Viking 3: King’s Man, page 32
For a while I was puzzled. Why did the English not launch a mass attack? Harold Godwinsson must have seen that we had despatched riders to call up reinforcements from the fleet. As soon as the fresh troops arrived, the English would lose their advantage. The more I puzzled, the less I understood Godwinsson’s tactics. Only when the English cavalry had made their fifth or perhaps the sixth probing attack, did I begin to grasp what was happening. The English huscarls intended to wear us down. Each time they rode up and engaged our front ranks in combat, several score of our men were killed or badly wounded, while the English horsemen rode away virtually unscathed. Our shield wall was slowly weakening as more of our reserves had to step forward and fill the gaps. By forming a defensive ring, Harald and Styrkar had lost the initiative. The English controlled the battlefield. They were bleeding us to death.
As that long, cruel afternoon wore on, our circle slowly contracted and the men within it grew more hot and thirsty under the broiling sun. The English, by contrast, took water from the river to quench their thirst and launched their attacks whenever they wished. Soon they were riding right around the shield wall, almost casually, selecting the weakest points. Our army was like a wild ox in the forest surrounded by a pack of wolves. We could only stand and face our foes, and present our best defence.
‘Can’t put up with much more of this,’ said a veteran Norwegian. He had been in the front rank and had fallen back after receiving a lance thrust in his shield arm. ‘Just give me a chance to get close enough to those English horsemen, and I’ll make sure that they leave their bones here.’ He finished tying the makeshift bandage around his bleeding arm, and before he strode away to take his place once again in the shield wall, he looked up at me. ‘You haven’t got a flagon of water to hand have you, old man? Some of the lads with me are truly parched.’
I shook my head. I was feeling tired and useless, too weary to fight and burdened with the knowledge that my failings had contributed to our predicament. Soon afterwards there was another war cry, and once again the mounted huscarls were cantering down towards us. This time, I noted, far fewer arrows flew through the air to greet them. Our archers were running out of arrows.
Suddenly Harald was in front of me. There was something half-crazed about his appearance. He was sweating heavily, the perspiration running down his face, dark stains of sweat at his armpits. His black stallion was equally distraught: foam dripped from its mouth, and there was white sweat on its powerful neck where the reins touched.
‘Styrkar!’ Harald snapped, ‘we must do something. We have to counter-attack!’
‘No, my lord, no,’ said the marshal. ‘It is better we hold on, wait for the reinforcements to arrive. Only a few hours more.’
‘By then we’ll all be dead of thirst if not from the English spears,’ said Harald, glancing towards the English huscarls. ‘Just one good charge will smash the enemy.’
As he was speaking, his horse put down its head and tried to buck his rider off. In his frustration Harald snarled with anger and rapped the stallion between the ears with the flat of his sword. The horse only became more skittish, rearing and plunging, as Harald, who had already fallen from the saddle once that day, tried to control his mount. The members of his entourage scattered out of the way to avoid the highly strung animal. Only my small pack pony, still exhausted from our long ride, stood firm. Harald’s stallion careered into us, and I was almost knocked from the saddle.
‘Get out of my way,’ Harald snarled at me. He was puce from anger.
Looking up into his face as I scrambled to my feet, I saw the battle gleam in his eyes. Harald was losing control of himself, just as he had lost control of the battlefield.
Just then there arose a great cry from our troops, a swelling roar of exultation. They were brandishing swords and axes above their heads as if in victory. Beyond them I could see the backs of the retreating English cavalry. Once again the huscarls’ charge against the shield wall had been rebuffed, and they were pulling back. Whether at that moment it was Harald’s anger, or a genuine misunderstanding by our men, or that their pent-up frustration simply boiled over, I shall never know, but the sight of the English cavalry falling back was seen as a full retreat, and our shield wall erupted. Our soldiers, both veterans as well as raw recruits, broke ranks. They abandoned all discipline and spontaneously charged forward in a broken mass, chasing after the retreating English cavalry, shouting at them to turn and fight, then veering off to run at the English infantry where they stood waiting to engage in the battle. It was a disastrous error.
Even then, I think, Harald could have saved the day. He could have ridden forward, shown himself ahead of his troops, ordered them to re-form the shield wall, and they would have obeyed him. But just at that critical moment Harald’s black stallion bolted. The panicked horse galloped straight ahead of the Norwegian charge, and it seemed to every man there that Harald himself was leading the assault. From that moment forward, the battle was lost.
I watched, aghast. I had seen William’s Norman knights rehearse how to defeat the shield wall by pretending to flee, then turning on their disorganised pursuers as they were drawn out of position. But that had been practice, and what I now witnessed was real. The English cavalry stayed clear of the pursuing Norwegian infantry, and then swerved aside, leaving their own foot soldiers to take the brunt of the Norwegian onslaught. Harald’s men had already been run off their legs when the Norsemen’s charge burst on to the English levies, and the impact was irregular and ineffective. The two sides mingled in a seething mass of violence, the men hacking and stabbing and slashing at one another. There was no sense of purpose, only that both infantries were desperate to inflict the greatest damage on one another.
Harald himself stood out like a beacon in a sea of turmoil. Seated high on his horse, whose frantic run had been halted by the mass of men, he could be seen fighting like a berserk warrior from the ancient days. He had neither shield nor armour, but held a long-shafted, single-bladed axe in each hand, his favoured weapons since his days in the Varangian guard. He was roaring out in anger. Each of his axes would normally have required a two-handed grip, but Harald was such a giant that he could wield them one in each hand. All around him the English foot soldiers were attempting to dodge his furious sweeping blows and, too slow, were falling to his attack. I tried to calculate where Harald was heading, and whether there was some purpose to his frantic advance, but I could see no selected target for his wrath. The English cavalry had withdrawn to one side and were regrouping, waiting for the right moment to ride to the rescue of their infantry. Among them I thought I recognised Harold Godwinsson, but he was too far away for me to be certain. Harald himself was oblivious to the gathering danger. His own battle flag, Land Ravager, was nowhere to be seen. His standard-bearer had been left far behind in the mad forward gallop.
Like hundreds of his own men, I looked towards Harald himself, waiting for a signal telling us what to do. Without his guidance we were lost. And as I did so, I saw the arrow fly. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I was sure I saw a dark blur skim over the heads of the struggling infantry, drawn fatally towards the tall figure on the black stallion. It remains a moment frozen in time for me: I saw the scarlet headband on Harald’s brow, the blue cloak flung back over one shoulder so that his arms were free, and the two deadly axes rising and falling remorselessly as he hacked his way through the press of soldiers. His personal bodyguards had fallen back, hindered by the throng of men, but even if they had been close to him they could have done nothing to save their master. The arrow struck Harald in the windpipe. Later I heard it said that Harald’s war cry was cut short into a single, choking gasp that turned to a bubbling grunt. All I saw from a distance was Harald suddenly sway in the saddle, stay upright for several heartbeats, and then slowly topple backwards, his tall figure disappearing into the chaos of the battle.
At that appalling moment, as those Norwegians close to the dying king halted in dismay, Harold Godwinsson unleashed his
The mounted English troops smashed into the demoralised Norwegian foot soldiers and shattered what little was left of their formation. The riders tore great gaps through the disorganised mob of our men, cutting them down as if they were huddled sheep. At first the huscarls used their spears as lances, but then they abandoned these weapons and drew their swords or unslung their axes because the slaughter was so easy. Our men were confused and defenceless. They attempted to parry the attacks with whatever was to hand – staves, clubs, their daggers – but it was futile against an armed huscarl mounted on his horse and swinging a heavy sword or the deadly long-shafted fighting axe. It was a massacre. The huscarls rode back and forth through our men like reapers clearing a field of standing corn, and those they left on their feet were set upon by the triumphant English infantry who rushed in to increase the carnage.
Weaponless, and still wearing my monk’s gown, I sat on the little pony watching the disaster unfold. Despite all my forebodings, I was still unprepared for the extent of the catastrophe. This, I knew, was a defeat from which there could be no recovery. Never again would my people muster such a large army nor follow a leader with so much to offer us. This was annihilation, the final calamity, and I grieved to see Harald killed. But even as I mourned, I found consolation in knowing that the man to whom I had sworn allegiance would have preferred to die with honour on the battlefield than fade away, old and pain-racked, in his bed, knowing that he had failed in his great ambition to restore the greatest kingdom of the north. The disappointment would have embittered Harald for the rest of his days. I told myself that even in defeat, he had earned himself exactly what he would have wished: an honourable reputation that would never fade.
With that thought in mind I nudged my pony in the ribs and rode down the hill to retrieve Harald’s body.
All my life I have known moments when a strange sensation of physical invulnerability comes over me. It is as if I am no longer aware of what my limbs are doing. My mind goes numb and I feel that I am advancing down a long, brightly lit tunnel where nothing can do me harm. That was how I felt as I rode forward on a tired pack pony that hot afternoon through the shattered fragments of a defeated army. I was vaguely aware of the crumpled corpses of our men lying on the ground, their blood and urine darkening the dust around them. Occasionally I heard the groans of the wounded. Here and there was a slight movement as some poor wretch tried to drag himself upright or to crawl away and hide. In the distance small bands of Norwegians were still putting up some resistance, but they were surrounded and outnumbered by their opponents, who were moving in to finish them. Somehow I was ignored.
I rode towards the last place I had seen Harald, the spot where he had toppled from his horse. A small cluster of men was gathered around something on the ground. They were bending over it, pulling and tugging. As I approached, my pony stumbled. Looking down I saw that it had tripped on a broken wooden pole, its end splintered. The flag attached to it was Land Ravager, Harald’s personal standard. Nearby lay the body of his standard-bearer, a great gaping wound in his chest. He, like the others, had worn no armour. I reined the pony to a halt, got down and picked up the banner. Only a few feet of the pole remained. With Land Ravager in my hand I walked towards the group of men, leading the pack pony. Irrationally I thought that somehow I would be able to load Harald’s corpse on the pony and ride back to the fleet, unscathed.
The men were English foot soldiers. They were stripping Harald’s body of valuables. His fine blue cloak was already gone, and someone was tugging at the heavy gold rings on his fingers. Another man was pulling off a shoe of soft leather. Harald’s body lay face up, a great dusty bruise across his cheek. The arrow that killed him was clearly visible. It had passed right through his neck. But that I had already dreamed.
‘Stop that!’ I croaked. ‘Stop! I have come to collect the body.’
The looters looked up in surprise and irritation. ‘Clear off, father,’ said one of them. ‘Go say your prayers in another place.’ He unsheathed his dagger and was about to saw off one of Harald’s fingers. Something clicked inside my mind and I passed from my distant reverie into sheer rage.
‘You bastards!’ I shouted. ‘You defile the dead.’ Letting go of the pony’s reins, I raised the broken shaft of Land Ravager and struck at the looter. But I was too old and slow. Contemptuously he knocked aside the pole and I almost overbalanced.
‘Clear off,’ he repeated.
‘No!’ I yelled back at him. ‘He is my lord. I must have his corpse.’
The looter looked at me narrowly. ‘Your lord?’ he said. I did not answer but took another lunge at him with the pole. Again, he knocked aside the blow. ‘How come he is your lord, old man?’
I realised that I made a strange sight: an elderly priest in a long black gown, his bald pate showing stubble, and wielding a broken wooden pole. The other looters had moved away from Harald’s corpse and were forming up in a circle around me. I was trembling with anger and exhaustion.
‘Let me have the body,’ I shouted. My voice was thin and wavering.
‘Come and get it,’ jeered one of the men.
I ran at him, using the pole as a lance, but he dodged aside. I pulled up and turned to see that his comrades had again taken up their positions around me and were laughing. I lunged again. The pole was heavy in my hands, and the long skirts of my monkish gown hampered me. I tripped.
‘Over here, grandad,’ taunted another voice, and I spun round to see someone dangling Harald’s scarlet headband from the tip of his dagger. ‘You’ll need this,’ he jeered.
The sweat was running down into my eyes so that I could scarcely see. I lumbered towards him and tried to snatch the headband, but it was whisked out of reach. I felt a thump in my ribs. One of my tormentors had struck me with the flat of his sword. I reeled away, trying to approach Harald’s body. A foot reached out and I tripped headlong into the dust. The blood pounding in my ears, I picked myself up, and not knowing who or where I was striking, I swung Land Ravager in a circle, trying to keep my tormentors back. I heard their scornful laughter, then someone must have come up behind me and hit me, because I felt a terrible pain in my head as I slumped forward on my knees and then down on to my face.
Slowly everything began to go dark, and in the last fading moments something came into my mind which had been troubling me since the opening moments of the great battle. The hair rose on the back of my neck, and an icy cold shiver prickled my skin as the certainty came to me that the Old Ways were finally gone. As I slipped away into darkness, I recalled the prophesy of my own God, Odinn the All-knowing. He had foretold that Ragnarok, the last great battle, would be heralded by the sound of a harp played by Eggther, watchman of the giants, and that Gullinkambe the rooster, perched in Yggdrasil, the World Tree, would cry his final warning. Since the beginning of the world Gullinkambe had been waiting in the branches to announce the time when the forces of evil were unleashed and on the march. Together the two sounds, the harp and the rooster’s crow, would herald the last great battle and the final destruction of the ancient ways.
TOSTIG RALLIED THE remnants of our army, so I was told later. One of our men picked up Land Ravager from where I lay on the earth, apparently lifeless, and brought the banner to Tostig, who was grimly fighting a rearguard action. He set up the flag as a mustering point, and those of our men who were still on their feet – less than a fifth of our original force – gathered there and formed a final shield wall. Seeing their plight, H
I heard the details of the calamity in dribs and drabs, for I was on the point of death for many weeks and not expected to survive. A priest from York found me on the battlefield where he had gone the day after the great battle to pray over the dead. Scarcely breathing, I lay where I had fallen in the English battle line, and he presumed I had been with Godwinsson’s men. I was brought back to York on a cart, along with the badly wounded, and nursed to health by the monks of the minster.
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