A short historical fiction story, based on events at the Battle of Hastings.
14th October 1066
‘Ut! Ut! Ut!’ The cry spread through the ranks, and soon the entire host -some eight thousand- were roaring at the top of their voices. Algar’s chest swelled with pride, to be part of such a magnificent army.
Standing behind the ranks of men, he could not stifle the disappointment he felt at not being able to take his place in the shield wall. His spirits were only lifted by the sheer importance of the job he was to do instead.
Before him, and to one side, stood the man he was fighting for. Harold Godwineson, the Second of his name, and rightful king of England surveyed the battlefield carefully, from the crest of the hill they stood on down into the slight valley where the Normans had formed their lines. Algar could not pick any individuals out of the mass at this distance, but could tell that their army was of a size with the invaders’ own.
Algar’s eyes drifted past the Normans, up the opposite hill, and then into the sky above. It was just after dawn, and the sun had yet to warm the crisp autumn air. He shivered in spite of the layers of leather and mail that protected him from neck to thigh, though it was as much in anticipation as it was from the cold.
As he watched the pale hues of orange and pink dance across the sky his hand dropped to his sword hilt out of reflex, and he caressed the familiar shapes in the worn strips of leather. Algar had carried the blade since his father had given it to him almost a decade before, and told him solemnly that he was not to let go of it until his lord did.
The king turned to face his men, and Algar hefted his shield expectantly. He looked around the faces of his thegns, weighing them up.
‘I can see that some are eager to be in the shield wall. Well, it just so happens that you will be needed. Algar, choose ten men and take your place at the centre. Shore up the line and hold it, no matter what.’ He paused, looking deep into Algar’s blue-green eyes, ‘no matter what.’
‘Yes, my king.’ Algar bowed, before turning to the men and making his selection. Those chosen looked happy to have been, and followed him without hesitation as he shouldered his way through the roaring press to the very front rank.
The men formed a line, knocking shields together to make sure they were locked, and strong. Algar tested the ground beneath his feet, stamping first one wrapped foot down and then the other. It seemed solid enough, which was just as well. Algar did not intend to be the one who slipped over and opened a gap in the line.
The blows on the bottom of his feet caused him to wince in pain. While he did have a horse, he had been forced to walk at least some of the way back from Eoferwic, and it had caused blisters to spring out all over his feet. The ones between his toes were the most painful, but he knew that soon the battle would drive all else from his mind.
Algar’s ruminations were interrupted as the enemy started to cheer. The Saxons immediately replied with a rain of insults, and a loud chorus of ‘Ut, ut, ut,’ but Algar noticed a lone rider had detached itself from the host at the base of the hill, and was riding hard up the slope.
‘Fyrdmen! With me!’ Algar didn’t realise the words had come from his mouth until his feet took him forwards. Leaving the other thegns behind, he led a group of six of the Fyrd down the hill to meet the rider. They met about a hundred yards from the Saxon line, and the knight thrust his lance down managing to avoid his victim’s shield. The man fell with a shocked cry, but took the lance embedded in his chest with him. The knight drew his sword and swung down at another one of the fyrdmen, who was to slow to block with his shield. He took the blade in the throat, and dropped without a sound.
Algar stepped forward, and raised his shield to take the next blow, and then thrust upwards with his own sword. It was a blind strike, but Algar still felt it bite through mail and into the man’s abdomen. He curled around the steel in pain, and toppled from his horse, allowing the other fyrdmen to close in and finish him off. When they had, they wiped their weapons clean on the grass, and made their way back up the hill, leaving the dead where they had fallen.
‘What was that?’ Leofric, another of the thegns, said as Algar and the others retook their places in the line.
‘Killed a Norman.’ Algar shrugged, unconcerned. It had been some sort of ritual for the Normans, and he had been glad to put a stop to it, and hopefully dampen their spirits.
Their discussion was interrupted as trumpets sounded from the base of the hill. The Norman archers stepped forwards and raised their bows.
‘Shields up!’ Algar roared. Raised and locked together, the men were not a moment too soon. A cloud of arrows flew up the hill towards them. The angle of the hill meant that they had to fire straight at the shields however, or else risk missing the army altogether. Algar ducked behind his shield as the first arrows landed.
Along the line men cried out in pain as arrows found gaps. Looking to his left, Algar saw one man go down, clutching at an arrow lodged deep in his shoulder. Even as he was thinking that the man should have held his shield higher, an arrow impacted on his own, juddering his arm with the force of it. After that he concentrated on holding his shield up, in line with the others, and was glad he did, for another struck it not long after the first.
The barrage did not last long, and Algar assumed that they had run out of arrows when he looked over the rim of his shield to see the archers retreating back down the hill. Two arrows quivered on the outside of his shield, and he snapped the shafts off without delay, knowing they would only make it more unwieldy. As he looked up and down the line, he saw arrows everywhere. There was not a shield he could see that did not have at least one shaft embedded in it.
More trumpet calls drifted up on the rising breeze, and the majority of the Norman host lurched into motion. The infantry reached the slope, and began to march up it, struggling against the incline.
‘Ut! Ut! Ut!’ The great chant rose again, and this time was accompanied by the clattering of weapons. Algar drew his sword, beating the pommel on the inside of the shield in time with the chant. He added his voice to the chorus, and in those moments, standing in the front rank on the fight for his country, his home, he felt alive with savage joy. Algar screamed his hatred down the hill at the invaders, and struggled to control and focus the mixed torrent of emotions raging inside him.
As the Normans closed, a hail of arrows, javelins and even stones was added to the insults which rained down upon them, seeming to appear as a physical manifestation. It slowed their progress still further, to little more than a crawl. The Saxon line continued chanting and jeering, right up until the moment when the two lines of shields crashed together with the sound of thunder.
At the very lip of the hilltop, Algar was able to hold the enemy back, using the weight of the men behind to lever himself forwards. He jabbed beneath his shield with his sword, and felt it bite into flesh. The man before him fell, screaming and clutching his thigh. Blood welled between his fingers, and Algar knew that, in this press, he was a dead man.
He did not have time to consider the poor man, as another stepped forwards to take his place, stabbing forwards with a spear. Algar took the heavy thrust on his shield, and replied with an overhand blow which took him in the shoulder. He too fell, but he had barely touched the ground when another stepped over him, yelling and swinging wildly with his sword.
Algar parried the first attack, but there was no time for a counter as another attack came in on the reverse swipe. He struggled to step back from the blow while still maintaining his feet, but hit the shield behind him. The stumble saved his life.
The blow intended for his throat scraped across the top of his helmet with a clang that left his ears ringing. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and Algar was in serious danger of falling over. The only thought that kept him upright was the knowledge that to fall was to die, and he focused on that, pouring concentration into it in an attempt to clear his vision.
The crazed Norman swung hard again, and this time Algar managed to catch the blade on his shield, deflecting it into the ground. He punched forward, putting his shoulder behind the shield. The heavy, iron boss took the man full in the face, and caused him to reel away in a spray of blood and broken teeth. He disappeared back into the press of Normans, and Algar struggled back into the line.
The shield walls struggled against each other for an hour or more, with the Normans trying and failing to gain a foothold on the flat top of the hill. Algar was just as determined that they shouldn’t gain another pace of English land however, and led the his section of the line to keep them at bay.
The battle assailed his senses. The stink of blood and piss and shit was thick and cloying in the air, and Algar knew he should be gagging at the stench. The unfortunate fact remained however, that he was used to battle, having fought against the Norse at Stamford Bridge, and before that in Wales against the Britons. He was deafened by the sounds of clashing weapons, the shrieks of wounded men, and the battle cries of those still fighting. Above it all however, began to rise the a sound like rolling thunder, and Algar strained to see over the Normans before him.
He could guess what it was though. The Normans knights were taking to the field.
Much like their counterparts on foot, Algar saw that they were slowed by the slope, and the few arrows that still flew from the rear of the Saxon army, but after that was forced to concentrate on those immediately before him, as an axe came swinging out of the press.
The man behind it looked strong, and Algar knew he would struggle. In a stroke of luck, however, he slipped in the loose guts of one of his dead comrades, and lost his balance. Algar needed no more opportunity than that, and lunged forward, arm extending. The point of his sword took the man in his powerfully-muscled chest, and he dropped to the floor.
Algar enjoyed a slight pause, as the pile of bodies around him made it very difficult for enemies to approach. A horse thundered past, its rider hurling a spear into the ranks of men around him. It was a wild throw, but there was very little need for accuracy at this range, and the missile found a target. The thegn two to the right of Algar went down, the spear piercing the whole way through his thigh. All along the line, Algar could see the exercise was being repeated with similar effects, and he could tell the knights were looking for gaps by riding up and down the line.
Once again he swelled with proud: it was clear there were no such gaps in a line which was almost eight hundred men long. Around him the great axes of Harold’s huskarls rose and fell, cleaving through shields with ease, and bearing men from horses to die screaming on the ground.
Cries began to ring out among the Normans, but Algar could not understand what they were saying, and he became aware of the pressure lifting on the right flank. As he looked across to his right, he saw the enemy streaming back down the hill. The flight spread, and soon the entire Norman left wing began to rout, riding and running back down the hill.
The enemies before him noticed as well, and began to pull back as well, though in a somewhat more ordered fashion. The Normans were still shouting to each other, and it began to be answered by some among the Saxon lines.
‘Guillaume is dead! Duke Guillaume is dead!’ The cry was gradually taken up by the rest of the host, and Algar joined in, uncaring that the Normans would not understand the words.
Algar looked back to the right flank, and saw Saxons charging down the hill after the fleeing Normans. He was given time to watch because the Normans facing them had disengaged and withdrawn a fair distance back down the hill. As such, he saw the Saxons catch up to those fleeing in the patch of marshland around some small stream deep in the trough of the valley, where they proceeded to slaughter the bogged down knights as they struggled to escape in their heavy mail.
Dragging his attention away from the scene, he refocused on the enemy before him. A horseman was riding back and forth across the face of the Norman line, calling out in what Algar assumed was french. As he watched, the figure tipped back the helmet atop his head to reveal his face, and the shaved front of his head. After a full few minutes of the odd behaviour, he rode away to a group of knights to Algar’s right, and brandished his sword. The heavy horsemen lurched into a ponderous gallop, and charged down the hill at the pursuing Saxons.
‘Look out! Get back to the shield wall!’ Algar called out in desperation, even though he knew the Saxons in the valley would never hear him over the terrible noise of those thundering horses.
Instead, he was forced to watch, along with the rest of the Saxon army at the top of the hill, as the Norman knights bore down on those pursuing their comrades. The Saxon were strung out from the pursuit, and the knights rode them down, scything through their line as they would wheat in a field. A small knot of Saxons made a last stand on the small hillock which rose up next to the stream, but the Normans quickly closed in on them, using their horses as living rams, and battering their way through the small circle of shields.The slaughter did not last long, and soon the Norman army pulled back, down into the valley to reform.
There followed a pause, as the Normans dragged their left flank back into a semblance of order. Algar was grateful for it, as it allowed for water to be brought to the exhausted men in the shield wall. He drained an entire skin, but was soon back on his feet and forcing his way back towards the front of the army. The Normans were exactly where they had been when he left, and he felt able to relax, at least as much as he could in the midst of so much death. Algar found a patch of clear grass, and sat down, trying to clean the worst of the congealing blood off his sword.
Leofric strode over to him, picking his way through the dead. His arm trailed a tattered piece of cloth which looked to be acting as a makeshift bandage, and he had lost his helmet somewhere, leaving his matted brown hair exposed to the sun.
‘Still alive?’ He said with a grin.
‘Just surprised to see you are.’ Algar nodded, and returned the grin.
‘I am just about.’ Leofric grimaced and indicated his arm, ‘some bastard nearly took my arm off.’
‘Don’t know what you’re whining about, one them nearly had my head.’ He tossed his dented helmet to Leofric, who examined the dent, running his fingers along the jagged imprint.
‘You,’ he said, tossing the helmet back, ‘are one lucky bastard.’ They both laughed. The sound seemed out of place in such grim settings, and they got more than a few odd looks from the men around them.
‘What do you think of them?’ Algar asked, lowering his voice.
‘Ha! Don’t reckon they’ve got too much fight left in ’em. You saw their left cave.’ Leofric was obviously still confident, despite his wound.
‘I also saw their counter-charge. How many do you think we lost out there?’ Algar gestured out and down the hill.
‘Don’t know.’ Leofric shrugged. ‘A hundred maybe? They lost more though.’
Algar shook his head, and was about to explain that that wasn’t the point, when he noticed the enemy formations shifting at the bottom of the hill. He leapt to his feet, ramming the half-cleaned sword back into its sheath.
‘Look! They’re coming!’ With Leofric at his side, Algar ran back to the front line, grabbing all the tired warriors he could find on his way.
The trumpets rang out from the valley, and the Saxon army formed into a shield wall once more. The only comfort Algar could draw upon was that the Normans would be far more tired than him, having already climbed the hill once, on top of all the actual fighting.
The sun was high in the sky as the Norman infantry once more advanced up to the top of the hill, slower than before, and the shields clashed once more to the background noise of the Saxon chants.
The Norman infantry were exhausted by the time they reached the summit of the hill, and Algar almost fell over forwards as he pushed forwards with his shield, in anticipation of the shove against it which did not come. The two lines came together much more gently than before, but the fighting was just as savage as it had been that morning.
As the afternoon wore on, Algar resorted to broader strokes with his sword as opposed to the neat jabs he had been using that morning. The former required far less energy, and Algar was not sure he had the strength to do anything else. The joy he had felt that morning was gone, replaced with bone-weariness, as much from the journey of the previous weeks as from the fighting that day.
Even in spite of his overwhelming tiredness, Algar still bested all the Normans who came against him, parrying as much as he could on his shield before lashing out with his own blade with as much brute force as he was able to inject.
A Norman lunged out of the press, stabbing down at Algar’s legs with his sword. Forced to drop his shield low to block it, he lashed out over the top of it with his sword, intending to hit his enemy in the chest, but it was blocked by a shield.
Algar heard an enormous cheer to his left, and saw the Norman right flank breaking off. There was something about the way the knights were riding though…
He saw it in the instant before it happened.
The knights circled back, surrounding the Saxon fyrdmen who had pursued them down the hill. In a similar fashion to that morning, they surrounded and hacked down the isolated warriors. Algar yelled out in anger, as much at his own inability to help them as for the fact that they had now done the same thing twice.
The yell almost cost him his life. His Norman opponent had turned to gaze at the spectacle on his right, and looked to have been deciding whether or not to flee. The shout refocused his attention, and he launched another attack on Algar, who only just managed to get his shield up. The sword bit deep into the rim of the shield, and stuck fast. An evil grin spread across his face, and he yanked his shield back, pulling the Norman off balance, and onto his sword.
Hours later, as the dead began to pile up in front of the Saxon shield wall all along the line, making it difficult for the Normans to close, they pulled back down into the valley once more.
The pause this time was much shorter, and Algar had barely caught his breath before the trumpets sounded again. This time, the entire army lurched into motion. The infantry were interspersed with knots of knights, and the archers moved up a few paces before starting to fire arrows high over the heads of their comrades. The arrows soared over Algar’s head, and he assumed they would miss the army altogether, and so put them from his mind.
The sun had begun to descend on Algar’s right, and he realised that this would be the most important point of the battle. If the Saxons held them now, the Normans would be forced to withdraw for the night, and that would constitute a victory for the Saxons – the demoralisation among the Normans would be unstoppable.
The horsemen and infantry struck the Saxon shield wall together. The line had been weakened, and the day’s fighting had taken its toll on their numbers, but the line held initially. It started when Algar saw one Norman gain flat ground at the top of the hill, and then another, and another. He felt the Saxon line begin to pull back and constrict under the weight of the Norman attack, and became aware of the pressure on his back lessening. He half-turned and saw some of the fyrdmen at the back fleeing. Then he heard a shout that made his blood run cold.
‘The king is hit! Protect the king!’
Algar looked across to Leofric, who was already looking for him. The other man nodded, and turned to force his way back through the Saxons still standing. Algar followed his lead, and motioned for the other thegns still standing to follow.
When he and Leofric reached the spot where the king’s huskarls were gathered, he almost wished he hadn’t. The king was lying prone, an arrow lodged deep in his eye socket, and blood streaming from a deep gash in his thigh. He was very obviously dead.
‘Stand!’ Algar shouted in desperation, but it was no use. The fyrd all along the line were fleeing; throwing weapons down and running for the vegetation behind the crest of the hill.
Leofric shook his head, a grim expression on his face, and tapped his shield with his sword. Algar returned the gesture and, looking round, saw it repeated by the remaining huskarls.
‘Protect the king’s body. To the death.’ Algar spoke, but all of them thought it. Grim nods followed his words, and they formed their last shield wall.
The Normans were upon them in moments. The horsemen came first, swinging swords and maces down at anything unprotected by a shield. The huskarls fought like men possessed all around Algar, swinging their enormous axes with wild abandon. The Norman infantry was not far behind the knights, and pressed in on all sides.
Algar took a sword on his own, ramming his shield forwards into his attacker’s face, only for his place to be taken by another. This one swung at the shield, and he blocked easily, replying with a thrust to the man’s throat.
The realisation that he was going to die had enthused him with new strength, and he allowed himself to be worked up into a frenzy, hacking and slashing and any enemy that came within reach. He cut off a man’s fingers, and then slashed open the chest of the one who replaced him.
The struggle was doomed for failure however, and Algar saw many of the huskarls cut down by Norman blades. Still he fought on, his sword glued to his hand with congealed blood. At this point, he was barely aware whether it was Norman blood or his own. Leofric was at his side for an instant, roaring at the top of his lungs, but then he was gone, borne down by weight of numbers and bodily hacked apart. Algar took half a dozen wounds, each of them mortal, and still managed to kill three more Normans with wild sweeps of his sword. He berserk rage was abruptly halted as an unhorsed knight shoved to the fore of the Normans, and ran his spear deep into Algar’s belly.
Spasming around the shaft, he placed both hands on the handle of his sword, and drove it forwards, and through the knight’s chest. The momentum of his thrust bore both of them to the ground, and Algar blacked out, and knew no more.