Thursday, October 24, 2013

Byrhtnoth's Dying

The steel tide is rising.

The invader before me goes down in a spray of blood and broken links of chain as my war-spear rips free of his byrnie. But behind him rush a hundred more, a thousand, more than I can count. Roaring like the sea itself come to take us away. It is no matter. We must stand. We will stand.

The men roar as I step through their ranks into the chaos, spear-head darting and flashing before me. Here bursting through a young man's throat. There through an eye. The heavy spear is lightning the invaders' thunder-god could have been proud of.

Around me my fellows war with renewed vigor. Earl and churl alike, we club and stab and cut and still the enemy comes on.

But we will stand. We will not be overcome.

A man scarcely older than a boy goes down before me and I shake my spear's bloody iron point to the sky, laughing at the improbability of our victory. "Thanks to Metod," I howl, "for the day-work he's given!"

But I've been looking up when I should have been looking left. The hardened wood javelin hurled from the ranks of the foe strikes like a viper's tooth, staggeringly powerful for such a narrow thing. I drop my spear, stumbling back, my hands wrapped around the shaft that has taken my life. It is not possible.

The tide comes on. I fall backward, the javelin's point lodging in the hard earth.

"My lord!" the boy by my side cries. "My lord Byrhtnoth is struck!"

He braces his foot against my sore right shoulder, tears the javelin free, flings it heedless toward the invaders. May it be transformed into lightning, may it strike down every man and boy in the tide.

But it will not. I see it now, sure as I see the carrion-crows circling in the blue sky overhead. It will take bloody slaughter to beat back the tide. But we will do what we must. What we have always done.

Some will say we should have paid them. Paid them well, and kept our lives. But we are not dogs. We do not buy our safety with golden torcs and Roman coin. We buy it with good steel, and blood. I am only the price we pay this day.

Around me, over me, the men surge and curse and fight but the spirit is leaving them. My death will not be their spur. If they are triumph, in the light of the Wielder of Men, I cannot die here. I roll to my knees. Curse with the effort. I bleed. I hurt. But I brace myself on my spear and I rise. My bill rasps free of its scabbard and I cry to the men. Smash the hilt against my chest. Thrust it high.

"We will overcome," I bellow to them. The pain is unbearable. But they will see me dead, and yet rise again like the Christ of legend. They will see me bear the pain. See me fight on. They will take heart from my warring arm. And we will beat back the tide. Defend this ground. "We will fight, and we will never surrender!"

The spear is heavy in my left hand. The sword heavier in my right. The men before me dim, the tide grows dark. But it rushes in. I hear it everywhere around me.

Men step to my side. Aelfnoth takes a blade meant for me. Wulfmaer parries one hammer blow but the second is too much and the third bears him to the ground, his face a bloody ruin and his legs still kicking. Odda's sons Hel and Aelfmaer throw down their arms, and flee.

And I am alone.

"Faithless!" I rage. But the battle boils on. I manage one foe, then another, but the third strikes at my sword-arm, too quick for my weary blade to beat aside.

The pain. I cannot tell you of the pain in terms you will understand. May you never come to such an understanding.

But the pain is the least of it. When Godric breaks, his men behind him, I see the battle for what it has become. Faithful Godric, who was my boy's own uncle, has left me.

We are lost. My death, my resurrection, is for nothing.

The invaders stand aside as I fall to my knees. Their lord swaggers forth into the clearing from the fray. Raises his barbarian arm, and shouts in triumph.

How far will the tide advance? How many lives will it claim? What have I died for, if not to stop them coming?

When his pitted, rusty sword rises, my last thought is of my wife. My boy at her breast.

If I am a lucky man, she is what I have died for. With my death, I will have bought her time to escape, to take the Roman road to safety as if she was just another churl fleeing the battle. I ordered her to go. If I am a lucky man, she heeded me, and did not stay behind in some womanish fit of loyalty. If I am lucky, she has fled me.

And in a moment, when I see her in Heaven, or do not, I will know.


This one is a prompt I provided at /r/writingprompts. Tell a story inspired by the battle of Maldon. I took the events more or less from the (translated version of the) poem found at, though I of course messed with it some to make it a storyish thing.

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