June 23 1069
The End-Times had come, and the world was turning from the light.
Over the wetlands, the sun was setting in a crimson haze. Black clouds of midges danced across the reeking marshes and among the ash-trees and willows, shadows pooled as the pack of silent English warriors herded their stumbling captive south, like a pig to slaughter. Spear-tips jabbed into the Norman soldier’s back. On his sweat-stained tunic, blood-roses bloomed. His hauberk and helm were missing, long-since tossed into the sucking bog. His double-edged sword, though, that had been claimed by one of his hated enemies. Like a chastised dog, he snarled, his eyes still darting towards that prized blade after each burning prod into his bruised skin.
On the causeway, he tripped and fell, tearing his hands on the flint. “Stand. Or die,” one of his captors barked. If he understood the tongue, he didn’t show it. But the spears jabbed again, more insistent this time, urging him to return to that breathless pace across the desolate Fenlands. He showed a cold face to the detested English, ten of them, their pale eyes flickering with the fire of the vermilion sky. Then he swallowed and hauled himself up on weary legs to lurch on.
Once they had reached the next wooded island, Hereward raised his right arm to bring the long march to a halt. He was the leader of the English group, a Mercian by birth, his fair hair and blue eyes marking him out as of Danish blood. The tattooed spirals and circles of the warrior rippled across the flexing sinews of his arms.
As his weary men crumpled, drawing in huge, juddering breaths, he watched fear carve lines in their faces. They were hunters, but the hunted too. He glanced back along the path into the deepening dark. Death was near, and drawing nearer by the moment.
“Water, rest, put fire back in your hearts,” he called as he moved among the slumped warriors. “The road has been hard and you have run it well, but we have dogs at our back and we cannot slow.”
On the edge of the war-band, the captive brooded. Hereward narrowed his eyes, scrutinising every move the man made. Like stone, these Norman bastards were, hard, and cold too, he thought. But they would break, in time. The hammers of the English would never still.
In the tilt of the prisoner’s chin he saw the arrogance of the invaders who had laid waste to England over three long years since William the Bastard had stolen the crown. In the unflinching gaze was the brutality that had spilled the blood of men, women and children, burned whole villages to the ground, and stolen the livelihoods of those who kept starvation at bay only through grinding toil. He shook his head, contemptuous.
Moving into a copse of dolorous willows, Hereward wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. His men sluiced water down their throats from skins, and splashed it on their burning faces. That summer had been hotter than hell. The heat crushed them down in the day and choked them during the sweltering nights. And there they were, only at the Feast of St John, with the prospect of many more weeks of the warm season still to come. Perhaps this cruel weather was another sign of the End-Times, like all the old women warned.
As if his prayers had been answered, a cooling breeze whispered through the rustling leaves. He looked across the glassy waters of the Fenlands blazing scarlet in the ruddy light. Black-headed gulls seemed to be calling “Flee! Flee!” as they wheeled overhead.
Hereward swigged a soothing gulp of water. While he wiped his mouth, he caught sight of Swithun slumped at the foot of an oak. Pity stung him. The young warrior’s face was ashen, his brown hair lank with sweat, his eyelids fluttering. The left side of his tunic was black and sodden with his own blood. Hereward strode over and squatted beside the wounded man.
“Not far now to Ely,” the Mercian murmured. “Keep the fire in your belly. The leech will soon be mending you with his foul brews and pastes.”
Swithun smiled wanly, reassured by his leader’s words. But after a moment, he shook his head, his brow furrowed. “You must leave me. I am a burden.”
Hereward rested a comforting hand on the young man’s shoulder. “We leave no one behind.”
“But I slow you all down,” the wounded man protested in a voice like dry leaves. “Fromund must all but carry me now, so weak am I. If the Normans come, you will not be able to out-run them with me like a dead pig on your shoulders.”
“We leave no one,” the Mercian insisted. He held Swithun’s gaze, adding warmly, “Of all our battle-wolves, you fought the bravest. Without your spear, we would not have our captive.”
Swithun smiled again, closing his eyes and leaning his head back. Hereward rose and turned away to hide his concern. The battle-sweat staining the man’s tunic was still spreading too quickly. Time was short for him.
He strode back to the willows, eyeing his men as he passed. In the hunched shoulders and drawn faces, he saw their exhaustion. They had been running too long, with death always only a whisper away. Many feared they would never live to see their homes again, he knew.
“The captive is hiding something. You can see it in his eyes.” The whispered voice belonged to Alric, the monk. In the seven summers since they had first met on a bitter Northumbrian night, his thin face had lost its callow blandness. Worry now lined his brow and a scar marred his temple. He nodded towards the captured soldier and put his hand over his mouth so the other men would not hear. “Hereward, I am afraid,” he breathed. “We are beset by enemies on all sides. What if we march into a trap?”
“Every step we take now carries risk,” the other man murmured. He kept his face impassive, but his eyes continually searched that lonely land of water and wood. So many places a threat could hide. They would know nothing until danger was upon them. He smiled. “Let them come. My sword, Brainbiter, thirsts for more Norman blood.”
He could see his bravado had not eased his friend’s worries as he had hoped and he turned his attention back to the captive. The Norman fighters always believed themselves superior to the ale-addled, weak-thewed English, but this was different. Hereward watched sly eyes searching the clustering trees. A smile flickered across the man’s lips, gone in an instant as he muttered something under his breath, a prayer or a curse.
“Do not harm him,” the monk insisted as if he could read the Mercian’s thoughts.
“And you think the Normans would show us the same kindness, when they cut off the hands and feet of any who even raise a voice in defiance of their rule?”
“Would you be a Norman, then?”
“I would not be a monk,” Hereward baited, his tone wry. “The only man who can turn a feast into a funeral.”
Alric shook his head wearily. He was used to his friend’s taunting. “You are much changed since we first met. No longer the wild beast that would tear out a wolf’s throat with his own teeth. A wise man,” he said with an overstated note of incredulity, “who is not afraid to show kindness. A good leader. Would the English have risked their necks against the king’s men here in the east if any other warrior had called them?”
Hereward grunted, embarrassed. His friend knew his weak spot. “I kill Normans, monk. That is all I do.”
After his chuckles had died away, Alric grew serious once more. “Is it wise to have taken this prisoner so far from our home? You know as well as I, the Normans are like hungry dogs when they have been defied. They will not cease until they have taken their man back, or they have avenged him. I have never known a kind like them.”
“Once we have loosened his lips, we will gain greatly from all he knows of the Norman defences, their numbers, their supply tracks, their plans for crushing our fight.”
The monk fixed a doubtful eye on his friend. “There are Normans aplenty within a morning’s walk of Ely. Why not one of those? And then you would not have to march through the night, and give our enemies time to hunt us down, out here where we would find it hard to defend ourselves.”
“You are a warrior now, too, like some of those Norman priests I hear so much about?” Hereward gave a sardonic grin.
Alric furrowed his brow, refusing to lighten the mood. He turned slowly, looking past the lengthening shadows to the still, silent marshes and pools and woods. “You laugh, but I have spent enough time in your company to know when something is crooked. Can you not feel it? My skin is like gooseflesh, my stomach like a butter-churn.” He swallowed. “Our enemies are out there somewhere, I am sure, watching us, waiting for the moment when they can tear us apart.”
“You must have faith, monk,” Hereward replied, enjoying his joke.
“If the Normans attack now, we are dead men, all of us.”
“There are risks in everything we do. And there will be more, until we have enough men to take this war to the king. Our numbers are growing, but still they are far from what we need,” Hereward said in as reassuring a tone as he could muster. How to bring the English together and build an army, that was his greatest worry. Time was growing short. Soon William the Bastard would turn his full attention to the east. Not Alric, nor any of his men, understood that the rebellion hung by a thread until he had found a solution to that problem. And this night, he hoped, would help. He rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder, adding, “We gamble or we lose. That is the simple truth.”
“Aye, but whose lives are at stake when you make your wager?”
Hereward didn’t need to answer.
Once Alric had returned to the column of men, he nodded, and the warrior at the front jabbed the captive once again, forcing him to set off. Leather soles rattled loose flints as the group followed the causeway through the treacherous bogs.
The night came down.
Among the willows there was little moonlight to guide their way. They could risk no naked flames for fear they would shine like beacons across the sea of dark. As the pace slowed, Hereward’s thoughts raced back across the summers. The peaceful days of his youth sometimes seemed to belong to another man, fishing and drinking with friends around his father’s hall at Barholme. He missed those times, though he did not miss his father’s fist or shoe. He winced, trying to turn his mind’s-eye away from the old man’s face, but instead he glimpsed a flash of his mother lying on the floor of the hall, bloody and beaten to death. That memory brought a surge of hot anger.
Then he thought of that bastard William sitting on the stolen throne. He knew not how the new King appeared, but oddly it was his father’s face he saw swimming there beneath the crown. His anger burned hotter still.
When they rested again, he leaned against the still-warm bark of an ash tree, listening. He heard the screech of an owl far beyond the water, and glimpsed the flutter of a bat overheard. The men clutched their spears, knuckles white in the gloom, heads bowed so no one could see the fear in their faces. Yet the captive watched them all with a lingering wolf’s eye as he squatted at the foot of a willow. He was seemingly untroubled by his wounds. His breathing was steady, his shoulders at ease.
Hereward rested his hand on the shoulder of the nearest man, Godfrid, still only sixteen summers old and as raw as all the others who had taken that journey north. The young warrior nodded in reply to his leader’s silent communication. Dropping low, he crept along the track ahead to scout the way.
After a few moments, Alric stiffened. “I heard something,” he hissed.
Hereward looked around, but it was impossible to see more than four spear-lengths. He could smell the monk’s fresh fear-sweat. “The water never stops moving. The mud sucks and belches. You are still not used to the moods of the land around these parts,” he replied.
“No, I heard a hard sound,” Alric hissed. “Like iron on wood.”
Hereward cocked his head and listened. As the night-breeze dropped, the faint crack of a fallen branch echoed from away to the east. He whirled, whistling through clenched teeth. His men crouched so they were harder to see. The captive only grinned. One of the English stood up and planted a heavy foot into the man’s ribs. The Norman glowered, but said nothing. He knew that his life would be lost in an instant if he dared draw attention to their location.
“Kill him now,” one of the men insisted. “He will only slow us down.”
“Our enemies may have only crossed our trail and do not yet know where we are,” Alric whispered, his voice hopeful.
“They know,” Hereward growled. He darted to the captive. Drawing his sword, he raised the iron blade until the tip pressed at the man’s neck. “Slow your step for even a moment and I will leave your head here for your kind to find.”
The Norman held the warrior’s gaze for a moment until his eyes flickered away and down. Keeping his blade against the man’s back, Hereward thrust the prisoner forward until they were running. From the back of the column, he could hear Fromund’s ragged breathing as he lumbered with the wounded Swithun. The dying man’s prophecy had come back to haunt them.
Hereward swept out his left arm. As his men slowed, he squinted into the dark ahead. With senses long-accustomed to the whispering Fenlands nights, his skin prickled at something unfamiliar. He prowled forward alone. Barely had he gone a few steps when he glimpsed a grey shape among the trees.
A Norman scout, he thought, though the moment the notion passed through his mind he knew it was wrong. He crept forward a few more paces and the pale figure fell into relief. It was Godfrid, the lookout, spreadeagled across a hawthorn bush. Blood dripped in a steady patter. His head lay at an unnatural angle, attached to the torso by little more than a strip of sinew and flesh.
The Normans were on every side.