James Aitcheson

Sworn Sword


THE FIRST DROPS of rain began to fall, as hard as hammers and as cold as steel against my cheek. My mail hung heavily upon my shoulders, and my back and arse were aching. We had risen at first light and had spent much of the day in the saddle, and now night lay once more like a blanket across the wooded hills.

Our mounts’ hooves made hardly a sound against the damp earth as we pressed on up the slope. The path we followed was narrow, little more than a deer track, and so we rode in single file with the trees close on either side. Leafless branches brushed against my arm; some I had to fend away from my face. Above, the slender crescent of the moon struggled to make itself shown, casting its cold light down upon us. The clouds were rolling in and the rain began to come down more heavily, pattering upon the ground. I pulled the hood of my cloak up over my head.

There were five of us that night: all of us men who had served our lord for several years, oath-sworn and loyal knights of his own household. These were men I knew well, alongside whom I had fought more times than I cared to remember. These were men who had been there in the great battle at H?stinges, and who had survived.

And I was the one who led them. I, Tancred a Dinant.

It was the twenty-eighth day of the month of January, in the one thousand and sixty-ninth year since our Lord’s Incarnation. And this was the third winter to have passed since the invasion: since we had first mustered on the other side of the Narrow Sea, boarded ships and made the crossing on the autumn tide. The third winter since Duke Guillaume had led our army to victory over the oath-breaker and usurper, Harold son of Godwine, at H? stinges, and was received into Westmynstre church and crowned as rightful king of the English.

And now we were at Dunholm, and further north than any of us had been before: in Northumbria, of all the provinces of the kingdom of England the only one which after two years and more still refused to submit.

I glanced back over my shoulder, making sure that none were lagging behind, casting my gaze over each one of them in turn. In my tracks rode Fulcher fitz Jean, heavy-set and broad of shoulder. Following him was Ivo de Sartilly, a man as quick with his tongue as he was with his sword, then Gerard de Tillieres, reticent yet always reliable. And bringing up the very end of the line, almost lost in the shadow of the night, the tall and rangy figure of Eudo de Ryes, whom I had known longer and trusted more than any other in Lord Robert’s household.

Beneath their cloaks their shoulders hung low. They all held lances, but rather than pointing to the sky as they should have been, ready to couch under the arm for the charge, they were turned down towards the ground. None of them, I knew, wanted to be out on such a night. Each would rather have been indoors by the blazing hearth-fire with his pitcher of ale or wine, or down in the town with the rest of the army, joining in the plunder. As too would I.

‘Tancred?’ Eudo called.

I turned my mount slowly around to face him, bringing the rest of the knights to a halt. ‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘We’ve been searching since nightfall and seen no one. How long are we to stay out?’

‘Until our balls freeze,’ Fulcher muttered behind me.

I ignored him. ‘Until daybreak if we have to,’ I replied.

‘They won’t come,’ Eudo said. ‘The Northumbrians are cowards. They haven’t fought us yet and they won’t fight us now.’

They had not; that much at least was true. Word of our advance had clearly gone before us, for everywhere we had marched north of Eoferwic we had seen villages and farms deserted, people fleeing with their livestock, driving them up into the hills and the woods. When finally we reached Dunholm and passed through its gates just before sunset earlier that night, we had found the town all but empty. Only the bishop of the town and his staff had been left, guarding the relics of their saint, Cuthbert, who resided in the church. The townsmen, they said, had fled into the woods.

And yet there was something about the ease of our victory that had made Lord Robert uncertain, and that was why he had sent the five of us, as he had sent others, to search for any sign of the enemy nearby.

‘We keep looking,’ I said firmly. ‘Whether or not our balls freeze.’

In truth I didn’t think we would find anyone tonight, for these were people who would never before have seen a Norman army. Naturally they would have heard of how we had crushed the usurper at H?stinges, but they could not have witnessed it themselves. They had not felt the might of the mounted charge which had won us that battle and so many others since. But now at last we had come in force: a host of two thousand men come to claim what was the king’s by right. They would have seen our banners, our horses, our mail glinting in the low winter sun, and they would have known that there was no hope of standing against us. And so they had fled, leaving us the town.

So it seemed to me, at least. But what I thought didn’t matter, for the decision was not mine to make. Rather it belonged to our lord, Robert de Commines, by the king’s edict the new Earl of Northumbria, and the man charged with subduing this quarrelsome province. Of course Eudo and the others knew this, but they were tired and all they wanted was to rest. We had been on the road so long: it was nearly two weeks since we had left Lundene. Two weeks which we had spent riding and marching through rain and sleet and snow, over unfamiliar country, across marshes and hills that seemed to go on without end.

We carried on up the slope until we had come to its brow and could look down upon the land in every direction: upon the wooded hills to the north and the open fields to the south. The moon was partly hidden behind a cloud and I could see almost nothing but the rise and fall of the earth. Certainly there was no hint of firelight or spearpoints, or anything else that would have betrayed the enemy. The wind buffeted at my cheeks and the rain continued to fall, though far to the north and east, near to where the land met the German Sea, I saw clear skies glittering with stars and I hoped that the weather would soon ease.

I checked Rollo, my horse, and swung down from the saddle, patting him on the neck.

‘We’ll rest here awhile,’ I said. I thrust the end of my lance into the sodden ground, leaving the head to point towards the sky, while beneath it the damp pennon limply displayed the hawk that was Lord Robert’s device. I lifted my shield from where it hung by its long guige strap across my back, and rested it against the trunk of a tree. It bore the same emblem: a black symbol upon a white field; the bird in flight with talons extended, as if descending for the kill.

There was not much forage to be had here, and so I dug a brace of carrots out from my saddlebag to give to Rollo. He had kept going without complaint all day, and I would have liked to have offered him more, but for now it was all I had.

The others said nothing as they too dismounted and began to pace about, feeling the use of their legs once more. Eudo rubbed at the lower part of his back, doubtless nursing some twinge from spending so long in the saddle.

To the east the clouds were beginning to break, and I could spy the silver-flecked ribbon of the river Wiire as it wove about the town of Dunholm. A narrow promontory jutted out to the south, atop which stood the fastness: a palisade surrounding a small huddle of buildings; shadows against the half-lit clouds. The promontory was sided by steep bluffs and the river coiled about them, enclosing the fastness on three sides. Thin spires of smoke rose gently from the thatch of the mead-hall there: threads of white lit by the moon.

Below the fastness lay the town. There the rest of our army would be out in the streets: half a thousand knights like ourselves, the household warriors of the lords heading this expedition; seven hundred spearmen; and another three hundred archers. And of course there were the scores upon scores of others who attended on such an army: armourers, swordsmiths, leech-doctors and others. Many of those would be there too: close to two thousand men revelling in the spoils of war, the capture of Dunholm, the conquest of Northumbria.

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