They brought him back in ignominy, his body slung over his horse, arms and legs hanging down. The man who’d been the king of Mercia didn’t look so grand in death, just another empty bag of bones and flesh.
The horse, though, she was magnificent. Full fourteen hands high, with a white blaze like a star between her eyes, looking proud even after battle. When our king, Oswy, let the reins fall, I gathered them up and led her away.
‘Boy!’ Oswy yelled before I’d gone three paces.
‘Yes Lord?’ I was scared, he still had the blood lust in his eyes. Did he think I was stealing the beast?
‘Throw the corpse off first.’ He smiled. ‘Then you can water the animal.’
With a grin I did as he ordered.
It was a grim day for battle. Late November and cold, with rain and sleet in the air. A time to dress warm and try to stay inside by the fire. But there was no chance for that. The scouts had ridden in early after a day of trailing Penda and the wild Welsh army with him.
They were close, should be here by noon. They look tired and ragged, the scouts reported, after matching slowly south, on their way home with all the treasures they’d stolen and the weight of the souls they’d killed heavy on their hearts. Penda and his men were filled with the stain of sin, ones who’d refused to take Christ. Death as all they deserved. A long journey, exhausted men. Death in the name of God. And they were ripe for the plucking, or so my father claimed.
He was a thane, beholden to King Oswy of Northumbria. He’d come to fight when his master called and he’d brought me with him. I might have only been ten, too young to fight, but he believed I was ready to see war, to understand a campaign and battle.
‘Remember, Leofric, you’re here to watch and to learn,’ he’d told me the night before as we made our beds close to the fire. ‘And to help me if I need it,’ he added with a smile. He made the sign of the cross. Northumbria was a Christian kingdom.
Oswy had ridden off with some of his men a few days before. Word came back that they’d harassed some of Penda’s troops, attacking and then vanishing again before they could mount and defence.
‘They’re good tactics,’ my father explained approvingly when he heard the news. He’d seen his share of battle and carried the scars to prove it. I was his oldest son. I was the one who’d wear the thane’s mantle when he died. ‘Each little raid kills two or three men. It’s not many, but they mount up. More than that, it scares them. They’ll keep looking over their shoulder. And they’ll be filled with fire, not knowing where we’ll come from next. Or when.’
It was time to stop the pagan Penda. All the thanes were agreed on that. He’d killed Edwin, Oswy’s father, long before I was born. He was a man with a hunger for power, a maw that was never satisfied, always gobbling up land. Not long ago he’d Hwicce and put it under his rule. He’d killed and maimed and raped. Everyone knew he had the eagerness for more.
And this was the place we’d make our stand against him. Grimes Dyke, near the village they call Stanks, not far from the River Windwaed. Oswy had been cunning; he’d massed his force out of sight, hidden by the dyke that stood almost as high as three men. There was a wide ditch at the bottom and the beck running through it. How any man could get past that, I didn’t know. I didn’t see how we could be beaten.
‘Don’t go saying that,’ my father warned grimly as he looked out to the land beyond. No enemy in sight yet. ‘Penda has the luck of the devil.’ He tousled my hair and smiled. ‘But we have God, and we know who’s stronger, don’t we, boy?’
By the time the scouts arrived, we’d been up for hours. The women who travelled alongside had cooked for us, and now everyone sat, tense from all waiting. Tempers were on edge. They were ready to fight today. They wanted blood.
I wandered from group to group, listening to the gossip and the idle boasts that fill every camp. But I kept my distance from Oswy’s guard, the ones who were sworn to protect him with their lives. They carried the glint of death in their manner, as if they’d as soon kill you as look at you.
There was a priest with us. He’d held his service that morning, giving his blessings and assuring us that God was on our side. I spotted him of my himself, on his knees in prayer. But he, too, carried a long sword.
They dyke had one weak spot, a place used as a ford across the beck. We’d spent the last two days building it up. Like everyone else, all the women and children as well as the men, I’d put in my hours digging and moving the earth until my palms and my fingers were covered in blisters. But I never complained.
The shout came when they came into view, and suddenly everyone was scrambling. The time they’d all been waiting for had arrived, and still it seemed like a surprise.
I stood at the top of the dyke, looking into the distance. Penda was at the head of his force, a banner flying behind him, its colours caught by the breeze. He was surrounded by men on horseback, but far more on foot behind them. It’s wasn’t hard to see that they outnumbered us. But if this was our day to die, then that was God’s will.
Our men had been drilled. Each had his places, spears and their swords to hand. And every one of them had the order to wait. But I could see it on their faces. Too many were eager for battle.
Penda and his troops came at a rush. The horsemen were in front, the gallop of their hooves on the ground like the rhythm of the dead. Those on foot came quickly behind them, running and yelling. Oswy had pricked them enough to make them reckless. They wanted revenge for the comrades they’d lost in the last few days.
‘Stay back!’ my father ordered, pushing me away towards the women before he took up his position. But as soon as he left, I moved again. This was too important, too exciting. It was a sight I had to see. And I had my sling, I had some rocks in my pouch. I could play my part. We’d win, I felt certain.
The ditch halted them. Those in front dashed into it and found themselves trapped. The dyke was too high to climb. As men bunched up behind them, the cavalry in front couldn’t turn and move back.
They were easy prey to the spears that rained down. Many of them fell quickly and the others panicked, unable to fight back. Finally the cavalry cleared enough space, trampling their own men as they tried to retreat. But we’d damaged them. Their wounded screamed and howled like babies. I’d loosed rocks, one after the other, and seen some of their spearmen fall. It was a child’s weapon but it was effective.
I thought they’d give up. I didn’t how they could charge again, but after a few minutes, long enough to catch their breath, they returned, running and riding over their own casualties as they hurtled towards us. They never had a chance. The second wave fell as quickly as the first. They were men who’d stopped thinking, who only saw death.
And this time, when they retreated, Oswy gave the order to pursue them. It was something to see, our horsemen easing their mounts down the slope, then going full gallop in pursuit. I could pick out my father and the flash of his sword. Then our foot troops were among them, too.
Penda’s men were tired. Two assaults had come to nothing, they’d been marching since dawn. They knew they were beaten. The field was a killing ground, nothing more than that. Our Lord’s men might as well have been slaughtering beasts.
Perhaps it lasted an hour. Maybe less. It roared in my ears and I couldn’t look away. There was terror out there, but there was glory, too. I stood and I watched and I envied them.
From the moment our men charged it was obvious that we’d won. Penda and his men had no hope. The women and I set to hacking down the part of the dyke we’d built up just a day before. A way back for the victors.
I kept glancing over my shoulder for some glimpse of my father. Finally I could make out the shape of his horse, with its ears pricked high, prancing as it returned to camp.
My father had one hand was grasping his arm as he rode, but he was smiling. And then came Oswy at the head of his picked men, leading Penda dead and bundled over the saddle of his mare.
The women were already down in the ditch, some of them out on the battleground, swarming and cackling like carrion crows. If they found someone alive, they slit his throat with their little knives, then took anything of value he possessed. It was how it had always been; how it would always be, as far as I knew. We’d won, the spoils were out.
Someone was tending my father’s wound, but he’d already given me a sign that it was nothing serious.
And then I saw Penda’s horse.
I watered her and fed her as she shied around, frightened by the noise and the smell of blood. I talked gently to her, leading her in small circles until she calmed. A beautiful animal, worthy of a king. Even on the long journey she’d been cared for, brushed sometime recently, and she carried a saddle and bridle of beautifully-worked leather.
Once she’d eaten her fill and she was settled, I hobbled her and tied the reins to a tree. I didn’t need to search for my father. He was walking towards me, his arm in a sling, Oswy at his side, holding a leather mug of ale.
‘This is your son?’ Oswy said.
‘Yes, Lord,’ my father said proudly. ‘Leorfric, my oldest boy.’
‘How many did you kill today, Leofric?’ the king asked.
‘Three, Lord.’ Shyly I produced my slingshot.
‘He’s a lad with an eye for good horseflesh,’ Oswy nudged my father and laughed. ‘Couldn’t wait to look after Penda’s horse.’ He turned to me. ‘You like that animal, boy?’
‘Yes, sir.’ My voice was so quiet I was amazed he could hear me.
Perhaps it was the ale, perhaps it was the generous flush of victory. But he stood there, assessing me as if he could tell my worth.
‘Then she’s yours, boy. Take her home and look after her well. But when I want your service, you’d better ride her to help me.’
Historical Note: We do know that the Christian king, Oswy of Northumberland defeated and killed the pagan Penda of Mercia in the battle of Windwaed on November 15th, 655. What no one knows with certainty is where it happened, although there are two streets in Whinmoor – Penda’s Way and Penda’s Walk – that might have their origins in history. Certainly, a battle by Grimes Dyke is possible, but it’s all speculation. The most curious aspect of it all is that the streets remember the loser in the battle, rather than the winner.