The wolfpack watched the lumbering ox wagons heading along the sodden causeway toward the island and its scraggly trees. The drivers had to get off and lead the animals through the boggiest part of the path. Godfrew pulled the hood of his cloak over his face, squinting through the eye holes of the wolf's mask. "How many are there, Tosti?"
"Four wagons, Master Wulf. Each has a driver and a guard. Hey, look, that front one has got stuck again!" The other members of the pack came and stood at his side, holding their hands to their eyes to see better. "Look at them! Even the guards are helping them try and get it moving."
"Normans working? I don't believe it." Clunn ran his thumb over the edge of his bill hook. Seeing a thin trace of blood, he seemed satisfied. "Can't be Normans! Must be hired Flems or Burgandians."
"Flems, Burgandians or even Black-a-Moors. If they work for the Normans, they are our enemies." Leofwine took a sly swig from the flask of ale that was always present.
Godfrew saw the ale flask and took it away. "Drink later. All of you get to work cutting brush for our beloved Norman masters to make the new causeway with."
"Why a new causeway, Master Wulf?" enquired Puta. He cleared some twigs from the grass, then sat down and picked up a bill hook to sharpen with his whetstone.
"How else? The Bastard has little choice. The only other way is by water. Would you like to try and force the passage? He could try and block us by sea, but the Danes are already off the coast and any mercenaries he hired would be no match for them when it came to water craft. No, the only way to take the Isle is by land-or what passes for land in this place." Godfrew stared down at his feet. He moved a foot on the soft ground and water came to the surface. "Now look busy, Puta. And Leofwine."
"Put the flask down and get on with it!"
"Master Wulf." Leofwine took a last sip and carefully placed the flask by the pile of brushwood he had cut.
The Frenchmen finally got the ox wagon moving again. With much swearing and shouting, they drove it and the others off the causeway and onto the island. As they made their way up the slight slope toward the woodcutters, the wheels of the wagons cut the green turf and exposed the rich black soil beneath.
Reaching the first pile of cuttings, the wagons stopped. The guard on the first one leapt down and walked forward. "Better come and give us a hand to load this lot, Jean," he called back to the next wagon in the French of Picardy. "You can help too, friend," he said to Clunn who stood in front of him. His Flemish was perfect, but spoken with a strong French accent. The man grabbed the first bundle of brushwood and found, to his surprise, that there was a detached head beneath. One of its eyes was closed in a lurid wink. He looked questioningly at Clunn.
Clunn moved back as the wolf closed in. The only reply the Frenchman got was a swish as Neckbiter came to take off his head. The Norman party stood stunned. By the time what had happened sunk in, the wolf pack was on them. Only one escaped and Godfrew pursued him toward the causeway.
As the man passed through the first clump of reeds, an axe whirled through the air and split him in twain, top from bottom. The man fell in two twitching heaps, joined only by steaming entrails.
"Almost let that one get away, Woden's Wulf." The owner of the axe stepped clear of the reeds and was followed by others, including Hogni blue eyes.
"But he was not as fast as a heron?" Godfrew asked.
"Ah, so you have heard of me name sake." The tall, raw-boned axeman bent to wipe the weapon's blade clean on the dead man's torn cloak. Never once did his eye's leave Godfrew's face.
"Wulfric Heron. Your deeds are famous." Godfrew couldn't help but let his eyes wander and compare the plain blade of the Heron's axe with Neckbiter's engraved one.
"And yours are infamous, son of Woden. Or maybe he is Woden himself, Hogni?" Wulfric asked his companion.
Godfrew went red, muttered, and went back to his men. Hogni stared after him and chanted a war prayer from the old times.
The wolves removed the wheels of the wagons and rolled them into the fen. The shafts were smashed and thrown into the wagons. After heaving the dead bodies onboard, the wagons were filled with the brushwood intended for the causeway, then they were fired.
Puta and Clunn walked the docile oxen across the small island toward the inlet where the punts were hidden. As the creatures walked, their heads moved from side to side in rhythm with their steps with their tails swinging the opposite way.
The spring day was mild and the midges were out in force. To keep the insects at bay, Clunn and Puta found themselves swinging their heads in the same manner as their charges. A midge got into Clunn's mouth and he came to a coughing halt.
After much hawking, Clunn managed to clear the nuisance from his throat. The anxious Puta watched and clucked sympathetically. Clunn caught him watching. "Puta, my pretty, how about you serving some nice roast ox heart to your pet mouse tonight?" he said, his eyes watering from the coughing.
Puta gave a gentle, shy smile. "For you I will find some bread and just the right herbs to go with it, for I know how much you love stuffing."
It did not take the Normans long to stop the raids on their work parties by Hereward's men. Soon the armed guards were increased to the point where only a full out attack could succeed in tackling them. Hereward was not prepared to risk his men in a set battle, so he waited, mounting only the odd nuisance raid to remind the invaders that they were in his territory.
The causeway grew. As damp spring turned to dry summer, the land firmed enough for the Normans' work to speed ahead. Their sappers now worked in clear view of the Isle of Ely, cutting away the dry rushes, preparing the ground for an army to be deployed.
It was a fine sunny morning when Martin Lightfoot was seen talking with Hereward outside his hut. Hereward sent the word to all the English and the few Danes still in their hill camp that the Normans were gathered for the final attack and to be ready to meet them.
Godfrew hovered near Hereward and his chief men as they stood talking. None seemed worried. In fact, Hereward spent most of his time laughing and slapping his men on the back. Hogni blue eyes came over to Godfrew and stared at him.
"Woden Wulf! Get they men of yours and join the shield wall by the crossing the other side of the Isle. Hereward commands it." The short man flicked the long fringe of hair out of his eyes without blinking or breaking contact with Godfrew's eye.
"We have no shields, Hogni. You know that. Indeed, we have no armour to fight in the front line." Godfrew looked across to where his men lounged about outside the crumbling wall of their thatched hut. When he looked back, Hogni was still staring at him.
"You need no shields, blessed Woden. There are plenty of warriors with shields. You and your men will stand in the gaps." The wind blew and moved Hogni's fringe again, allowing the hair to lay in his left eye, but again he did not blink. "Some of your men are archers, are they not?"
"Yes, but they have not brought their bows with them."
"I know that, old man, young man. They have been practising with Brynoth's men, and teasing them that their bows are too short. They have taught them to make longer bows, have they not?" The wind now blew the hair out of Hogni's blue eye.
"Yes." Godfrew shuffled his feet, uncomfortable in the presence of Hereward's man.
"Then let them use the bows they have made for Brynoth's men. Hereward will tell them to give the bows up. They will do what Hereward says, feeder of ravens." Only Hogni's lips moved. The rest of his body remained as a statue.
"Then the archers will be there. But again I say that the others should not be in the shield wall. We have no mail coats. When it comes to the fight, we will be cut down easily." Godfrew blew gently on Hogni's face, trying to get a reaction. Hogni remained as a statue, the only change was to his eyes as his pupils became needle points.
"There will be no fight, rider of Sleipnir. I sacrificed nine Frenchmen to you this morning. They hang now in the alders facing the crossing whence their comrades must come. You will honour the gift: there will be no fight."
At last Hogni turned and walked away.
Godfrew looked at his hands. They were shaking and his palms were sweating.
Godfrew called his men over and together they wended their way toward the southeast crossing, away from the camp and over the hill that dominated the isle.
The wolf pack breasted the low hill and walked down toward the broken crossing facing Stutney Isle. In front of them were armed warriors laughing and jostling each other for a place in the shield wall. Between them and the narrow river was a breast-high wall of woven wickerwork. Godfrew and his men stood in a huddle behind some warriors in the middle of the line. They were still unsure what to do when a shrill trumpet sounded across the river. Everyone strained their eyes to see the glimmer of light shining off the helmets and mail coats of their Norman attackers.
The rebuilt causeway ended a hundred paces from the river, just out of arrow shot for the short bows used by the fenmen. The ground at the end of the causeway, running parallel to the river, had been made hard by the sappers to a width of four men, but from there to the river bank, the ground was soft and swampy, unlike the firm land on the Isle of Ely side of the river.
As the first Normans came off the causeway and started to deploy along the hard ground, Hereward appeared on the crest of the hill and called in a loud voice that could be heard by all. "Form the shield wall. Spear and swords men to the front. Axemen ... two paces back. Archers ... in between the axemen. Slingers and others ... to the rear ready to fill any gaps. Archers ... shoot only on command. Hogni will give each archer a blessed talisman to wear. When I call red, those with a red talisman will shoot. When I call blue, the same ... then, also for yellow. Any archer who disobeys will be used as target practice for the others next Sunday afternoon!" Hereward laughed and the archers all joined him. "So be brave, men of Ely! Hold firm, men of Ely! Be victorious, men of Ely!" Hereward lifted high his sword, Brainbiter, and waved it.
The men cheered three times.
"To the wall!" Again the men cheered and then took their posts.
Godfrew looked along the line and saw how pitiful it was. Of all the men gathered there, only half had mail coats. Most of them were only ring mail. There were several well-armed Danes, but they were the older men who had been left behind to keep the camp ready should their King Swein have need of it. Of the English, fully half of them were new arrivals from Northumbria. They were half-starved, many still showing signs of injuries received in the harrowing of their beloved north.
The man to Godfrew's left saw him looking and read his thoughts.
"Aye, that's right, lad, a poor bunch, a forlorn hope. But then, do you want to live forever?" A livid scar ran from the crown of the Tyke's head to his chin. Crude stitch marks broke the red line in a random pattern.
"It's a good enough day to die! Why not today?" replied Tosti as he stuck a collection of arrows into the ground by his side. Tosti saw Godfrew turn suddenly to face him. "They say Saint Guthlac himself appeared last night to Hogni, walking across the fens from where his bones rest at Croyland," the youth hastily explained, going red at his leader's obvious annoyance. "Apparently, he promised us victory. If Saint Guthlac appeared, why should we worry?"
"I have seen more of Hogni than you have. I have spoken to Hogni more than you have." Godfrew's voice had a resigned hardness to it. "If anyone ever appears to Hogni it will be Satan claiming his own!"
"In that case, maybe we will die." Tosti went on with his task, somewhat quieted.
"Did someone say St. Olaf had appeared?" asked a rather corpulent Dane on Godfrew's other side, his breath tainted by last night's mead.
"Saint Guthlac of Croyland," said Godfrew, trying to keep downwind of the man's breath.
"Saint who?" asked the Dane, cupping his ear.
"GUTHLAC," shouted Godfrew.
"Guthlac, did you say?" the Dane looked to Godfrew and waited for his confirming nod. "Guthlac? Never heard of him. One of yours?" Again he waited for the nod. "I trust he is good. No point in him appearing if he isn't any good. Waste of good prayers and candles, saints are, if they are no good." Another trumpet call sounded and the Dane broke away to look to his front.
There, coming along their causeway and headed by sappers carrying thick wicker mats wide enough to protect five men, came the Normans' foot soldiers, ten abreast in a long silver snake that stretched way back. They halted on the hard ground facing the river whilst more sappers moved through the ranks bringing more of the large mats of woven wattle with them and dumping them in front of the host.
The English fell silent and took the opportunity to settle themselves, each man making sure that he could wield his weapon without interfering with those next to him.
Although the Normans were out of reach of the fenmen's short bows, they were easy targets for the longbows used by the wolf pack.
Both Clunn and Tosti tried to interest Brynoth into letting them shoot, but after glancing at the imposing figure of Lord Hereward, all they got was a shake of his head.
Leofwine sat down and took a swig of his ale as soon as the archer's captain had passed.
Brynoth moved along the shield wall, continuing to stop and talk quietly with each of the archers, advising them on wind strength and direction, indicating suitable targets.
He paused by Godfrew. "Tosti told me you were worried about how few men we had." Brynoth showed none of his usual humour, his voice being very gentle and thoughtful.
"It is not the strongest army I've seen in the field." Godfrew snuck another look along the ranks.
"No, but only about half our strength is here. The others must be elsewhere."
"Elsewhere?" Godfrew closed his blind eye and gave a puzzled look.
"Lord Hereward was about very early. Long before he roused the camp." Brynoth gave a sad smile. "It's me bladder, if I get up once in the night to piddle, I get up four or five times. It's getting worse as I get older," he shrugged. "Age, comes to us all." He ran a hand over his pocked face and played with the ends of his moustache before continuing: "Him and Wulfric Heron were organising the local men into groups and sending them off. Even before that, just before daylight, I saw his Frisians getting into punts and his top man, Winter, instructing the puntsman before each craft set off into the reeds. Something is up, Master Wulf."
"What, Master Brynoth?" Godfrew's single-eyed stare grew harder.
"You tell me! I'm only the captain of the archers. No one tells me nothing. All I do know is that Lord Hereward is very shrewd and he is very devious. He has something planned. Something neither I, you, or the Normans are expecting."
Suddenly a wild-eyed woman pushed her way through the Normans who waited behind the sweating sappers labouring to pile up their mats. The woman started dancing and singing French words in a strange high-pitched voice:
"The English are food to the fishes.
The Danes all be meat to the eels
Oh such tasty fine dishes
Sweet and crusty as their blood congeals"
"What's she saying? That woman, what's she saying?" asked the foul-breathed Dane.
"No idea." Godfrew shook his head, as much to get away from the Dane's smell as to show that he did not know the answer.
"What did that Dane say?" asked Brynoth as he came alongside Tosti.
"Something about wanting to know what that women said," Tosti informed him, stealing a glance at the seemingly possessed woman who still sang and pranced in the no-man's land between the English and Norman warriors.
"What did you want to know, old man?" The Dane had not heard Brynoth call to him, so Brynoth pulled at the man's sleeve.
"What? What do you want?" asked the startled Dane.
Brynoth gave the Dane a gummy smile and replied in corrupt Norse. "You want to know something about what the old hag is saying. I picked up some French when I lived in London." Brynoth had stood directly in front of the man and moved his mobile lips slowly and deliberately.
"The old hag? Oh, the old woman. Yes, what is she saying?" the Dane seemed genuinely happy to be talking to someone he could understand.
"Something about feeding the English and Danes to the fishes. I couldn't catch it all. Her French is not that spoken by the Normans." Brynoth watched the Dane's eyes to see if he had understood.
"Not Norman? But she is being nasty to us, I think. Yes?" The Dane kept his mouth slightly open. A small steam of saliva ran down the deep creases either side of his mouth and into his silver beard.
"Very nasty. Shall we get the boys to give her a reply?"
"Oh, I think so, yes. Just make sure it isn't the chant used by your lot at Maldon. I know we won, but it might stir up the old feelings, eh!" The Dane gave a foul laugh, Brynoth caught his breath full in the face and started coughing.
Brynoth wiped his eyes, "I'll get our Hogni to start something, something we all know." Before he left, Brynoth stopped by Tosti's side and spoke quietly to him, making sure that no one else heard.
Still the Frenchwoman skipped and capered, all the time singing out her curse.
Suddenly, from the side, Hogni ran and jumped the wicker fence, turning a somersault in the air before landing on his feet and facing the English shield wall. He wore no mail, but held in his hand a long sword and a battered linden-wood shield with a raven device on it. Once he was certain he had the men's attention he started to bang the sword's pommel against the shield in rhythm. Those with shields followed his lead. When the beat steadied, he started to call out the war chant of King Harold's house carls. All in the line joined him:
"We are warriors
Holders of sharp sword
We are ring men
Wielders of bright axe
Give us ground
We take your heads
Give us battle
We feed the wolves
We are dragon men
Reevers of your land
We are ship men
Carriers of plunder
Give us treasure
We take all gold
Give us women
We steal our own
We are avengers
Slayer of foemen
We are taking you
Out, Out, Out Out, Out"
The beating of shields and the battle cry of "OUT, OUT, OUT ..." reached a crescendo when Hogni stopped pummeling his shield and held his sword above his head. The men stopped. He then cried out in a voice that sent shivers down Godfrew's spine: "For our foes are all going to DIEEE."
It was then that Tosti loosed his arrow on a high arc. The sun caught the arrow head as it reached the top, before plummeting down and transfixing the mad Frenchwoman to the soggy ground.
It was some minutes before what had happened sank in, then the Normans gave a roar and surged out along the front of the causeway. Two footmen carried one of the large, woven-wicker mats between them. In pairs, they advanced toward the river bank until the ground became very soft, then they threw the wicker work onto the soggy ground. They let the pair following do the same, thus they progressed toward the river bank. Hereward let them gain thirty paces before he acted: "Red archers! Fire at will." The archers bearing a red talisman started a desultory fire at the advancing foe. If anyone used his arrows at too fast a rate Brynoth went and spoke to him and told him to slow down.
Some Normans fell, but most carried on with the job of getting across the marshy ground, arrows sticking from their mail coats like quills on a hedgehog.
"Why doesn't he let all the archers fire, Brynoth?" Godfrew asked as the Essex man went past on his way to slow down another over-keen archer. "At least let them that are firing do so quickly."
"Don't ask me, Master Wulf, but Lord Hereward will have his reasons. It looks to me as if he wants to draw them on. Look ..." Brynoth glanced at Hereward and saw his leader waving him impatiently on to get to the fast-firing archer, "... I must go. No doubt I will catch up with you later, God and his saints willing, of course." Brynoth scuttled off.
The Normans had now made forty paces toward the river and Tosti could see some sappers coming off the causeway with prefabricated bridges that they started to assemble before moving them forward.
"Master Wulf, they have brought bridges to get across the river."
"Where?" asked Godfrew, the Norman sappers being just part of a blur to him.
"There, near the causeway. And they are bringing yet more pieces of wickerwork to throw on the marsh." Tosti pointed in the general direction with his bow. "Oh, why won't he let us shoot!"
"Blue archers, fire!" commanded Hereward. The increased density of fire slowed the Normans somewhat, but still they advanced. Godfrew turned and watched Hereward. The Wake was talking to his confidants and pointing to the rear of the Normans. Martin Lightfoot, who seemed to be a man of clear sight, was giving a running commentary of what was happening at the back of the Norman advance, off in the reeds along the causeway. None of the commanders seemed interested in those Normans trying to cross to the river bank. It was Brynoth who went over to inform Hereward that there was now only twenty paces between the leading Normans and the bank and that the crossbow men had started scuttling to the front. Hereward then gave the command for the yellow archers to join in. Even then, the order was given in an off-handed manner, his attention still being the Norman rear. Just as the first man reached the bank and the sappers rushed forward to bridge the river, Martin Lightfoot said something to Hereward, who responded by giving a whoop of joy and slapped Martin happily on the back. Hereward then yelled for Brynoth to come to him.
After getting hurried instructions, Brynoth ran to the shield wall, grabbed Tosti and took him back to Hereward.
Godfrew heard a cheer rise up from the Normans and turned back to see the first part of a bridge going across the river.
It was then that a flaming arrow from Tosti's bow streaked across the English lines and fell into the reeds to the Normans' west flank. Instantly, flames engulfed the reed beds, enclosing the Normans on the west and north sides.
The English fell silent, watching the burning reeds slowly getting nearer the Normans. As they realised what was happening, the Normans still on the causeway started to push forward, trampling those before them. A temporary change in wind direction brought the faint sound of a clash of arms to the Norman rear.
"Must be Stig Gullwing and his Frisians putting the stop in the bottle." Brynoth stood behind Godfrew directing a work group of women and non-combatant men who were delivering baskets of arrows to the archers.
"Why has the fire only been set on two sides, Brynoth?" Godfrew yelled behind him. He was unwilling to break away from watching the Normans panic as they spilled off the causeway and crashed into those on the hard ground at its mouth, thereby forcing everyone forward until the men at the front were forced off of their wicker mats and into the soft-sucking marsh.
"No point firing those to the south. That's Wicken Fen. No matter how dry the summer, that place is always treacherous. Often the ground looks firm, but put a foot on it and you find yourself under water. If they want to ..." Brynoth broke away and grabbed the now skinny Toki, "You get moving, these are to be taken to members of Wulf's pack, special yard long arrows for their long bows." Toki scuttled off, dragging his basket. "And tell fat Puta to stop mooning around Clunn and get back for another load." Brynoth yelled after him. "Where was I? Ah, yes. If the Normans want to try their luck in Wicken Fen, then good luck to them. Even the locals keep away from it."
"Archers," Hereward called at the top of his voice, "fire as you will, but make sure you are aiming at a target. Fire the feathers of the grey goose, my bringer's of death!" The men around Hereward burst out laughing. At first Hereward did not join them, but as the volume of fire increased and fell into the now packed ranks of Normans scrabbling over each other to get away from the burning reeds, he laughed too.
Godfrew felt something cold touch his leg and looked down to find his hound, Shock, smelling his leg. Godfrew bent down and fondled the hound, whispering a gentle rebuke in his ear. "How did you escape from the hut, you little rogue. You were left there to keep you from harm. If you are going to stay here, behave yourself!" Shock licked Godfrew's face in reply. The deaf Dane watched and wiped the edges of his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Some are across!" exclaimed Tosti as he changed his aim to pick off the leading Norman. Shock caught the excitement and barked. As he barked, he hopped forward toward the Norman line. Stiff-legged and ears erect, he barked again and gave another hop.
"That hound, it is calling your name!" an aging Dane shouted across to the deaf one. He did not hear what had been said, so Brynoth went and nudged him and pointed to the other Dane.
"I said," explained the other in a loud exaggerated voice, "that hound is calling your name, Hroff."
Hroff bent down near Shock, who obliged with a bark and a hop. "Yes, he is calling me." Hroff looked up at Godfrew, who despite the warmth was still wearing his wolf cloak. He then turned to the other Dane: "Woden spoke to his hound, and now it calls my name and points me to the foe. I have no choice. My doom is cast! I must go, so who will join me?" Hroff left his place and walked along the back of the shield wall behind the archers. "I am called by Woden to join him this day in his mead hall of Valhalla. Who is with me?" Soon Hroff found himself joined by a group of equally ancient Danes, all with silver beards and stiff joints. He raised his sword above his head and cried out in a deep voice: "To Valhalla!"
"To Valhalla!" echoed the other Danes as they elbowed through the shield wall, pushed the wicker breastwork over and formed up.
"St. Olaf!" cried Hroff and lumbered forward toward the Normans who had made it across the river.
Shock ran alongside them, much to their obvious delight. Despite their age, the Danes made short work of the mud-caked Normans, exhausted by their efforts to extract themselves from the swamp and in crossing the river. Hroff slew five of them before he too went down, hit by a stray English arrow.
The killing went on as the Normans trampled each other down into the mire, were laid low by arrows, or fled into the fastness of Wicken Fen to sink, or drown in its black waters. As the ring of fire closed in on them, so their desperate attempts to escape increased, but death was inescapable. Only the choice of how to die was left to them. As the day waned, so did the supply of arrows. Those left were used only when it looked as if a Norman was going to extract himself and escape. By late afternoon the shield wall was no more. The men sat and ate as they watched the final death throes of the enemy army.
The fire had swept across the fens as far as the eye could see and the blue sky was obscured by a dense haze of smoke. The men who had been responsible for the torching started to arrive back, walking the marshes with their wide, wicker swamp shoes, leaping the river with their long poles.
By night there was only the glow from the embers of the burnt reeds, the smell of burnt flesh, and the occasional cry from a drowning Norman to remind the English of what had happened.
With the moon starting to rise, the Frisians came up the river in their punts and disembarked to join the others. Hereward, thoughtful as ever, supplied ale and mead in plenty. Soon the men forgot everything else as they celebrated their victory.
Woden's Wolf is published by Gama Enterprises, PO Box 99 085, Newmarket, Auckland, New Zealand. The book is soft cover on white A5 paper. ISBN 0-473-03939-7 retail cost NZ$20, 10, A$20 or US$20 post and package included.
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The English Resistance to the Norman Conquest
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