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~ By Courtesy of Others ~


Kingdom’s End

Crows and ravens rip and tear
The butchered bodies strewn rotting
In these river meadows, quiet with death.

A figure propped by a long axe
Eyes me sharply, his tousled hair
And wiry moustache gently blowing
In the warm, pungent autumn breeze.

Heavy mail coat cast
At his feet, a dented helmet rests on top.
A Saxon housecarl, I believe,
One of the King’s elite personal guard;
Bleeding, bandaged, left behind
While King and army sweep south.

I ask him why he remains on this field
And his eyes brighten: sparkling sapphires
In a dark shadowed face of pain.

From the Roman road, rising clouds of dust –
As sunlight shimmers and sparkles on an icefield,
So the shining steel of our spears and armour,
The blowing and billowing banners of Wessex and King Harold –
Greeted nonchalant Norsemen relaxing in Jorvik meadows.

Coats of mail discarded at the longships,
Norwegian invader Harald Hardraada surprised –
His Viking invasion force split, awaiting Jorvik hostages.
Hardraada sent three horsemen with haste back to the ships,
While his nervous Norsemen poured across the river bridge.

Berserker on that bridge bought time –
Hacked down our huscarls with hefty axe swings –
‘Till skewered by a Saxon spear thrust from a skiff.
Circle of shouldered shields, spear-points bristling –
Hardraada hustled his men into a hedge of defence.

Twenty Saxon thegns rode forward to the Vikings –
The traitor Tostig, a third of the kingdom offered
If weapons withdrawn and his rebels retired,
But for huge Hardraada – just seven feet of English soil,
Or as much extra turf as that man is taller.

As the horsemen’s hooves hastened to Saxon lines
Hardraada enquired of the envoy – that messenger
Who stood stately in the stirrups of his steed?
“My brother King Harold posing as a herald,” Tostig answered;
“Knowing such I would have slain him there soundly,” sighed Hardraada.

We Saxons were forced to fight up a slope –
Harold and huscarls, in a triangular wedge
Marched forward furiously and fell upon the Vikings –
Pummelling and puncturing the palisade of Norsemen,
Splitting and slicing shields with our great axes.

Hardraada raged, rushed forward with iron widowmaker:
Swept a swathe through the Saxon host;
But such size against the sky framed! –
Soaring shaft sliced the giant’s throat,
The Land-Ravager razed, his raven banner trampled.

Tostig was offered a truce, but took honour;
Revenge now combined with valour – Vikings do not yield.

Soon joined by armoured axemen from the ships,
But hauberks in the heat! – exhausted from long marching –
Swiftly struck down by our surging huscarls
And pursued at spear-point back to the longships,
The few survivors set sail for Northern lands.

One-half the golden generation of Norsemen
Lie in these bloodied meadows – just bleaching bones shall remain.

Sapphires dimming, fading flames –
He looks wearily past me
Into the red furnace of sunset,
Blackening shadows on the grave of Stamford:

Contorted bodies, broken spears,
A weeping woman flitting amongst
Corpses, provoking corvine screeches.

Yet here at Stamford, a stunning victory
Of Harold’s Saxon England over
Hardraada and Tostig’s clutch for the throne.

As I move to go, to continue my wanderings
Guided by the blood-flecked parchment,
I squeeze tighter my bleeding fists:
I dare not tell this warrior –
Too weak to fight, too strong to die –
Of what shall happen on Sussex hills.

© Martin Latter, 2006          CopySense

Image: Battle of Stamford bridge, Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892), Norwegian painter

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