rider.
‘Tell King Harald that there is nothing of substance to discuss. But the King of England, grants him an audience. He may speak with the king’s herald,’ came a shout.
I was fairly sure that it was Godwinsson who had spoken. It was an old trick for a leader to pretend to be his own spokesman. Harald had often used it himself.
I turned and waved to Harald and his entourage, beckoning them forward.
The two groups, evenly matched in numbers, met midway between the two armies. They halted their horses, careful not to get within a sword’s length of one another, and I thought to myself, as I watched them, how very similar they were. All were bearded and moustached, with hair that was mostly blond or light brown, and all of them seemed to be both haughty and suspicious as they eyed one another across the narrow gap. The main difference was in the shields they carried. Those of Harald’s men who had wisely brought their armour carried round shields, brightly painted with war emblems, while several of the English riders held longer, narrow shields with a tapering lower edge. I had seen these same shields among Duke William’s men and knew that on horseback they gave an advantage, for they protected a rider’s lower leg as well as the vulnerable flank of his horse. It was another warning, I thought to myself, that I should give to Harald.
The exchange between the two groups was brief. The rider who purported to be the royal spokesman – more than ever I was sure that it was the English king himself – demanded to know with what purpose the Norwegian army was trespassing on England’s soil. Styrkar, the royal marshal, replied for the Norwegians. ‘King Harald has come to claim the throne of England which is his by right. His ally and companion, Tostig here, has come to claim what is also his by right – the earldom of Northumbria, of which he was unjustly deprived.’
Now I was sure that Godwinsson himself was speaking, for the speaker had made no attempt to confer with his colleagues. It also occurred to me that the parlay was no more than play-acting. Tostig must have recognised his half-brother, the English king, yet he was pretending that he did not know him. The entire meeting was a sham.
Tostig spoke up. ‘And if I accept that offer, what lands will you give to Harald Sigurdsson, the King of Norway?’
Hard as a blow of a fist to the teeth came back the unrelenting reply, ‘He will receive seven feet of English ground. Enough to bury him. Or more, as he is much taller than other men.’
The two groups of riders stiffened in their saddles. Their horses, sensing the sudden surge in tension, began to fidget. One of the English riders slapped his reins on his animal’s neck to make the creature calm down.
To his credit, Tostig soothed the situation before it broke into open violence. ‘Tell the King of England,’ he called out, still keeping up the pretence that he did not recognise his own half-brother, ‘that it will never be said that Tostig, the true Earl of Northumbria, brought King Harald of Norway across the sea in order to betray him.’ Then he turned his horse and began to ride away down the hill. The parlay was over.