He had begun the day just after dawn sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, awaiting the events that were about to unfold before him.
From the sanctuary of the forest, he sat, cold and wet from a thick dewy layer that had settled in the night.
He shivered and blew condensing air from between his chattering teeth.
A chilling October wind had begun to blow down from the north across the fields and through his ‘camp’. Instinctively, he had gathered the coarse hemp cloak more tightly about his shoulders in a vain attempt to keep out the autumn and cursed the fact that he had chosen not to light a fire the previous night.
He waas cautious for fear of giving away his position.
Now as he watched, the culmination of two ‘wieks’ hiding out in barns and woods and of sneaking across the countryside trying to avoid contact were about to come to fruition as he observed the two armies forming along their respective battle lines with the defenders, as expected, taking the high ground along the top of the ridge.
Before them, a steep bank plunged down into a valley whilst on either side, their flanks lay protected by dense undergrowth, wooded areas and boggy ground at the bottom.
Well chosen indeed he thought to himself as he surveyed them.
Opposite this force, and at the bottom of the hill on a small rise of their own (for a shallow gully ran across in front), arrayed the attacking army.
It was lined up to confront them and an impressive site it looked too with rows of archers, foot and also mounted soldiers.
Slowly, the short man reached in to his animal-skin bag and rummaged around for what was left of his meagre rations.
“Bread and cheese again” he grumbled to himself as if expecting something more appetizing as he examined the crusty, grubby-looking fare.
So it had come to this he thought as he picked off the larger pieces of mould that had started to show before popping small pieces into his mouth, chewing irritably.
From what he could gather during his time in the country, both armies had made major mistakes in the run-up to this contest as he looked up first toward the defenders.
Cautiously he took out the small glass and, shading a hand across one side to keep out any glare, peered through it to study them perched along the brow of the hill.
As he focused in on them, he was immediately struck by the sorry-looking state of this assembly for he had heard that they only arrived at their location the previous day following a very long (and very forced) march to the north-east where they had apparently been led by the king to deal with another large force that had landed in ‘long ships’ .
Scanning the hill, he noticed that there were a large number of, what he considered, conscripted ‘warriors’. People who had been drafted in along the way or at the last minute for they did not look well-equipped at all to defend against anything let alone the attacking force before them.
The word ‘fyrd’ had been used and this he took to mean some kind of militia, ‘called-up’ to join the more regular force of nobles or landowners who he suspected had the only ones with previous military or fighting experience there.
Given their fatigue and poor preparation, did they really expect to stop this attack?
He mulled over their prospects as if preparing to spectate at the start of contest or game and watched as they began erecting a wall along the front line of their defence.
But this was not a conventional wall for as he looked even closer, he saw that they were putting up their shields and locking them together not unlike the scales on a fish.
“Do they seriously think such a rudimentary obstacle will be able to stop not only the archers and the foot soldiers but the cavalry as well?” he mused.
“At least any attack is going to have to come through here” he informed his invisible audience for he had surveyed the area as part of his reconnaissance and he deduced that this really was the only place within some distance that was accessible for such a force.
Although, considering they had been here for ages, was this the best position they could have found to take on the defenders?
At that moment, he heard a number of horn blasts and looked down the hill to glimpse a line of lightly armed individuals carrying long curved poles. Giving these his full attention, he saw that these men were taking a number of small sticks and stringing them into the large curved poles.
“Archers” he breathed the words out in a hushed tone. This would be an interesting contest for the archers would have to shoot uphill and he wondered how effective that such an attack would be given that the majority of the defenders were not in a direct line of fire.
As if in response to his query, the archers promptly unleashed their arrows and he watched them as they flashed past him on their way up the hill only to become either embedded in the ground short of their target, into the shields or sail ineffectively over the top and into the space beyond.
Admittedly, he did hear a few cries from those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the odd missile that did make it through the shields but the majority were completely wasted.
The short man watched as several more such salvos were launched before it dawned upon the attackers that they were going to have to do this the hard way as another blast and roar of voices announced the first major assault by the foot soldiers.
This time the short man ducked down in the damp undergrowth as hundreds of burly men tramped by, almost all were clad in conical helmets, hauberks and armed with the kite-shaped shields and swords or spears as they clambered up the bank.
This was not going to be easy, or pretty, he thought as the men puffed and panted, every so often giving out a curse or scream as they laboured toward the defenders.
For all this effort, their reception committee greeted them in fresh and eager fashion, beating them back the moment they reached the shield wall with spears, swords and axes that came bristling through and forcing them backwards and down the steep incline.
Those that did manage to stay on their feet fought with what little strength they had left in them but almost all found their efforts to be futile as they either collapsed with exhaustion, fell dead on the end of some weapon (he even saw a pitchfork buried in one whilst another was cut through by a scythe) or retreated backwards joining their comrades who were clambering on all fours still trying to make it the summit.
After his initial shock (and concern at being spotted), the small man poked his head up higher. Just in time to see a second effort from the next wave experience a similar fate to the first.
Could they actually hold out he wondered.
No, the die had been cast, but how and when would it occur?
Just at that moment an event occurred that he thought might answer his question as he saw yet more soldiers attack the hill, only this time it was cavalry, soldiers travelling on the backs of large animals.
Inexplicably, he felt something stir within him as he marvelled at their impressive charge and ascent of the hill for they made great strides up the steep slope before piling into the earlier wave of attackers and defenders alike.
For all their great force, even this mounted response failed as the defence and the shield wall still held firm - after a fashion - and they too were beaten back.
Man and beast were slipping and sliding or writhing with agony as they too went backwards in retreat.
Forgetting himself, he stood and watched this latest defeat and began to doubt the course of events that were coming but then saw something that restored his confidence.
As the latest charge foundered, with the attackers crashing against the defender’s shields, weapons and even their own bodies; A breakout occurred as a large portion of the defending force, upon seeing the attacking force once again fleeing back down the hill, decided to pursue them.
The short man clasped his hands to his chest as if he had been reprieved for the defenders were routing the attack and he half expected to see the rest of the defence take their cue from this.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the army did not follow but instead re-secured their lines and left the breakout by the headstrong group to their own devices in their chase of the stumbling foot soldiers who were tripping and falling down the hill back toward their camp.
Watching this vain attempt, the short man hesitantly put the glass to his eye again for he knew what was coming as the rout turned into butchery with the brave but foolhardy band of nobles and peasants rushing headlong into the main force.
He wanted to look away but for some reason he felt a sick compulsion to observe them trying to escape only to stumble into one of the boggy areas and be ruthlessly cut to pieces with no quarter given.
It was probably just as well that the rest didn’t go he surmised for they probably would have all received the same treatment.
This was all surely just delaying the inevitable.
By now, the sun had almost reached its zenith as the effort on both sides appeared to be telling.
Both forces were slowing down and even the chanting from the defenders, who had been shouting “ut, ut!” or “godemite!” (Neither of which he really understood) with much gusto at the beginning, were beginning to lose their angry ferocity.
The field of battle was starting to show major signs of wear and tear too for the once thick lush grass had quickly become a muddy, corpse-ridden slope.
The only things that were moving appeared to be the odd scavenger, black flying creatures that swooped down to rip at the bodies of man and beast or other scruffy enthusiastic tail-wagging four legged animals darting from body to twitching, bloody body.
This was the bit he hated about such events and decided to focus on the purpose in hand for he had not come all this way just to watch a scrap.
At that moment, more movement down in the valley signified a change as he noticed several wagons proceeding out along a rutted track back and away in the direction that the army had come from.
“I wonder where they’re off to?” and then, as if to answer his own question he immediately realised the answer.
“Arrows!” He exclaimed “They’re going to restock their archers!”
Amazingly, it had appeared that almost all of the arrows had come from one direction, from the bottom of the hill.
Precious few had returned fire from the defences and so, with the stock of ammunition becoming quickly depleted, more were being sourced.
He imagined that in other engagements, such projectiles would likely get ‘recycled’ by both armies as they traded them in battle.
Initially, he had thought that the lull had been ordered so as to avoid hitting their own men as they ascended the hill.
However, even after those earlier assaults had ceased, the archers had still not continued their barrage.
They barely have any!
They dont have any archers!
This was quite possibly the most shocking surprise of all as he regarded the state of the defending army.
He started to wonder as to how this could have come about for he had seen enough in his brief time scouting the lands to know that many used the ‘bow and arrow’. He shook his head at this surprising conclusion, could this have been the fatal flaw?
Still, he didn’t have time to analyse this latest realisation and that nothing was going to be achieved just sitting here he thought.
But the moment he started to rise to his feet, an excruciating pain shot up both legs.
Stifling his outburst, he immediately fell backwards onto the tree trunk.
He should have stretched out his legs first for he had lost all sensation from crouching down so long.
Gingerly, he rose again and this time managed to stay upright as feeling began to return to his lower limbs.
“Back to business!” he announced for he had a general idea of what he needed to do and where he needed to be but how to get there was still a bit sketchy as he struggled through a particularly dense part of the wood.
With this praying on his mind, he pushed on through the dense undergrowth in a rather ungainly manner.
Propelling his short and portly frame on still even shorter, fatter legs, he soon encountered a shallow marshy area in his inadequately protected feet.
His muted and gurgled gasp accompanied the bubbling squelch of the boggy ground as he sank almost up to the knees.
Gradually, he felt the dampness seeping through the leather-bound animal hide that was supposed to protect his feet.
Typical, he thought to himself, I manage to find one of the few patches of swampy ground in this forsaken wood!
Hurriedly he strained to lift his legs free of the cloying mud to the new sound of popping, viscous bubbles as he dragged himself clear.
He next needed a nearby a tree stump upon which to sit in order to remove his ‘shoes’ and clean his muddy feet again before re-wrapping the skins, fixing them more securely this time.
After pausing further to get his bearings (and catch his breath) he could see that hostilities had still not yet resumed for, whilst the defenders were continuing to shout albeit sporadically, the attacker’s voices by contrast had all but fallen silent, apart from the odd taunt in their strange language that he could not quite make out.
This was likely to be as good a time as any to get into position from where he could watch out the remainder of the day’s proceedings as they unfolded and to get something when the time was right.
Rested and resolved, he stood up in forthright manner.
“This is it, the last push!” he declared as if to provide some encouragement and instantly became ambushed by a small briar patch with several branches springing up to catch his coarse hemp cloak and causing him to mutter a string of expletives under his breath.
“It had better be worth all this damned trouble!” his demeanour changed instantly as he grumbled at being snagged on the arm by a vicious thorn that drew a thin trickle of blood in the process.
More mumbled swearing ensued.
After a few more minutes (and having extricated himself from this snare) he stopped again to look up, instinctively shielding his eyes from the light with his hand as he did so.
He estimated that the sun was starting to wane in the sky for the temperature was beginning to cool noticably (if such a thing were possible) and he could feel the wind cutting right through his meagre linen shirt, sackcloth tunic and hemp cloak.
“More layers the next time” he muttered as he hugged himself, rubbing his body in order to restore some warmth.
And it was also while he stood that he began to notice a familiar (if very unwelcome) aroma, a smell that swamped his senses; a pungency that he recognised as being one associated with the less attractive aspects of the countryside as it wafted on the breeze.
Pinching his nose between two pudgy fingers, he wondered if he might have stepped into something else that could have been avoided for he lifted first one foot then the other to check.
Part way through this process he froze.
There were several figures just outside the edge of the wood and they were huddled over something that could not at first be easily identified.
As he watched them through the low, overhanging branches, two seemed to be busying themselves in the grass whilst a third stood by directing proceedings.
Intrigued, he gently lowered his leg as he peered more closely.
The object of their attention appeared to be a fourth person lying amongst them.
At first he thought they might have been administering aid to the injured party however, as he looked at the subject more closely, he was shocked to see that their bedside manner was unlike anything he had ever experienced for they were tearing away armour and then clothes with frenetic abandon!
He wanted to ingore this latest interruption but there was a sick compulsion to stay and observe.
At first, it was hard to guess the ages or even the genders of the group due to the shapeless smocks they wore. The more he looked though, the more it became apparent that there were two elderly figures, one male and one female, who were hovering over their prey like great, grey, bony vultures wrenching and tearing at the body with practiced fingers. The third, who appeared to be an adolescent male, was standing morosely by collecting items removed and placing them onto a pile that lay close by.
Completely engrossed now, he was immediately struck by the condition of their clothing for whilst he had known it would have been impossible to have matched their attire in every detail, he was starting to get a disturbing sense that he might have perhaps come over-dressed on this occasion for they were very shabby indeed.
Hurriedly he tried to dismiss this as he realised that his wardrobe had been very limited and that this was probably as good as he was going to get given the circumstances (he also found himself subconsciously scrunching in creases into his unkempt garments).
Shrugging these concerns off, he resolved to carry on. After all, in the midst of battle with both forces focused upon hacking each other into small pieces, there would be no one standing around with time to pass critique on the quality or the fashion of his garb.
What was that?
Instantly, something became caught, trapped in the web of his peripheral vision causing him to glance quickly across toward its source!
The short fat man squinted for a few seconds in the gloom, having had to readjust to the change in light, he sought out its source before a glint of metal reflecting in the rays through the trees managed to pinpoint the object of his search.
It looked to be a body – a soldier he assumed – in chain-mail for there was a subtle sparkles in the meagre light and he appeared to be lying in shallow muddy undergrowth off to the right of him.
For a few seconds, he stood frozen in his tracks chastising himself at not having noticed this individual earlier.
He also wondered if he had been spotted by this person as he had sat watching the battle unfold. Then another thought came to him. Should he carry on toward the top of the hill and forget this or investigate further for it was quite probable that this was a golden opportunity to get a close-up view of one of the combatants, hopefully a low risk one at that.
Despite knowledge that time was pressing, he decided upon the latter and moved nearer, stepping clumsily on aching and scratched limbs over several fallen branches, rushing where care would have been the more prudent option in his haste to get to the fallen figure.
Who knows, he thought as if trying to justify his decision, maybe I might be able to grab something off this one and save myself complications later on, especially if I can’t get my hands on a really good item.
At that moment another rustle in the undergrowth around the prone figure halted him in his tracks causing him to waiver for a moment – what if the creature was still armed?
He certainly did not have time to waste wrestling with some hapless character but by the same token, what if he were to have a problem in getting to the field of battle? He might end up coming away with nothing at all to show for his troubles when the appropriate moment arose for him to leave.
Another decision was required for he had come too far to lose out now.
“I know, I know!”
A self-admonishment passed through clenched teeth as if trying to exert his will over the dilemma confronting him.
Certainly the prone figure could not have been much of a soldier for it had picked up an injury quite early in the battle and from the look of it, the pathetic wretch appeared mortally wounded and close to death (this was backed up by a slightly closer inspection revealing that the figure was covered in rather too much blood from the legs down).
It would surely bleed to death if not put out of its misery first.
Resolving to action despite the internal turmoil, he opted to take something now - just in case.
He also decided out of a sense of compassion (if such a thing existed inside his miserable, scavenging body) that he would send the poor wretch on its way.
Moving ever closer, but more cautiously this time, across the space that separated them, he gently navigated his way through a thick covering of ferns and undergrowth with eyes fixed permanently on the figure as he went.
Out on the slope, a very quick glance had noted that the three scavengers were almost done picking their target clean of all useable items and were starting to look about for their next victim.
“Hands off, this one’s mine” he muttered through labored breath.
He knew that he had to dispatch the fallen soldier quickly.
The little man drew a small but very sharp knife that he carried for ‘emergencies’ from the leather strap around his waist and eased himself in behind the prone figure.
As he closed on his target, he could feel the blood pumping in his chest and hear its pounding in his ears.
He rarely needed to take anything by force, preferring instead to use guile or a small bribe but he realised that sometimes the situation demanded it. The trouble was, this rarely got any easier whichever way you cut it.
Possibly the only dry and brittle twig in the entire wood cracked underfoot causing him to freeze a matter of inches from the hapless figure.
He swallowed hard trying to dislodge a lump that stuck in his throat but then, after a momentary pause, the figure started to struggle in an effort to turn toward the sound, grunting and snorting as it did so.
Unfortunately, this thrashing had not gone unnoticed by the others out on the field for they too were beginning to make their way toward his position.
Realising that he was about to come under considerable, not to mention unwanted, scrutiny from both these parties, the short fat man darted instinctively forward and, with an agility that belied his stature, dispatched the soldier (his suspicions confirmed this creature was clearly no peasant) expertly and without pausing to consider the consequences.
The victim let out as final gasp and collapsed barely moving enough to grasp its own weapon as the three figures closed within range.
With the scavengers at hand, the small man eased himself back on his haunches and stood up slowly, the knife still gripped tightly in his sweating, shaking hand as he surveyed the body now lying there.
“Keep calm you idiot”, he muttered under his breath as he prepared to receive the locals, slowly wiping the blade on his smock behind him in the process as he took one small step backward for the three had moved surprisingly quickly (and quietly) and were even now directly in front of him.
Immediately (and surprisingly) all instantly struck sheepish subservient bowed poses as they promptly stopped.
Behind their obsequiousness though, there was a barely concealable eagerness to pounce upon the body as if awaiting permission to dig in.
The short man returned their look with a quizzical gaze of his own thinking that, had the situation not been so serious, he would have openly burst out laughing for they were indeed an odd trio.
First there was the old couple.
As he regarded them more closely, they appeared to be very ancient indeed with skin that resembled brittle yellow-white parchment but covered in discoloured bruises and sores. In places where the skin was visible (and that was most of their bodies) it stretched tautly over their skeletal frames but elsewhere, like under the necks, it hung in deflated loose bags.
Their hairstyles too were as striking as they were identical with both figures possessing wiry white shocks that seemed to be exploding outward from within their leathery skulls in all directions.
The worst part though was still to come for, as they both smiled virtually in unison, a toadying ingratiating leer, he was greeted with open mouths in which teeth had become but a distant memory reminding the small man of a pair of fish he had recently caught.
Hurriedly he looked away only but this meant confronting the third member of the group.
Thankfully, this one was not smiling. In fact he did not even look at the little man at all but just stood morosely in a slightly cowed position staring fixedly at the body in anticipation.
He had his arms wrapped tightly around his body in a self hugging pose and was rocking backward and forward on his heels.
Were they really waiting for his approval to violate this body?
After a long pause, a period of time that only accentuated the awkwardness of the situation, the little man could stand it no longer and eventually felt a compulsion to shy away from these non-swimmers in the human gene pool (be began to wonder if they had indeed ever got their collective toes wet at its edge) and their expectant gazes.
At this apparent sign of approval, the spell was clearly broken causing all three to pounce upon the body.
Quickly and expertly, they divested it of all armour, weapons, clothing and other personal items that flew from the body in quick succession, items he noticed that included a small white handkerchief.
As he stood and watched this hasty, frenetic but somehow expertly hypnotic process that was taking place before him, the small man wondered if they had really ever paid him much attention at all in their haste to get to the body for they seemed to give him no further consideration whatsoever.
With a gentle sigh of resignation, he decided to leave them to their business, realising it was not worth expending any more effort over such an unimportant character any longer, not only that but he could feel his limbs starting to ache too at having stood still for so long.
Whether his decision to move was prompted by the two men turning over the body he did not know but its grisly presentation made his mind up for him as a bout of nausea started to churn in his stomach.
This was definitely his cue to go but as he moved his head and his upper body, he suddenly felt the tug on his, by now muddied, sleeve.
Fear’s vice-like grip caused him to instantly freeze; what was he to do now? Could he take on all three and still come out of this unscathed?
With trepidation, he slowly turned to see who had grabbed him, the grip on the knife becoming tighter in his rapidly sweating hand as he felt the lump rise again in his throat.
To his surprise, the figure that confronted him appeared to be the young male who was taller than the other two but just as emaciated and pale with lank, greasy fair hair and a juvenile wispy growth around his chin and upper lip looking like some human stick insect; he was also very dirty and covered in open sores on his lips and cheeks.
As the two stood there regarding each other the youth chose this moment to smile, his piercing blue eyes breaking through the grimy surface like two gleaming sapphires whilst a broad stupid grin spread across his face, a smile that revealed a ramshackle graveyard of broken, blackened and uneven tombstones.
All the small man’s inadequacies about his own appearance seemed to pale instantly, fading away as he stared at the sad creature before him.
Please don’t smile at me he thought as he instinctively thought about pulling away, I don’t think I can take any more of your local hospitality.
Something stopped him though, as he realised that he needed to play this carefully after all, this would probably not be the worst thing he would witness this day. Instead he very gently began to pull back.
This was clearly the wrong action for the youth immediately shot out another equally dirty arm with lightning speed complete with a grubby and discoloured fat hand at the end of it, fist clenched and thrust toward him.
Uncertain as to the next move, the small man felt his knees weaken as he nervously watched the fist of the youth starting to turn over with palm facing upward before opening.
Something’s in his hand he thought as the bony and mottled fingers opened like some flowering fleshy petals to the sun.
He gulped. But then he saw that they were revealing the crumpled off-white piece of cloth which in turn was also unfurling slightly at the release of the pressure.
Wondering what he was supposed to do next, he felt another series of sudden tugs this time more urgent on his sleeve as the youth grunted something at him spraying as he did so.
He was being offered the small item as his share of the spoils!
The little man hesitated for a moment but then tentatively reached out and took the item before shaking it out gently between thumb and forefinger as he did so.
Immediately his mood lightened for, to his surprise, he saw that the cloth was delicately soft and light with a small blue flower pattern.
It was the handkerchief that he had glimpsed earlier. The item must have been some sort of token or keepsake given by a loved one.
Suddenly he felt a pang of regret (or was it resurgent queasiness) that he found hard to suppress but reminding himself that there was definitely no room for sentiment on this outing, he barged any feeling of compassion out of the way before kicking it into submission in a corner at the back of his mind.
The youth was babbling again, incomprehensible words tumbling out along with the dribbling saliva that trailed in several long viscous strands down the front of his chest prompting the little man to extricate himself from the vice-like grip.
As he pulled free, he stumbled backward and wheeled away in the direction of the hill and toward the line of shields as fast as his short legs would carry him, this unnecessary interruption had delayed him far too long and he needed to be away quickly.
Now, and pressing on doggedly, scrambling over fallen branches and through dense ferns, he knew he needed to put some distance between himself and the scavengers as he aimed for a break in the tree line near the top of the ridge.
It seemed to take forever but could only have been a matter of a short while for he emerged tattered and bedraggled from the undergrowth and into the pale sunlight.
Ahead of him, were the massed ranks on the top of the hill and he used this as an incentive as he renewed his climb, puffing and panting as he struggled onward trying to reassure himself that he would not be suspected as a spy trying to infiltrate the lines.
Although, given his luck so far this day, anything might be possible.
I expect they have slightly more important issues than just one person to worry about
He surmised that the enemy would find it infinitely more difficult when they attacked again (for he knew they would).
He at least felt some satisfaction that he did not have to make the climb burdened down with both armour and weapons as the three he had left behind would.
They’ll take a lot longer to reach the top than me he thought as he struggled onward breathing hard as he went.
Although very few seemed interested in this small grubby character (they were either mostly looking out and down the hill, slumped down or deep in conversation with their comrades), there was one exception as he instinctively he felt a chill run down his spine.
He was being watched!
Quickly, he turned around but all that he saw was a dark grey robe with a hood vanish into the crowd.
For a moment he stopped, feeling very cold indeed as if his whole body had been dipped into icy water.
It wasn’t the wind that had chilled him but something far more sinister.
My imagination, that’s was it. The mind playing tricks.
He tried to reassure himself as he mulled over the experience but this was replaced by an earlier, and more pressing, concern.
His appearance had come to the fore again he was having doubts as to whether he would be accepted by the people on the hill in front of him.
He would have to convince them in order to make his way safely through their ranks.
Thankfully his concerns were unfounded. This was probably due to the fact that his hemp cloak had become badly shredded. He had also become covered in mud and blood from his walk in the woods.
“A few more cubits!”
He found himself muttering under his breath as he glanced up between each labouring effort to get his bearings.
He was there that he bacame profoundly struck by the state of the defence for it was also clear he was reaching their ragged edge as the line had a decidedly makeshift quality about it.
Not only were the ‘Thanes’ rather thin on the ground or conspicuous by their absence but they were also backed by the very motley assortment of the ones collectively referred to as ‘fyrd’ for up close, these were in a truly pitiful state.
The deep scrapings in the bottom of a very poor barrel he thought.
What was interesting however was that they were still there and even now preparing to repel the invading army as he studied the wretched condition of the creatures with fear and exhaustion written across the majority of their dirty, sallow and diseased faces.
Continuing to negotiate his way around the line and avoiding eye contact as he went, he caught sight of the earlier incongruity that made him stop dead. There up ahead of him and within the lines stood the same hooded figure.
For a brief instant, it was as if two rows had parted to reveal this ‘person’. Were they waiting for him?
All at once, he became subjected to an emotional turmoil sweeping over him. This one stood out before him and he began to wonder if someone else was trying to muscle in on his claim but this anger was undermined by a niggling feeling, an uneasiness stirring for there was something about the figure that held a certain familiarisation.
“There cannot be anyone!” He muttered to himself. “Not here, not now!”
But before he could decide what to do next, a sudden scramble and surge by the defenders instantly concealed the stranger causing his attention was diverted back to the three peasants that he had encountered earlier.
He could see them even now for they were hurriedly scrambling back and up the bank behind him.
They were too far from safety away down the hill and they also were struggling to escape from someone or something, the source of which was not immediately apparent.
A roar from the crowd behind him showed that they all seemed to be pointing and gesticulating wildly toward the enemy.
Craning to see for himself, he initially missed the source of their alarm although, as he followed their lead more closely, he gazed upward.
Staring in the direction that they were pointing he caught the sight of a huge black cloud that was rising high into the fading light mid way between the army in the valley and his own position.
As he watched, the blackness moved swiftly upward before reaching its zenith and then become partly obscured by the sunlight.
Without thinking about his tired and aching limbs he ducked forward to take cover. He knew what these were as much as the massed ranks alongside him on the hill – arrows!
With concerted determination, he put the figure he had seen lower in his list of priorities (staying alive always came out on top of that) as he looked to deal with the new menace for, as the first drops of rain signal an impending deluge, the arrows started to land with a series of thuds about ten feet away; this was soon followed by more, much more and also much closer too.
By now, the front lines had hastily raised their seemingly inadequate round wooden shields to fend off the attack and he hid too.
He joined the collective, fearing the imminent arrival of the lethal objects to land as he cowered in a patch of soft wet mud under a pair of burly soldiers.
The sound of the whistling projectiles hitting the ground and splintering the wood was as nothing for it was closely followed by the howls and screams of unprotected militia drowning out all other sound as they took the brunt of the deadly shower causing the rabble behind the wall to writhe and fall in frightening numbers.
This must be it, he thought as one of the ‘fyrd’ fell next to his face, the glassy blank expression and long black stick jutting out from his collarbone speaking volumes.
Realising that staying where he was could soon become extremely hazardous to his health, he scrambled to his feet resolving to get to a much better (and more protected) position as quickly as possible.
The enemy must have been reloading, readying to launch another salvo for there was a short respite as he started to edge his way behind the now agitated shield wall toward the centre of the line amid cries and wails of injured men.
Pushing through a mass of smelly, sweating and dirty bodies as he went he heard grumbles and shouts, sobs and cries but he chose to ignore them. He was not planning to become a target for anyone’s arrows - leastways not in this battle, and not today.
And there he was again.
The tall robed figure was visible for a third time. This time though he resolved to confront him however the crowd about him had different ideas and surged once again as he was presented with a view of the three peasants that he had met earlier.
It was abundantly clear that they had fared far worse than he had for, as he peeped through the mass of bodies, he saw that one of them - the old man - was lying face down and motionless, spread-eagled on the ground with two arrows jutting out at right angles, one in the crook behind the knee and the other squarely in the back.
Next he saw the woman who, although still upright, was cackling maniacally and sobbing as she struggled forward clutching at an arrow that had embedded itself in her calf.
Finally out in front was the young man who had given him the handkerchief.
As the little man looked on, the lad was gamely struggling the relatively short distance up the bank, dragging his booty on a large cape or cloak trying to reach the nobles and sanctuary of the shield wall.
More shouts announced that something else was coming and he began to feel the ground start to tremble introducing the approach of a different and more deadly attack – mounted troops!
Why doesn’t he drop that stuff, he might be able to get it back later.
The whisper of a little voice could be heard inside short fat man’s head but then, what would he have done? Would he have left his hard-earned spoils had the positions been reversed?
With these thoughts competing for supremacy in his mind, he looked on as helpless as the others in the shield wall as a small detachment of enemy cavalry rapidly ascended the hill closing the distance between themselves and the forlorn figures with every stride.
He became aware that he was now shouting along with the others but before they could do anything to assist the youth or the woman, one of the riders ran down the old crone who had started to drag herself forward, trampling her underfoot before going on to pin the scrambling youth to the ground with a well placed lance amid a chorus of yells and bellows from the line; this was followed by a hail of assorted missiles.
All were about as effective as the shouting as they landed pathetically short of their mark.
The little man turned away in disgust at the sight. He had to concentrate! His priority must be to stay alive, first and foremost, and then get something to make the journey worthwhile and finally depart the scene; the matters of the stranger he had seen and the youth being speared had become regrettable diversions that he could ill afford to worry about.
Having pushed his way forward a matter of a few more cubits and with eyes that were still looking for the hooded character, he suddenly caught a glimpse of a group of nobles clustered about a large figure with flowing hair and a neat, long moustache.
He assumed this must be the one he had been looking for as another cry went up.
All around him nobles and peasants grabbed any items that could be used for cover - shields, clothes even dead bodies - as another wave of arrows descended upon them.
Yet again more screams filled the air signifying that an increasing number had been less fortunate in finding protection, that or the accuracy of the archers was improving for it looked like many more fell under the weight of this new onslaught.
Whether by luck or design, the little man managed to avoid being hit again, he was indeed riding his luck as he scrambled through the front line that was still holding firm against the attack.
The trouble was, there was now the renewed attention from a different quarter as the rumble of hooves announced another cavalry charge.
Swiftly the nobles brought their shields down just in time to block this new menace but in doing so, the front line yawned wide as the defenders, seeing the large four-legged animals wheeling around back down the hill decided to pursue them en masse.
Maybe they think they have a better chance in fighting back than by standing here to be picked off he thought but as quickly as he pondered this strategy, a violent shove abruptly turned his world upside down as the grass and sky became one in a blurred vision.
Caught up in the melee, it was easy to miss a small, portly and very scruffy figure that had been unfortunate enough to be caught up in the breakout like a small fat twig in a fast flowing stream.
One moment, this figure had been watching the creatures charging from the relative safety of the ridge and the next, he was being knocked firstly one way then another before finally ending up landing face down in a patch of soft earth as the pursuing group careered away down the hill going after the cavalry, screaming and trampling him as they went.
Getting up, dazed and even dirtier than before from the soft indentation he had made in the ground, the little man became acutely aware that he was now completely exposed and alone.
The crowd, of which he had been a part, had surged forward.
It had disappeared too below the line of sight. That or had been cut down at the bottom of the valley.
Although disorientated and possibly concussed, he swiftly hauled himself upright spluttering and spitting out mud and grass as he did so. He brushed his clothes down with as much dignity as he could muster before turning just in time to see yet more arrows ascending into the air in front of him.
This is definitely one spot I do not want to be standing in when those things land!
And with that, he scrabbled hurriedly back diving in to the, by now, rapidly thinning line of defenders. They were now looking increasingly desperate and more uncomfortable at the new tactics being employed by the enemy.
They need to hold on though for a bit longer, if only for his sake.
It was at that moment (and more by luck than judgement) that he glimpsed the burly mustachioed character again only this time he was standing much closer. Around him stood the most heavily armed guards the small man had ever seen.
It is him!
Relief washed over him as he realised that he had identified his target for this was the tall man he was after, tall and with broad shoulders wearing a round metal helmet a thick green cloak with a fine gold embroidered edging, a thick mail shirt and brown loose fitting trousers.
He was indeed a fine specimen with one arm strapped to a large wooden shield complete with several arrows already embedded while the other hand carried a large sword, larger than any others the little man ever seen.
His eyes widened at the prospect before him.
I think I might like something from this one. The sword perhaps and one or two of the other items if I can he muttered to himself as if nonchalantly making out a shopping list for the market.
But how am I going to get near him though and more importantly, how am I going to get away with my prizes?
Those were his concerns now and it was while he pondered these new problems that more arrows started landing all about him creating a grotesquely serendipitous opportunity to at least resolve one of them.
The enemy, it seemed, had chosen to target this specific area to dump a particularly heavy concentration of missiles for, as he hid behind several of the line, he noticed that of the eight or nine bodyguards, five were peppered badly with arrows.
This attack, a fatal downpour, had caused three of them to collapse immediately with probably fatal injuries.
And the others?
They either wheeled away at being caught a glancing blow or staggered to control themselves under such heavy fire.
Quickly, and with a speed that surprised even him, he darted forward and was immediately in amongst the few bodyguard that were left within the inner circle.
Unfortunately he was not really prepared for the experience of being in the group’s close proximity for he was immediately overcome by a concoction of odours even more awful that the one he had experienced earlier.
This time though it was an obnoxious acrid mix of bodily smells and urine that almost completely overwhelmed his senses.
Fighting hard to control this striking olfactory assault, he tried desperately to keep what pathetic scraps he had left in his stomach as it churned again for all it was worth.
The tipping point, when it came, was as sudden as it was violent as one of the guards wrested the decision from his control with a loud trumpeting noise that erupted from somewhere in its nether regions.
A pungent mix of rotten eggs, cabbage and something else he could not (and probably should not) even attempt to define quickly followed causing the little man to promptly cough and choke simultaneously to the accompaniment of deep and hoarse laughter all around him.
I hope that not at my expense! he thought to himself as another spasm overtook him.
This time, it induced a racking cough that caused him to stumble in a paroxysmal fit and grip hold of the first thing that came to hand to steady himself.
In this case, it was the belt of the man next to him.
As he did this, the figure he had clung on to staggered sideways probably caught by surprise at the attentions of a small fat person in the throes of several violent spasms.
Off balance, the large nobleman dropped the shield he had been holding aloft as he tried to steady himself.
Unfortunately, this also coincided with another shower of arrows falling directly on top of the group.
By a strange quirk of fate (or maybe it was because of the shove), all seemingly missed the well protected figure but something caused him to slip and fall down heavily, crushing the little man in the process under him.
This was not something that had been bargained for as he lay there with several hundred weight of foul-smelling noble lying on top of him but as he glanced out, he suddenly saw the cowled figure. The one who had been stalking him!
He was striding purposely toward his position!
Panic grasped him in its tight embrace as, to his horror, he saw the figure produce an arrow from within the folds of his cloak.
Desperately he tried to struggle to free himself but the assassin moved inexorably closer.
“You stupid imbecile” The stranger’s voice was loud, clear and familiar, hissing as it drew near, “you almost ruined everything!” and with that it was on him drawing back the weapon ready to thrust it into him. The short man let out a feeble yelp as he felt the body above him jerk violently as the blow struck.
He had missed him! The stranger had pushed home the arrow with great force and he had been spared!
Relief washed over him as he lay there but this was quickly extinguished as he felt the air forced from his body as another fell on top of, suddenly all was blackness.
For a few seconds, all he could make out were muffled shouts.
Next, rough clawing hands were pulling at the weight on top of him, man-handling the prone figures covering him but that was the very least of his worries for he suddenly noticed another smell – a rusty, coppery odour that seemed familiar.
He managed to find an arm that had become pinned to his body by those on top of him and wiped a wet patch that was running across his nose and mouth.
He realised at once what it was for the fingers had brushed a thick red puddle that had collected on his chin and run down his neck.
Panic instantly overtook him for, although the cycles had de-sensitised him to the sight of the red liquid and he did not consider himself squeamish to the site of blood (as long as it belonged to someone else).
This was rather too close for comfort – he had been injured and was even now probably ebbing away.
Thrashing about, he cried out in anguish as he tried to twist and turn in an effort to get away from the body as quickly as possible.
In this he was ably assisted by the nobles around him for he felt numerous hands tugging and pulling at the large figure, all the while muffled cries and yells that meant that little could be heard of him.
It was not until the daylight eventually broke through and he had managed to kick himself away from the body that he noticed he was lying amongst a crowd of nobles and peasantry.
Amazingly, they were paying very little attention to him at all but instead were all focused on the other figure.
They’re making a bit of a fuss over that one he thought but then froze as he saw it. The thick green cloak gilded with gold braid spattered with blood.
His jaw dropped and eyes widened as shock gripped him with both hands shaking him violently.
“NO!” his voice drowned out in the screams and wailing that could be heard all around him.
But it wasn’t your fault, you didn’t do it
A tiny voice resonated around inside his head as he tried to distance himself from the crime and remembered that he had actually prevented the event.
The arrows might have got him if it wasn’t for you!
But then he recalled the stranger, the hooded assassin and the attack.
It was him, he did it!
Desperately he looked about but all he could see were legs and bodies.
Where had he gone?
Instinctively, he grabbed the back of his skull with both hands in a futile attempt to keep out the accusing tones but still they squeezed through between his fingers.
You came here to get a prize, a trophy and guess what? You bagged one all right!!
This last thought was too frightening to contemplate for he was here and this was it – the event, the battle.
He had been there to witness the last stand of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, an insignificant island race fighting against a superior army from across the narrow channel that separated them from the continent.
This was to be a defining moment in time. One that would shape the entire history of this tiny country, a country that would go on to become one of the most powerful and influential across the small blue planet during its period of radical growth and change; a tiny planet, nothing more than a blue speck that orbited a small, low luminosity star drifting in a spiral galaxy at the trailing edge of one its arms.
THAT was why he had come.
“But it wasn’t my fault” he found himself muttering and “I saved him, it wasn’t me who did it”.
This thought continued over and over again but the answer came back even louder
Butwho will believe you?
He was aware that the king was supposed to have fallen in the battle, shot by an arrow supposedly; he had known this from his scant historical records for that was the whole reason for him choosing to be there.
But how it could have happened in this manner?
“NO!” he shouted again. The sound of his hoarse and desperate was cry lost amidst the turmoil, a single drop of water within the thunderstorm that raged around him, as his mind turned somersaults with the tiny voice trying to reason with him.
Ah, but you might not have done it, maybe it was someone else who died, somebody of little consequence. If it had been the king then there would the fatal wound, the arrow…
He remembered the weapon that had been carried by his attacker and looked at the body. For a moment he felt elation as the head showed no sign of injury.
It must have been something else that had killed him.
He was trying to reassure himself but, as the guard removed the helmet, the little man’s world crashed around him as he caught sight of a small and non-descript, black stick with a feathery tail jutting out from the head that was turned slightly to one side and away from view. It was only a momentary glimpse for in that instant a mass of nobles suddenly crowded around the body, crying out in fear and anger.
Paralysis gripped him and a cold icy touch crawled up to nestle in his spine as he sat in the mud.
He tried to look away but found the draw of the sight irresistible as the chilly caress slowly proceeded to snake the length of his short frame before finally nestling itself at the base of his skull.
He had changed history but then it had been diverted again because the event was supposed to happen and did, but by somebody else’s hand!
His head swam with this awful, fatal, paradox whilst as around chaos now reigned supreme as even more flocked to the body.
Some wailed while others beat fists on the dead king. Throughout all of this, the little man’s part in proceedings had been completely overlooked as he sat mumbling to himself.
The king (for he had taken the crown following the death of the elderly Edward), Harold, Earl Godwin of Wessex’s son and last of the Anglo-Saxon kings was lying a matter of feet away.
Trying hard to compose himself, he suddenly felt a faint vibration that stirred him from his stupor. Blindly, he fumbled inside his tunic and fished out the small polished box.
Through bleary eyes, he could see the pale green numbers floating eerily across its surface.
Time was up (in more ways than one).
He was coming to the end of his available allocation - not to mention going empty handed (he had the cloth but that didn’t really count).
Frantically he looked around for something, anything that might make the journey worthwhile.
As he sat there wondering how he was going to make good his escape, dozens more arrows fizzed down out of a now darkening sky, catching everyone by surprise as they landed.
Fortunately for him, this was last time he was to witness such mass carnage as the missiles caught everyone by complete surprise striking down almost the entire group around the king, nobles and fyrd alike with even more arrows thudding into the dead body lying at the centre.
Miraculously, none had struck as he sat and watched it all unfold.
As the arrows ceased and seeing this as his last chance, he leapt forward, clambering across the moaning bodies clustered around the prone form of the dead king, to reach out for his prize.
Glancing about quickly to make sure he was not going to be disturbed, he grasped the arrow with both hands as it protruded from the head.
He was determined to have this after all he had been through that afternoon! A quick glance told him that the ranks of enemy troops were starting to advance up the hill toward his position.
But what had drawn him to the small stick that was little more than a twig?
Was it because it had been the object that inflicted the fatal blow or perhaps there was an altogether darker and more sinister motive (by taking the arrow he would be removing the only evidence that pointed to his involvement and the real murderer’s in the historic incident, a moment that had ultimately led to the death of the king).
At first it wouldn’t budge (for he didn’t want to snap the brittle object) as he pulled as hard as was reasonably possible.
He persevered though, twisting and turning the arrow, moving it to and fro as he did so all the while becoming aware of a change in his demeanour.
A realisation that his whole character was altering as a result of his avarice as he could feel his eyes becoming sore for they had become transfixed, unblinking in the cold wind that was blowing.
He was staring at his subject.
He was also conscious that his grin was widening, a rictus growing steadily more maniacal as it spread from ear to ear, so broadly in fact that it was causing his cheeks to ache as spittle sprayed out for the exertion was starting to tell.
A few moments later, and with the sun sinking into a blood-red cauldron on the horizon, his efforts were rewarded by a satisfying pop as he stumbled backward still holding the arrow together with a small bloody-white blob.
The fat little man froze for a moment, both elated and appalled by what he had done as he looked at the defiled figure before him.
Then, scrambling to his feet he caught sight of the hooded figure for the last time as it stood motionless about thirty feet away.
Was it wondering what he was going to do next?
He moved to go, a short, podgy, nondescript and solitary figure amid the carnage that was being waged across Senlac Ridge for the ranks of the king had finally broken all around him and a slaughter was taking place.
Quickly he headed away along the brow of the hill, making his way from the scene swiftly as possible before he too joined the figure lying there.
As he moved though, the hooded figure started to follow also for it seemed to be shadowing him.
The little man instinctively reached down to his belt for the knife just in case it was needed but in that instant, the other figure abruptly stopped and fell forward as two arrows appeared as if from nowhere.
The small man glimpsed the event but continued away, hurrying from the fighting.
In his hand the small object swung loosely at his side like a grotesque pendulum as he made toward a small orange disk that had eerily appeared about a foot above the ground near a thicket behind the lines, its glimmering surface as bright as the setting sun but casting no illumination around it at all.
This was this last anyone there would see of the small man for, as he moved toward the light, one of the ‘housecarls’ – the Saxon nobles - who had bravely stood against the Norman invaders was hit by several arrows as he watched the small man near the glow.
Moments later, and through dimming and clouding eyes, he watched as it crouched slightly before stepping into the orange glow only to immediately dissolve.
Moments later, the shimmering pool shrank too as if imploding into its centre and with it went the light out.
This image gone, the king’s nobleman relaxed before slowly closing his weary eyes as he welcomed oblivion’s final cold, dark embrace.