James turned the green stone over between his fingers.
His chest boiled to a wound inflicted from the sword of a French Knight. Blood bubbled freely from its surface. The stump of his right arm, secured in a tourniquet bled dark clots into dirty rags used to dress it.
He remained determined to hide any trace of fear from his captors.
“I am a Housecarl.” He whispered. “A Nobleman’s Warrior. The King’s own Captain of Warriors.” He smiled and looked into the dark eyes of the Conqueror.
The Conqueror pursed his lips and looked sideways at him in judgement. “You are James, correct.”
James nodded once.
“Captain and first Housecarl to Harold Godwinson?”
“I am Lord.” James stiffened slightly. He felt William the Bastard’s eyes study him.
“Is it true? The Royal Housecarl’s make a blood oath to die in defence of their King?”
“It is true, Lord.”
“Hmm.” William sighed. “A brave man, your King. I would have you tell me of his final moments. I will know it all.” He turned to one of his servants. “Bring him water.”
His cold face dissolved and James noticed the first flicker of weariness in the Conqueror’s expression. James thought of Harold and of his men. He cleared his parched throat and coughed blood. “I will Lord. I am but a humble Housecarl and my words are simple things. Yet my account is the equal of any Greek Iliad.”
The corner of the Conqueror’s eyebrow climbed up his forehead. “You know the Iliad’s? Then you are no common soldier.”
James stared beyond the Conqueror at the tapestry walls of his captor’s temporary royal enclosure. “I will tell you of the bravery of my men, and of the glorious moments of the last English King.”
“In your own time, Captain of Housecarls.”
James took a deep breath. “Like the Iliad’s we fought in the shade of thousands of arrows, and, like The Spartans we were past caring. Our shield wall had crumbled and the last of our men stood huddled at the top of the hill. We spat at the approaching charge of French Knights…”
“Surround and protect your King!” James shouted his orders to the remaining Housecarl contingent. The Royal bodyguards, no more now than twenty in number closed ranks. They formed a wall of shields and horses around Harold, determined to honour the pledge of loyalty to their King.
“I will let my men see their King.” Harold pressed his charger forward.
James took the reins and nudged at his Kings charger with his own. Both horses snapped at each other.
“You, my Lord, will stay here.” James nodded to another Housecarl. The man detached his horse from the shield wall and began to canter along the crest of the hill.
Arrows continued to rain down and thud into their shields. James watched the Housecarl reach the end of the English lines untouched. His square set jaw and resemblance to King Harold was uncanny. They cheered him and waved. Edward, the eldest of the Royal Housecarl regiment exchanged a little banter with men who knew they were about to die. He turned his mount and began his return.
James watched the trajectory of a lone arrow; detached from the others, it began a slow descent toward the Housecarl. At the last moment, Edward looked up toward the incoming threat as it buried itself into his face. James looked on as Edward rocked back, forth and to one side. Edward screamed. The remaining foot soldiers saw it too and they groaned. At the bottom of the hill the French foot soldiers had seen it and a ripple of cheers echoed through their ranks.
James watched in awe as the man regained control and cantered back to the Housecarl encirclement. An arrow protruded deep from within Edwards’s eye socket and blood covered his face.
Peppered by a wave of arrows, the front legs of his horse collapsed. The Housecarl fell forward and landed near James’s feet, sending up sods of blood stained mud and turf. The Housecarls gathered the injured man into the centre with their king.
Harold took hold of his Housecarl and cradled his head and shoulders in his arms. “My King.” James heard Edward whisper. “I regret to inform you that the end is upon us.”
The arrows stopped falling. For a few moments James thought he heard birdsong coming from a distant tree line. Then the ground began to vibrate. James glanced around his shield and down the hill. A wall of snarling, foaming, horse borne death began to charge up the hill toward them.
James noticed his King turn in his saddle. “My loyal Housecarls, England’s blood flows down this hill. As mine will soon mix with yours; know this. I promise in the presence of our Lord that today we die defending our own soil as brothers. We will stand at the feet of St Peter, and the gates of heaven will open.”
“I’m English. I piss on heaven. Give me a whore and a warm blanket any day.” One of the men countered.
The King laughed with them all. “Thomas, you never were a God-fearing man.”
“My Lord King, I know nothing of frigid angels and pious merchants shaking in prayer. So let the French have Heaven, and leave an Englishman to get drunk, and lead his horse through Hell!” Thomas raised his sword in the air and howled.
The King continued to smile. “I can only imagine the dread in the minds of those Knights. They charge toward us and see us speared with arrows. Yet in the face of death, we laugh at them.”
The hooves of the French chargers crested the hill. James saw them raise their swords and press their horses into further speed.
“My Housecarls, they are upon us. Our bones will bleach this hill of England and our blood will cover them in shame. With me my brothers, this day, we will drink a toast of Kentish ale. In paradise!”
The French Knights fell on them, slicing, cutting and thrusting. The Royal Housecarls wreaked bitter havoc and held them off. The first French Knights rode past, not one remained uninjured. They slowed their horses. On the turn, the remaining infantry soldiers threw their bodies onto the swords of the Knights and sacrificing their numbers, cut them down.
Another wave of Knights charged. Armed with Lance and mace, they skewered the Housecarls, carrying several forward like speared fish. The Knights behind charged the thinning line again with the sword.
James saw his King fight like a man possessed of evil spirits. He cut, slashed, and parried. However, a French Noble, dressed in red lacquered armour drew his sword arm high in the air for the killing blow. James saw the danger and charged forward, raising his sword arm to parry the strike. The Frenchman’s sword dropped and swept with practised skill and James’s arm spun in the air showering them with blood, severed high above the elbow.
King Harold looked to his first Housecarl and smiled. Their horses buckled, their knees unstrung by axe and mace, they fell to the ground embraced.
Dazed, James lay as French knights dragged the king to one side and surrounded him. In a frenzied bloodlust they hacked him to pieces. At his side lay his Kings sword. Its damaged hilt loosely housed a green emerald stone. Whilst the Knights were busy with his King, James picked the green stone and in his good hand he clenched it. A shadow fell over him and he looked up. A French Knight grimaced over him and spittle drooled from his mouth. With casual indifference he plunged his sword into James’s chest.
The Conqueror placed a hand on James’s shoulder. So, your King did not die to the arrow?”
“No Lord. He did not. He died fighting.”
William took a deep breath and blew out hard. He looked away in thought.
“It is done Lord.” James exhaled and his body relaxed. His hand loosened its grip on the green stone and it fell. It rolled on the floor and stopped at the foot of the Conqueror.
For several seconds the Conqueror stared down at it, then at him. He swept his hand over the glazed empty eyes of The Housecarl. “Go to your last English King. Do what you English do best, drink, fight and make merry with your women. You have earned it. For my part, I shall offer prayers in thanks and deliverance. This land, my land, will know the names of the warriors at the blood lakes of Senlac Hill.”
Saddened, William glanced across at his Sergeant at arms. “My Lord.” He hesitated. “Shall we at least, give this English warrior, a proper burial?”
In silence William studied the hanging tapestries. An idea sparked to life in his mind. He looked into the eyes of the man sitting across from him as he spoke, “Yes.”