Brunanburh – Athelstan – 937
I rise from my knees before my portable altar, the noises of the busy camp flooding back into my consciousness. Grimacing, I wonder how I’ve managed to ignore it for so long. Men shout to each other, dog’s bark and horses shuffle in their temporary paddocks. The press of men and animals can be felt even within my own personal tent.
My personal priest, Beornstan, watches me. He’s not alone. My ealdormen and my commanders have spent much of the last week watching me surreptitiously, thinking I’m not aware of their scrutiny. I don’t think they expect me to crumble with the stress and the knowledge of the battle that must come, but they are looking for something. I hazard its my confidence. And so I must hold myself firm and let not one flicker of doubt of the victory to come show in my face or in my actions. That is why I seek the comfort of my Lord. Only to him can I profess my anxieties. But never out loud. Only when I speak to him with my mind can I ask the question that taunts me, ‘am I doing the right thing?’
Not that I can act any differently, not now. Those who should have sought my protection and my overlordship have tested my patience. They have gone against me, as I somehow knew they always would. Not all of them, but even those who were my close allies have become distant of late, avoiding my messengers and sending responses that reach me too late to be of any use.
I would blame myself but none of this is of my making. They gave their word. They broke their pledge. They must be punished. They must know that the English are not to be ridiculed and ignored. The English are a truly powerful race and we must be respected as such. We’ve grown since our near annihilation at the hands of the Vikings during my grandfather’s tenure of this land and we will not retreat or run from any who attempts to encroach on our land.
I would blame the arrogant Norse King of Dublin for all my ills but he’s not so persuasive that he could have made men act against their nature. He’s just the excuse they needed for their current actions.
I’ve not been ignorant of the man’s increasing success in his native land, and I’d been warned that once he felt secure there he would attempt to claim back the land that he feels is his birth -right, the Viking Kingdom of York. I can admire his misguided hopes whilst acting violently to repel him. There is no irony there. He’ll not have back what is mine and my people’s. York is a part of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Deira. It belonged to my ancestors, the Saxons, and we will keep it or die trying to protect it.
My ealdormen and holy men agree with my. Most are here with me now, even the more militant of the holy men have come and will fight alongside the men of the fyrd and the men of the household troops that guard my own person, or their own Lords, my ealdormen.
The only aspect of the entire coming battle that surprises me even a little is its position. I would have expected the battle to occur near York, close to the heartlands of the kingdom that he wishes to claim. Instead, we’ll meet in battle between the source of his power across the sea, Dublin, and the Kingdom he wants, the old kingdom of York. It’s a strange place to make battle, and I smirk a little. As Edmund advised, it’s proven to be to our advantage to hem them in a little and make them take a stand in an area that I can’t imagine is to their choosing.
Sadly, it’s close enough to the sea that Olaf might either send for reinforcements or retreat that way, but my men will be deployed in such a fashion that they might be cut off.
It’s a fine day. A good day for a battle, if such could exist. I pray the Lord is showing his support for my actions in everything from the blue sky dotted with sporadic clouds high in the air, to the gentle breeze rustling the ripening crops, to the light and welcome heat coming from the sun. We’ll be cool when we attack our enemies. Sweat will not easily bead our faces unless the fighting becomes fierce.
I’m fitted out for battle, ready and willing for it to start. My coat with its closing woven together metal rings fits me closely, pulled close together by my decorated belt, complete with pouches and hooks from which my weapons hang. A small, richly decorated bone handled knife, a sword made for my own hand and height, a carefully constructed piece of workmanship made by the finest metal worker in the land. I even watched him make it, bending the molten metal and hammering it into place, allowing it to cool and then repeating the procedure, time and time again until the sword was complete. And then to top it, he added a handle made of bone and wound a coil of metal tightly around it so that the blade stays true to its handle.
If I must make war, then I will do it with the best weapons possible.
On the small wooden stool, sits my shield, polished, sanded and repainted, the colours are bright and gaudy, the reds and oranges and blacks of my wyvern standard easy to differentiate. Any who I meet will know that they fight a man of the ancient Wessex line.
My clothing reflects the same colours as my shield. A little less bright, they still mark me as a man of Wessex, a man of England, and many of my warriors likewise dress the same. My gloved, now safely stowed inside one of my waist pouches, are deepest black, better to hide the bloody and gore that will cover me before the day is done.
My hair is neatly tied back, secured with bands of twisted rope, and for the occasion I have shorted my blonde beard a little. In battle its important to deny the enemy even the smallest means of them killing a man. Without being able to gain a fist hold on my beard they’ll not be able to grab tightly and hold on.
These men who swore their oaths to me ten years ago, and who tested me three years ago, shall not defeat me here. They swore a holy oath, they were guests at my Witan, honoured guests no less and yet they turned against my gentle imperium and sided once more with the Dublin Norse.
But I’ll not upset myself further now. We’ve arrived at this moment and honeyed words or overtures of friendship will not sway me – not again and not when they dare to enter my lands in hostility.
We’ve been marching for the last two days, my troops and the members of the fyrd arranging themselves in a position where we can clearly watch for the enemy, as I must now call them.
We know where they are, the forward scouts have seen to that, and so with the help of my ealdormen and leader of my household troops, and my warrior half-brother, we’ve argued back and forth calling for a number of local guides to explain the lay of the land and finally I’ve had my way.
This spot, high on a steep hill, overlooking the lush countryside around is a place my Aunt once exclaimed with delight at seeing, musing that it would make both a fine muster point and a wonderfully defensive position. This will be where I defeat the pretentions of Constantin; the old grizzled warrior, the upstart from Dublin and any others who feel that my sway is too great over their lands and that mine are for the taking.
Beside me, Edmund is being fitted with his war gear, his brynie, and his sword holster and heavy gloves. He wears the same colours as me, his own belt as encumbered with pouches and hooks as my own. Many may think that to fight with a sword is all that is needed, but my brother and I have small knives, a war axe, a sword, and also matching shields. He looks a little grim but his actions are decisive. He’s as committed to this battle as I am.
I watch my men with pride. There is a purposefulness in them all. They share my desires here, more so than when I attacked Constantin’s lands three years ago. Many didn’t appreciate my taking the ship and land army away from our own lands. I can understand their reluctance. They didn’t want their own land undefended, not when so many enemies surround us. They also didn’t want a greater area of land to defend and they didn’t want people who didn’t want to be ruled by me under my command for they could only cause trouble.
I understand. I don’t agree. And I will, god willing, prove to be correct.
Chapter 1 – 927 – Eamont – Constantin
It’s a sobering thought to realize my advanced age compared to this young King, who styles himself of the English. He is courteous and treats me with respect, as he does all the other Kings he’s called before him, at this meeting place, high in the north of his lands, but too close to my own for comfort. And yet, for me, his respect just reminds me of how very old I am compared to him and the other Kings. I will list them all, just to mark myself amongst them. Hywel of the southern ancient Britons, Owain from my puppet kingdom of Strathclyde and Ealdred of Bamburgh, the northern most tip of the once mighty land of the Northumbrians so called for they lived to the North of the mighty river Humber.
So many of us all together in one place at the behest of the young Lord. It’s an uncomfortable thought and a remarkable achievement for how little blood has been shed to bring it about. I wonder if our people are tired of bloodshed and distrust or whether he really is emboldened by the knowledge that his God blesses his every move and brings about its success.
His respect annoys me. My advanced age should mark me as wise and wily. I’ve been able to hold my own against my enemies for more than twenty years, yet I can’t help but think this young man thinks me too old, too weak and too easy to subdue. He, who has gained so precipitously from the deaths of his own half-brother, and his own brother-in-law so that he now stands as King over the old lands of Wessex, Mercia, and the Kingdom of York, looks at me a little too closely. I want to assure him that I will not be the next to give up my earthly crown for a more heavenly one, but, he might just have a valid argument, for of all of us here, I am most likely to die next.
As I said, it annoys me. As does having to be here at all. Why should I bow to this King of the English? I am King of the Scots, and have been for nearly thirty years. I’ve governed well and kept my people safe so why should I now submit to an ‘overlord’? I’ve never feared to fight in the past and don’t now, and yet I’m here, as are the other Kings. We’ve decreed that we’ll all reach an accord with each other, but I can tell from the shifting feet and sideways looks of my fellow attendees that this might all be a ruse.
Athelstan is not untried in battle. In the past I know he’s encountered the men of the Welsh King’s and those of the Dublin King’s as well. Alongside his aunt, Aethelflaed of Mercia, he’s done great deeds and secured more land for his kingdom. But she’s been dead for many long years now and he stands alone against us all.
I too came to terms with her once, over ten years ago. She was a wise woman, devout and assured in her powers and she trained her young nephew well. But, the accord did not last. They never did. The shifting sands of allegiance and counter-allegiance run contrary to any agreement lasting too long. Perhaps the shifting feet have the right of it after all.
I met the young King’s father once as well, Edward, King of Wessex and Mercia, seven years ago when bloody Ragnall and his Norsemen were causing havoc amongst our borderlands. Edward, Donald of Strathclyde and myself reached an agreement to curtail his raiding activities amongst any of our lands. If he attacked one of us, we would all respond. Or so we said.
The worked, in a fashion, for later the same year Ragnall came to an independent agreement with Edward. Again, it didn’t last long for Ragnall had the audacity to die the following year. Since then Sihtric has ruled the York kingdom, the land that was once the ancient kingdom of Deira. Coerced into Athelstan’s kingdom via marriage to his sister, his death was not long in coming, and his kingdom not long in joining Athelstan’s lands for all that he had repudiated both his wife and his new found religious fervour for my Christian God.
And my point in recounting all this? Athelstan’s aunt and his father were more my age, and their respect was genuine, one contemporary to another, not as a son to a doddering father. I have sons enough of my own to know the difference.
Still he is a finely wrought man; long blond hair graces his head, and he is tall and well built, clearly still training each day so that he can wield his sword and spear as and when they’re needed. For all that he wears fine clothing, I hear chosen and embellished by his second stepmother, the raw energy of his muscles can be seen flexing and stretching the fabric of his deeply dyed royal tunic. He almost compels me to train as often as he does, instead of passing the duty to my sons, who are more of an age with him. I wish I could feel fatherly towards him, but I don’t. I can respect him, providing he respects me.
And so this treaty. Why am I here? Is it because he swept into the old Danish kingdom of York after his brother-in-laws death and effectively annexed the land back to his kingdom, and I fear what he will gain if he pushes further north, or is it because he vows himself a Christian King, and I too am a Christian King, of the old Ionan school no less, and it would be a good and Christian thing to live in peace with my neighbours? I don’t yet know, but what I do know is that few have died an untimely death to bring about this understanding, and so, in the spirit in which it’s offered, and provided it does not become too onerous, I am prepared to accept the hand of friendship extended by Athelstan. It will be easily done, and can be just as easily un-done. I risk nothing by being here, and I may even grow in acclaim if this union is a success.
I will wait with baited breath.
Only three more weeks to go until the whole book is released! If you’re worried you might forget to get the book on 31st October, then hop off to your ebook retailer of choice, and pre-order it now!
Oh, and in the meantime, you can always reconcile yourself with the new Bernard Cornwell book set just a few years before Brunanburh. It’s due out the week before Brunanburh (23/10/14) so it might keep you going until then.