Wulfhere couldn’t stand it any longer. His mind roared: why do they not give the order? They must either charge forward to meet the onslaught, or retreat. He heard neither command. His heels gently nudged his horse’s flanks and Hwitegaast dutifully cantered over to the Norman section behind the lines.
He called over to Ralph as he neared their position. “My Lord, we must attack or retreat! We are like sitting ducks! If we stand here any longer we will be cut down. Give the order!” Wulfhere pleaded. He smelt the fear and saw the confusion on the Earl’s sweating quivering features. My God, the man’s a coward! Wulfhere thought in dismay.
Ralph’s companions joined him and Wulfhere noted the anxiety in their faces.
“If we are going to fight, you must give the order to charge, Lord,” Fitzscrob urged and Malet echoed him.
Wulfhere saw to his relief that Ralph nodded, albeit without urgency, as if the fear had dulled his senses. He pulled on Hwitegaast’s reins and he returned to his position.
“Foreweard hilderæs! Forward charge!” Wulfhere yelled and his unit sped forth, their voices raised loudly in a thundering war cry as they spurred their horses into a gallop. The earth pounded beneath their beasts’ hooves as they dug their stirrups into the horses’ flanks to make them go faster. The Welsh bowmen sent over a volley of arrows and the commands of the Norse leaders followed as their men obeyed with precise discipline, to halt and gather to form a great shieldwall, knowing that the horses would baulk at their man-made blockade.
About a hundred bowmen from the enemy front ranks fired their arrows. Wulfhere was disheartened as some of his fellow soldiers were felled by them, leaving the horses to scatter riderless in confused panic. Wulfhere expected Ralph’s men to be engaging the bowmen in the centre, mowing them down with their javelins and sword strikes, but where the hell were they? Suddenly something did not feel right.
“Wulfhere!” He heard Esegar’s anguished voice calling him. “The Earl and his huscarles are leaving the field, Lord!”
Wulfhere swivelled and turned his head to his right. He reeled with shock and disbelief as Ralph and Malet were running from the field, the Normans and French in tow like fleeing vermin. The right flank, too, had gone and he saw that Gruffydd’s rearguard was charging after the soldiers in flight.
“What are they doing, sir?” Esegar asked, baffled.
Wulfhere’s voice was pitched at an angry growl. “Saving their fucking Norman skins...leaving the rest of us to the wolves to die like sheep!”
Even before a single spear was thrown, the craven Normans had fled, leaving the Earl’s ‘great’ army of mounted men at the mercy of the crushing enemy.
Wulfhere looked across the mud-churned field and gasped as the fleeing Englisc were struck down by javelins and arrows. The horses did not escape the vicious attack either. Their distressed whinnies fused with the howling of wounded men so that the noise became like the sound of hell on earth. In the pandemonium, the horses took flight in all directions, running into each other and throwing off their riders. The warriors were cut to ribbons as they lay helplessly on the ground. Whooping filled the air as the Wéalas leapt upon them with great savagery, slitting their throats and hacking at them in a frenzy of bloodlust.
All this happened within seconds but, as Wulfhere plundered his mind for what to do next, it seemed to him that an age had gone by. He fought with his instincts to run and save his skin like Ralph and, twisting his head back round, he sees that the men of his left flank have no choice but to fight as the Norse break their ranks and charge into the horsemen, using their deadly spears and great axes to hack at them with terrible ferocity. Wulfhere’s eyes captured some of his army fleeing the battle. His heightened sense of fear set off the mechanism needed for survival: adrenalin. The overwhelming rush of blood and energy stormed through to his head. He wanted to run also, but his pride and anger at this debacle that Ralph had created would not allow it. Cowardice may have won the day for Ralph but, for Wulfhere, death in battle was preferable. He would sooner die than sully his name with the infamy of leaving his men to perish without him. His mind inadvertently took him to Dunsinane and the memory ignited his anger as he visualised the terrible carnage of that battle.
Clearing his throat, he spat phlegm from a dry mouth before shouting, “Stand your ground! Do not flee! Are we cowards like the bastards who have left us to die? Retreat back unto me!”
He rode amongst the chaos, roaring and screaming until his throat was hoarse. He derided those who tried to leave for being cowardly, calling them scum, worse than the droppings expelled from a dog’s arse! Men began to heed his call to rally. They were disengaging from the mêlée to regroup the lines, swinging their horses’ heads round and galloping back to gather around him.
The survivors of the left cavalry flank were organised once more, thanks to Wulfhere. Those whose mounts had been killed from under them ran back on foot, or took charge of the horses that had lost their riders. He searched for Esegar briefly, thought he saw him somewhere and was relieved. He heard the bellowing of the Norse infantry as they too were regrouping their lines and the ground shook with the thundering of Gruffydd and Alfgar’s troops as they pursued the fleeing Englisc into the distance. Wulfhere felt as if he was under water and gazed up at the ravens circling in the sky above them, already waiting to swoop on the dead carcasses. Not yet, you dark devils, I am not ready for you yet!
Wulfhere stared at the faces of the snarling enemy. They were banging their weapons against their shields, chanting and calling out insults to them. Some of them were emulating horses by pretending to gallop up and down the field, accompanying their inane stupidity with neighing and whinnying. Their companions found this highly amusing. Wulfhere did not. They were heavily outnumbered and he was appalled. If he had to give his carcass up to the scavengers of the battlefield, he would die like a true warrior, valiantly, as they did in the old days.
He gave the order to charge; he knew his men were looking to him for his leadership. It filled him with both fear and excitement, but there was no time to think on that now as he charged ahead of his lines into the cordon of Norsemen who ran head-on into them like mad braying fools, some of whom wear the bearskins of the infamous Berserkers.
His sword arm swept down at the contorted faces of the Wykinga warriors, but for every man he felled, another took their place. He cut and slashed at them with animal-like ferocity, his kite-shaped shield in his other grasp battered at any would-be assassins on his left side. A warrior on the right of him took a blow from him across his neck and shoulder and the man’s blood splattered Wulfhere across his face. He tasted the iron in it as it seeped into his mouth. The man staggered and clasped a hand over the wound as thick blood poured through his fingers. Wulfhere lost him as Hwitegaast lunged sideways with the impact. Another snarling Wykinga came at him with a great axe. Wulfhere saw him aim for Hwitegaast’s neck. Anger and panic filled his very being. No, I am not going to let you kill my horse! his mind screamed. He shortened the reins, pulled them and Hwitegaast reared away from the axe’s deadly blade. He swung his sword arm downwards to smash into his assailant as he sidled his mount. The impact felled the axeman instantly and the man lost his grip on the handle of his weapon, rendering him useless for another assault.
Wulfhere sensed the chaos around him as the men of the mounted unit courageously fend off Alfgar’s crazed mercenaries. Some of the enemy were trampled under hooves, as they tried to unhorse the Englisc, slipping in the mire of blood and entrails that lay on the ground. His vision is filled with unlucky riders, whose horses succumb to the vicious blades of the Norse axes. Their weapons slice into the necks of the horses, almost decapitating them, sending out great jets of scarlet. Their masters were also cut down and the stench of blood and bodily fluids swirled in Wulfhere’s nostrils. Men were roaring or screaming and the clash of steel rang in his ears. His own dread was glowing hot through his veins, spurring him on with the determination that he would not die without a good fight.
A great collective cry of voices burst through the chaos as about one hundred or so foot soldiers, men of the local fyrd, ran into the havoc, snarling like angry wolves and yelling a rallying call, “Hereford! Hereford!”
Wulfhere’s heart leapt with hope, even though he knew they are still vastly outnumbered. Spotting the exposed flesh of a man occupied in a fight with one of the Englisc foot soldiers, he swung his faithful sword, Hildbana. Wulfhere grunted with the impact, satisfied that it had met its mark as his blade sank into the man’s exposed neck. His victim’s head bent forward and the wound at the top of his spine gaped, showing the white of a broken vertebrae. Blood pumped slowly out onto his mail as he fell to his knees. Dropping his sword, his hands went to the back of his neck. Wulfhere manoeuvred his mount closer to the fallen man so that he can strike him once more. Hildbana thundered down, but his aim was not good and he caught the man’s helmet, thrusting him forward to the ground. Another warrior rode over him unintentionally, the animal’s hooves stamping on head and limbs indiscriminately. There was no more Wulfhere could do to him and he turned to his right just as an axe bit deeply into the horse next to him. The beautiful creature sank onto its front, blood spurting out from the wound and over Wulfhere so that he was covered in a fountain of scarlet droplets. Wulfhere instantly recognised the stallion that he had sold to Ralph and a lump formed in his throat. Its rider screamed and hit the ground as the horse collapsed. The unfortunate rider was then met with a spear to his back, skewering him like a spitted wild boar. Hwitegaast reared and whinnied, a haunting eerie sound as if he recognised the offspring that he had brought forth from his own loins.
As Wulfhere struggled to steady his distressed mount, he wondered if there was any point in carrying on. Men were dying around him. He felt like a dead man already. His eyes flashed round him. Horses were being cut from beneath their riders and he was angry. Men dying was one thing but, Christ on the Cross, not the horses...
He slid from Hwitegaast and smacked his rump hard until his bewildered mount took off, but not before giving his master a questioning look as if Wulfhere was abandoning him. A blow barged into Wulfhere’s shoulder. Thankfully his shield took the brunt of it. He reeled round, swinging his shield from his back and lifted his sword to defend himself, hardly noticing as his assailant’s sword slashed into his leg, close to where previously he had been hit by an arrow.
The man before him was, like him, drenched in blood. Wulfhere raised his shield to parry the sword blow that descended upon him. He was filled with a terrible fury and retaliated with his sword, swinging it upwards and catching the man’s own shield with such a force it knocked him back a few paces. His rage gathered momentum and Wulfhere hacked at the man before he could recover, his sword blows bashing his shield aside, creating an opening for him to deliver a slash across the man’s gut, knocking the Norseman off his feet. He pinned him with his foot and thrust his sword tip into the man’s throat as the enemy lay prone in the morass of mud and guts beneath him. The man’s eyes stared up at him, glasslike and questioning as red spittle frothed from his mouth and trickled into his beard. Wulfhere wasted no time, sensing danger to his rear, he whirled around to ward off a blow from some other warrior. Suddenly he was surrounded and had to fight them off like a madman. His fury continued to enrage him and he battled on, hardly realising he was injured until he began to weaken. Legs buckling underneath him, he dropped into the bloody slough and covered himself with his shield, waiting for the end. He knew his life was over.