Talking to Harald Hardrada
By coincidence I had served on most of the failed Danish conquests and occasionally set eyes upon the King, if that were permissible. I kept myself to myself and my head down but the thought always gathered and rolled like one hungry, welling sea wave in the mind that we would knock the wretched kingdom down – all too small and all too poxy.
When we didn’t and shifted our gaze to that land to the south-west, all of this dissolved into waves of disappointment for me and an acknowledgement of my over-optimism – not that I would have confessed a mote of this to the sour-faced swordsmen and oarsmen flanking me at intervals.
If they were sour, there was nought but trouble seething all around and in Harald; perhaps I should say he was steeped in bitterness. We clubbed our way across the northern seas in some kind of negative angry defiance, not in a particular mood of hope, and I got the glimpses of himself at various places that didn’t help. Scowling at the mouth of that Tyne river even as we brushed land mass; yelling at no-one in particular and to every frightened one on the cusp of the Humber.
That was when I was on the cusp of desertion and bunked off to go fishing for a few hours, coming back to no-one mouthing condemnation or even going through the routine of an interrogation. We were perpetually moving forward yet huddled together in mental passivity, waiting for something bad to happen without quite knowing whether that would mean battle or something else entirely.
And yet it was the King who, of all of us, at the last sounded most virtuous and graced by hope, even if it were in the minutes creeping down to our being poleaxed. We were within sight of York and I was sent to deliver the latest in a clasp of formal and very tedious messages. For some reason I expected to find him beery, vulgar and callused, but instead he was the model of quietness, so much so I found myself thinking about the mild pallor of late September here rather than any construct of deference. He read, cogitated, nodded, and then spoke with maximal deliberation.
“What make you of this land, son?”
“One more place to c-conquer, my lord, surely?” A slight tremor on my part because I anticipated what he was going to say and regretted what I’d said in the moment I said it – all in the second.
“Apart from the fact I don’t conquer other places. I can conquer my own country without even having to think about it. But this – pah! Foreign missions. I’m either missing some kind of trick or I’m going soft the wrong side of fifty. What I’d like to do in this land is bring together everything I’ve done in the past. Consolidate it. Just get on horseback for the sake of it. Go rowing not as a break from fighting but instead of fighting full stop. Write the poetry they say I do instead of getting some halfwit scribe to do it for me so as to preserve my reputation.
“No son, it is milder here. The flower buds will crack through the ground earlier every March and they’ll die far later. Not too cold for the Byzantines, a bit warmer for the Russians. I’ll bring those folk of faith over from them places just like I’ve done elsewhere – not because I can, because I think God’ll grow on ‘em here, grow on the natives – in a…fair to middling climate.”
For one moment he was entirely at peace. Then we both heard horse hooves and knew it was something other than a reconnaissance by our own men. He was not shocked at all – even though our men surely would be. At that moment, he was all in emotional transit, transported from cloudy weariness to a venom heightened by the fact he couldn’t foretell whether he had enough to stave off Godwinson and get what he’d supposedly come here for.
“We’re just one more lot of fighters here, aren’t we? Yes, I know about William the Bastard knocking on the door down south, I know about the Anglo-Saxons uprooting themselves and then rooting themselves down here as if it were God’s will and it ain’t- if – we – are – talking – about – the – godless. All coming here for our crown’s worth. All kings turned mercenaries looking for a bucket of gold, all yer fiefdoms under the thumb and a nice bolthole for the winter, or the summer, depending on what you’re trying to get away from.
“But I’ll fly on the waves between Norway and here, son, and keep them all in check. I won’t need to farm out responsibility and rule to my son or any other.”
He spat the words out and rose, now resembling the broad-shouldered warrior who had won acclaim so often rather than the brooding and budding retiree from seconds earlier. For him this land signified hope and some incorruptible beacon of new potential, no matter how the visitor or the native had been shafted, undone or usurped in the past. For my part I pondered on whether such optimism was an eternal conceit and blessing.