Chapter Three

– III –

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RALLY THE TROOPS!

Before the cockerel could muster a crow from its untimely voice and the raven utter a response, the wifemen of the village had already arisen and in hushed movements were building the first fires in their huts. The menfolk would be the last to awaken as was the custom. Their obligations were to hunt and fish and do battle when the need came. There was no urgency for them to bend their backs to chores in the village and even the harvest that had already been gathered from the fields could be prepared later.

“You men sleep longer and work less,” whispered Leala complainingly to herself, satisfying her need to speak her mind, even though she did not want to wake her husband, “yet you think somehow you are better than us. How is that possible? Ridiculous!”

Algernon of Colville rolled over away from the crackling fire now building strength in the centre of their humble home. In the corner of their only room rested his sheathed sword, sleeping even more deeply than he did. The blade had grown blunt and the handle dusty, as had the old warrior who was now almost forty and nearing the end of his days. He had almost forgotten the craft of war despite the many painful battle scars that covered his skin like a body map of all his past conflicts. He was calm in the knowledge though that the few years left to him by his fading health would be spent quietly here, where he had been born.

The idyllic dawn, however, was not to last, nor was Algernon’s vision of his gentle future. Gathering speed, there came the thunderous hooves of Norman cavalry in full battle dress with lances in hand and restless swords at their sides. The fires that had been lit to warm the village dwellings and ward off the morning chill were about to be used to burn down the houses and create a scene of terror. Algernon could not have known that the glance he caught of his wife as she stepped out of their hut that morning, like every morning, would be the last he would ever see of her.

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Richard arose as always to the pungent smell of the animals that occupied the stalls next to his bed. He thought that at some time in his life he would eventually get used to the revolting stench, but that time had never come. His uncle, Algernon, who he lived with, was already up waiting for his wife Leala to brew something hot to drink. Regrettably, the herbs she had dropped into the water were not enough to overcome the penetrating odours of the sweaty livestock that they depended on for their precarious livelihood.

The pigs grunted their morning greetings to Richard who slowly made it to his feet after another agitated night kept awake by the lice that shared his bed by night and inhabited his hair by day. The chickens meanwhile busied themselves searching for any grain that they had missed from the day before as Richard put on his shoes that were falling apart. He was now ready to lend his uncle a hand with the feeding.

Richard went outside to greet the new day, but the smell there was no more welcoming than inside his hovel. Human waste was dumped behind each home, swelling the number of insects drawn to where they slept. The Romans had never had this problem, he thought.

Richard had hated his existence from the time the Duke’s men had burnt his parents’ substantial farmstead to the ground and left both his parents dead in the raid. “What part did my family play in their Lord’s betrayal of the Duke?” he would often hiss. And yet the villagers had been punished as if they had been accountable for such disloyal actions. Ever since he had been forced to live with his uncle, who was infirm and whose poverty had trapped both of them, he had sworn revenge for the death of his dear parents. He wondered how he could keep his word and quench the anger that burned so fiercely inside him. It was impossible for him to even enter into the same building as the Duke, let alone into the same room. He was little more than a dispossessed peasant now when once he had tilled his own land. He had had position but was now reduced to the station of a landless pig farmer and no better off than a slave.

Richard could only take pleasure in one thing now, and that was his prized position as the strongest man amongst the villages for miles around, hence his name, Richard the Strong. He wasn’t the biggest man but he was sturdy and swift. He had earned his nickname when he had felled a giant of a man in a bar brawl with just one well-placed punch, which the colossal oaf had been powerless to avoid.

However, even that self-indulgent label was of little importance to him now. He could not endure his life like this much more. He would prefer to end it all than continue living such daily purgatory. He felt defeated by life after having worked so hard to build up his family’s impressive estate, only to have it taken from him prematurely and so cruelly. But family was everything. He did not need a religious book or any Greek philosopher to tell him that. One could possess the greatest estate in the dukedom but one would still have naught without kith and kin. Even the Duke knew that, why else would he have had four sons? No man had the right to dispatch the life of a loved one.

Richard knew that his hate was self-destructive, but he wanted his dark emotion to fuel his desire to destroy the one who had reduced his heart to feeling such baleful sentiment. All Richard could think about at that moment was dealing the death blow to the Duke of Normandy. He knew it would never happen, but reliving the imaginary instant over and over in his mind was the only thing that helped him through the day and awaken the following morning to see another begin.

Richard went to the well, and there was Baldwin, his only friend, if he indeed could call him that. Richard had found himself thrown into his circle after coming to live with his uncle and aunt and the two would never have met had Richard not lost all in the raid.

“Morning, Richard,” grunted Baldwin not even bothering to lift his head to look at him. Richard mumbled something back.

“Don’t tell me you’re already starting the day by saying how you’re going to cut the Duke down,” huffed Baldwin. “I must be the only one mad enough to suffer your company.”

“And I am certainly the only one who can suffer yours!” retorted Richard as he scooped up some murky water to drink before washing his face.

“There really is only so much a man can take when hearing the same story over and over again, but for some reason I am a glutton for punishment. So, tell me, what is it exactly you are going to do to the Duke when you meet him?”

“You would feel the same had it happened to your parents.”

“You can’t control events, Richard. I keep telling you that, but you won’t listen. The sooner you just accept things as they are, the better. The nobles do with us as they wish; it’s our lot to suffer in this life. I don’t know why you bother worrying about it all the time. If you just learned to live with it, you’d be better off like me.”

“Baldwin, you really do have all the imagination of a toad trapped in a tiny pond its whole life, don’t you?”

“And you think too much. It ain’t normal for people to be thinking all the time and you know it.”

“I know it’s not normal for you to think, Baldwin, that’s for sure.”

“Sometimes I wonder how on earth we are friends.”

“Well, at least you wonder sometimes, that’s a start,” said Richard with a sigh of relief.

“If you weren’t strong in arm like me and able to wield a sword, I swear we would never have spoken.”

“I believe, for the first time, you are probably right.”

Both of them had used their swords in anger and killed in the field of battle. They lamented having experienced the horrors of warfare, and despite their gloomy existence in the village it was preferable to seeing the savagery of man let loose in combat. There was no greater crime against God and mankind than igniting a war, and on that they both agreed.

Richard and Baldwin’s company would often help them overcome their recurrent nightmares. It was something they could only confide in each other and never mention to anyone else in the community. Friendship was in essence a compromise. They were not ideally suited to be friends, but they needed each other’s comradeship in equal measure and for similar reasons. Only one thing was more horrendous than enduring a battle, and that was suffering a lifetime of loneliness.

As Baldwin turned to ask Richard for some firewood to light his stove for the day, his attention was drawn away from his chore and he looked out beyond the village boundaries. Something seemed to be approaching. He couldn’t see it but he could feel it. The ground gave the impression it was trembling slightly. He stopped walking and narrowed his gaze, focusing his eyes on the hillock just above the village. He instinctively knew something was happening but could not quite tell what it was. At that moment Richard appeared beside him, he had also felt that something was afoot, but unlike Baldwin he knew the signs all too well and grabbed his friend by the arm, dragging him out of the hamlet’s clearing.

“What is it Richard?”

“Can’t you tell? Horsemen! Get your sword!” Richard already had his weapon clenched in his fist. Baldwin soon rejoined him and the pair hurried to the homes by the forest in readiness to escape.

“Where are your relatives?” asked Baldwin.

“Algernon! Leala!” called out Richard urgently.

Richard’s uncle was ambling across the centre of the village to see a friend. At that moment the dark figures appeared on the rise of the hill as if they had exploded out of the sky. The riders wore helmets and brandished swords that glinted like prized silver. The rest of the villagers suddenly turned to see the invaders; others swiftly came out of their homes. They bounded into the centre of the settlement, knocking some of the slower and more elderly members of the community to the ground and against the walls of the thatched buildings. Then their leader spoke.

“Your Duke, William of Normandy, demands that all able-bodied fighting men join his army. Your Lord owes him fealty and he must meet his obligations. Fetch what weapons you may have and step forward.”

Nobody moved.

“You know the consequences if you refuse to supply the Duke’s army with soldiers.”

Richard could sense the lack of compassion in the knight’s eyes.

Some of the soldiers behind him reached out torches in readiness to burn the village to the ground. Richard and Baldwin slowly came forward, unable to run like cowards and allow their small commune to pay such a heavy price for their selfishness. Other men joined them, carrying rusted swords and ageing spears. They did not look like a fearsome addition but the Duke was desperate to assemble as many foot soldiers as possible.

Richard spoke up, “Where exactly are we headed? Maine? Paris?” He wasn’t interested in the answer; he had only asked in order to get closer to the soldier. Was he the one who had razed his property to the ground and had seen that his parents were slain? He knew he would never meet the Duke that had given the order but he could at least cut down those that had carried out the deed. He took his steps warily until he found himself within striking distance. He gripped his scabbard, ready to strike.

“Silence your tongue. Yours is not to question the motives of the great Duke!”

“I was not querying the Duke’s plans I was…”

The angered knight dug his heels in and his mount lurched forward, knocking Richard to the ground. As the injured Richard struggled to regain consciousness, he felt his cold face stuck against the muddy ground. His eyes tried to focus and as his sight began to recover he could make out another figure, also lying on the ground opposite him. He saw the man’s empty expression staring right at him. Richard tried to understand the confused messages his mind was struggling to piece together. For a moment his thoughts froze as he finally made sense of what he was looking at.

Pulling himself up to rest on one knee, his emotions swung from the surprise of the blow and the subsequent pain, to that of unfettered rage. He could now clearly distinguish the lifeless body of his uncle and realised that the screaming voice was that of his aunt Leala. There was a gash on his uncle’s forehead where he had fallen against a stone lodged in the ground, evidently knocked down by one of the soldiers as they had galloped recklessly into the midst of the inhabitants.

The yell let out by Richard as he stumbled back onto his feet scared the horses and alerted the soldiers to action before Richard could coordinate his movements more decisively. There was the sound of clinking chainmail as one of the horsemen jerked his charger forward and clouted the dazed Richard with his torch. No sooner had Richard reached his feet than he was falling back to the ground, only this time he would remain there. The last thing he would remember was the strong smell of burning wood and the distinct sound of crackling timbers as the village began to burn.

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The cart jostled from left to right as it shuddered the passengers’ bones at every turn. It was probably easier to walk like Baldwin, who marched alongside the motionless body of a battered Richard. The moment Richard had lost consciousness, the soldier had dismounted and given him a thorough beating in order to deter others from confronting them. Richard had been unconscious for nearly two days, and some thought he had actually passed away. Baldwin had given him water and ensured that no further harm came to him. It was the least he could do, as he knew that that was what Richard would have done had the roles been reversed. After all, that’s what friends were for, when family could not be there for you.

The cart hit a rut in the dilapidated road surface, and the brutal jolt knocked Richard against the floor, bringing him round. His eyes blinked open and he flinched at the intense pain that emanated from deep inside his head. He tried to raise his eyes but the extreme throbbing pushed his head down again. Baldwin noticed that his friend had moved and he leaned forward to give him encouragement as he kept on walking. “You’re not dead, although it might feel that way and you may prefer it as an alternative when you learn of our fate,” he whispered in excited surprise not wishing to draw the attention of the guards.

Richard tried to utter something but it was incomprehensible.

“We are to sail across the Channel,” continued Baldwin, “and fight against the English! We are set on a path of conquest and the Duke aims to become a king!”

“He is mad!” groaned a drowsy Richard, “but we are madder still for following him.” His voice grew stronger.

“But there’s nothing we can do. If we refuse then we die here, or we can go and run the gauntlet and maybe survive.”

“Survive for what? To die in the next battle? What do you think? That we will only have to fight the once? A conquest means many such encounters.”

“You always argue the impossible. Things are as they are and we are pawns in a game run by nobles.”

“And you always conform to your masters’ desires,” said Richard making a visible effort to speak, “and never attempt to see things as they could and should be. You are a slave to your own limited imagination.” Then a weakened Richard lost consciousness again, collapsing on the floor of the rickety cart.

The long train of recruits arrived in camp, where others looked as if they had already been there for quite some time. Baldwin recognised several dialects and passed by well-equipped soldiers speaking languages he had never heard before. They were shown to a small area and left without shelter, food or water. It looked like the fight for survival had already begun for Richard and Baldwin. “Perhaps Richard might be right after all,” pondered Baldwin. The future suddenly didn’t look so bright.

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The Duke stood on the edge of the breezy promontory gazing down at the mass of men and horses gathered near the shore at Valery-sur-Somme. The sun had just begun to rise and birdsong mixed with a hive of human activity. Smoke rose from fires dotted around the camp, some for cooking and others to provide warmth. He could hear the whinnying of the bulky warhorses as they jostled against one another, straining their necks to try and free themselves from their reins. There was the sound of hammers battering swords into shape and the voices of men greeting the day or clashing weapons in combat training that was becoming increasingly more violent.

Odo approached the Duke, “My Lord.”

William did not turn, only moved his head slightly. The guardsmen noticed the controlling body language and made sure they didn’t catch his stare. Odo tried again to call the leader’s attention.

“Duke William, it has been nearly two months now and the men are becoming restless. There are tensions between the mercenaries and our allies from Brittany. Our own men have also come to blows with those from Flanders and the supplies of grain are growing short. At this rate there might be no harvest to come back to if we drain the scarce stores we have.”

William leisurely rotated his head back to look down at the invasion force gathered along the coast.

“My dear Odo, I have a clear command of provisions. Remember, I am a master of many things and a jack of none. I not only know how to lead men but more importantly how to feed them. And that is why my lands are safe, and so it will be with my new kingdom.” Now he turned to face his worried knight. “I am not about to destroy my homeland in exchange for a foreign one, I can assure you. I would rather die here a pauper than survive there surrounded by riches. Every man owes as much to his motherland, the land that made them. I am Norman first, and shall be a King of England but not an English king. The only thing you need to fear, my faithful kinsman, is an English axe or arrow.”

“But what are we waiting for? Our fleet has been complete since July.”

William looked around him, his expressionless face lending him further command of the conversation, “What do you notice Odo?”

“Nothing.”

“Precisely. That is what we having been patiently biding our time for – nothing. We heard Harold was expecting us so we withheld, and then we were informed that he had disbanded his army. The unripe King was probably insecure of his new powers. But then the northern winds came and cut off our chances, until now.”

“But we cannot sail in late September my Lord, everyone knows the dangers.”

“Everyone, including Harold, and that is why he dispersed his forces. He does not expect us to land, but today the weather favours the bold man.”

William turned to a group of men that had just arrived, “Knights! Rally your men for we sail for England this very day!”

He then looked at Odo, “There is no time to lose, we must take advantage of the calm water that beckons us across before she is offended and spits us back to shore.”

The nobles had thought William was about to give them orders to stand down and he saw them wavering, “Quick men! Act upon my orders! We have surprise on our side and a keen army to win the greatest victory of our time.”

The moment Duke William’s words stopped ringing in their ears, they turned on their heels and moved at pace back down to camp. Within moments voices were shouting out and men began to run. Smoke turned to steam as camp fires were quickly extinguished; tents lost their shape as they were dismantled and horses were released and mounted by riders who headed towards the moored ships.

The air was filled with a babble of languages, but all carried the same weapons and shields as the infantrymen began to assemble and march towards the water’s edge. They thudded aboard the vessels, where the sails unfurled one after the other. The tension showed on everybody, not because many were bound to meet their death on the battlefield but for the fact that few if any had ever been to sea before. Water meant sudden death, while warfare at least offered some chance of survival. They all knew how to fight. None knew how to swim.

William watched with Odo the manner of preparations and the haste with which the men carried themselves. “They move well, Odo. They have the belly for the fight. England will soon be ours. Whether I survive is another matter but we shall take this land and dispatch the perjurer. God wills it!”

“Yes, my Lord, God does will it.”

Book launch: 14th October – 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings