A world ended today.
It is the autumn of 1066 and on this day we have sown these acres of England with an unseasonal crop. The dead lie as Fate flung them. Arms and legs and necks stretched and bent and folded awkwardly. Their worries are over. They have bled their last. But among the heaps of wounded is a curious sight that catches the attention of many. They crane their necks to see the king wade into the lifeless heaps.
‘God knows where the energy comes from,’ a bystander says as he watches the king pull and yank ferociously, clearing a way.
He is searching for something. But he has crushed the great Hardrada on the field of Stamford Bridge. What trifle could concern him at a moment like this? What could cause him to bend like a village woman, sickle in hand, harvesting the wheat?
Harold’s lips are thick with drying spittle; his throat is dry as a summer field; his shield arm aches. But the truth is, without his mail-shirt he feels like half the man he was before. He feels almost so light that if he spread his arms he might lift from the ground like a hunting bird that lifts from the glove.
‘What’s he looking for?’ some ask.
He is the king. The war-chief. He can take all the loot he wants from any man. But those who know turn away. They understand, and they do not want him to find the object for which he’s searching.
It is not a sword or a broach or a belt-clasp heavy with gold. No. Nothing worked by human hand. But an object of flesh and blood, ignited to life with the breath of the soul.
He searches in the gore for the one person he did not want to die today.
The one he rode all this way not to kill.
The one who lies buried among the Norsemen.
His own brother.
Where the battle was fiercest the bodies of men torn open like sacks and casually slung across each other. Entrails wind over and under them all like a single serpent. One corpse grunts as Harold puts a knee on his chest. Another farts as his guts fall out with a heavy wet splat, but the king doesn’t even smell the stink. They all stink. Living and dead.
He rolls each body aside. A Norsemen with a red beard and cheeks tanned to leather by the salty crossing. The next was no more than a bum-fluffed bairn, his skull broken and his eyes still wide with terror.
None of these are his brother and for a moment a faint hope flickers like the dying light of a hall-ember that his brother might still live.
His energy shames the men with him. They are weary, but they start to tug and pull and roll the stiffening bodies aside.
Harold thinks of his mother. His sister. He can see the cold in both of their eyes. He thinks of bearing the news of his brother’s death back to the south.
This is a hard land. It has never been good for the Godwinsons. It was never good for their father, either.
Perhaps Tostig has survived, Harold tells himself. A scroll of possibilities unrolls sideways in his mind. Until he finds his brothers corpse he is a Hoping Thomas. Each body he rolls aside is not his brother. Each of them is a relief. But still he keeps searching.
A voice calls out.
Another voice says, ‘That’s his sword!’
Harold doesn’t need telling. He had already seen the gold worked scabbard his father had given Tostig when he took the huscarl’s oath. That moment came back to him, through twenty winters, vivid and clear as when the sun suddenly breaks through the scudding winter clouds and lights the stained minster windows with stabbing golden light.
It transfixes him.
A body is pulled aside.
That was Tostig’s sword. That his hand. His arm that once linked with his own.
The details are very intimate. The familiar freckles on his forearm, the blood that they once shed together as boys. The grip of a hand that clasped his own so many times in anger and friendship and in true brotherhood.
They are all working together now. He is many bodies deep.
At last Tostig’s face is revealed. Hope dies as fast as a snuffed-out candle.
The killers had taken no chances. The shell of Tostig’s skull was crumpled and shattered, blood had clotted in his moustache, his pale blue eyes had rolled up into his head. It was as if, even in death, he refuses to look at his brother.
Harold straightens, his back stiff with battle and bending so long.
He stands still as a field-stone as a sighing breath slips out of him.
There is a glitter to his eyes. Tears have always come easily to him.
Harold breathes them back, turns to take the day in.
All of England stretches out about him. And there, at his feet, Tostig lies cold.
After a long while Harold clasps Tostig grip. He hauls his corpse, unwilling, from the floor. For those that see him they will recall this moment to their children. How Harold lifted his brother from death. The image many of them will invoke is that of a man putting his foot to the gunnel, and hauling up a millstone anchor.
The lifeless lie heavy when their soul has fled.
Harold throws the body over his shoulder and turns – where? There is no camp here, except that of the Norsemen. It will have to do. Tonight, they will eat and drink of dead men’s food, they will sleep in the beds of the departed.
‘Please lord,’ his retainers say, but he does not listen, and they fear to pull Tostig’s corpse from his shoulders.
He thinks, Christ carried his own rood to Gethsemane before they nailed him to it.
He had five brothers once, a fortune in coin. But this is the second brother that you have killed, a voice in his head whispers.
Harold’s foot slips on the wet ground. It is not dew that soaks the soil. The footing is uneven, but Harold will not suffer any other to bear this weight.
It is his.
He is the anointed one.
He is the king.