Authors: Griff Hosker
Sword Books Ltd 2013
Griff Hosker First Edition
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November 1066 Topcliffe in Northumbria
I am Aelfraed of Topcliffe, or at least I was for a while, and I fought with King Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge. Perhaps it was wyrd or my dead mother watching over me but I was not there, at Senlac Hill, close to the town of Hastings when Harold and all my former comrades died in a final shield wall. I was recovering from a wound to my back, a wound which almost cost me my life but perhaps, ultimately, saved my life, for had I been with the other Housecarls then I too would have died for we had all sworn an oath to protect King Harold and dear friends, Ulf, Wolf and Osgar, all died honouring that oath. It was the mark of the Anglo-Saxons that warriors took oaths which they kept until death. Ridley, the Thegn of Coxold and my oldest comrade, also survived for he too was wounded and, like me he mourned not only our comrades but the end of the finest fighting force ever seen in England. I was just glad that my uncle, Aethelward, who had been strategos and advisor to King Harold, had also survived for he had been with me in my castle at Topcliffe.
Until my wife, Gytha, had finally arrived from London, escorted by my soldiers, I had feared for her life for she had been with Ealdgyth, Harold’s widow and her twins. We had heard that Duke William had stripped Harold and his brothers of all their land.
It had been an astute move for they had owned most of the best parts of southern England. I did not know what it meant for me. A few years ago, before the Confessor had given me my land and before I had met Gytha then I would not have worried about a new ruler but now I had responsibilities. I had a large estate and the people thereon, such as Thomas the Steward and his wife, Sarah, relied on me to ensure that they could continue to live and work the land.
As part of my regimen to improve my health and recover from the almost mortal wound, I had taken to riding my estate each day escorted by Branton, the sergeant of my archers.
His brother Osbert, my sergeant at arms, was training new men to replace those who had fallen fighting Hadrada and Tostig. I enjoyed the exercise but it also gave me the opportunity to speak with my people and discover their feelings. The land gave me an income but it also gave me great responsibilities. Before we left the castle I called in upon Ralph, the blacksmith. He was like Thor himself in his fiery smithy with two of his boys pumping the bellows for all they were worth. His knotted, heavily muscled arms hammered out the sword he was shaping.
“How are the weapons coming Ralph?”
He briefly paused and nodded to me, holding aloft his latest blade, “Well my lord but we are running a little short on iron.”
“I will send to the Tees for more.” I leaned down to speak to him a little more intimately.
“I know not when the Normans will come and what it portends but I know that they will come and I would like all of us to be ready.”
He nodded and I could see that he appreciated the confidence.
“Do not worry my lord. I have repaired all the armour and weapons you recovered from the battle and we have fitted out all of your men at arms and we now have enough for another ten warriors to be so armed.”
You are a good man.” He beamed and I thought back to my half brothers and the man whom I had thought was my father until a week ago. They would never have praised any of the workers on the estate no matter what they did or sacrificed. Perhaps that was why he had had no loyalty from any of them.
Branton and I kicked our horses and headed south. “How many more volunteers Branton?” One advantage of my fame, some might say notoriety, was that warriors sought employment with me.
There were many, for most of the northern lords had died at Stamford Bridge and Fulford whilst the southern ones had fallen at Senlac. The disadvantage was that men sought you in battle to gain honour from your death in combat.
“There are another fifteen my lord.
My brother is assessing their worth and their skills even as we speak.”
I saw the grin appear on Branton’s face. It had been a sore point to him that he commanded fewer men than his brother. I saw the value of archers, of which Harold had not had enough numbers; in the battles I had fought they had been crucial to success. “I think we have twenty altogether my lord and some of them are good. The rest, “he shrugged.
I understood what he meant.
Even poor archers could be improved by a good trainer and Branton was just that. The memory of Aedgart came to mine. He had fallen at the battle defending me and he was even better than Osbert and Branton when it came to making warriors out of the rough clay that arrived to fight for me. I turned in the saddle and regretted it immediately as the pain lanced up my body but I continued my turn, Aethelward had told me that I had to get the suppleness back into my body if I wanted to fight again. The small motte and bailey castle, one of the few in this part of the world made me proud. Built upon my uncle’s advice it stood protecting the old Roman road and was a formidable obstacle to any invader, Norman or Scot! True, it was mainly built of wood, but there was a gatehouse and a couple of rudimentary towers; its key feature was the river which provided good defence around most of its perimeter.
Branton saw my look and smiled.
“It is a fine castle my lord. You should be proud.”
“I am, Branton.” I could not confide in Branton that it would mean nothing if the Normans decided to take it from me on a whim of the new King of England, William the Bastard. It might be a barrier to the Scots who raided the vale but not the Normans; I knew that from my uncle. “Tell me Branton will your arrows pierce the mail of the Norman armour?”
“A good question my lord.” He looked off to the south and then took a goose tipped arrow from his quiver. “You see my lord that the arrows we use are intended to cause wounds.” I could see what he meant for the arrow’ tip was sharp and then broadened. “This works well on flesh. Sometimes it will pierce mail rings but not if they are well made. My men are trained to aim for the horses or the flesh of the warrior. But,“ he suddenly looked at me eagerly as though an idea had come to him, “if Ralph could make the arrows so that they were narrower, all the way down then they would piece the rings. The wounds would not be as big but they would penetrate the mail; there would be nothing to stop them.”
I saw the merit in the idea.
Mail was, essentially, small metal rings held together; one by one they were weak but joined together they became almost impenetrable.“Well done Branton. When you return tell Ralph to make some and we will try them out.”
He looked at me curiously, “On Normans, my lord?”
“Not at the moment but there may come a time…” our ride and our ruminations were cut short when a rider from the castle suddenly galloped up. “My lord, a messenger has come from the Queen. She is at Jorvik.”
Reining our mounts around, we galloped back to Topcliffe. Our brief interlude in the backwater of the north had ended and politics returned once more. Aethelward and the messenger were deep in conversation when we arrived back.
Branton helped me down; mounting was easier than the dismount but my men understood my dilemma.
“Is she safe then uncle?”
He flashed me look which told me to ask questions when we were alone. I might be lord of two manors but to my uncle I was still the small boy he had sworn to protect. “Thank you. Tell the Queen that we will follow you as soon as possible.” As the messenger remounted and galloped south, Aethelward turned to Branton. “Send a messenger to Lord Ridley and ask him to join us.”
I forget myself sometimes and speak when I shouldn’t.”
He put his arm around me and led me inside.
“These are dangerous times Aelfraed. I know you trust your people, as I do, but we are not playing for small stakes. This is a kingdom for which we chance.”
Once inside he shut the doors so that the room was only lit by the fire which seemed very attractive at that moment. “Do we know…?”
“Nephew, you have still to learn to listen more and speak less. I will tell you all that I know.” Aethelward had that look which parents have with young children and I suddenly felt like a child again. “The Queen has brought the twins north for she has nothing left for her in London and Winchester.” I opened my mouth to speak. “William has confiscated all the land of Harold and his brothers. Her brothers and the Aetheling are heading south even as we speak. The Queen thinks that they intend to submit to Duke William.”
He stared into the fire and I could see the signs of anger; the fierce flaming eyes and the clenched jaw.
I was still young enough to have more questions and there was information I needed. “Will he be crowned King?” He was King, for he had killed Harold but, until he was anointed, then this was not a rebellion but a war against an invader.
“Now that is a good question.
The answer is, probably. The Witenagemot is now purged of those who would oppose him and ruled by our old friend the Archbishop of Canterbury.” We had had a run in with the wily and belligerent churchman in Winchester. Both of us believed that he was involved in an assassination attempt on King Edward’s life. “I would expect him crowned by Christmas time.”
“But that is less than three weeks away!”
“Is there no good news?”
“Not really. The Queen fears that Edith will try to have her sons killed to enhance the likelihood of the Aetheling being crowned. Unlikely in my view but…” I suddenly realised that Gytha and my unborn child were in danger. I had recently discovered that I was the eldest child of Harold Godwinson. The King’s consort for many years, Edith, the mother of the Aetheling, knew of this. “I think, for the moment you and your family are safe although if the Duke discovers your true identity then things may change.” He saw my downcast face. “Things are not all black Aelfraed. There are signs that there is trouble for William in Hereford and Exeter and you are fortunate in that you have one of the strongest retinues. Osbert and your men at arms can protect you and your family.”
I had much to think on.
I had thought I was a marginal player in this game but as I reflected on Aethelward’s words I could see that I was not. Most of the northern support of Harold had died at Stamford Bridge and all of the Wessex support had perished at Senlac Hill. Morcar and Edwin, the Earls of Northumbria and Mercia as well as being Gytha’s brothers had become very much self serving and poor Edgar the Aetheling was still a child. “I will leave Osbert to protect Gytha, she cannot travel and I will take Branton and his archers.”
I also think we need to make plans for the future.”
I looked puzzled.
“I thought that was what we are doing. “
“The immediate future, yes, but what about a future with William as King?”
“Then we would fight him.”
“With your forty men.”
He laughed. “Heroic, noble and doomed to failure. You need more men and an escape route. If you fight William then you will have to find somewhere for your wife and child where they can be safe. Remember that the best of Harold’s warriors fell at Stamford and Senlac.
You and Ridley are the last of the Housecarls. And what of the monies and coin you have accrued? What of them?”
I knew that Aethelward had money and he had been careful to hoard it over the years. “What do you suggest uncle?”
“When we go to Jorvik we will seek out the Jews. We will arrange for them to watch your money.”
I was shocked.
“No, the money lenders. Since when did you become so Christian? You can have money anywhere if they watch over it for you and you do not have to carry it around. You need to plan and plan carefully.”
When I told Gytha that the Queen was in Jorvik, she wanted to visit immediately.
“No my love, for I want you and our unborn child safe here. I will be gone but a day and I will try to get her to visit us.” When she protested I explained to her most of what Aethelward had said. She too had only recently known of my real father and the thought that our child might be hurt made her see sense. “I will tell Osbert and Thomas to keep a close watch.”