There is a way of battle. In the end the shield walls must meet and the slaughter will begin and one side will prevail and the other will be beaten down in a welter of butchery, but before the blades clash and before the shields crash, men must summon the nerve to make the charge. The two sides stare at each other, they taunt and insult each other. The young fools of each army will prance ahead of the wall and challenge their enemy to single combat, they will boast of the widows they plan to make and of the orphans who will weep for their fathers’ deaths. And the young fools fight and half of them will die, and the other half strut their bloody victory, but there is still no true victory because the shield walls have not met. And still the waiting goes on. Some men vomit with fear, others sing, some pray, but then at last one side will advance. It is usually a slow advance. Men crouch behind their shields, knowing that spears, axes and arrows will greet them before the shields slam together, and only when they are close, really close, does the attacker charge. Then there is a great bellow of noise, a roar of anger and fear, and the shields meet like thunder and the big blades fall and the swords stab and the shrieks fill the sky as the two shield walls fight to the death. That is the way of battle.
And Cnut broke it.
It began in the usual way. My shield wall stood at the very edge of the ford which was no more than twenty paces across. We were on the western bank, Cnut’s men were arriving from the east and, as they reached the crossroads, they dismounted. Boys took the horses and led them to a pasture while the warriors unslung their shields and looked for their battle-companions. They were arriving in groups. It was plain they had hurried and were strung out along the road, but their numbers grew swiftly. They gathered some five hundred paces from us where they formed a swine-head. I had expected that.
‘Confident bastards,’ Finan muttered.
‘Wouldn’t you be?’
‘Probably,’ he said. Finan was to my left, my son to my right. I resisted the temptation to give Uhtred advice. He had practiced the shield wall for years, he knew all I had to teach him, and to repeat it now would only betray my nervousness. He was silent. He just stared at the enemy and knew that in a few moments he would have to face his first battle of the shield-walls. And, I thought, he would probably die.
I tried to count the arriving enemy and reckoned the swine head held about five hundred men. So, they outnumbered us two to one, and still more men were coming. Cnut and Sigurd were there, their banners bright above the shields. I could see Cnut because he was still mounted, his pale horse somewhere deep in the big wedge of men.
A swine-head. I noticed that not one man had come forward to look at the ford which told me they knew this stretch of country, or someone in their army knew it. They knew about the ditch-like river and they knew that the west-leading road had a shallow ford which would be easy to cross and so they did not need to make any exploration. They would just advance, and Cnut had formed them into the swine-head to make that advance irresistible.
The shield wall is usually straight. Two straight lines that crash together and men struggle to break the opposing line, but a swine-head is a wedge. It comes fast. The biggest and bravest men are placed at the point of the wedge and their job is to smash through the opposing shield wall like a spear shattering a door. And once our line was broken the wedge would widen as they hacked along our lines and so my men would die.
And to make sure of that Cnut had sent men to cross the river north of us. A boy rode down from the ridge where the houses burned to bring me that bad news. ‘Lord?’ he asked nervously.
‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘You’re Grindan’s son?’
‘Then your name is Godric Grindanson,’ I said, ‘and how old are you?’
‘Eleven, Lord, I think.’
He was a snub-nosed, blue-eyed boy wearing an old leather coat which had probably belonged to his father because it was so big. ‘So what does Godric Grindanson want to tell me?’ I asked.
He pointed a tremulous finger north. ‘They’re crossing the river, Lord.’
‘How many? And how far away?’
‘Hrodgeir says there are three hundred men, Lord, and they’re still a long way north and more of them are crossing all the time, Lord.’ Hrodgeir was a Dane whom I had left on the ridge so he could keep watch on what the enemy did. ‘And, Lord…’ Godric went on until his voice faltered.
‘He says there are more men to the west, Lord, hundreds!’
‘They’re among trees, Lord, and Hrodgeir says he can’t count them.’
‘He hasn’t got enough fingers,’ Finan put in.
I looked up at the frightened boy. ‘Shall I tell you something about battles, Godric Grindanson?’
‘Yes please, Lord.’
‘One man always survives,’ I said. ‘He’s usually a poet and his job is to write a song which tells how bravely all his companions died. That might be your job today. Are you a poet?’
‘Then you’ll have to learn. So when you see us dying, Godric Grindanson, you ride south as fast as you can and you ride like the wind and you ride till you’re safe and you write the poem in your head which tells the Saxons that we died like heroes. Will you do that for me?’
‘Go back to Hrodgeir,’ I told him, ‘and tell me when you see the horsemen from the north or the ones from the west getting close.’
He went. Finan grinned. ‘Bastards on three sides of us.’
‘They must be scared.’
‘Shitting themselves, probably.’
I was expecting Cnut to ride to the ford, bringing his war-leaders with him to enjoy his insults. I had thought to have his son at my side with a knife at his throat, but rejected the thought. Cnut Cnutson could stay with Æthelflæd. If he stayed with me I could only threaten him, and if Cnut dared me to cut the boy’s throat, what would I do? Cut it? We would still have to fight. Let him live? Then Cnut would despise me for being weak. The boy had served his purpose by luring Cnut away from the East Anglian borderlands to this corner of Mercia and now he must wait till the battle was done to learn his fate. I gripped my shield and drew Serpent-Breath. In almost every clash of the shield walls I preferred Wasp-Sting, my short sword that was so deadly when you were being forced into the embrace of your enemy, but today I would begin with the longer, heavier blade. I hefted her, kissed her hilt, and waited for Cnut’s arrival.
Only he did not come to insult me, nor did any young men come forward to challenge us to single-combat.
Instead Cnut sent the swine-head.
Instead of insults and challenges there was a great roar of battle-shout from the mass of men assembled under the banners of Cnut and Sigurd, and then they advanced. They came down the road fast. The land was flat, there were no obstacles and they kept their tight formation. Their shields overlapped. We saw the painted symbols on the shields, the shattered crosses, ravens, hammers, axes and eagles. Above those broad round shields were helmets with face-guards so that the enemy seemed to be black-eyed, steel-clad, and in front of the shields were the heavy spears, their blades catching the day’s half-clouded light, and beneath the shields hundreds of feet trampled the ground in time to the heavy drums that had started to beat the war-rhythm behind the swine-head.
No insults, no challenges. Cnut knew he outnumbered me by so many that he could afford to divide his army. I glanced to my left and saw still more horsemen crossing the ditch far to the north. Some five or six hundred men were pounding towards us in the swine-head, and at least that many were now on our side of the river and ready to fall on our left flank. More men, those on slower horses, were still arriving, but Cnut must have known that his swine-head would do the necessary work. It thundered towards us and as it came closer I could see faces behind the cheek-pieces, I could see eager eyes and grim mouths, I could see Danes coming to kill us.
‘God is with us!’ Sihtric shouted. The two priests had been shriving men all morning, but now they retreated behind the shield wall and knelt in prayer, their clasped hands lifted to the sky.
‘Wait for my order!’ I called. My shield wall knew what they must do. We would advance into the ford as the swine-head reached the far bank. I planned to meet the charge almost halfway across the river and there I planned a slaughter before I died. ‘Wait!’ I shouted.
And I thought Cnut should have waited. He should have let his swine-head wait until the men to the north were ready to attack, but he was so confident. And why not? The swine-head outnumbered us and it should have shattered our shield wall and scattered my men and led to a slaughter by the river, and so he had not waited. He had sent the swine-head and it was almost at the far bank now.
‘Forward!’ I shouted, ‘and slowly!’
We went forward steadily, our shields overlapping, our weapons held hard. We were in four ranks. I was in the front and at the centre, and the point of the swine-head came straight at me like a boar’s tusk ready to rip through flesh and muscle and sinew and mail to shatter bone and spill guts and wreath the slow river water with Saxon blood.
‘Kill!’ a man shouted from the Danish ranks and they saw how few we were and knew they would overwhelm us and now they quickened, eager to slay, cheering as they came, their voices raw with threat, their shields still touching, their mouths grimaces of battle hate, and it was as if they raced to reach us in the certainty that their poets would sing of a great slaughter.
An excerpt or chapter from "THE PAGAN LORD" of Bernard Cornwell