– I –
The battle-hardened overlord stood there restlessly, framed by the open stone window. He stared obsessively down into the castle courtyard as he awaited the pressing news, news that would soon change the course of European history forever.
The back of his head was shaved and he wore the intimidating hairstyle as a mark of honour, as did all his men-at-arms. This time though his head was bowed in deliberation. The atmosphere in the great hall was suffocating; no one dared anger their Lord. The corner of his mouth curled up as he mumbled to himself, grinding his teeth and spitting out his half-mad mutterings. It was an unnerving sight for his guardsmen, who had never seen the great warrior like this.
His fearsome reputation went before him; a reputation that he constantly maintained with fresh victories or demonstrations of cruelty to keep opponents in their place. He had suffered many attempts on his life ever since childhood, the most notorious of which had led to the bludgeoning to death of his tutor before his very eyes. He had only been twelve years old at the time and when he came of age he exacted his revenge by having those responsible rounded up and executed without the slightest pause for mercy.
He had forged a realm and given its people peace where once they had only known conflict. He knew how to rule but what was required more than that was the ability to hold onto that power. He had defeated all his challengers and even kept the King of France at bay. In every encounter he had led his men into the heat of battle. He was the chief of a clan of warriors, and his nobles and fighting men would follow him loyally into any military campaign.
The men in the hall, who also had the backs of their heads shaven, stood guard. Only one man was permitted to address the imposing leader, whose thoughts seemed to be elsewhere.
“What should I do, brother Odo?”
“My Lord, you are surely the boldest leader of men in Europe and thus the only one who can bring such a daring expedition to fruition.”
“But this has never been achieved since Emperor Claudius.”
“And for that reason our warrior clan are equal to the task. We cannot expand south into France; the King is too strong. But if we move northwards it may mean we secure our homelands against the Frankish threat.”
“But will my men follow me across the seas? We are soldiers and cavalrymen, not sailors. We are the descendants of Vikings, as everyone knows, but long have we lost our seafaring ways.”
“The voyage is but a moment in this quest. Anyhow, we shall soon have their answer, my Lord. A horseman approaches!”
The hooves first thudded across the damp earth and then clattered as they struck the stone courtyard. The knight dismounted, pushing his sword to one side so as not to hinder his haste into the castle. He removed his helmet and waited for the guard in the hall entrance to allow him to approach.
The man at the window slowly turned as if controlling the moment with his silence. He beckoned the messenger closer. The messenger stepped forward and removed his rider’s glove to present the document to his Lord, but as he drew nearer his face wore an expression of awe and he could barely mumble the words he had come to announce.
“M-m Lord, they say…th-they will follow you.”
The great man looked up as he heard the news, without bothering to finish the document. His steely eyes sharpened and they rose to meet those of the trembling messenger. For a moment they stared right through the knight as if he were not there. Destiny had spoken. He hadn’t expected it, despite having desired it so much. He was lost in deep contemplation as his eyes passed round the room looking at each one of his guards in turn. No one dared move as they averted his eyes. The tension became unbearable, and then he spoke.
“You know of the dangers of such a crossing, Odo?”
“And the lengths you have gone to secure your realm, dear brother.”
“Who am I to gamble such a thing?”
“God wills it!”
“Not even Aulus Plautius achieved such a feat, under Claudius’ orders. The lands he conquered had not been united under one ruler with an organised fighting force, as is now the case.”
He handed Odo the document, to continue reading at length, while he sat to take in the magnitude of the decision he was about to take. He had talked with great passion in the Council Chamber when he had called the nobles together and had practically demanded that they follow him into battle across the sea. But now that they had consented to his wishes he was struck by the immensity of the undertaking.
Then he spoke with a tone of grave uncertainty,
“Odo, do they follow me out of fear? For if they do, they will be no good on the battlefield.”
“My Lord, the rewards are enough to make them want to go. Their lands are restricted here, but there…! They can seize more possessions than their imaginations can hold. And what of the lesser nobles who are ambitious and wish to make their mark? This is their only opportunity.”
“Are we touched by lunacy for contemplating what we are about to embark upon?”
“We are carrying out God’s work! This Harold has usurped the throne after King Edward declared it yours. He came to our shores at this King’s behest and swore allegiance to your claim upon many of our relics! This pretender has blasphemed and insulted our Saints and it is for this we have received the Papal blessing for our enterprise.”
“We are a proud warrior nation, but is this not hubris dressed as gallantry?”
It was not customary for the decisive leader to be so self-doubting.
“We are only as big as our enemies and as small as our fear, my Lord. It is for a moment such as this in history that we were made. What is a warrior without a war, and what is a victory worth if that challenge is not great?”
The guards gradually stiffened as they listened to the two nobles decide the fate of the realm. White knuckles tightened around lances and every man’s breathing in the hall had instinctively increased.
“Our enemy is formidable and our fear immeasurable, and for that we will be remembered with the passing of time. The question is thus a simple one: do you wish to be remembered as William the Cautious or William the Conqueror?”
William rose to his feet, slowly but firmly, looking Odo in the eye, taking their deliberation to its conclusion. His half-brother easily discerned his mood. Duke William turned to the hall entrance where the guards pulled open the hefty doors without a word of instruction needed. Standing there was his chief-at-arms, awaiting orders. Behind him was a long corridor hung in deathly silence. The great Duke gave a very subtle, controlled nod and the soldier turned immediately. He strode off down the passageway, gathering pace with each step to carry out his Lord’s dictum.
“Men!” he roared “Gather your arms for we invade England!” Soldiers appeared from nowhere and filled the corridor as they rushed to carry out the command they had been expecting.
“My Lord, soon you shall be a king!” And with that Odo handed the Duke’s sword to him, pressing it into his hand. William gripped it tightly.
“And you an Archbishop. If not, we shall both meet on the other side, for this time it was not meant to be.”