Harald Hardrada lies still and stiff and cold on trestle and board. A crowd jostles to see but those at the front are wary of coming too close. It is as if he might leap up and seize a weapon. Even asleep he is a king. A great man. Giant of the north. As children they sat in hall and listened to tales of Harald’s adventures. And now he lies here dead. He lies still.
As each gets a glimpse they respond according to their manner. Some laugh in their embarrassment; some cross themselves; others think that Hardrada looks old now that he is dead; the years are settling on him as thick as leaves after a frost.
They make way for the king of the English.
Harold forms the tip of a spearhead. About him are the great men of the country. His brothers on one side. The earls Edwin and Morcar on the other. But no man can mistake him. Harold carries his breeding and rank as a prize stallion. The onlookers part before him. He is the anointed; the eldest Godwinson, now that his brother Swein is dead, and he is clothed in victory.
He stands over the norseman. Everyone is silent. They are watching his reaction. They will tell the folk of their hamlets that they saw this moment. The words Harold repeats here will be committed to memory and passed down like family heirlooms.
‘Where is Emma?’
Everyone has heard of Emma. It is Hardrada’s mail-shirt. It is the kind of dirty and boastful joke that Hardrada liked.
Harold knew the woman that inspired the joke. Emma was King Edward’s mother. The church-wife to King Ethelred and Canute. She shrank as Harold grew. Age wizened her but she was always a royally dressed woman, hems lined with fur, a wimple of the finest broadcloth, bright gems sparkling from her peacock feathered headdress.
Women and monks die of years. It is the lot of men to die by the blade.
As they bring Hardrada’s mail-shirt to him, he lets out a long breath. They drape it before him, arms outstretched, as a Flanders trader in the riverside market. The links are finer than any he has ever seen. His hand moves underneath it, turning the knit links so that they catch the light. The are silvered as fish scales. As supple as water. As light as silver.
He holds the shirt in his hands for a moment, then turns to the man standing at his right. ‘This will look well on you, brother Morcar.’
Some men smile. Harold is a wise judge of other men’s weaknesses.
They all pause to comment. He listens to them all, and when he is done, he says in a voice that will carry over generations, ‘Harald Hardrada,’ he says, as if addressing a living man. ‘You wanted England. I give you six feet of soil to have as your own.’
‘Your brother,’ a retainer says as Harold moves away. ‘They have cleaned him.’
The crowd part like water before him. Who ‘they’ are he will never know. Some camp follower, perhaps, men of little standing. But he sees they have done good work, such as the women of a household might do when they take a corpse and wash and dress it for the wake.
Edwin and Morcar have fallen away. Only the closest retainers come inside. But when they see what lies upon the bier, all of them fall away, except for his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine.
Tostig lies in the room Harold’s men had thought the king would lodge. Harold could not bear to see his brother lying on a board, so now he is dressed in Harold’s own clothes, and he lies on the cot that they had for him.
This is a place that is theirs as much as his.
They are all Godwinsons. Tostig was brother to them all, but, of course they each see their brother’s corpse differently.
‘Stupid bastard,’ Leofwine says, but there is both bluster and affection in his voice. But he knows how this has changed everything for their family. Harold is thinking of their mother, but Leofwine shakes his head and says, ‘Edith will not be happy.’
No, Harold thinks, their sister will not. She will blame him for this.
Leofwine makes a few more comments. But Gyrth….
Gyrth looks down in silence. He and Tostig had always been close. They were both intense, religious souls. And he is holding his feelings down at this moment.
Gyrth speaks quietly. ‘Now we know which ones are brave. When the war-walls crash the time of trial; the fated men fall as they must.’
He draws the hood of the cloak over Tostig’s face and takes in a deep breath. The pause goes on. He says, ‘They say there is a great deal of treasure taken.’
Harold nods. He puts a hand to Tostig’s chest. It is still and cooling. He presses gently in parting then turns to his living brothers.
‘There is,’ he says. ‘And we will share it out.’
Outside the day is still bright, though the sun was already westering. Some men are dead, others dying, others thanking Christ that they were still alive to drink and feast, bed a maid, or sit quiet, or look at the ruin of their shield and name each blow that fell upon it.
Harold has seen enough of war to know that all battles are the same.
His shieldbearers are scrubbing the blood from his mail. Another has Harold’s dark blue cloak in his lap, pushing barbed grass seeds though the cloth, like arrowheads. His closest retainers are sitting around, a smaller gathering than they had been the night before, in the place named Tadcaster.
Over the river valley where the battle had been fought, a clear and blue September evening shines out.
Morcar has sent Emma to his tent. But he is buoyed up by the gift. He is all smiles and hand-clapping. ‘You have won the greatest battle men can remember,’ he tells Harold. ‘No king since Æthelstan had won such a victory!’
Harold thanks him. He lets all who want to come to him to shake his hand. At last, the flow peters out. He takes his cloak, still pierced with wild grass seeds, and throws it over his shoulders as the fire starts fill out. His men have found some wine. He reached out for the jug and stands and takes a long thirsty draught of bitter ale as he looks east over the battlefield. The sun is low.
As they drink and laugh the last light of the setting sun guilds his cheeks and face, stretches his shadow long on the ground.
At one point, Gyrth looks up. ‘The wind is shifting,’ he says.
Harold pauses and feels the wind on his back. It is true. For weeks it has been in the east, but now the air is warm and wet.
‘A southerly,’ someone says. A gentler wind for autumn.
Their thoughts start to turn to the season ahead. This day’s work has changed everything. The spoils are England itself, and they are the chief men who will share it out. There will be tussles ahead. Harold’s children will be full-grown soon. Someone will have to move aside for them.
Beyond the firelight such troubles are starting to drawn shape as the south wind brings warmth to the night chill.
No one thinks more of it, but three hundred miles south the Fates are playing with them all. While one conqueror lies dead with his army, the wind pushes the boats of another out into the English Sea.