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.