I'd like to apologize to Sir. Winston Churchill as I lifted the title of this story from the opening chapter of his multi-volume work on English history. I think he'll forgive me.
Now, before you begin to read I have a few admonitions. First, don't look for any graphic sex. Second there are references to God, Christ in particular. Don't get in an uproar about it. Third, it is rooted in history, but don't get mad if I said something wrong or left something out. Fourth, I've been thinking about this story for years so it means more to me than the usual crap I put on this site. Fifth, I might be an American, but I'm crazy for England too.
Well it's time to start. I hope you like it. More important I hope you think about the central theme.
And so let's begin:
The riders galloped in just before dawn; there were two of them. The first man to greet them was old Edwy, the master of our Lord's horse. I could faintly hear him from my place near the forge. My name is Aelfwine. I'm one of our lord's housemen; that includes me and my two brothers Wulfram and Oswald. We're part of a group of seven who serve the great lord of these parts. We live in eastern Wessex. Our lord, the good thane Aidan is of genuine Saxon blood. His is an old family; one of the families who participated in the great invasion some five hundred years ago.
As for me and my brothers we've got some Saxon blood, but we're mostly old English; that is Gaelic, and, thanks to our good grandfather, we've a touch of Norse. Our grandfather came to this wonderful green land back in the time of Canute the Great. They say those were the days; a time when men were men and the girls, well the girls they were all ripe for the plucking.
I was up early as was my custom. Though I was a houseman, a warrior by profession, I was also a skilled artisan. Yes I worked the forge with an old man, an old man named Donnell. Donnell they say is pure Gael. He looks it too, hair a bright red, and with freckles that cover every inch of his still solid torso. I hear he's more than seventy years old.
As for me, why I'm a big fellow; I stand near a head taller than most of the men in the village. Only my older brother, that's Wulfram, looks down upon me. I've got good sandy, near blond hair, and that's without the lime they say the Gael once used back in olden times. My wife says I have soft hazel eyes. My wife Godyfa says the reason she fell in love with me was because of my eyes.
God, or Gods is it, they know I love my wife. I love my wife near as much as I love my two babes. I love my wife almost as much as I prize my honor; of course everyone knows a man's honor is the true measure of his worth. Trust me; I'm well esteemed among the people in the land. People know not to scoff or defame me or my family. Don't get me wrong I'm not a base person; a man treats me with respect, regardless of his station, and I treat him the same. If it's the meanest thrall, the ugliest hag; they may sit with me when I rest. I'll share my water with any man or woman as long as he or she shows a decent respect and does his or her fair share of the work. We men of the house have a standard to keep; we represent our lord wherever we go.
About my wife; there's a woman! She denies it, but she's a true Gael, yes a Britain from the old times. She's a tiny thing; she only comes to my nipples, a scant scamp she is. But she's a beauty. Men come from all around just get a glimpse of her fine red hair and her sultry forest green eyes. Her skin is white like the marble the old Romans used to build their baths. Yes we know of the Romans; by the bones of the Saints we know the Romans, it's their roads we use!
My wife's hair is a fiery red; when it's not braided or kept up it reaches well below her wasp-like waist. And curly, is it curly; it takes her hours of diligent work to get it straight enough to braid. I'll say, though she's a precious little thing she eats more than a horse fully grown. Sometimes she just amazes me where she puts it! It amazes me more that she agreed to let me take her as wife
I don't dare comment on her eating or any of her other habits for her temper is as fiery as her luscious hair. The man fool enough to cross my wife is a fool indeed; she's a real vixen that one. God how I love her, but she's a hard one to please. She married down when she agreed to take the sacraments with me. Her father was a great warrior; a houseman of true renown.
My wife; she's filled with a vivacity and lust for life that I'm sure will defy the reaper when her day comes. Did I say lust? Lust we're told is a terrible sin, one of the mortal sins. Well my wife is a lusty girl, and I say she lusts for me! We've made three babies; two are still alive. The way my wife chases my sword one would think we'd have had twenty already. We might some day; we're still young.
Enough about my wife; it's enough to know she puts a fire in my heart. She stirs my loins like no other! Did I say I loved her?
Though the messengers have gone inside, I say inside my lord's great house, I can still hear old Edwy grumble. He's a grumbler; he'll bemoan that any horse that's well-lathered is a horse that's been abused. Today his complaints about the horses are only part of his angst; they're also partly his way of releasing the tension we all feel.
I fear these riders have come with the news that at least one of the two enemies of our magnificent king may have landed. Did I say fear? I don't mean fear in the sense that I fear any enemy; I fear the disruption their intrusion might cause my king and our people. Even more, I fear the loss of honor.
The old king, a man I was bound to respect and obey, died not long ago. His name was Edward. Edward was a religious man, a pious man; over pious some said. Edward was a Saxon, but due to the political climate he'd lived a good part of his life across the water among the Normans.
Now these Normans are an avaricious gang of cutthroats and thieves. They're descended from Norse invaders who landed and settled among the Franks in years back, but with this new lord of theirs, this bastard they call William, they've become more overreaching than ever.
Well our old king Edward; they called him Edward the Confessor now that should betray his degree of piety. Our Edward is said to have bequeathed our kingdom, our grand land, to this son of a Norman whore. So what! Our wise Saxon council, the Witan, didn't like it. Who would want to be ruled by a bastard? Our Witan met at one of our sacred places. Yes, they convened and there they elected Godwin's son; Harold the son of Godwin was chosen by common lot, by a fair vote, to be the new Lord of our England.
Oh yes, Harold Godwinson, the 'Golden Warrior' is our true king. It's his banner, the banner of the fighting man that flies over our lush fields and verdant forests. No foreign murderer shall ever flaunt his tawdry bastard's claim over our realm.
My lord, the good and noble Aidan is a subject of Harold, and I'm a subject of Aidan. My blood may be mixed, but my heart, my sword and my axe are Saxon through and through. If the bastard comes, why let him. We'll show him what a Saxon's power is.
The Normans are horsemen. I've seen them. They cover their bodies and their horse's bodies with steel. I'm not afraid of them. I killed one once. Yes, the scatterbrain was in London. He was all a braggart about this and that. He said any Norman knight was the equal to two housecarls. Those foreigners refer to we housemen as housecarls. Well so much the worse for them. This knight was a braggart. I called him on it. We stepped outside, and I sent him to our sweet Jesus. I used my sword and split him right in two! His blood was splattered all over everything!
So the knight's lord got angry; he demanded payment. My lord Aidan, when he heard the cause of the disturbance demanded payment in kind. Aidan rightly claimed the Norman knight was a fool to make a claim he couldn't sustain. When last I heard the two sides were still haggling. It'll take a monk, or an old Breton, to sort that one out.
It could be the riders brought news of a Norman landing. If they did, then we'll be called out. Harold has vowed not to let his realm be ravaged by any invader. If the Normans have come we'll gather quickly, march out, and serve them up. On the other hand the riders might have brought news of another sort.
To the north, across the Poison Sea I've been told there's another claimant to our land. There's the old warrior of Norway, a killer by the name of Harold Hardrada. Hardrada, though he's a legitimate king, his claim to our throne is no less perilous than the Bastard's. Hardrada's emblem is a flag with a black raven. I'm not sure if it's the flag or the raven; but all throughout the lands to the east he's referred to as the 'land waster'.
Well I say too; let the 'land waster' come. If he comes we'll show him he's not fighting a pack of pagan Teutons or Slavs. We'll meet him wherever he chooses; we'll send him to his heathen afterworld. Yes, I've heard the old people say the people of Hordaland and Scodaland, and even the Danes still worship the old stone gods. If they do, and if they come to our shores, we'll give them a taste of well-forged and well-honed Christian steel. Yes mark me; our loving Jesus and his Saints will give us the power to drown the heathen in a sea of their own blood.
Oh I see my lord has come out through his main portal. He's waving at me. I best move ahead. It looks as though the time has come.
So here I sit with my brothers and the other men of the house. Lord Aidan is about to address us.
Aidan is an older man; he's seen war as none other. He stepped up, "Well brave men word has come. The Norse have come a viking, and King Harold has summoned us north. We're to set out tomorrow at daybreak. We'll meet our king's main army north of London, and from there we'll march on Northhumbria."
One of our younger warriors lifted his hand. Aidan recognized him, "Yes."
"You said march on. Didn't you mean march to?"
"No I said it well. It seems our king's brother, the deceitful Tostig has sided with Hardrada. I know it's an evil omen, but Tostig has always been an ill sort."
My younger brother Oswald broke protocol, "Then we'll have to take Tostig down and press his head down on a stake."
Oswald is the youngest among us. He's still a little foolhardy. Everyone ignored his outburst. I glanced over and saw him blanch. I leaned in his direction and whispered, "Don't be too down. We were all young once."
He looked at me like I was mad. Oswald is just four years younger than me. His wife, a tall lean woman has already given him more sons than my Godyfa. I smiled; then he smiled too. After all, we were brothers.
The trek north was rapid. The road was good and straight. The weather, though blustery from time to time, was dry and clear. We got to Northhumbria not long after the Norsemen had landed. However, to everyone's dismay they'd already sacked several of the towns. They'd even pillaged York!
By forced march we caught the Norse just as they were about to reach their ships. Our scouts had been right; their army was huge, larger than ours. More than five hundred ships were anchored off the coast.
Our Harold was infuriated. The Vikings were laden with British booty. Though I was not near, I still was able to hear him shout, "When we're through they'll not need more than ten ships to carry the remnant of their army home.
We were lucky. The Norsemen were so heavy laden with pillage many had set aside their weapons and armor. Oh they carried their equipage, but they just weren't prepared. We caught them at the river.
Hardrada saw, though he outnumbered us near two to one, he was in a perilous position. He followed the custom.
It is the custom in modern warfare such as this that the leaders should meet and parley. If some agreement can be reached battle might be avoided. My lord Aidan was selected to attend the negotiations. Being his greatest man I accompanied him. I was fortunate; I got to hear the debate.
Most of what I heard I didn't understand. I know our Harold was furious at the wanton destruction, the senseless rapine, and the sacrilegious destruction of churches and monasteries. To most of this Hardrada only laughed, but when debate over battle took the fore Hardrada tried to demur.
The upshot was Hardrada didn't want to fight; he offered to share England. He offered our Harold the southern half, if, in exchange, he, Hardrada, was given the north. As if it were just yesterday I can still hear our Harold now, I'll try to remember his exact words. I recall he looked at the Norseman and exclaimed, "You offer me half of what is already mine? Here's my counter offer. I'll give you ten feet, ten feet of good English earth. That's just enough to bury you in!"
I watched as Hardrada blanched. From that there could be no turning back.
With that negotiation was over. Harold, my lord and the others all stepped back. Harold signaled his trumpeter and the battle commenced. It was a hard fought one too, but the Norsemen, already weary from trying to carry off so much loot were no match for us.
For a short space the battle was indeed still in doubt. The key to the battle was a narrow bridge. If we could cross the bridge we could bring our full force to bear. As it was a great giant, a true berserker, stood in our path. He wielded a great two handed axe. Several of our bravest men were hacked to pieces trying to get at him. I watched; the Norseman delighted in chopping his defeated opponents into tiny little parts. All manner of arms, heads, fingers, and feet littered the bridge. Then at the crucial moment one of our Harold's own brothers, the courageous Leofwine, stepped forward, and with a swift blow of his fine steel sword he lopped off one of the giant's arms. Still, though one armed, the giant held out for a few more moments. But our beloved Leofwine was more than the man's match. With another hard strike he drove his sword deep into the Norseman's shoulder. Leofwine's last strike was a thrust deep into the man's chest; where once a formidable warrior stood, a heap of lifeless bloody pulp joined all rest of the scattered flesh that strewed the bridge. As I stared at it I briefly thought there was a kind of majesty, a strange sort of beauty to what I'd just seen happen.
With the bridge secured we surged across it and into that mass of Vikings. I'll give the Norsemen their due; they fought like wild men, but our strength, our determination, and the righteousness of our cause was more than a match. We drove them, we drove them hard.
My sword drank it's fill that day. I brought more than six men down. I would have escaped with glory and honor and without a wound, but in a moment's pause I looked to my right and saw my young brother Oswald on his knees. A Norseman had struck him a glancing blow across the head and his helm and flown off. It was then I saw a sight that nearly broke my heart. My brother, stunned from the strike, looked up just in time to see the Norseman's axe cleave his head in two. Eyes, and blood, and brains splashed in all directions.
I lost my mind. I grabbed my sword and charged the Norse marauder. He saw me and prepared himself to receive my charge. I threw my shield aside and charged straight ahead. My brother's death had to be appeased so that his soul would share paradise with the Jesus. My honor, and my brother's soul, demanded the Norseman's death. Sword held high I brought it down on the Norseman. He was too slow. My good metal instrument drove deep into his shoulder. I felt his bones crunch and break away as my steel ripped his flesh apart. I delighted in the sight and sound of his body as it fell to pieces at my hand.
The Viking knew he was a dead man, but he still had enough to swing his axe one more time. His axe caught me a glancing blow across my hip and upper thigh. I felt my blood, warm, wet and sticky, as it flowed out and across my chainmail armor.
One of my boys reached me. These were young men who hoped one day to aspire to houseman. In peacetime they worked as servants; during war, like now, they were companions in arms. The servant's name was Owen. He got to me and pulled me aside. Soon thereafter, to my chagrin, I passed out and missed the rest of the battle.
When I awakened the battle was long over. Owen was at my side. I asked, "What happened. How did it go?"
Owen replied, "It went well my lord. It was just as King Harold said. There were scarce enough Norseman to man ten ships. They set off late last night."
I looked around. Our army had vanished as well. I asked, "What, where is our power?"
Owen was checking my leg, he responded, "An ill wind as it were. Just as we were collecting our trophies another rider reached us. The bastard landed just yesterday. Our king has set out south to meet him."
I was nonplussed, "But our force. We've been so diminished?"
"Yes lord, but Harold has sent messages south. He's called out the fyrd. He's sent a herald to the King of Mercia. You know the ever tardy one. King Harold is confident that with the fyrd and a timely appearance by Mercia we'll be more than enough for the Normans.
I thought about that. The fyrd is the force of the common folk. All across the land our kingdom is divided into small shires, little communes. Each shire has a shireeve. In times of crisis it is the duty of the shireeve to call out the farm people, the artisans, and any of the other the able bodied who can wield a sword, an axe, or a spear. In normal times, against a normal foe, the fyrd is a match for anyone. I wondered how they'd fair against the Norman horse, many of whom were I've heard little more than paid mercenaries, heartless mean spirited types who fight for pay and the booty they can steal. Then again; what were we?
I looked at Owen, "Our army; has it been gone long? If it hasn't been too long, and they haven't traveled too far we might catch them."
Owen shook his head, "They've been gone for the better part of the day. Besides Lord Aidan looked you over. He declared you physically unfit for travel."
I looked down at my leg. My armor had been pulled off, and my outer wool and inner linen undergarments had been cut away. The wound looked serious, but in my heart I knew it was a superficial thing. I was convinced, if I tried, and with Owen's help, I could catch the army and be in for the kill. I disliked the Norsemen, but I especially despised the Normans. It would be my greatest pleasure to separate a few of their horses from their heads so I could split open a few Norman chests.
I looked about. Maybe not? The sky was clear. The weather was warm, and there were more than a few pretty maids between here and Wessex. I was a houseman, a warrior; most young women were over eager to spread their legs for a man like me. I know I'd spawned more than a few young boys and girls throughout my King's realm already.
Godyfa knew this, but she also knew it was my right. Her lot, on pain of death and eternal damnation was to be ever faithful, mine to be fruitful and multiply. Lord Aidan and I had traveled much of the land over the last three years. We'd shared our fruit with many a girl. This was God's will; the man possessed the conceptus, the woman was the vessel.
Owen looked at me expectantly. I grinned, "We'd probably be too late for the battle anyway. Why not share our seed with the girls of the north and the midlands?"
Owen grinned, "As you say my lord."
I grinned back and shrugged, "Well if we can't join the battle we might inspire new Saxon fruit on our journey south.
Owen smiled again. He had high hopes.
As Owen and I trekked back south my wound healed nicely. I knew by the end of the second day we could have made the march and reached King Harold in time. We had other, more pleasant plans. Twice we found villages where the people were glad of our victory over the Norsemen. There were young girls aplenty. I delighted in the thrill of a new maiden every few hours. Their warm young nubile bodies were a delight to me, and I could tell Owen enjoyed them too.