England was dying. Silhouetted against the blood-red setting sun, the tattered remnants of Harold Godwinson’s army clustered on the hilltop around the fierce Golden Dragon of Wessex. Beside the King’s once-majestic gilded leather standard, a banner depicting the Trojan hero Ajax fluttered limply in a chill north breeze. Silence hung over all for the first time that day. A lull, not peace. Falling away below the warriors, butchered bodies obscured the hillside turf. Red streams bubbled down towards the foot where the vast Norman army washed all around like an iron sea. Beyond the invaders, shadows marched across the wooded slopes and lush valleys of southern England.
The eyes of the gore-spattered huscarls turned towards the King. Cuts slashed his cheeks and blood dripped from his right brow. He stood proudly, looking into the growing gloom, but his hand shook where it gripped his spear for support. In the exhausted warriors’ drawn faces, Redwald saw a pitiful acceptance. One by one, they raised their axes for their final stand.
And then the quiet of the late afternoon broke. The clatter of iron upon iron, a susurration of voices, low at first but growing louder. Norman nobles, troops from Normandy, Flanders, Brittany and France. Mercenaries from as far away as southern Italy. All of them joining together. Swords clashed against mail-covered chests beating out the rhythm of their war-chant.
“What are they singing?” Redwald asked, not really caring.
“They are singing open the gates of hell.” Harold’s voice cracked with weariness, his bravado disappearing into the wind.
The young man felt bitter and fearful. How had it come to this, when only days before victory had seemed assured and all his careful planning was about to bring him his just rewards? Racing from Eoferwic after the messenger had delivered his disturbing news of William the Bastard’s incursion, the elite force of huscarls and mercenaries attempted to raise a new fyrd along the way. But so many men had been lost at Stamford Bridge. Some villages in the east were near-deserted, an entire generation lost. In London, Harold had attempted to build his army, but old King Edward’s prophecy clung to every lip. As the coming battle neared, a steady stream of desertions fled the already-depleted ranks. No support came from the Mercians or Northumbrians. The Godwins had long since burned their bridges. And as the small army rode south to where William the Bastard’s men were stockaded, Redwald had felt a dismal sense of power draining away from the once-great King, a man now seemingly crippled and making one last desperate attempt to cling to the throne. But still Redwald hoped, for where else could he turn?
The King had arranged a Sussex levy to bolster his ranks, but the meeting place was the hoar apple tree at the crossing of the old tracks where the London road emerged from the dense forest of the Weald north of Hastings. But it was too close to the Norman encampment, and the noisy gathering of straw-hatted, terrified men had alerted William the Bastard’s scouts. The King’s plan to repeat his strategy from Stamford Bridge, of a last minute race to a dawn raid, had to be abandoned. Redwald cursed under his breath. Harold would never have made such an error before. But the long struggle to the throne and the months of battle to hold on to it had taken its toll, the young man could see writ large in every new line in his master’s face. Redwald glanced down the steep slope at the chilling array of power and his heart fell: cavalry, the best in Europe, armed with lance and sword, missile-troops, swathes of archers and others armed with something he had heard tell of but never seen, the fearsome crossbow, troops carrying shield, spear, axe and sword, all of them heavily armoured in long ring-mail shirts and thick helms. Eyes like a winter heath, and hearts too.
Redwald gripped his spear tighter and tried to drive that unsettling chanting from his head. The English had been too slow-witted, too lead-footed, and in their weakness they had sold England like a goose at the market, ready for the slaughter.
But still he hoped. Harold had never let him down before.
And yet, why had the King not responded faster when he saw William’s scouts thundering back towards the palisade? Had he really expected the devious Normans to wait until the English army had fully arrived and all their troops were in battle order? The Bastard’s rapid attack with his eight-thousand-strong army had devastated the ragged English ranks before they had barely reached half that number. Most of the levied English men had still been straggling along the London road. Harold had responded with the only tactic open to him, ordering his bloodied troops up to the high ridge and leaving the Normans to occupy the swampy lowlands. When the shield wall had locked into place, the King knew he had bought himself some time. Redwald cast his mind back to the Norman archers racing up to the English line and loosing flight after flight of arrows. The shafts had rattled into the huscarls’ shields, and been met with a hail of rocks, javelins and maces that stunned the enemy. And when the two sides had clashed together, the Normans had soon found their mail was no match for the huscarls’ two-handed axes. Yet this victory had only been short-lived.
Less disciplined than the elite force, the fyrdmen and the levied troops broke ranks to pursue the Normans, and William the Bastard saw his opening. Ordering in his cavalry, the men had been slaughtered, the ranks fragmented, and Harold’s own brothers Gyrth and Leofwine left lying among the dismembered corpses.
Redwald thought back to the shattered look that had flashed across the King’s face. Did Harold realise then that the age of the Godwins was truly over?
When the Norman Duke ordered his cavalry in for a full attack, the English line crumbled. Amid the butchery, Harold had no longer been able to hold the ridge and withdrew the standards to the top of the hill.
The harsh beat of iron and the full-throated singing ebbed away. Only the moan of the wind with its whispers of the coming winter drifted through the stillness. Somehow Redwald found that even worse.
Harold peered down to the long Norman line without expression. “We are English,” he called in an unsettlingly calm voice. “When death looks in our face, we kick it in the balls. Come then, Norman bastards. Run up this hill in your heavy armour and meet our axes.” The King looked around his huscarls. “For every whoreson you slaughter this day, you will be rewarded with gold. We have the high ground. The Normans must come to us…to die. Kill well, my men, and by the end of the night we will be raising our mead-cups to victory.”
Redwald felt his heart stir. Was there yet a chance? Yet when he glanced around the English, he saw there was no shield wall left. No defence. Harold was right; killing was all they had.
The red sun edged towards the horizon, the shadows pooling around the huscarls. The Norman horn sounded, low and mournful.
Harold turned to Redwald, clapped a hand on the young man’s neck and pulled him in close to whisper in his ear. “You have been more son to me than advisor,” the King said, “and you have made me proud. This day make me prouder still, and if die you must, do it with honour.” He looked Redwald deep in the eye with an unflinching gaze, and for the first time the younger man thought he saw a hint of tears there. But then the King snapped back to the Normans and the final battle began.
The cavalry charged. Behind them, the archers raced in waves. The sky blackened with arrows.
“Shields up,” Harold bellowed.
Driven to his knees by the thunder of shafts, Redwald saw a score of tips bursting through the splintered wood. Fear gushed through him. With so many Norman archers, the high ground meant nothing. The realisation had only a moment to sink in, and then the storm broke upon them. Redwald glimpsed mere flashes in the whirl of his panic. The huscarls stood their ground, swinging their axes in furious rhythm. But the arrows flooded down upon their heads as the Norman archers fired over the top of their own cavalry.
Madness, madness, Redwald thought.
Shafts burst through faces, rammed into chests and shoulders. Heads leapt from necks. Arms fell still twitching. Grey chunks of brain sprayed from split skulls. A mist of blood descended on them all.
Redwald realised he was rooted with dread and tried to jab with his spear, but his hand shook too much. Never had he expected such horror. Through the whirl of axes and streams of arrows, he glimpsed the faces of the Normans, and thought they all looked like death’s-heads, hollow-eyed, pearly teeth grinning with insane delight. No men these! Things from the night, or devils from hell.
Tears flooded down his cheeks.
Beside him, Harold threw his head back and cried out, clutching his face. Sickened, Redwald saw a wooden shaft protruding from the King’s right eye. Yet still the monarch fought on as if he could feel no pain, the arrow flashing back and forth with every movement of Harold’s head.
The sky was darkening. Redwald glimpsed the ghost of the moon, and a thought skittered through his head that he had black wings, like a raven, and he could fly away.