Viking 3 kings man, p.31

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 31


Viking 3: King’s Man

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  Kicking my pony into a trot, I hurried to rejoin Harald’s group. I rode up behind Harald in time to hear him ask Tostig, ‘Who was that who spoke for the English? He had a deft way with words.’

  ‘That was Godwinsson,’ Tostig replied. Harald was obviously taken aback by the answer. He had not intended to compliment his rival.

  ‘Not a bad-looking man,’ he acknowledged, then drew himself to his full height so he sat very tall in the saddle, and added, ‘but a little puny.’

  On the threshold of a battle, Harald’s vanity was dangerous, I thought to myself. Combined with his self-belief, it could lead us into disaster. It was unlikely that he would compromise his pride by ordering a strategic withdrawal to the fleet. In his eyes, that would seem too much like an abject retreat.

  We came back down the hill to rejoin the Norwegian troops with Styrkar shouting to our men that they were to fall back across the bridge and take up a defensive position on the far slope. At least our marshal was not blind to our danger. If we remained where we were, the English would be attacking us downhill. Nevertheless, our withdrawal was a scrambled affair, the men gathering up their weapons and converging on the little bridge with no sense of order or discipline. They jostled their way across the loose planks of the bridge in an untidy torrent, and made their way up the far slope where they began to regroup.

  Seeing the backs of their enemies, the English forces took their chance to try to turn the Norwegian withdrawal into a rout. A detachment of their cavalry came cantering down the hill and closed with our stragglers. It was not a concerted attack so much as a haphazard onslaught to take advantage of the moment. I had already crossed the bridge with Harald and his entourage, and looked back to see a chaotic engagement unfold. Isolated bands of Norwegian warriors or single individuals were ducking and dodging as they tried to evade the lances and swords of the English horsemen. There were occasional shouts of defiance and whoops of anger as our men turned and tried to fight back against their mounted opponents. I could see that the English forces were relishing the advantage of surprise. They knew that they had taken the Norwegians completely unawares, and this gave them a powerful advantage.

  As I watched the confused fighting, my attention was caught by an extraordinary sight. Slowly making its way through the skirmish, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, was an ordinary farm cart. It was the sort of vehicle which might be found in any modest farmyard, a simple wooden platform on two solid wheels drawn by a single horse. On the back of the cart were several sacks of grain, some barrels, and, bizarrely, several chickens trussed up and hanging head down in batches. I could only suppose that the carter was one of those engaged to bring supplies to the Norwegian army as part of the tribute from the citizens of York, and he had blundered into the fight inadvertently. Now he was petrified by the danger in which he found himself and too scared to react, while his horse between the shafts was an ancient nag, half blind and deaf. Even as I watched, the cart reached the approaches to the bridge, and the elderly horse stopped in puzzlement, gazing at the press of struggling men which blocked its path.

  The last of the Norwegians’ rearguard – those who had not been cut down by the English – had reached the bridge. They were more disciplined than their fellows, and had formed up in a squad which turned to face the enemy; now the men were retreating step by step. As they passed the stationary cart, one of the Norwegian fighters reached up and pulled the driver from his seat, sending the poor wretch flying. Moments later, the cart horse disappeared, as the bewildered animal, its harness cut, galloped away. A dozen hands grabbed the cart and wheeled it to the middle of the bridge, where it was overturned to act as a barricade to delay the English advance. Moments later the Norwegian rearguard was running up the slope to rejoin the rest of Harald’s troops.

  The overturned cart did not block the bridge completely: there was a gap between the cart and the bridge’s edge barely an arm’s span in width, but sufficient to allow a man to pass. In this opening a single Norwegian warrior now took up his stance, facing the enemy. He had a fighting axe in one hand, a heavy sword in the other. Who he was I would never know, but he must have know that his position was suicidal. He was making it clear that, single-handed, he would hold the gap until his own side had taken up their battle formation. He challenged the English to come forward and fight him. For a bleak moment I wondered if that lone warrior was not like myself, a forlorn dreamer defying the inevitable.

  Still, the English hesitated. Then one of their cavalrymen rode out on to the bridge, his spear poised. But the moment the horse stepped on the loose planks, the animal shied and would go no farther. With an angry wrench of his reins, the cavalryman turned his horse and rode back to solid ground. A second rider attempted the bridge, but his mount also baulked. So it was an English foot soldier who advanced to accept the Norwegian’s challenge. Judging by his long coat of mail, the Englishman was one of Harold’s professional soldiers, a royal huscarl, and he advanced with a confident step, sword in hand, scorning even to lift his shield. It was his fatal error. He was not yet within reach of the Norwegian when, without warning, his opponent flung his axe. The weapon whirled across the gap and struck the huscarl in the mouth, felling him instantly. With a satisfied whoop the Norwegian ran forward, bent down to retrieve his weapon and, moments later, was running back to take up his position once again. There he clashed his sword and axe together defiantly, daring the next to come forward and fight him.

  Three more times an English huscarl accepted the challenge, and each time failed to clear the passage. The Norwegian champion was a master of hand-to-hand fighting. He killed one challenger with a sword thrust through the body, decapitated the second with a swiping back-handed axe blow that seemed to come from nowhere, and deftly tripped up the third attacker who had come close enough to grapple with him, then pushed him over the edge of the bridge into the river below. Each encounter was met with groans or cheers by the two armies watching the spectacle from each side of the river, and for a time it seemed that the Norwegian champion was invincible.

  ‘He can’t hold out for ever,’ someone beside me muttered. ‘Eventually the English will bring up their archers and shoot him down.’

  ‘No,’ countered another voice. ‘The huscarls want to claim the victory for themselves. They won’t let some common bowman take the credit. Look there, upstream.’

  I glanced to my right. Drifting down the river on the gentle current was a small boat. Little bigger than a washtub, it was a humble punt that some farmer would use to paddle his way across the river rather than make a detour to reach the bridge. In the boat sat an armoured English huscarl, his weight almost swamping the little craft, and he was paddling with his hands to keep the boat in mid-river where it would pass directly under the Norwegian’s position.

  ‘Look out, beware to your right,’ someone shouted, trying to warn the Norwegian. But our champion was too far away to hear, and the cluster of huscarls on the far end of the bridge had already begun to set up a deafening chant, beating rhythmically on their shields to drown out the sound of any warnings. As the little boat neared the bridge, two huscarls stepped out from their ranks and began to advance deliberately towards the barricade. This time they took no chances. Both carried long shields, and they crouched down behind them to protect themselves from another axe throw. The Norwegian had no choice but to wait until they were within sword range, and then he struck, hacking down with his axe and sword hoping to beat down their guard. But the two huscarls stayed behind their shields, knees bent and deflecting the blows, only occasionally making a stabbing thrust with their own swords in counter-threat.

  Helplessly we watched from our vantage point, knowing what would happen. The Norwegian’s stamina was extraordinary. He continued to rain down blows on the two huscarls until the moment came when his opponents judged that the man in the boat was directly under the bridge. Then they rose up and hurled themselves forward. The Norwegian retreated back a pace so that he stood in
the narrowest part of the gap between the cart and the edge of the bridge, and there he traded blows with his attackers. But it was exactly where they wanted him. Even as the Norwegian concentrated on fending off the huscarls’ frontal attack, we saw the boatman grab one of the timbers supporting the underside of the ancient bridge and bring his little craft to a stop. Then he stood up, and, still holding on to the bridge with one hand he brought his spear up vertically and slid it through a gap between the planks. There he waited, the spear pointing upwards, while his comrades gradually pushed the Norwegian champion back to the precise spot. Then, suddenly, the boatman thrust upwards with his spear, the iron point driving straight into the Norwegian’s crutch, unprotected by his long shirt of chain mail. The surprise attack spitted the Norwegian. He doubled forward, clutching at his groin, and one of his opponents took the chance to step forward and chop down with his sword at the gap below the helmet, killing his foe with a blow to the back of the neck. The fight was over, and even as the Norwegian body splashed down into the river, a squad of huscarls was running forward to lay hold of the upturned cart, drag it to the edge of the bridge, and heave it over.

  Moments later the advance guard of Harold’s army began to clatter across the open bridge and advance towards us, led by a file of mounted huscarls. Watching their confident approach, I recalled Ulf Ospaksson’s words when he had tried to dissuade Harald from invading England. Then he had said that one English huscarl was reputed to be worth two of the best of Norway’s fighting men. Now we would learn the truth of the dead marshal’s warning.


  ‘FALL BACK, MY LORD, fall back.’ Strykar was still pleading with Harald. ‘Let us make a fighting retreat. It is best we make our stand near the ships when the rest of our men have joined us.’

  ‘No!’ retorted Harald sharply. ‘We make our stand here. Let the rest of our forces come to join us. Send riders to summon them. They must come at once or they will miss our victory.’

  The look on Styrkar’s face made it clear that he disagreed profoundly with Harald’s decision, but he was in no position to argue with his king. The marshal beckoned to three of our few horsemen.

  ‘Ride to the ships. Spread out so that at least one of you gets through,’ he ordered. ‘Ask Prince Olaf to send up the rest of the army and not lose a moment, or they may arrive too late. They must get here before dusk.’

  The marshal glanced up at the sky. The sun was past its zenith, still blazing from a clear blue sky. I saw the marshal’s lips move, and I wondered to which God he was praying. He lacked Harald’s utter conviction that our ill-prepared army would survive the English attack, and when I had watched the three riders kick their mounts into a gallop and ride back along the trail we had taken, I took a moment to count how many horsemen still remained. There were fewer than fifty.

  Harald, by contrast, was behaving with as much swagger and self-assurance as if he, not the king of England, held the advantage. He cut a regal figure in a cloak of richly ornamented blue brocade and his customary browband of scarlet silk to hold back his shaggy blond hair. To complete the dashing effect he was mounted on a glossy black stallion with a white blaze, a trophy from his victory three days earlier and the only blood horse in our company. But he was not dressed in Emma, his famous full-length shirt of chain mail said to be impenetrable by any weapon. Emma, like so much of our body armour, had been left behind with the fleet.

  ‘Form shield wall!’ bellowed Strykar, and the cry was taken up and passed along by the veterans in our army. Our men began to shuffle into position, shoulder to shoulder, the rims of their round, leather-covered shields overlapping. ‘Extend the line!’

  The marshal rode out a little way in front of our troops and turned to face the men. He was mounted on a tough little Norwegian pony, and was gesturing to indicate that the shield wall should be as wide as possible.

  Suddenly Harald shouted, ‘Wait!’ He rode forward and, turning to face his men, he called out, ‘In honour of this battle, I have composed a poem.’ Then, to my mingled astonishment and pride, he proceeded to declaim:

  ‘We go forward

  into battle

  without armour

  against blue blades.

  Helmets glitter.

  My coat of mail

  And all our armour

  Are at the ships.’

  I found a lump was gathering in my throat. Not for a generation had any war leader in the northern lands been sufficiently skilled in the old traditions to be able to compose a paean on the eve of a battle. Harald was honouring a custom that had almost passed from use. It was a mark of his deep-felt longing to restore the glory of the Norse kingdoms, and for all his vanity and arrogance I loved him for it. Yet even as I felt the tug of admiration and remembered the oath which I had sworn to serve him, I knew in my heart that it was all a show. Harald was seeking to encourage his men, but the harsh truth would reveal itself when the arrows began to fly and the two armies locked in battle.

  Harald was not finished. His horse was giving trouble, fidgeting and turning from side to side, so that there was a short pause while Harald brought his mount back under control. Then he shouted at his troops, ‘That was a poor verse for such a momentous occasion! This one is better. Remember it as you fight!’ and he proceeded to declaim:

  ‘We never kneel in battle

  Before the storm of weapons

  and crouch behind our shields;

  So the noble lady told me.

  She told me once to carry

  my head always high in battle

  where swords seek to shatter

  the skulls of doomed warriors.’

  When his words died away, a strange silence fell. Some of our men in the army, the older ones at least, had grasped the sombre import of Harald’s words. From them came a low murmur. Others, I am sure, were not close enough to hear the king, while still more would have lacked the knowledge to understand the significance of his verse. Harald was warning us that we could be facing our final battle. For a moment there was a brooding lull, and from it emerged an eerie sound. A harp was being played somewhere in our ranks. Whoever had brought the instrument was a mystery. Probably it was one of those small light harps favoured by the northern English, and the harpist had picked it up on the earlier battlefield and brought it with him instead of his weapons. Whatever the reason, the first few clear notes hung in the air as a doleful lament. It was as if the harpist was playing a sorrowful tribute to our coming downfall.

  As I and the army listened to the melancholy tune, it seemed as if the entire host was holding its collective breath. Not a sound came from the English lines. They too must have been listening. Then, cutting across the tune, came another sound, equally unexpected. In that hot, airless afternoon a single rooster crowed. The creature must have escaped from the toppled cart at the bridge, and now, for some unknown reason, it chose to let loose its raucous call, jarring across the plangent notes of the harp.

  Once again Styrkar was bellowing at the top of his voice. ‘Extend the line, extend the line. Wings fall back, form circle.’ Slowly the flanks of our shield wall curved, the outer men stepping backward, glancing over their shoulders so that they did not trip, until our entire line had re-formed into a ring. In the first and second ranks stood those men who wore some of their armour, and all of our veterans. Behind them, within the circle, waited our archers and hundreds of our troops who were virtually defenceless. They wore no body armour, and some even lacked helmets. They clutched only their swords and daggers, and wore shirts and leggings, nothing more. When it came to a fight, they would be fatally vulnerable.

  Harald and Strykar rode the perimeter, checking the shield wall. ‘You are facing cavalry,’ Styrkar called out. ‘So remember, front rank direct the points of your spears at the riders. Second rank, plant the butts of your spears in the ground and hold them steady, aim lower, at the horses themselves. Above all, keep the line intact. Do not let the English break through. Should that happen, leave the
king himself and our own horsemen to deal with the intruders. We will be waiting inside the ring behind you, ready to ride to any point where there is need.’

  Harald and the marshal made the full circuit of our shield wall, and as they turned and began to ride in, preparing to take up their places, Harald’s black stallion put its foot into a hole and stumbled. Harald lost his balance. He clutched at the animal’s mane to steady himself, but too late. He lurched forward over the stallion’s shoulder and tumbled to the ground while the startled horse danced away. Harald kept hold of the reins and pulled the stallion back to him, but the harm was done. The watching troops let out a groan, seeing the poor omen. But Harald laughed it off as he rose and dusted himself off. ‘No matter,’ he shouted, ‘a fall means that fortune is on its way,’ and rode into the shield ring. But many of his troops looked uneasy and afraid.

  On my humble pack pony I found myself with the mounted force in the centre of our defensive circle. I glanced around nervously, looking for someone to lend me a weapon to carry. But everyone was preoccupied, watching the enemy. Harald, Tostig, Styrkar and two squadrons of perhaps twenty riders each were all we had to plug any breaches in the shield wall; all the rest of our army was on foot. By contrast the entire first wave of the English army now advancing against us was composed of mounted cavalry – huscarls armed with long spears and lances.

  Perhaps the wild courage of the lone defender of the bridge had made the English cautious. Our battlefield was on an expanse of rough pasture sloping gently towards the river, open ground ideal for cavalry, yet the English horsemen appeared hesitant in their initial attack. Their riders came at us, cantering to within range, then thrusting tentatively with their spears at our shield wall before turning away and riding clear. There was no massed shock charge like that I had witnessed in Sicily when the Byzantine kataphract destroyed the Saracens, nor the crashing onslaught I had seen the Norman heavy horsemen rehearse. The English cavalry simply came, engaged, and then withdrew.

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