Loidis was in flames. It was the price Elmet must pay for choosing the losing side. I, Cerdic, once heard Abbess Hild talk of forgiving one’s enemies: she said that a man should pray for those who curse you and bless those who mistreat you. These were Christ's words and we should heed them, she implored us. For, they were words of love and words of peace.
But this day was not a day for peace or love. This was a day for vengeance and blood.
Elmet chose to back Owain and his great alliance of the Northern British tribes. Together
they attacked my land and my people - the Angles. They raided Deira, killed my brother and kidnapped my sister. Then they took their army and joined Owain at a place called Catraeth. There they hoped to destroy my land and my race for ever.
But it was we who prevailed. We Deiran farmers and townsfolk from the Wolds and Moors and the lands along the River Humber held on against the odds until our brothers - the Angles of Bernicia - had marched from the North and fallen upon the enemy.
There, at the great Battle of Catraeth, we destroyed them. The tribes from Rheged, Strathclyde and Manau Goddodin had been crushed. So now we returned to our neighbour - to Elmet to make them pay for the hurt they had done us.
That at least was what Aelle - our king - had ordered. He wanted recompense from Elmet's King Ceredig, and punitive steps taken to ensure he could not easily attack us again. For my part I had seen enough blood and death at Catraeth to last a lifetime. I would have been content to stay at home with my family and Aidith, my woman. But Aelle was our King, and my father, Cynric, was Earl of the Southern Marches. Our family’s lands around the village of Cerdham lay
in his domain so when he called out the Wicstun Company that spring, a few months after Catraeth, he expected me, the Lord of the Villa to obey the summons.
So we went - ten men and boys from the village - led by myself. Amongst them were my three friends: Eduard - tall and broad-shouldered, a fierce warrior, utterly loyal and a true friend; Cuthbert, my other boyhood companion - short and delicate, yet agile and as much a master with the bow as Eduard was with his axe; and Aedann, the dark-haired, green-eyed Welshman, who had once been my slave and was now a freedman sworn to my service. With us went the rugged old veteran Grettir - our teacher once upon a time and still full of the wisdom of a man who has seen many battles.
We left the village of Cerdham with its hovels and huts and left too the Villa - the decaying old Roman house that my grandfather had captured and made into our family’s home. Off we went with the rest of Aelle's army - six companies from the South of Deira - and invaded Elmet. We marched hard and fast, striking deep into the Welsh land and, before he knew we were coming, their King, Ceredig, was staring down at us in horror from the wooden palisade around his city
Aelle's orders had been strict and Earl Harald commanding us followed them to the letter. There was no offer of peace from Harald, no olive branch held out and no chance of reprieve. Not yet. Not until we had smashed our way through the city gates and burnt the houses that lined the main street.
I am an old man now and I have been in many battles and many fights, but despite all the sights I have seen, I will never get used to the screams and cries for mercy from the innocent. The gods blow their trumpets and the Valkyries ride forth to choose who is to be slain and lead them to Valhalla, and men cheer and do battle for the sake of glory or wealth or honour. Yet it is the children and the women who suffer while we men wallow in blood.
So it was that day. Vengeance might sound a fine thing to demand when you stand over the grave of your brother and smell the smoke of your own home burning. But see how you feel when it is someone else's brother, son or daughter who lies at your feet, their home burning whilst you stand nearby, holding the torches that kindled the flames.
Yet it had to be done, did it not? They must be made to regret their attack and be prevented from doing it again. It was us or them; and frankly, when you have seen hundreds die you can harden your heart to the cries of the innocent. Or at least you can try to....
A little later, Eduard, Cuthbert, Aedann and I stood with our men amongst the Wicstun Company in a square at the heart of the city. Smoke from the smouldering hovels and the stench of burning flesh wafted across to us, but I tried to ignore it. In front of us was a long hall: Ceredig's royal palace. Lined up between us and it were two hundred Elmetae warriors, shields held high and spear points sharp and glowing red in the firelight. They were the King's last defence and we and two other companies were forming up in a shield wall to attack them.
The rest of the army was elsewhere, ransacking the city and putting it to the torch.
"This is it, lads. One last attack and the campaign is over," Harald shouted. "One last attack
and then we can all return home and forget about war."
"If you believe that you will believe anything," I heard Eduard mutter, but loud enough that
many of us heard it and chortled wryly. Yet, we all hoped it was true. It was what gave us the strength to carry on. Maybe Harald was right. After all, the armies of Owain and his allies were scattered or dead. With Elmet suppressed too, who else was there to threaten us? I gripped
my shield tighter, checked the balance of the spear in my right hand and waited for the order
Harald blew one sonorous blast on his horn and we were off. Behind us my father and his huscarls followed and over our heads our company’s standard flapped in the gentle spring
breeze - the running wolf visible through the drifting smoke.
A few arrows flew back and forth above us - but not many for apart from Cuthbert we had brought few archers along with us and the Welsh had only a handful themselves. Nevertheless, one arrow found its mark somewhere amongst the company for I heard a curse over to my right. Glancing that way I saw a man from Wicstun tumble out of the shield wall, blood streaming down his chest and an arrow shaft protruding from just above his collar bone. He slumped onto the ground and sat there, face screwed up in agony, each breath laboured and painful. Then he
was forgotten as the army moved forward.
We were thirty paces from the enemy, who now locked their shields together, each one overlapping the next. Then they brought their spears down so they pointed towards us and
with a clattering of ash staves on oak boards, we copied their move.
Twenty paces away now and my gaze fell upon one Elmetae spearman directly in front of me.
In truth he was barely a man and from the faintest wisp of a beard on his chin and the gangly thin arms and legs I surmised that he could not have been above fourteen years old. His dark green eyes looked haunted and his gaze darted this way and that. I had seen that look before at Catraeth on a hundred faces and knew without a doubt that today he was in his first battle. Next to him and older was a gruff veteran with scars down his cheeks and bulging upper arms. His eyes showed none of the fear in the young man's eyes. Instead hatred and bloodlust
Ten paces away and the spears of both armies interlaced each other like the fingers of a man bringing his hands together. Then the shields crashed together. The shock of the collision sent
a judder up my left arm and it was all I could do to keep hold of my shield. Unbalanced, I stepped back just as a spear point lunged at me, missing my throat by only an inch. Recovering my feet, I thrust back, realising as I did so that my spear was aimed at the young boy's neck. Maybe I hesitated for just a second, for it never reached him: the grizzled old veteran at his side hacked down at my ash stave with his sword, snapping it in two and leaving me with a useless stump. He then brought the sword round aiming to take out my throat with the fearsome edge. I was saved by Aedann who, standing on my left, took a step forward and drove his spear into the veteran's left shoulder. The enemy gave a roar of pain and recoiled. The youth, meantime,
drew back his own spear preparing to thrust it forward again. In his eagerness and his panic
he fumbled, dropped it and then bent to recover it.
Panting hard, I took advantage of the reprieve and reached down to my baldric, grasping the
hilt of my short stabbing sword. I had taken this blade from my first foe, whom I had slain during the raid on the Villa. It had served me well: it was with this sword that I had killed Owain, the golden king of Rheged and it was in honour of that battle that it earned its name: ‘Catraeth’.
I dragged Catraeth up above my shield just as the youth advanced again, screaming as he thrust his spear at me. I leant to one side, letting the spear point go past and then following up, hacked over the top of the shield and felt the edge cut through tendon and bone deep into the boy's arm. He let out a howl of agony and fell to the ground, shield and spear abandoned as his hands reached up to stem the flow of blood from the wound.
To his right the veteran roared in anger and then hurtled forward, his own wound forgotten, slamming his shield against Aedann's own, knocking my Welsh companion back through the rear ranks. Without pausing, the enemy stepped over to me and kicked hard against my shins. With
a shout of pain I too tumbled to the ground.
Above me the light was blocked by the huge figure of the grizzled veteran standing astride me, his face a mask of rage, his shoulder pouring blood that dripped down onto my upturned face. Yet there was something in his features that reminded me of the young man I had just cut down. It was then I realized that the youth must be his son. Thirsty for revenge and consumed by anger, the old man swung back his sword and prepared to finish me.
"One last attack and then we can all return home," those had been the words of Earl Harald just minutes before. They resounded in my head; hollow now. But then again, maybe he was right.
But if so I would not be returning home to live in peace.
No, instead I would be going home to be buried ...