In Ancient legend the White Dragon or Serpent
represented the English invader, the Red Dragon the Romano British. The Dragon
Banner held by this warrior would come alive as he moved.
Gaius and his horse were concealed behind a
curtain of foliage as he gazed across at the invaders working at the upper end
of the narrow valley.
Two shallow streams ran down into
the valley from the hillside, with a low outcrop dividing them. The peninsula
thus formed jutted into the valley below. The streams joined at the base of
this peninsula to form a river which ran down through open water meadows before
entering the forest which filled the mouth of the widening vale. The river
continued through the forest and re-emerged to cross the plain and flowed
towards the sea in the distance. There on the sea-shore stood the main
settlement from whence these men had come – not as foragers, but as men
building the first inland settlement in these hills.
There were perhaps a score of men,
mostly free churls, hard at work, spread out, their words reaching him faintly
on the breeze, their guttural Englisc harsh to his ear, as expressive and
coarsely descriptive as he remembered from the Sea People who had visited his
father. Most were working on a fence on the jutting spur, the others clearing
scrub and trees from beyond the water meadows below. The clearing was now quite
large, and being prepared for the plough.
There was a small white banner on
the knoll, flying from a tall gnarled oak tree. Beneath the oak, seemingly
growing out of it, was the beginnings of a long wooden building.
Although all the foreigners appeared
to be armed freemen, having both spear and shield to hand, he counted four
heavily armed men who appeared to be Gesyths, Companions, gathered on the rock
above the junction of the streams, not far from a dominant figure. Except for a
few mail-clad Gesyths and armed freemen who were very much on their guard and
alert to the woods surrounding them, they were all working easily together,
churl and Companion alike. Like the churls the Companions wore the vicious seax
knives on their belts which gave these Saxon invaders their name.
Near the four Companions on the
higher ground, talking to a labourer was a tall flaxen-haired warrior with a
bejewelled sword belt girdling his waist. His hair flowed onto his shoulders.
There were pack-horses that Gaius could see, tethered on the knoll, with
perhaps a dozen or more riding beasts visible on the peninsula. That was
chance. It was rare to find good horseflesh in the Englisc settlements, even if
they were more ponies than cavalry mounts.
Gaius turned his head to where his
men sat their horses. He had with him on this expedition a troop of his
father’s Horse, under their Decurion, Secundus, and his inseparable Optio,
Publius. Their uniform equipment was ill-used through rough field conditions,
but the red crosses with the red dragon imposed stood out as they unclipped
their shield covers and readied for the action awaiting them.
Secundus was a rather flamboyantly
dressed young man. Brave and intelligent, his men loved him and would follow
him anywhere. Yet the troop’s bearing and discipline was, Gaius knew, largely
the work of his optio, Publius, a grizzled dark-haired man, as short and stocky
as his Roman forebears had been. These men had a reputation unrivalled in the
The troopers were men of the North,
British warriors. They looked for the most part as tough as did Publius, small
dark men of the forest, some with strong traces of those swarthy beak-nosed
Italians of old, but also with a smattering of the tall and fair-haired men
who, like Gaius and Secundus themselves, were descended from the chariot-borne
aristocracy who had ruled in this land long before Rome.
The tension, especially among the
younger men on their fidgeting mounts, was palpable. Many quietly prayed to their
Saints, and to Christ. Most of the men were veterans, sitting their horses in
grim silence, almost thoughtfully fingering their weapons. They were as keen
and as deadly as their blades, sharp and death-dealing.
For now their Red Dragon Banner
drooped from its lance, but soon it would bellow as they charged, opening its
jaws to engulf these pagan Saxon strangers, invaders of their land. Satisfied
after his fleeting glance at his men, Gaius turned his attention back to the
enemy. He concentrated his gaze on the swordsman whom he was certain was his
opposite number among the Saxons, the tall young man with the long Scandinavian
blade at his side. Now that would be a prize worth the seizing!
He had sent a few men, under
Publius, to scatter the men on the valley floor and to distract the enemy. The
remainder of his troopers were positioned on either side of the densely wooded
hillsides, hidden amongst the trees. His main attack would be from above and
behind the Englisc, from the hills on both sides of the jutting headland. It
would take time for Secundus to get into position, but when he did so he and
Secundus would take the enemy in a classic pincer movement on the now largely
cleared spur and the level hillside behind it. The Saxons had of course cleared the land to a long bowshot’s
distance before beginning other works. There were no other obstacles before
them. No ditch had as yet been dug across the neck of the peninsula to isolate
it from the hillside, before the twin streams plunged down in white racing water-falls
to the valley-floor below.
The cavalry were close. It would
take minutes from the order to attack to reaching their enemies, long minutes
in which the Saxons might just have time to prepare. He knew that his troop
understood exactly what each man had to do. Classic cavalry tactics. His father
would be proud of him.
This was a rare opportunity,
unlooked for. His was a routine intelligence patrol, sent out as the last of
the snows had retreated and just as the new Spring growth was bursting into life.
His scouts had come across these few men, alone, isolated, on the fringes of
the forested hills, in the early dawn light. A hasty discussion with Secundus
and Publius. A stealthy approach, the splitting of his forces, and the scene
would be set by noon. It was almost miraculous. He crossed himself, murmured a
hasty Pater Noster. The crisp Northern air was keen, the light winds still
chill. A good day to fight.
Today he would lead his men not on a
brief skirmish, but in a charge that would teach these arrogant foreigners that
if they ever ventured to leave the safety of their coastal walls and sand-salt
fields they would die. War-booty and horses were an added bonus. Honour and
Victory were here to fight for. For he was Gaius
Valerius Marcius, son of Julius of the Valerii and Marcii, and he rode for
Urien of Rheged, the mightiest War-Lord of the North!
It was noon. The time of waiting was
at an end. Both Secundus and Publius would be in position. He turned to his
men, arm up-raised. He dropped it.
“For Urien, for Rheged, and for
lChapter One: The
The youth sat athwart his bench, legs spread
against the quick motion of the sea. It was almost light, with misty tendrils
of morning fog drifting past them.
He thought he could see the proud White Dragon’s
head on the prow slipping in and out of the wispy cloud, bright where it caught
the pale rays of early sunshine. That imperious symbol was his father’s own. It
lived within his very being, his soul. It was his wyrd, his destiny. A
statement out here on the boundless ocean of who he, his father, and his family
were. He was Garwulf, son of Garrick, Woden born, Aethling of Lindsey.
He stood, straddling his lanky legs against the
heaving of the ship, Wave-Cleaver. The white phosphorescent wake now sharply
outlined the dipping oars. He had heard Father tell the steersman that they
should make landfall in the cold light of morning, and already he could see the
reddish tendrils of the false dawn in the east. He wanted to see his new land.
The voices around him grew more expectant. Men looked towards their gear, the
ever-present combs reached for whilst keeping the steady beat of the
For they were land-seekers. Men who lived by
their swords and their wits, men sworn to his father’s service, but an oath
given could as haughtily be withdrawn. Warriors all, from the humblest free
churl at the oar with his spear and shield piled amidships, to the most
magnificently bejewelled Gesyths beside him at the oars.
These men were not tired after long rowing. They
had left in the half-light before day-break from the tiny sandy cove in which
they had spent the night. Father had wanted his ship, his warriors, and himself
to make landfall as splendidly as possible. They had an hour or two yet to
The Gesyths were proudly wearing their worldly
wealth on their persons, bejewelled and intricately wrought gold and silver
entwined their limbs and blazed from their harness. Their pride and vanity
showed in their bearing, their carefully trimmed and combed beards and hair.
They were men in their prime. Their kith and kin were far behind them in
Lindsey, many days rowing away.
He heard the cadence of their voices at the oars,
keeping time yet still communicating, good-humouredly, their words of the sea,
and keeping out the great nothingness around them. Their speech was in the
graphic, expressive, descriptive tongue they called Englisc, their roots and
their language out of Angeln, across the waters, many a year or decade behind
Only the gull that soared above the clouds could
see, perhaps, the shores of their well-remembered homelands, a poor flat land
of swamps and encroaching sea, of bloodshed and rapine encroaching with the
hordes from the Eastern Steppe. Their gaze had turned to the land Rome had abandoned. They
had already voyaged far, these Angles, and so had their fathers, and often
their grandfathers, to these islands of Britain
far out in the Northern Seas.
Their fathers and grandfathers had settled the
fertile Southlands, but land-hunger and fierce Romano British resistance drove
these men to find yet new lands, far to the North, whence they could carve out
their own bounds.
The youth’s father, Garrick, was an Aethling of
Lindsey, a Prince, son of Garfield, son of Gar ‘The Spear’, descended from
Offa, King of Angeln, Woden-born. Garrick was known to be blessed of the Gods,
a man whom Good Fortune led, a Lucky Warrior. As an Aethling he was eligible
for election to the throne, a man of power and repute. The choosing of all
Englisc leaders was by their own leading men. Garwulf had learnt his lineage at
the knee of both father and mother, and could name his forebears all the way
back to Woden, reciting rhythmically, his tone rising and falling, reminiscent
of the sea-warriors they had all been. And were.
Garrick was a younger son. He was a Lindsey man,
from the rolling wooded Wolds overlooking the Fens.
His grandfather had arrived by long-ship from Angeln across the North Sea. They were creating an Angel Lond here in Britain.
Tall and broad-shouldered, straight as the spear-shaft for which he was named,
with iron in his hair and beard. He was dressed as befitted a warrior of his
years and deeds. His great helm with tumbling mail curtains protected his head,
brow, cheeks, and neck, crowned by a dragon. His shoulder crests were of silver
and gold inlaid with garnet, as were the arm-clasps below his elbows and the
rings on his fingers. The work was filigree, intricate, the inset garnets and
other precious stones cut as jewels, connected by slithering serpents and
beasts. His gold sword-pommel too was inlaid with garnets. His gold belt-buckle
and belt ending were jewels in their own right. Chain-mail draped his frame,
glinting with more silver and gold, seemingly alive as he moved his sinewy
limbs, shimmering mail which hung down to his lower limbs protected by braced
metalwork greaves above his soft leather calf-length boots, From his shoulders
hung a red cloak. His ornately decorated shield bound with bronze bearing the
White Dragon on red was propped against his bench. He was Aethling, Prince and
Sea-King, who had led his men oft into the ways of war. It was a time when men
carried their wealth prominently in order to be seen by other men, to be
admired and envied both, when the only protection for such wealth was the
warrior’s own right arm.
The mist slowly cleared. The White Dragon’s Head
stood proud, seeking the way North. The youth’s day had begun.
The Men North of the Humber
knew well the Men of Lindsey, their fellow Angles, and had sought settlers and
reinforcements from amongst them. The invitation was sent on behalf of the
Anglian Lord of Bamburgh and of Lindisfarne
and addressed to the warrior seamen of Lindsey.
One winter’s night the invitation was given out
by a persuasive and proud sea-rover named Oswald of Deira. It was addressed to
the King of Lindsey. The King heard it in the presence of his assembled
Aethlings, Ealdormen, and Gesyths, in a special gathering in the King’s Hall.
Lindsey’s chief place was Lincoln, named for the Roman colony of
veterans it had once been. It was a shadow of its former self, with a very
small population of merchants and craftsmen. The British of this place had
accepted the new order in a couple of generations or so. The very existence of
the first Englisc settlements had disrupted the existing economy, broken
communications with north and south, and simply left the villas to rot and the
roads to crumble. A form of civic life had persisted in Lincoln itself, but that was because its
position suited the newcomers. The broad harbour below the walls, called in
Englisc the Pool, was linked to the River Trent in the west by the Fossdyke, a
monumental feat of Roman engineering, and from the Pool the River Witham also
linked the inland city to the North Sea in the east. The inland sea-port, high
on its cliff, seduced the invader, and the city itself soon absorbed them.
The King’s hall was high above the Pool. The
Roman walls still stood, as did many stolid buildings, but gradually the
streets below were losing their Roman grid-pattern, as sheds, animal-pens,
workshops, and town- houses began to be put up wherever there was a gap or
space within the walls.
The night was past Yule, the mid-winter
fire-celebrations over. It was cold in the hall, for all the blaze in the
hearth, and the realities of the new year had settled on the receptive assembly.
After Blood Month that autumn they knew precisely how their wealth stood. In
the fertile lands of Lindsey many men looked hopeful, sure of the immediate
future, but others were landless younger sons, faced by a situation in which
fathers could no longer sub-divide lands.
In Lindsey the King, understanding his people’s
land-hunger, allowed free discussion of the message from Bernicia. Lindsey had the measure
of Elmet, her major British foe to the west and north. A precarious frontier
held. Only skirmishes and raids disrupted the frontier. Elsewhere Lindsey was
confined by Englisc neighbours. Land was growing scarce.
Slowly a filtering took place, and those who had
decided to go consulted their companions and looked for recruits from free
churls and lord’s sons alike. Ships were uncovered, assessed, repaired, and
crews took them tentatively to sea.
If land was a-begging up there North of the Wall,
the British Riders of Bryneich could bring the Englisc as much glory as did the
British Riders of Elmet, who were closer to home. For these men life had never
The capricious climate hit hard here also, and
the British Principalities on their frontiers fought as stubbornly, and as
skilfully, on Lindsey’s Western bounds as they did all along the porous border-line
which Baden Battle had cut midway through the island from Dorset to the Humber.
At Baden Hill the Romano British cavalry had fought the Englisc shield-wall,
and the day had been theirs. After that shock to their seemingly unstoppable
advance at the hands of the British, Engliscmen had even sailed over to Gaul in their land-need. The men of Lindsey, whatever
their age, estate, or motives, had kept fully abreast of events abroad, brought
by messenger, by traders and merchants, sea-farers, and travelling bards. The
reality of life in Bernicia
had reached them here in their stolid halls and green pastures.
It was a wild time up there in Bernicia, The Time of the Warlords,
both British and Englisc.Those Men of Lindsey who decided to emigrate were fully
aware of the conditions. Some of the Bernician Englisc were descended from
Benoc, who had been invited in to aid the King of Bryneich, much as were the
Jutes Hengist and Horsa in Kent. Others were descendants of Roman Auxiliaries
and allies, or Foederati, on the Wall. Their genealogies stretched back
generations in Britain.
More Engliscmen had led small war-bands to loot and harry, sometimes to seize a
defensible stretch of beach or rock, and settle, supporting themselves not only
from the salty tillage, but from the sea, as traders, fishermen, and as
Garrick had left his meagre lands to his brother
Garbald after the invitation to sword-land and glory had been brought by the
messenger to the King of Lindsey from Aethelric, son of Ida, who had led the
most powerful war-band along the Bernician coast. Ida was dead, but before he
died he had established his strength, and ensured the survival of his dynasty,
and that of the Englisc, up here in the land
of Bernicia, north of the River Humber,
a land which men had begun to call, with Deira, Northumbria.
Immediately to the North of Lindsey, across the
mighty Humber, was Deira, the Southern part of the land of Northumbria.
The sparse settlements of Deira were centred on a fertile vale running down to
the broad Humber. Its power-base was the old
walled Roman city of Eburacum
which the Englisc now called Eoforwic or York.
The city had itself fallen to the Englisc only a few years previously.
its rulers dead or fled, the British Kingdom of Eburacum had
disintegrated. Deira had secured her place in history, but the Deirans were
only just c
linging on in these wild northern lands. Their enemies were not
only the British, but the land itself. Away from the central midlands the rocky
hills rose stark, the forests dark and close, the winters biting deep, scything
down young and old alike. Some of the land-hungry young men of Deira had
penetrated north to Bernicia,
especially along the coast, and joined those Englisc already there. Deira and Bernicia
were interdependent from their early days. The war-bands of Bernicia were unruly and ambitious.
A few years before they had even helped the Deirans take Eoforwic
The Mountain Land of Bernicia, further North, was
filled with craggy cliffs, high rocky moors, and lofty fells. Its former
British Lords called it Bryneich, the Land of Mountain Passes. The Angles or
Englisc pronounced it as Bernicia.
The Old Roman Wall ran up through Bernicia, from coast to coast,
searching out the nests of the eagles. Up in Bernicia Nature was even harsher,
and the British enemy stronger and proving a foe as bitter as the winter.
Inland lay open stony moorland. Gushing streams rushed down through small
ravines from the towering, cloud-topped fells.
the Englisc had first taken the strongholds of the British Lord when Ida seized
Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. Gradually the
Bernicians infiltrated inland, displacing many of the petty lords of Bryneich,
yet the isolated Englisc toe-holds were still very precarious.
Many Englisc lords had taken strategic points
along the coast, as had Ida, a descendant of Benoc. His warband took Bamburgh,
then known as Dun Guardi by the British. Ida had woven them into some form or
unity, The War-Lord among fierce warlords.
Now Ida was dead, it was once more a time of
anarchy, when his many sons jockeyed for position, and their Englisc enemies
yearned again for the freedom to take and hold what they could. Then they could
establish their petty lordships, and when relatively settled, could send for
their wives and families, from Lindsey, The Southlands, or from those homelands
far across the Great Northern Seas.
The British hit back with the silent arrow, the
swift dart of cavalry debouching from a defile, raiding their womenfolk as they
worked in the fields. The Men of Bryneich fought relentlessly against the
Bernicians, who had caused their statelet to crumble, as the Deirans had
destroyed the British Kingdom further South,
whether they had originally come as allies, foederati, or as invaders. After
they took the Capital they had distributed the Kingdom. Not so in Bernicia.
The Men of Bryneich still fought and survived.
There are always survivors. Some held out as
petty lordlings in the interior, others fought back as best they could. Many of
the young Englisc warriors in Bernicia
were themselves sons of British women-folk, whose men had often died at the
hands of the Englisc.
Some men had clung to life as slaves and worked
the fields for the conquerors. “Wealhas.”, or Welsh, the very name they were known
by, simply meant foreigners, and, later, slaves. Other Britons had chosen to
come back and serve their new lords, and became themselves free warriors,
bearing arms and serving their masters as free men tilling the soil. Isolated
as the Englisc were in the North the service of such Britons was all the more
readily accepted, and in the generations since the raiders had become settlers,
tenuous as yet that status might be, these men and women had begun to be
absorbed by the Sea-Folk, in both speech and customs.
Many more had fled inland, to their own people
who had been scattered and despoiled by the invaders. There in the West still
stood walled cities, regular British armies paid through taxes, and rich men
still lived in villas, but all was now safeguarded not only by Roman law, but
by naked steel. Organised resistance was hardening. As yet little more pressure
was felt, but word was reaching these scattered Englisc lordlings of men of
power in the West, men such as the Romano British Urien of Rheged, who were
gathering their might against them. An Engliscman had not only to fear the sea,
or the harsh land of Bernicia,
in this the land of mountains. It was a time to call on reinforcements from the
And now, in the white light of a Spring morn, Wave-Cleaver
was nearing the Northumbrian shore. To their left was the grim rock of
Bamburgh, and ahead the low-lying isle of Lindisfarne, once called Metcaut by
the British, separated from the shore and the coast by a shallow wave-chopped
channel between. Spear-points glittered from a ridge of rock just back from the
island shore, showing that warriors were gazing southwards towards
The youngster on the empty bench in the stern
raised his own oar as he felt his father’s hand clasp his shoulder. Men were
wary. Now was the danger-time. They were expected, but no man could say when
Wave-Cleaver would beach here on this wild Northern shore.
There were no palisades or towers here. Sea and
rock served for both. A sandy beach, guarded by the ridge, formed a sea-haven.
The White Dragon was lowered, and in the early dawn the long-ship glided
silently towards the beach, oars raised, and the first warriors prepared to
leap into the surf to guard, and to guide the oncoming prow onto the beach.
Garrick raised his right hand in the sign that they came in peace, and his
men’s hands were empty, but their weapons could as easily be snatched up.
The men gathering hastily on the beach to greet
them were many and varied, physically and in their dress. At first war-bands
formed and they gripped their keen-blades tightly, but soon the lookouts on the
ridge assured them that here was only one ship, and they could see that for a
war-galley it could carry not many more than a score and a half of warriors.
Hands loosed their swords, and salt-coarse bearded faces began to voice enquiry
and welcome. Even here, in this gathering place of travellers, news from
outside was good.
A last hefty tug at the oars drove the ship up
onto the sand, and Garrick’s men jumped into the surf to drag her higher. Eager
helpers were amany. With the ship secure Garrick leapt ashore, turned, and Styr his helmsman helped the boy Garwulf. ashore, without
really seeming to. The boy was growing into a youth and pretended not to notice
the helping hand. Travelling with his young son was truly a sign of peace.
Garrick looked around for someone he could talk
to. A grey-beard, in rich dress, stepped forward, and announced himself as
reeve for Aethelric, who held Bamburgh on the Rock opposite. Garrick looked
back, to the South, beyond a jutting sand-promontory, to the Rock Fortress that
all men had heard of, the key to Bernicia. The British had long held
the rock, but it had fallen to Ida in a swift dawn assault. Ida and his sons
would not make the same mistake. Its fortifications could not be seen at this
distance, but its reputation had reached Lindsey, and it’s walls and towers
stood tall against the blue of the forenoon sky.
The travellers made fast their ship, and gathered
their belongings. The islanders were a mixed lot. Humbler churls were among
them, and these were chosen men, well dressed and equipped. A few were Gesyths,
brazenly adorned by years of war and generous lords, each ring or bracelet a
medal of honour, given in their Lords’ hall as part of the essential social
bonding, or seized as war-loot amongst the raven’s fields.
Garrick’s iron-clad, business-like troop was a
contrast. Despite their best efforts they were yet salt and travel-stained.
After greeting the newcomers, searching for faces recognised, and the shouting
of names in the kin-search, the inhabitants drifted away, sure that all the
remaining news would be heard at the days-end, with ale and meat, in the
reeve’s hall. The Reeve, Shotta, led them to a long building and, leaving a
guard over Wave-Cleaver, they trooped in, depositing their helms and broad
shields against the walls of the building, their spears with ashwood shafts
grey at the tip were stacked together.
This early the hall was nearly empty, bar a few
Welsh slaves, mostly harassed looking women. Shotta ordered them food and
drink, politely asked Garrick his name and intentions. They were expected, and
Garrick assured him that they were here as a response to the invitation of
Aethelric himself, an invitation which would bring many men from the lands of
Lindsey and Deira. His men bore names that were noble, names which when heard
in the Great Hall of Bamburgh would be very well received. He led ten noble
Gesyths, and a score of freeborn churls, and here, not least among them, stood
his son, Garwulf.
“Spear-Wolf?” repeated Shotta. “An apt name for a
land of the hunters and the hunted.” He slapped his knee gleefully at his own
jest, and held out a beaker. The two men drank.
“Aethelric is away inland these past few days,
securing his lands up to the hills.” said Shotta. He has taken his brothers and
a strong war-band with him. But he’ll be back soon. I will send a messenger to
Bamburgh, and The King will call upon you on his return. For now regard this my
hall as yours. You and your leading Gesyths may sleep by the hearth, and I will
rig shelters for the rest of your men.”
“I thank you, Shotta. But I and my men will sleep
in shelters down by our ship, Wave-Cleaver. We will gladly partake of your
hospitality each night here in your hall as we await news from Aethelric.”
It was agreed, and the men parted, each about
their business. Shotta was a harassed man. For Lindisfarne
was a thriving and busy community. The travellers returned to Wave-Cleaver,
settled on her side above the tide-line. Garrick’s Gesyth Herewulf had been
left in charge, and had delivered that charge. Chests, which doubled at sea as
rowing benches, and the men’s other belongings had been arranged on the sand.
Arms were piled, equipment protected from wind, water, and sand whilst the
leather shelters were being erected, jutting out from the side of the ship.
Garrick spoke to Styr
and the others, telling them of Shotta’s promises. Then, turning to his son, he
asked “Shall we take a look at these men of Lindisfarne?”
“Oh yes, Father.” replied Garwulf.
It was a bewildering place, Lindisfarne,
the ‘island of travellers from Lindsey’. Above all, Lindisfarne
was very much a place of men on the move, searching for their own halls on the
rocky coasts. Cliffs there might be along those shores, but beneath them lay
sandy beaches in sheltered coves and bays.
There had once been an ancient temple here, but
it was long gone. The place belonged completely to the moment. Scattered
haphazard, buildings and huts gathered around rough halls, workshops jostled
stock pens. Overall was a stench from cesspit and beast that the light coastal
breeze could not dispel. And men. All manner of men, Sea-Kings, Gesyths,
churls. There were, of course, Welsh slaves both male and female, their voices
assaulting his ears as much as the earthy smells did his nostrils.
in many ways a clearing house, a base from which expeditions sallied, and
leaders tried to attract followers, and warriors assessed potential leaders.
The Lords were recruiting both Gesyths and freeborn churls. Each churl was free
to go with whichever lord he chose, but it were better in these troubled seas
to choose wisely, and soon. A churl could possess property, but again the
holding of it was the rub.
It was also a market, with goods coming from
their homelands, from Gaul, from Rome, and from
as far away as the Golden City of Eastern Rome, Constantinople.
The finest Samian ware contained wines, oils, olives, and even tuna-pate. Skins
and pelts were loudly advertised, as were fine cloths. Countless goldsmiths,
silversmiths, bronze-smiths, coppersmiths, and jewellers dealing in precious
stones from the Baltic to the sands of North Africa.
The finest finished weapons and jewellery would however not be here but were
reserved for the court at Bamburgh.
Men of every hue jostled each other, dark Moors,
ice-blondes from the North, swarthy Greeks and Italians, all speaking loudly in
their own tongues, vying with homely Englisc, and the closely related Saxon and
Jutish dialects of the Southern Englisc, talking with the accents of Franks and
Frisians, Goths and other Northmen. These were harder on the boy’s ear.
Sometimes he thought that he could understand the words they used, the sense,
but then it was like dealing with shape-changers, the word twisted and he lost
his grip upon them.
Life in the Reeve’s hall for the leading men felt
different to Garwulf. There was a wariness in the Hall, of men uncertain of
those around them, and of themselves, their futures. A transitory atmosphere,
just as the rough halls of great men that stood surrounded by their supporters’
huts and shelters standing in clumps had a temporary air. Oh, Garwulf listened
through cracks in the planking and climbed to the eaves, a harmless youth, and
he heard the usual boasting of men in their cups, but it sounded hollow to him.
Of course none of this was true of Garrick. He was a man certain of himself, of
his followers, and seemed to have his future mapped out. Others were like him.
These were the men to watch, thought Garwulf as he lowered himself from the
rain-butt he had been perched upon. He caught a glimpse of a fleet figure
behind him, reached for his seax, but immediately relaxed
Styr was there
as soon as his feet touched the ground. He was a young man, for all his arms
and hands were alight with honour-bracelets and rings, with the gold torque
around his neck taken from a British lord of Elmet, and his sword-pommel of
gold inset with garnets.
The young warrior had distinguished himself in
the King of Lindsey’s war-band, but had chosen to follow the Aethling on this
venture. Garrick was glad to have him. He was a natural seaman as well as a
deadly warrior, and soon proved himself the best amongst experts. He was
Garrick’s helmsman and high in his regard. Tonight it was the turn of other
Gesyths to accompany Garrick in the hall.
He and Garwulf had found a ready affinity during
the long months of preparation for this expedition. Styr
and the boy had been drawn together from the very early days of their acquaintanceship.
Garwulf liked and respected him. Another grown man who knew of him might have
found Styr’s reputation off-putting. A youth
could go where few men could tread. In truth there were not that many years
For all his reputation, Styr
was a very modest young man, tall and slender and with the heavily muscled
torso and lean hips of a sea-man rower and a trained professional warrior. His
receding hair-line made his fine boned face seem younger than his years, and
accentuated his expressive good-looks. For all his wide shoulders he was quick
and agile in his movements. As his name, ‘large and strong” implied, he was in
every way a formidable man.
Many great warriors could be considered foolhardy
or even reckless. Men had seen him thrown from his horse, face the boar on
foot, and kill it. Once on the trail of a dangerous and wounded boar he would
cross any torrent. He was known as merciless in achieving his ends.
There certainly lurked a silent danger beneath Styr’s withdrawn manner, and few men pressed him close.
Perhaps it was something the boy found hard to understand. Men walked wide of Styr not only because of his repute as a devil-may-care
warrior, dangerous and deadly, but because he was known as a Berserker.
A berserker was regarded as supernaturally
possessed by the Gods. They fought in a battle-frenzy, heedless of hurt.
Garwulf had never seen the killing-rage men whispered of, the berserk bouts
Styr was said to be subject to in battle, and which were the reason men walked
wide of him – that and his deadly skill with weapons or even with his bare
hands. What the youngster innocently perceived in Styr
was a withdrawn wisdom, and understanding of other men that itself made him
stand out among his peers. This air of quiet understanding concealed a very
private man. The boy knew that he had been thoroughly assessed on the very
first day of their acquaintanceship. Garwulf would swear that Styr
used any seemingly berserk behaviour, for effect and to intimidate.
Styr, was like
most Gesyths, a romantic. He knew and lived the myths and legends of his
people, and yet expressed his dreams and imagination differently. Not for him
the loud boast, or the shout-song accompanying a poor bard in the mead-hall.
Late in the evening, when all but the hardiest had found their way to sleep, he
would sit near the hearth quietly strumming, murmuring the words and rhythms of
those odes of Heroes from times long past quietly to himself and those
fortunate enough to still to be able to hear him. That too formed part of the
circle he had woven around himself. His very withdrawal in this age of
killing-violence made men regard him rather as a venomous snake. Unpredictable.
Until he had met Garwulf only women had been attracted to him, recognising in
him many of the wiles they themselves used to survive.
In his turn Styr
saw similar traits in Garwulf, having heard him ask the quick riddle of his
friends, allude to the great deeds of warriors long dead, and chant his
genealogy. Both were by nature solitary, and like called to like. There was
understanding betwixt the two. Garwulf was a youth much as Styr
had once been, a little wealthier and with less need to learn hard trades
quickly in order to survive in a world of violence, where a man’s sword arm was
the only way to enforce the few laws that there were. The younger lad was, like
himself, withdrawn and thoughtful. He did ask questions, and considered the
answers he was given. A man was named at birth in this world, but his name
could change as he grew older, took on a steadier character. Garwulf had grown
into his proud name, and Styr did not see him
becoming known by any other. He was his father’s son, and Styr
believed him born to destiny.
Garwulf was in fact far-better educated than
most, eagerly inquiring of the outside world, always asking, encouraged by both
his mother and father. He was an only son, and his father and maternal
grandfather took a close interest in his upbringing. The world of Nature was
close in all aspects of their lives. He learnt the medicinal uses of herbs and
other plants, from tree-bark to salving and soothing leaves, as did all
warriors. It was practical knowledge to learn the days and seasons, the
movements of sun and moon, flora and fauna, of wolf and deer, all the ways of
his environment. Of course a warrior left the more obscure theorising to the
priests, like Hagni, a priest who had attached himself to his father.
In the past few months Styr
had begun training the boy in weapons. He found Garwulf already a skilled fighter,
willing and eager to learn. There came the day when, with an old sword borrowed
from Garrick, he thrust through Styr’s guard.
“You are learning.” my friend, grinned Styr.
“Now we play harder!” and he lunged, making the boy recoil, and quickly hooked
his leg out from under him. Garwulf looked up to see a smiling face above a
sword-tip held at his throat. Such bred friendship.
So it was with good humour that Styr
caught the boy up, and swung him around. There was by now little dignity to be
lost between then “Ah.” exclaimed Styr, “I
must remember not to do that again, You have put on weight this winter, and I
swear that your seax was almost embedded in my Byrnie!”
“You are too sure of yourself.” retorted the boy.
“I knew you, and I know that you knew that I knew, or you would have done me no
“So it is indignity now, my Aethling?” asked Styr, his eyes twinkling.
“Oh, you know what I mean, or you know what you
think I mean.” responded the boy good-humouredly.
“By Thunor’s’ hammer, your words can sometimes
twist like a serpent’s, My Aethling!”
Chuckling and arguing together as no other men
had ever heard, these two made their way over to the ship-shelter. The ship was
well drawn up, safe from the sea. Garwulf already knew the feel of a waterlogged
leaky ship, left to the beetle. The crew were like horsemen, attending to the
needs of their vessel before their own.
But now they were at ease, sprawled out, relaxed,
with meat and ale brought by Welsh serving-women from the hall, most of whom had
stayed. A youngster, whether Aethling or cow-herd, early learnt the ways of the
They jumped up and greeted the two warmly. There
was already a strong bond among this crew. These men lived, rowed, sailed, ate,
and did everything together. In such a life both Garwulf and Styr
had long discovered that the only escape into privacy was into one’s own head.
They were both still somewhat suspicious of the ties that had grown up between
themselves. For both it seemed so unexpected, rare, in their lives. The
bonhomie with which they were greeted now by the crew was warm and basic.
The crew knew each other’s tales and jokes, but
still roared with laughter as the ale and mead was drunk, each man vying to
outdo his neighbour. These men all had individual dreams and hopes, but in the
here and now they were all men together, sharing a rare camaraderie, living a
life their wives and sweet-hearts had never entered. They already knew
something of each other, had quickly learnt which men were quick-tempered,
which less so. Blood-letting was ever only a moment away with such warriors,
because for all these men their pride and honour came first. Their oath was the
most precious asset they had in their lives, and it was guaranteed by their
reputation as individuals, hard earned, easily lost.
There were thirty good men in the crew Garrick
had selected for this exploratory voyage, a score of them freeborn churls, and
the ten best Gesyths that he had led during a life-time of war. These
Companions of Hall and Battle,
his immediate heathwearu, were adorned with jewelled rings and bracelets given
by the hand of Garrick himself, or by lords who had valued their prowess before
they had sworn their oath to the Aethling.
Garrick had led his own warband in Wave-Cleaver.
Herewulf was his most senior Gesyth, a tough no-nonsense man, a good
disciplinarian, but good natured withal. Sculf, the next in seniority, was
similar in both looks and nature. They were good soldiers, farmers, stockmen,
instinctive sea-men, and their wives had each pupped a hearty brood. The
remaining Gesyths were also men of good repute, younger and life-loving.
. Two larger broad-beamed vessels lay on the long
white strand of Lindsey, waiting for his word. With them Garrick’s wife,
Elfgivu, the wives of the few married men in his band, another two score
warriors, churls mainly, and all their bondsmen, goods, and chattels, breeding
livestock including Garrick’s stallion and two brood mares, and good breeding
hounds. With seed for the next harvest. They had been left under the command of
a reliable Gesyth, his name Osred, of wise council, apt indeed. He had a second
Gesyth, Hunlaf, with him. Garwulf was very glad to be free of him. Hunlaf far
away was for Garwulf a good thing.
The Churls were farmers first and foremost, in
search of new land upon which to build and to till, but on their voyage into
the North they knew that it would be as warriors first that they would earn
their Lords’ bread.
As Garwulf and Styr
neared the circle of firelight near Wave-Cleaver the welcome of Gesyth and
churl alike was effusive.
The churls, gathered nearer the far end of the
shelter were more soberly dressed, but in no-way less forthright or loud in
their good-hails. Both Garwulf and Styr felt
at ease among these men. They trusted their lives to them, as they did their
luck to the Gods.
After a while Garrick joined them. King
Aethelric, though many as yet disputed that title, had returned to Bamburgh. In
two days’ time, early in the morning, they were invited to his presence. There
was a landing-beach to the north of the fortress, and they would sail with the
tide. The men asked pertinent questions. Garrick told them bluntly that he
would ask Aethelric if he might seek land along the coast.
“Will we be his sworn men, Aethling?” asked
“No. You are free men, sworn only to me. We ask
him for no help, and expect none. If the land we find is adjudged within his
bounds, then we will honour that, and give service for it, but as free men.”
The men stamped their booted feet at that
statement, and asked no more. However at the news that every man of them would
enter the King’s hall there was much banter “Even Edda?”
“Best at the back, a man either side of him!” a
Gesyth shouted. Edda was a young churl, well-known for his quick sleight of
hand. “Aethelric might not look to giving rings on this, our first meeting!”
Indeed only a fool would gamble with Edda, but he was respected for his skill,
with no man there doubting he would ever cheat. For to do in so tightly knit a
band was indeed dangerous.
Every man looked to the morrow, to cleaning and
burnishing his equipment and harness. The men known to be the best barbers and
trimmers of beards would be sought after. But for now there was time. Garrick
joined them in ale and challenged Edda to gamble on two churls wresting on the
sand – and won. But the men were quieter now. They knew what was expected of
them. The long day, the cool evening air, the drink, and the Welsh-women, soon
led the men to their sleeping-hollows, huddled in their cloaks.
The next morning, while a churl was polishing his
father’s war-gear, Garwulf sought him out. “Father, what sort of man is this
Aethelric?” he asked. His father, sitting on a rock, looked at the young-old
face of his son, assessingly. The youth was the height of many men, but was
still lanky, with sinewy muscle beginning to replace the puppy-fat of
childhood. His face was ruddy and full, the cheekbones high, the eyes blue and
penetrating, the long hair curling on his neck flaxen. If the father had had a
true mirror there on this isle he would have seen an echo of himself in the
boy’s face, though no doubt Garwulf would be taller one day, and perhaps more
The Aethling thought a while before he spoke.
“Ida was a great warrior, and leader of men. He had many sons, all mighty
warriors, but not all wise, not all leaders of men. They jostled to fill Ida’s
shoes. Glappa and Adda are dead now, and Aethelric stands clear of his
remaining brothers. He is a hard man, but fair-dealing, I hear. He will be
proud, and it is to that pride and to his wisdom that I must speak tomorrow.”
The youth thought, remembered his father’s words
the night before, and asked “Has he more brothers?”
“Yes, Theodric, Frithwald and Hussa. All strong
ambitious men. That is not a family in which to be seen as weak. And there are
many others, without the family, who see themselves holding Bamburgh. They
regarded Ida as merely a war-leader, chief among equals, never as a King. They
see his sons as lesser men, supported only by their possession of The Rock and
Fortress of Bamburgh. Yes, my son, this is not a yet a kingdom such as Kent or
One of his Gesyths called to Garrick, and he
stood up, wiping off the sand, and said quietly “I thought long and hard before
deciding to have you stand alongside me in that Great Hall, son. Remember
Garwulf walked along the sand, and climbed the
rocky ledge from which he could see Bamburgh clearly. He was still there,
gazing out to sea and thinking, imagining, when Styr
found him. “The Aethling has asked that you join him in the Reeve’s Hall
tonight, Garwulf. I am to be your Companion.”
Garwulf had half-expected this summons. Tonight
he would be his father’s son, an Aethling beside Aethling Garrick, and he knew
that he must conduct himself as a Man among Men.
“I thank you.” he said, his voice becoming more
formal as his thoughts raced.
As yet, as a boy, he had no man-servant. He had
no war-gear to clean and needed no assistance to wash his face of a morning,
brush his teeth, slip on shoes, hose and shirt, or buckle on his belt and seax.
Suddenly uncertain, he turned to Styr.
“ Styr, I would
be grateful if you would look over my dress and gear before we go.”
“My pleasure, My Lord.” said Styr.
That evening in the hall passed easily enough,
despite Garwulf’s early nervousness. He entered at Garrick’s side, and was
introduced to the Lords and Gesyths at the High Table. He was accepted, and
whilst Garrick took his place amongst the leaders, he and Styr
found themselves just above the salt. There were no churls eating in this
assemblage, except for a few functionaries supervising the slaves, and the meat
they put before him was good. As his father had advised, he drank little, spoke
less, and soon Styr was by his side, bidding
him see to his men at the ship. He rose, asking permission of his father and of
the reeve to leave.
Outside he found sweat drying on his face in the
cool breeze. “Phew. And we must go through all that rigmarole again tomorrow,
but far worse?” he said to Styr.
“No, tomorrow will simply be an audience. After
the Aethling presents you and his leading Gesyths, you will retire back to us,
and stand among your own. The Aethling talks for us all tomorrow. He will
repeat what is said, after, and we will hear.”
The morning saw blue skies, but a blustery
breeze, and a few loiterers saw them set sail to Bamburgh, with the reeve and
his Gesyths gathered to bid them well. The busy life of Lindisfarne
continued even when an Aethling sailed.
It was here, captive on the beach, that
Wave-Cleaver’s beauty overwhelmed the boy, her lines curved exquisitely, from
her long keel lifting high, to proud stem, swooping up again to high
stern-post. From gunwale to the lowest strake abutting the keel, she looked
natural, living, straining at her reins, willing her crew to take her back to
her natural element, the sea.
She was a long-ship, and looked to be a fine
example of the shipwright’s art, clinker built with each strake overlapping the
one beneath, capable at a pinch of carrying a further half score of fighting
Her name was apt. To those coming upon her
unexpectedly at sea, or looming from the mist, her black pitch coating making
her seem like a raven of death when under the rising and falling oar-blades.
This morning’s voyage was to be a short one and
the men would row in all their finery. The raked mast was not raised in her
midships position for this journey. These men were sea-men, not truly sailors.
The sail was useful with the wind astern, but difficult to tack under, and
rather unwieldy. Wave-Cleaver depended on the muscle and sinew of her men.
The ship met the surf, and glided through the
frolicsome waves to rest, bucking like the war-horse she was. The crew loosed
the ropes and waded out to her, their weapons held high. Once aboard, with each
man going to his own station, but alongside hung the shields of the warriors,
emblazoned with their arms and symbols, and the great White Dragon was raised
at the prow.
Bamburgh, seen from a distance across the
sea-channel as they closed the shore was an imposing rock with seemingly puny
fortifications which grew greater with each sea-mile as they neared her, until
it was almost all that Garwulf could think of and comprehend, The sea-girt Rock
stood proud of a long white strand, fronted by banked sand-dunes, gulls
wheeling over her towers and walls.
Having steered out to sea to avoid the headland
and sand-banks afore tuning sharply in towards the shelving beach north of a
postern gate, those mighty walls now towered above them. The wooden palisades
were fast being replaced by hand-chiselled stone-work, seemingly growing out of
the living rock, and finely shaped, allowing little hand or toe-hold. Soon
plaster and a smooth lime coat would protect it further against assailants and
the elements. The son’s of Ida were determined to hold this great fortress.
Aethelric’s writ must run far afield to have attracted so many crafts-men, and
his wealth great to pay them, thought Garwulf. These were freemen, skilled
masons and builders, and even the slaves had to eat.
And so it was. Men said it was the mightiest hold
of the Englisc along this coast. Garwulf has seen it from the sea, and seen it
grow closer as they rowed towards the beach. It had loomed large in his
imagination, but in truth the reality was far more impressive.
Spears and helms glinted on the battlements,
helmet plumes tossed, and they took down the White Dragon before gliding in
through the soft surf and up onto the beach. The lower postern opened, and
armoured men debouched, shields and spears in hand. Garrick leapt down and
introduced himself to the foremost Gesyth.
“Yes, my Lord Aethling, we have been expecting
you. My name is Beardnoth. I bid you Good Day, and ask that you accompany me to
my Lord Aethelric’s Hall.”
“I thank you for the honour you do me and my
men.” replied Garrick. He saw his ship secured, and that Beardnoth himself
posted guards upon her.
They were led through a dusty palisaded forecourt
which led to a narrow cleft in the rock. Above them stood a stone gatehouse
covering the entire forecourt. More soldiers saluted them and swung wide the
gates. They climbed up to the buildings on the undulating plateau, protected by
even higher walls around the Rock’s circuit. The buildings, mostly of timber or
wattle and daub, closely thatched, ranged from outbuildings and pens to fine
guest-halls. Beardnoth led them along a road to the highest point of the Rock,
to an imposing hall that had to be Aethelric’s own.
All around was the bustle of a town within the
fortress. Men of all stations, and none. It was a mixed population in Bernicia,
and Garwulf recognised a Christian priest. It was odd to see here the last
thing he had expected, a Churchman. His tonsure and dress seemed so different
from the rare travelling Christian priests he had seen in Lindsey. His religion
was to Garwulf some strange survival from the old days, although his maternal
Grandfather might have Christian tendencies, descended as he was from Englisc
foederati, or allies, of Rome.
They had long been in this land.
All these impressions and thoughts crowded his
mind for an instant as they neared the hall itself, the doors guarded by huge
whale-bones, with monumental carvings of Gods and Beasts intertwined with
serpents on the lintel and on the roof-arches.
Beardnoth said that, by the Aethling’s leave, he
would announce them to the King.
So this was it, thought the boy. No waiting
about, no boredom leading to frustration. He realised, perhaps for the first
time, who his Father was, and his status among men. That was something he had
largely taken in his stride, and accepted, when he was growing up.
Beardnoth led the way into the hall. Guards
clashed spears, doors opened wide. They were not asked to disarm, but the
Gesyths doffed their helmets and the churls their leather Phrygian hats. In
this fine morning light the hall was spacious, the feast-benches pushed to the
sides, and the way clear to the high-table beyond the hearth. Only tapestries
hung on the walls, the warrior’s shields which hung there of an evening gone
now, close with their bearers, upon their daily business. As they were
announced a door opened at the far end of the hall, to one side of the
high-table, and a man entered, backed by two other men. The foremost was
Aethelric, the other two his brothers Theodric and Frithwald. ‘A mixed bag’
thought the boy, and caught himself from snorting in his embarrassment and
And so they were. These surviving sons of Ida
were war-lords, and held their position through strength, courage,
ruthlessness, and no little brains. Aethelric stood out among his brethren, his
presence dominating the hall.
Once Aethelric and his brothers had taken their
places at the high-table the Aethling approached, bowing his head, and
introducing his son, the warranty of peace and good-will. Aethelric
acknowledged his guest in kind, naming his brothers, and the talking began.
Much of it passed the youth by. He retreated to his comrades towards the back
of the echoing hall. He was absorbing his surroundings, feeling the atmosphere.
Up close there with Father he had for a moment sensed a kind of physical
frailty about Aethelric, as if his time at the head of his war-band would be
short. He thought his father felt it too. The negotiations drew to a close.
Garrick had won Aethelric’s support, and sworn to be his man for land
recognised as Aethelric’s. Perhaps the thought that this was a personal oath to
another man, Aethelric himself, and not to the King of Bernicia, made him all
the more ready to swear. Aethelric’s brothers had noted the wording, but said
nothing. They were men looking for allies in the future, not likely to alienate
such a powerful man as an Aethling of Lindsey.
They parted with words of good fellowship, but
were not asked to feast with the King that night, and Beardnoth once more led them
into the morning sunlight. “Of course the youngest brother Hussa was not here.”
he told Garrick. “He is away clearing the hills of these pestilent Welsh. It is
like swatting gnats. Their cavalry ride down and savage our frontiers, our
churls never feeling secure in their homes.”
Garrick heard that the outlying farmsteads were
forts in their own right. This surprised the man from Lindsey, where a man
rarely enclosed village or hall. They safe-guarded their people by the sword.
“The shield-wall is impervious to cavalry in open
battle.” agreed Beardnoth, “but it does not come to that. We inch forward, and
stand to hold the ground we take, but our warriors are simply not as mobile as
their riders. We hear that Urien of Rheged is mustering allies, and believe
that one day he will face us on the raven’s-field”
Garwulf had heard tell of Urien. A man from the
old mists of the past, who called himself by the ancient Roman title of
Protector, and who strove to gather all the lesser men of the Celtic North.
A man lost in the past, perhaps, but also by the
sound of it an efficient leader of soldiers. Because that is what the boy had
learnt of Urien’s men, that besides the leaders, who were very similar to
honourable Gesyths, the men were led by paid professional soldiers, who trained
their men like automatons, and drove them into battle with whips.
“They call it discipline and training.” Styr had told him when they talked of such things. “They
try to drive out all the individuality in a man, then call him a soldier. Men
say that to change a man from a Roman or a Briton to a slave is not such a big
Garrick asked if he could look from the wall at
the country inland, and received both permission and a guide from the courteous
Beardnoth. Below was rich farming land, with pasture in the distance and
covering the lower and nearer hills. The sun was just past noon and in the far
distance they could see serried ranks of great hills, fells, old forest on
their steeper slopes, with secondary growth higher up.
“The Welsh used to farm the thinner soils up on
the hill-tops.” said Beardnoth, “but our churls with their heavier ploughs
prefer the loamy lowlands. We pasture our stock on the hills nowadays.”
“But deeper in those high hills many a Welshman
must lurk, ready to slit a herdsman’s throat.” stated Garrick flatly. Beardnoth
agreed with a jerk of his head.
They parted, to find Wave-Cleaver as they had
left her, and set out on the return voyage to Lindisfarne.
There the men gathered. They had heard all that
had been discussed, understood the delicate under-currents, and were loud in
their praise for Garrick on their return. Garrick called a formal Moot, or
meeting, and made his proposals.
“Men, I believe this a good gamble. We shall make
this our base, and voyage out into the Northern Seas
to find our new home. We take land beyond Aethelric’s writ. Many men have gone
before us, and the coast is strongly held and not only by the Welsh. Men of our
blood often still hold the lands the Romans granted their ancestors as
Federates. We will not raise blood-feud or fight our brothers in this new land,
if we can avoid it. We seek the territory of foreigners, of the Welsh, to make
our own, to farm and build upon!”
Great acclamation met his words, and the men
dispersed, Garrick to provision his vessel, his men to sharpen their blades and
discuss their ideas of an ideal settlement
Herewulf’s job was to supply the ship’s needs,
but he was supervising some minor re-caulking on Wave-Cleaver, and Garrick had
felt the need for amusement, and took on the task of provisioning himself.
Garrick was known not to be recruiting, content with his select Hearthwearu,
and hoped that he would not be bothered with would-be recruits as he walked
around the booths.
He had taken Garwulf and Styr
with him. Whilst bickering with a merchant, out of the corner of his eye he saw
on the pasture land beyond the settlement what seemed to be the beginnings of a
brawl. Garwulf, bored with hucksters, moved across, the better to see what was
happening, and Garrick good-humouredly followed his son.
A very young man, a churl by his dress, was
surrounded by fully armed Gesyths, at least four of them, and all as youthful
as their quarry. One of the Gesyths had taken the lead, and demanded that the
son-of-a-whore return with them immediately. Unabashed and grinning, the churl,
ruddy faced and stocky, replied in kind, remarking that at least he had known
his own father, as all who knew him here could attest!
As Garwulf arrived, his father and Styr almost in tow, the first Gesyth drew a long blade, a
pattern-welded sword of the finest craftsmanship, and thrust at the churl.
Moving almost like an acrobat the churl moved in a blur, somehow circled the
Gesyth, pulled his arm behind his back, and, drawing his seax, held it at the
other man’s throat. Styr whistled, and Garwulf
gasped. Neither had seen such a display before. Garrick looked on with a smile.
There was clearly an impasse. The Gesyths could
not move as they valued their companion’s life. The churl remained on the
defensive but still had a grin on his honest broad face, still held the seax at
his tormentor’s throat. Suddenly Garrick stepped forward, and spoke. The
Gesyths, recognising the Aethling, held their ground, but ceased their growls.
They also looked long and hard at Styr, thoughtfully fingering the hilt of his long sword,
which, if anything, looked a finer blade than the one already drawn, and the
chosen weapon of an experienced professional warrior. Styr’s
arm-rings and torque told their own tale.
“What is the cause of this raucous behaviour? Why
should Gesyths choose such unseemly prey?” he inquired. Two or three voices
answered as one, but he chose his spokesman, an impetuous-looking youth.
The Gesyth looked around at his companions, and
they nodded. “This slave showed me disrespect, My Lord.” he spluttered,
“I am a free men.” shouted the churl.
“I did not ask you, You will have your turn.”
Garrick said curtly.
“How has he shown you disrespect, Sir, and if so
why should a Gesyth like yourself need so many companions in order to teach him
“Do you see that fine blade he holds at my
brother’s throat?” asked the Gesyth. “Well, I asked him how he came by it,
intending to find the man he stole it off, and to return it.”
“And if this was a stolen seax, why the posse for
a single churl?” asked Garrick.
“When I asked the whore-son about the knife, he
refused and he abused me”, replied the Gesyth.”That is when my comrades came
“They seem to have done more than stand-by.” said
Garrick briskly. “If it takes so many of you to subdue a churl, then I take
pity on your Lord. It looks to me as if most of you here simply regarded a
free-man as fair game.”
His contemptuous tone took them aback, and two of
the Gesyths began slipping away, into the ring of onlookers, leaving the
spokesman and his captive comrade alone on the field.
Garrick turned to the churl and wryly asked if he
would be so kind as to loose his captive, and tell him about the origins of the
“Of course, My Lord.” said the churl, and
releasing the shame-faced Gesyth he moved quickly over to Styr’s
side. Safely out of sword’s-reach, Garwulf noted.
“The seax is mine, given by my mother to her son
on our father’s death. He was not merely a churl, but a brave man in battle,
and earned this weapon the hard way.”
Garrick made up his mind. “I will speak to the
reeve and inquire as to any claimants to this blade. I will also tell him that
if any other claimants cannot prove their claim on their bodies, man to man,
then this churl shall go free with his knife. And.” he added, “this churl is now
under my protection, and his accuser will have to realise that. No man of mine
will face a sword-thrust by a man wearing a mail-byrnie whilst himself
A momentary silence ensued, then, with a snarl of
disgust the two Gesyths turned away. Their amusement over, the onlookers too
The young man found himself alone with Garrick,
his son, and Styr. Both looked non-plussed.
The churl was the first to speak.
“Why, My Lord?” he asked.
“Because I have never seen a move as quick and
decisive as yours.” answered Garrick. “Because your father must have been a
worthy man who taught you well. Because every man should have the same courage
to stand by his name, and the parents who bore and raised him. I would be glad
to have your oath.”
“My Lord, I have nothing but this heirloom, and I
can make the moves I do because since my mother died I have earned my bread the
hard way. I inherited no land, have no living kin, and have been a tumbler, a
juggler, a horse-breaker, but never a thief. I can sing and play any stringed
instrument I am brought. I am Edgar son of Edda, and I bring you nothing but my
blade and my name.”
And there he knelt on the pasture-green, and all
men saw him swear to be Garrick’s Man, and they heard Garrick swear in his
turn, and slipped off an arm-clasp to give to his new recruit.
So it was that Edgar son of Edda joined the
Hearthwearu of Garrick, Aethling of Lindsey, and on the morrow claimed an empty
chest-bench at the oar-seats of Wave-Cleaver.
For it was on the dawn of that day that they
first set out, sailing along the northern coasts and seeking, searching. They
rounded rocky headlands, delved into sandy coves, were carried out by wild
currents, risked many a tide-race, their enemies more the gods, waves, the
wind, and the tides than men. Always there was a reason not to stay. Either a
place was indefensible, or the coast too treacherous, a water-supply lacking,
perhaps the hinterland was barren and unattractive to farm, or well-armed men
made clear their disapproval at their appearance. Twice they saw well-mounted
British cavalry in the cliff-tops, pacing them. Sometimes they saw smoke rising
from well-built stone watch-towers, heard the brazen call of an alert garrison,
and sailed on. Occasionally they were able to guest themselves on weary folk of
their own kind, but more usually their sleep was restless and broken. The good
weather did not hold, and twice unseasonable gales drove them back to
Lindisfarne, but although Wave- Cleaver was now salt-caked, her crew red-eyed,
toughened by their explorations, they set off hopefully, expectantly, and with
as good a will on their third voyage as they had on their first.
By now Edgar had somehow gravitated to Garwulf,
the one on board Wave-Cleaver nearest his own age. Garwulf found his attentions
flattering at first, then grew to accept them. Styr
watched, amused. It was time the boy took a man-servant. Soon he would have
need of the services of a good churl, one personally loyal, just as did most
Gesyths, except for a man such as Styr. A
warrior was taught to be self-reliant, but one of the standing of an Aethling’s
son, an Aethling by blood himself, should have such a man by his side.
Garrick also watched. Solitary as his son had
been, this voyage was bringing out his best qualities. He was earning the
respect and loyalty of the tough men even of the Hearthwearu. Garrick was
Edgar was on his oar on the morning of that third
attempt. It was not a day such as the one on which they had arrived at Bamburgh
– that had been a day with white gulls wheeling in the blue sky. Today was a
grey wave-tossing morning with a thin cutting breeze slow to disperse the
The breeze was soon looking to blow harder,
bringing threatening waves with increasing visibility. Unexpectedly he heard a
chuckle from Garwulf seated on the combing nearby. Garwulf took his turn at the
oars, but not this early after the launching, when skill and experience were
all. “Oh, there are times when I wish Hunlaf were here. Today promises to be
such a day. I would love to see the snivelling wretch puke his guts out later
He chuckled “Remind me when we do ship with that
bastard again to ask Father to seat him downwind of me!”
Curious, Edgar found himself asking “Who is this
Hunlaf, my Lord?”
Garwulf caught himself. Edgar was but a churl he
had just met, but he trusted those brown eyes already, so he went on:” My
father, Garrick, was sword-brother to his father Godfred. Garrick took Hunlaf
in on his parents’ death. He is not a member of Garrick’s Kin, my Kin. Father
took him in as he has no known kin-folk. He is the biggest rogue in Lindsey. A
sneaking underhand thing. If you ever find yourself in a dice-game with him,
mind his hands and beware of his long sleeves. Oh, they say he is handsome
enough for the girls, but as my mother told me, handsome is as handsome
A hail from the look-out brought idle gossip to
an end. Glimpses of another black long-ship ghosted in and out of the mist. The
far-sighted Garrick peered long and hard then waved and called a greeting, as
did the other vessel. They stayed on the alert until she again vanished in a
fog-bank. This was the North.
The wind did blow harder. Garwulf did row. They
beached most nights under strong guard. The food as ever grew more tasteless
with each passing day. The men’s spirits remained high. The weather seemed to
vary with each dawning. Sunshine and blue skies, grey drizzle and soaking-rain,
but fortunately no gales such as they had run from before, because only a fool
stands brave against the Gods. They were temperamental, as were men. Most men
prayed to Thunor, the god of the sea and protector of seamen, and did not
grumble even at the storms lit by his lightning-bolts. Hunlaf wore his swastika
hammer symbol on his shield in honour of Thunor. Garwulf, like most men,
respected Woden, the Sky-Father, the one-eyed Wanderer, whose two ravens,
‘Thought’ and ‘Mind’, kept him informed of the goings-on in the world. His
father had especially led him to worship Tiw, whom old men sometimes said was
the real Lord of the Heavens. For Tiw was the War God, the one who stood in the
shield-wall beside a Man in the shock and fury of battle, the fear, sweat, and
stink close, by the side of the man alone, in a thought-less maelstrom of iron.
Late one afternoon, with the sun’s evening rays
already slanting down, they were looking for the usual night’s landing-site.
The look-out hailed, softly, and Garrick stiffened. They were sailing further
out than usual to avoid the rocks guarding the shore, and the Black Ship was
already half-way past a small white cove, guarded both north and south by two
promontories. On the furthest of these, the highest, was a tower.
No guard appeared to see them, although a wisp of
smoke rose lazily, and proved the Tower held. Perhaps the evening sun, shining
strongly in the eyes of any watcher, kept Wave-Cleaver from being seen. They
had not been long since coming out from behind the first outcrop. Perhaps it
was sheer incompetence.
Garrick called softly to his men to make as
little noise as possible in lowering the black sail, leaving the White Dragon
only under oars. Two men were stationed in the bows to sound the depth with
lines as he manoeuvred the Black Ship close to the largest rock, almost an
islet. There he anchored. The sun was falling fast to the horizon. They might
escape unseen until night-fall. Gesturing to his helmsman Styr
he whispered in his ear and the young Gesyth stripped and dived into the water
and swam slowly and quietly towards the rock, and began to climb its slippery
white guano covered side.
His men understood without a word. They hoped
that this was the opportunity they had long looked for. Even if there was
nothing worth the taking here, and its hinterland waste, at least the lax
appearance of the inhabitants promised little effort in the taking. They
watched Styr closely, and when he returned
there were many hands ready to help him aboard.
Shivering, he wrapped a cloak about himself, and
spoke to Garrick, who then turned and in a soft clear voice addressed the crew.
“Styr has seen a clear channel in through the
rocks to the beach. The lesser headland is bare. The beach shelves gently, ideal
for taking in the ship and beaching her. There seems only one easy path up to
the top of the larger promontory, and that is guarded by the tower. However Styr believes that he has seen enough to climb the cliffs
and to take the lazy Welsh in the rear. He saw only one head above the parapet,
and even at that distance could swear that he was dozing!” The men liked the
sound of that!
“Men, this is by far our best chance in all our
long voyaging. The fields inland which we have been able to see when we have
beached at night seem to be good. This could be made into a true stronghold and
keep for a settlement. At least there will be war-loot for men willing to take
recovered. The plan was simple. Styr and three
others would land first in the skiff in the hour before moonrise. They would
scale the cliff and wait, examine the ground and defences. One man would keep
his eyes on the ship. After two hours the ship would sprint silently for the
shore. There would be no signal. Garrick would lead the reinforcements up the
path, while Herewulf and Garwulf, with four trusted churls guarded the ship,
ready to cover any retreat.
Garwulf turned to his father. Before he could
speak Garrick squeezed his shoulder, and said “Not now, Son.”
Garwulf subsided. At least Edgar would be one of
the churls left guarding the ship with him.
The men prepared silently for battle. They
lowered the skiff and Styr and his comrades
rowed with muffled oars for the shore. It was a clean approach, and the
watchers thought that they saw them secure the boat and begin to climb the
Garwulf heard what happened next from Styr himself. “The climb was easy enough, as was the
approach to the tower. We passed through a few hovels making up the village
below the Tower. The hamlet stands on a sort of ledge or step. The village was
deserted. All the people were in the Tower. The ditch was almost filled in, but
the stockade gate was barred. We saw a man on the ramparts of the tower, and
one above the gate. There seemed to be some sort of drunken celebration going
on. Not even the two guards seemed sober, turning and shouting to each other
and to others in the courtyard below. We were really in luck. We found a place
within bow-shot where the undergrowth had grown back, and young Bertred crawled
to a vantage point from which he could see you and the ship, and we could see
him. Haesta carefully chose his truest shafts, and we waited.”
They had not long to wait. As the sounds of
revelry within the stockade began to subside as drink-sodden celebrants began
to fall silent and into sleep, the black ship glided silently out from behind
the rocks and toward the cliff and the small sandy cove at its foot.
Bertred signalled. Haesta drew and shot two
war-arrows in quick succession. His skill with the bow was legendary. Both
guards seemed to fall in the same moment, soundlessly. The ship grounded and
the four Gesyths crossed the clogged ditch where the palisade was collapsing
inwards. A few moments and they were over. Before them was a scene of chaotic
disorder. Most of the inhabitants were probably in a drunken sleep in the Tower
and outbuildings, but a few were happily staggering about the courtyard,
toasting each other and whatever and whoever was the cause of their good cheer.
Two couples at least lay in dark corners. No one looked up, or noticed the
absence of the guards they had so recently been talking to.
Bertred joined them. The ship had grounded.
Garrick should be on the path by now. The men parted swiftly, Haesta and
Bertred to sidle along inside the wall to the gate and unbar it when they heard
Garrick’s owl-call, Styr and his companion to
ready themselves to hold the main door to the Tower.
Styr heard the
owl-hoot, and Haesta’s reply as he slipped out of the shadows to unbar the
gate. He heard Garrick’s men charge within, but saw them not, his mind fully on
his allotted task. There was some confusion as they brushed past the scattered
people in the courtyard, bleary questions quickly cut short. They mounted the
steps to the door, heard a doubtful challenge and Styr
thrust his sword into the guts of a half-armed warrior. He collapsed, and the
two Engliscmen looked around them at the hall.
Men were slumped at their benches, others had
slid under them. The women were more alert than the men, and shouted the alarm.
Two men, one middle aged, the other younger, pulled weapons from the wall. A
third followed, perhaps more soberly, drawing a sword. All three were dressed
in soiled finery, but the third looked more of a threat.
The first two rushed clumsily upon the two
Engliscmen, who stood with their backs to the door. Styr
did not wait for them. Leaving his companion to hopefully guard his back, he
was in amongst them in a split-second. His blade swiftly slashed right, almost
cutting the right-hand Welshman in twain. Quickly withdrawing his blade he
stabbed into the bowels of the second, who fell in dying agony. The third man
fell back. He was far from being in fighting condition, but had good fighting
instincts. His sword-play surprised Styr. This
man was dangerous. Twice the Welshman parried Styr’s
cuts, and backed slowly towards the hearth. The other Welsh were silent now,
cowering, drunk or dead, covered by the second Gesyth, with the sound of
Garrick’s men loudly charging their way up the steps.
One woman, she who had shouted the warning first,
quickly glanced around her and defiantly plucked a knife from the table. Before
the other Gesyth could react she flung it at Styr
whose attention was on the swordsman. Styr
ducked and almost absent-mindedly slashed her down, cutting her face wide open
in a bloody gash from eye to jaw. She fell dying among the rushes, screaming
soundlessly. Styr’s eyes had never left those
of the swordsman.
A few more passes between them showed the
weakness of the Briton’s old factory-made Roman sword. The fine pattern-welded
steel of Styrs’ sword bent it and made it twist in the other’s hand. Frustrated
and unable to get past Styr’s guard, seeing his death in those ice-cold eyes,
and with no help coming, the Briton threw caution to the winds and hurled
himself at Styr. Styr
ran him through. The Briton’s desperate strength still drove home his own poor
sword. It made no impression on the fine-wrought links of Styr’s
waist-length byrnie. Styr wiped his sword on
the dead man’s tunic and, looking down, regarded him for long seconds. “A brave
man. I must know your name.” he said out loud.
There was no more resistance. Garrick charged in,
shield and sword ready. They hustled the prisoners into the courtyard along
with those Garrick’s men had taken, searched each floor of the tower, and
dragged out the dead. Garrick had ordered that their be no looting or
unnecessary killing. Their first priority was to secure the prisoners, their
second to be on their guard against a bid to recapture the Tower, and for news
of that they must interrogate the prisoners.
The information was easily forthcoming. Shock had
overwhelmed the captives. From owl hoot to Garrick’s entry into the hall had
taken no more than five minutes, and in that time Garrick heard that he and his
men had killed not only their Lord, but his only son whose marriage day this
was. His bride, she who had hurled the knife at Styr, and everyone of the
half-dozen armed guards their lord had had at his disposal – either on the
ramparts, in the Hall, or during Styr’s charge through the courtyard, had been
killed. He identified the headman of the village, and found Edgar a ready
speaker of Welsh – Garrick was heard to mutter that there was much to discover
about that young man.
“Who was your Lord?” demanded Garrick
“ Brendan, your Honour.” he was told by the
headman, ”although His Roman name is Flavius Decimus. His son too was a
Flavius, but known to us by other names. His wife was a nobody, My Lord. She
was my daughter.”
“I see.” said Garrick.”Already I begin to learn
about your village politics.” Garrick grinned grimly. “You are no longer
Headman. You and your immediate family will be held close until we free you.
Fear not. You will be fed and well-treated. If we discover that your duties
have been well performed, and feel that you can be trusted, you will walk
Garwulf understood his father’s words. The
headman was to be hostage for all the villagers.
forward, and with a nod to his Lord, said to the ex-headman, shortly, “If she
was your daughter you breed spirited children. She was brave.” He nodded to the
ex-headman. “Be proud of her. Very Proud.” The ex-headman bowed his head.
Styr added “I
would know the name of the swords-man who fought me.”
“Caradoc, Sir. He led Brendan’s bully-boys.”
“I care not for his life. He died a Man and a
Warrior.” said Styr flatly. He will be buried
separately from the others, with his weapons and war-gear”
A slight man in a crumpled and dirty cassock stood
forward and said “Sir, I am Luke, a Priest of Christ. Caradoc was a Christian,
of my flock. I would beg you award him Christian burial.”
“So be it.” said Garrick, after seeing Styr nod. “But once you have buried your dead, leave this
settlement. I will have none of your spying ways.”
It appeared that Brendan, or Flavius, had no
close kin or allies. In these troubled times many had claimed his allegiance,
but he had been a wily man, however humble a lordling. He even married his own
to avoid entanglements. Garrick would not have to fear an immediate attack,
although he would take all precautions.
In the fine dawn light he stood with his son on
the ramparts, and together they looked out over the panorama spread beneath
them. “First we must put a permanent watch on that southern headland, I want no
man to surprise me as I surprised Brendan. From that vantage-point not even a
skiff can lurk behind those rocks. These Welsh were not seamen. I must buoy the
channel, patrol the cliffs.”
A river debouched from the distant hills and
meandered across the plain. It cut through the cliffs in a series of small
waterfalls by which Styr and his comrades had
climbed the previous night, and flowed over the sands to the sea. “It was
fortunate that we did not see all the hazards of landing here.” Garrick told
Garwulf. “It might have discouraged us.”
Turning inland he looked at the miserable hovels
in the village below. “Brendan obviously taxed his peasants to the limits in
their daily lives. No wonder they took full advantage of a rare holiday at
their Lordling’s expense – although no doubt he would have made them pay
heavily for their hangovers.”
Beyond the fields was rough pasture, the rising
land gradually changing into hummocked moor-land. The rocky moors were not flat
but cut by ancient watercourses, some of which still flooded in winter and
spring, turning much of the land to treacherous bog. Deep hollows and crooked
fissures pockmarked the landscape. The rocks and hillocks were sculpted into
weird and wonderful shapes by wind and water. Clumps of gorse and heather were
interspersed by bent and twisted trees. Out there a man could search and find
traces of The Old Ones from long ago, their carved standing stones hidden by
time and neglect. Isolated rocky outcrops were sometimes linked by saddles to
simulate miniature ranges as the moor rose, stretching away to the faraway
hills, blue in the morning sunshine. ”Brendan was a mean fool.” Garrick
continued. “A little more risk, a little more expense, and he could have taken
many more acres under the plough. Much more of that pasture-land can be
ploughed. Our ploughs are heavier and cut a straighter furrow. Then we can
graze our stock further out.”
“Yes, he said to his son. “ This will be our
home. Here we will build. We will make ourselves secure, ride the moor
together, then send back Wave-Cleaver for your mother, and for the others.”
As he turned he saw the little priest, and
stopped. Before he could talk, the cleric spoke “My Lord. I am not a
fighting-man, but a man of God, a man of peace. I will be no spy. No lord now
has claim upon me, no bishop is nearer than Carlisle.
I beg you to allow me to continue serving my flock. I am a good healer. I can
tend your wounds and help you in sickness. My flock would want me to comfort
them in these times”
Garrick thought. This man might help to keep the
Welsh in line, readier to accept the new order. He would need their labour.
“You may stay, Priest. First I want from you and
your ex-headman a thorough accounting, of every beast, plough, tool, and
person, on this land. Inform me of each man or woman’s skills and gifts.”
A more personal thought had crossed his mind. His
beloved wife Elfgivu was born of true stock on the Wall, of warriors who had long
before the Romans had scuttled back to their looted city and left these
miserable Welsh to do their own fighting. Such as his wife’s family had served
them well and loyally, but as the people they served dissolved in civil war
they had bethought them of their kinsfolk from across the seas, and joined
hands with them. His wife, like many long-settled foederati, had a few
Christian ways, that she never mentioned to her husband. Garrick loved his
wife, and wanted to try to please her. It would perhaps suit her to have a
When the little man had vanished back to his
humble wattle and daub chapel, father and son looked down upon the courtyard
where their jesting warriors worked and supervised the villagers. They both
knew that they had not taken a mighty fortress or realm, but just a petty tower
once built by the Romans to watch these coasts. Still in these days of wattle
and daub it gave Garrick status. And a claim.
Both also saw their toe-hold for what it really
was. Here they were far from both Englisc and British princes, even beyond
Aethelric’s writ. Once their Lady and Osred arrived with her reinforcements
they could make themselves secure, and build. Then they could test their
neighbours, find how far they could find their natural bounds. Theirs was only
a watch-tower, but the Englisc needed no walls. They would build their homes
here near it. From here they would take their land in The North. The iron in
Garrick’s hair told the world of experience, and he still showed strong of arm
and firm of speech, and he had a son beside him to be proud of. Garrick might
not lead a war-band as mighty as that of Aethelric, but for all that he was
subject to no man.
As for the Welsh, they were many, the Englisc
few, but the contest was still unequal. It was between a dynamic and innovative
Warrior culture set against a crumbling one which lived for past glories. The
Englisc sang songs of the Heroes of old in order to inspire their young, but
the Welsh sang theirs as mourning dirges. This was their Wyrd.