Hereward 02 - The Devil's Army (9 page)

BOOK: Hereward 02 - The Devil's Army
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The new recruits trailed out. Some were eager to show their courage, others wary. From the reed-beds dotted along the edges of the marsh they broke off stems and then one by one they waded out into the still waters. When Hereward raised his right arm, the men turned and waited for his signal. As he lowered it, they sank beneath the surface. The ripples dissipated, and within a moment not a sign remained that any of them had been there. The Mercian nodded and grinned. If he could teach them enough to save even one life, it would be worth it. He picked up a stone and hurled it out into the marsh. With the splash, the new warriors rose up, each one a ghastly, black-streaked
apparition that would strike fear into the heart of the bravest Norman.

‘Be proud of yourselves, you are now all eels,’ he called to the dripping men. ‘Once the world-candle has dried your bones, we will begin anew. There is much to learn.’

As the men waded out of the bog, Hereward set off up the slope to where the rest of the newest recruits were at practice. Alric waited for him at the top of the bank, a wry smile on his lips. ‘You would make a good preacher,’ he said.

‘Burn out my eyes now, monk, and be done with it.’

The other man laughed. ‘The church coffers would never be so full, with every rich merchant too afraid to leave without dipping his hand into his purse.’

‘The church fills its coffers well enough without my aid,’ the Mercian replied with a grin. ‘Abbots think wine only comes in cups of gold.’

The slopes around Ely’s ramparts throbbed with activity. Hereward watched the warriors at work. He was reminded of the battle-fair at Bruges where all the spears-for-hire went in search of well-paid employment for the coming year. Under Hengist’s severe gaze, some men dug pits along the edges of the ditches, burying sharpened stakes in the bottom, then covering the hole with dry branches and leaves. He had witnessed the effectiveness of those traps time and again in Flanders. There, the defenders smeared the stakes with shit to kill any survivors with the sickness that came from the filth.

Guthrinc marched along a line of ten men armed with hunting bows. As he dropped his arm, they released a flight of arrows at painted straw targets. A few hit their mark. Most sailed well over. Guthrinc clasped his head in both hands and threw it back in a silent exclamation of exasperation. ‘Let us try something easier,’ he boomed. ‘Like Horsa’s barn.’ He caught Hereward’s eye and shook his head with exaggerated weariness.

Near the wall Kraki bellowed at a row of red-faced, sweating men, each one clutching a borrowed axe. ‘Your arms are as weak as babes,’ the Viking roared. ‘A huscarl can hack a man
from shoulder to stern with one blow. The only work your right arms have had is playing with yourselves each night.’ Spittle flew from his lips as he thrust his grizzled face a finger’s width away from the nose of the nearest man.

Redwald sauntered over from the direction of the gates. Alric stiffened, though Hereward did not know why. If there was some argument between the two, he didn’t want to hear it. ‘You will have an army to be proud of,’ Redwald said, looking around as he arrived.

‘Or Guthrinc and Kraki will have broken each man in two and we will be forced to arm the women,’ Hereward said.

‘No bad thing. I would think twice about facing an English woman in a battle-fury.’ He nodded to Alric. ‘I would speak with you when your work is done, if you will hear me. There are things in my heart that eat away at me like the wolf, and I would seek the peace only God can give me.’

Alric seemed taken aback by this request. He flushed and said, ‘If I can aid you, I will.’

‘Good.’ Redwald turned back to his brother. ‘You have made your plans for our strike against the Norman bastards?’

‘Our men crawl through ditches and hide in tree-tops. They see every move the Normans make. We know where their numbers are strong and where their defences are weak.’ Hereward turned and gazed out across the wetlands and the thick woods. ‘Once Hengist is rested, he will take our three best men one last time. Hengist is a water-rat. He could lie under William the Bastard’s nose and not be seen.’

‘And then …?’

Hereward grinned. ‘And then we will tear through them like a storm of axes.’

‘Show mercy in victory,’ Alric pressed.

‘Did they show mercy at Senlac Ridge? You were there, brother, at Harold Godwinson’s side. What mercy did those Normans show our king and the good Englishmen who stood there that day?’

Redwald snatched his head away, his eyes suddenly haunted.
Hereward realized the horrors that his brother had witnessed that day had hollowed him out. He glanced back at Alric, his tone lightening. ‘If they give up their arms and agree to leave, I will show mercy. You have my vow.’


reached its height, the warriors ended their work, collapsing in breathless heaps in front of their hard taskmasters. On weary legs, they trailed back through the gates in search of bread and a cup of ale. The women waited with pitchers of drink. Some of the younger ones smiled and held the eyes of the warriors, making it plain they were offering more than just mead. They tied ribbons round the most favoured fighters, tokens or promises. Once done, they cast cold eyes at the waiting whores who had joined the throng making their way to Ely. There was no food, but a fighting man could find comfort between a pair of thighs whenever he needed.

Hereward and his closest advisors ate no midday meal. They made a show of their abstinence as they wandered past the men sheltering in the shade of the open barns. In his travels through Flanders, the Mercian had seen too many commanders wallowing in luxury while their men grubbed for morsels in the dirt. It had sickened him to see such superior behaviour when he was a spear-for-hire. Now he was leader he would not inflict it on his own men. He knew from experience that they would reward him with loyalty.

A cry rang out from the gates as they sweltered in the lazy heat
outside the abbot’s hall. New arrivals were requesting entrance. With Alric and Redwald, Hereward made his way down the dusty track to greet those who had answered the call.

When the gates ground open, a huddled crowd of perhaps twenty men, women and children stood there. Their faces were streaked with mud, their tunics and dresses filthy, and they had the wide-eyed, hollow-cheeked appearance of folk who had not eaten in days. A young girl as pale as snow lay in her father’s arms, her eyelids fluttering. Some pressed their palms together and whispered their thanks to God. Others threw their arms to the heavens and cried with joy. Hereward felt touched by the hope he saw in those faces as they traipsed past the palisade and into Ely. He heard gruff Northumbrian accents and the lilting tones of Wessex, some of his own Mercians and others with the strange tongues of the borderlands to the west.

The warriors clambered out from the shade to welcome the new arrivals in. The women offered cups of ale. The tradition of English welcome to strangers never would be ignored. But when Hereward peered into the faces of the Ely folk, he saw flickers of doubt. With every new mouth to feed, their meagre supplies diminished further.

‘Will we ever have to close the gates?’ Redwald wondered as if he could read his brother’s thoughts.

‘How can we turn the needy away?’ Alric whispered. ‘And
have created this hope that brings them to our door. Can we then deny them?’

‘The more strong right arms for our army, the better,’ Hereward said. ‘We turn no one away. The answer is to find more food.’

Two men, of perhaps eighteen summers, and a woman of the same age broke away from the weary group and came over. Hereward had seen them eyeing him furtively and whispering behind their hands.

‘You are the ring-giver,’ one of the men said, pointing to the gold bands around Hereward’s arms. ‘You are the one they tell of? The warrior Hereward?’ Pale, he was, with thick red hair
and a sweep of freckles across his nose. The other man had darker hair, but the same pallid complexion. Enough similarities lay in their features to suggest they were brothers. The woman was pretty, with the blonde hair of Danish blood. She had done her best to keep herself presentable: her face was clean, her hair combed, and her yellow dress, though raggedy, had once been fine.

‘I am Hereward.’

The red-headed man beamed and the other man let out a grunt of relief. The woman’s eyes lit up. ‘In Leomynstre, we heard the tales of the bear-killer and his army who lured the Normans into their death chambers,’ the red-headed one gushed. ‘My brother and I, we wished to be a part of this battle-dance, but we feared the tales lied, or were stirred up to create false hope, or …’

‘I am Edoma,’ the woman said with a sweet smile. ‘The one whose tongue flaps like a sparrow’s wing is Sighard. And that is Madulf. They offered me protection on the long road after the Normans killed my kin. We will do all we can to help.’

Hereward looked around the fresh faces and felt the weight of responsibility. They came to
, by name, not to the rebels. Their future days were in his hands now.

‘All you have heard is true,’ Redwald said with a broad grin.

‘We welcome you here to Ely,’ Hereward added. ‘Go with my brother Redwald and tell him your skills, and we will find a use for each one of you.’

He caught sight of a scowling man at the back of the straggling column. His tunic was filthy and blood smeared his face. His arm was wrapped around the shoulders of a woman, his wife, Hereward guessed, who clutched a dirty cloth to the side of her face as she rested her head on her husband’s chest. She trembled with each step she took.

The Mercian pushed his way through to the couple. ‘You are wounded,’ he noted. ‘Go to the minster. The leech will tend to you at the infirmary. Take no heed of his gruff manner. He is hard pressed and may make you wait a while.’

The woman forced a thankful smile. Her husband continued to scowl. Hereward thought how weary he looked, as if his legs would give way at any moment.

Alric leaned in, mystified by the way the woman pressed the cloth to her face. ‘What did this? A wolf?’

The man laughed bitterly. ‘A wolf. One that walks like a man and speaks with a Norman tongue.’

Hereward’s face darkened. He reached out to the cloth, slowly so that he would not alarm the woman. When he saw she would not resist, he gently lifted the material away. The monk uttered an oath, his hand flying to his mouth. The woman’s face had been burned, the straight line of the raw wound almost cutting down to the cheekbone. The skin around it was blackened, and he could smell the sweet stench of rot from the exposed flesh. He had seen that kind of wound before, the touch of a poker that had lain long in hot coals.

‘Who did this?’ he hissed.

‘A witch-hunter.’ The man choked back tears of anger. ‘The churchman and three Norman knights caught us on the road and accused Burwenna of witchery because she had made an offering at a well upon the way. They dragged us to a hut beside a church and demanded a confession.’

‘I would not confess,’ the woman croaked, ‘for I knew they would then take my life. So they burned me with the hot rod, to force the words out of me.’

‘And still she resisted,’ the man said, his voice breaking. His eyes flecked with tears and he hugged his wife closer to him. ‘We escaped them only when they left the hut to meet four more knights who came on horses.’

The witch-hunters followed the Normans the way rats followed a butcher, Hereward knew. As the invaders crushed all resistance with brutal force, the churchmen darted here and there in the confusion, rooting out the heathens with fire and iron. He recalled the churchman who had come close to capturing Turfrida in Flanders and his blood boiled. Was this the same man, the one seen as the cruellest witch-hunter in all
Christendom? If it were, they had business, this cleric and he. ‘No one will harm you here,’ he said to the couple gently. ‘Hurry to the leech now, and know you are safe.’

Once the couple had offered him effusive thanks and set off up the slope to the minster, he cast a cold eye towards Alric. The monk squirmed. ‘You know I do not condone the ways of the witch-hunters. They are a breed apart, even among men of God. We fear them as much as the heathens do.’

‘You will be judged by their actions, monk, whether you like it or not. Folk see only preachers.’

Chastened, Alric bowed his head. The Mercian softened. ‘You keep God well here. All in Ely know that. And the children love you, and they are the harshest judges of all.’

A smile sprang back to the monk’s lips. ‘I would take you to the Camp of Refuge. High matters have kept you away since our return, but it would be well for you to see your folk.’

Hereward was baffled, but Alric would say no more. They made their way through old Ely and along the new track to the lea on the southern slope of the island. As they passed through a copse to where the woods had been newly cleared, the Mercian came to a halt, caught by the sight of the vast camp sprawling down to the water’s edge. It had more than doubled in size since he had last visited.

The sounds of mallets, saws and adzes echoed everywhere. Axes hacked into tree trunks along the edge of the wood and men bellowed warnings as each tree thundered to the ground. The branches were chopped off in quick succession and hempen ropes tied around the trunks to drag them down to the wood-workers. He surveyed the new buildings rising from the ground all around the encampment. Some were little more than shacks, barely high enough for a man to stand upright. Others were clearly constructed to house several families. Many looked as if a strong wind would bring them crashing down. Sods of turf made up for the lack of good straw for the thatch. The dwellings were so tightly packed there was barely space to squeeze among them, and in the
narrow tracks and rat-runs, new neighbours forced past each other, stumbling and cursing.

‘So many,’ he muttered. He estimated almost four thousand now crowded into that camp.

‘So many,’ Alric repeated.

The air reeked of human filth and piss. As he entered the throng, the clamour rang so loud all around he could barely hear Alric’s conversation. In that crowded space, tempers were short. A pockmarked smith threw down his hammer and barked a curse at a gangly youth who had stumbled against a rack of cooling rods. Within moments, fists were flying. The two men rolled around the dusty ground outside the ramshackle smithy. They wrestled furiously as yapping dogs snapped at their tunics. Two red-faced women bellowed at each other, hands on hips – the wives, Hereward guessed – and soon they were pulling each other’s hair. Snot-nosed children ran around the brawl, laughing and pointing.

BOOK: Hereward 02 - The Devil's Army
5.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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