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14th October 1066
The voice doesn't sound like his, though he can feel its vibrations in his throat. It sobs and growls, bellows and screeches like a cacophony of demons. My name is Legion for we are many. Odo is afraid he's lost his reason, but if the rumours are true, and William is dead, it might be better to be out of his mind. If Godwinson finds him.
"You said this couldn't happen," he yells, in this voice like a cracked bell. The air is thick with smoke where fire-tipped arrows have set the grass smouldering. "You were the Wrath of God. How could you die?"
He has let the reins go, one hand trails the borrowed sword, the other is clasped around the amulet he wears, the Tear of the Virgin, William's gift. He has lost his shield. Fool. Lost his shield? What sort of soldier is he? God's soldier, he is God's soldier.
His horse plunges down the ridge, shouldering its way past crowds of men on foot, stumbling over corpses and hummocks of maram grass, slipping on churned earth, slimy with blood and spilt guts. Disorientated in the pall of dust and smoke, the animal rears to avoid a kneeling peasant trying to prise a severed hand from the hilt of a sword. Norman? Saxon? Which side of the line is he? Doesn't matter. The main thing is to stay in the saddle, clear of the melee of men on foot hacking and pulping one another. Heels down, weight forward, squeeze with the thighs, at one with the animal.
Perhaps he is dead, not William, and the din battering his hearing, the sting of tar and horse sweat and burning fat in his nostrils, the eerie sense of being both in the thick of it yet watching himself from somewhere else, perhaps this is hell. He is a prince of the Church, which is inclined to make a man assume he is immune from hell, but he knows now that he has never truly believed it. Nothing is certain but uncertainty.
His eyes smart, full of tears, or sweat, or blood, he cannot tell. His helmet is a vice, branding the rings of the chain mail hood beneath it into his temples and the tonsured crown of his head. It's possible he has been wounded, he can't remember, but there is such a pain in his heart. Yet it is still beating. He can hear it, feel its rhythmic rush and suck. Arrows drumming against leather shields. Silence. Reload. The whistle of quarrels from bowstrings. Instinctively he turns the horse broadside to the archers, to shield himself and ducks behind its neck. Screams of fallen men and horses. Other men and horses. So he is still alive. A voice in his head taunts him: Which is more than this horse will be if you don't move. Horse, shield, what next?
Over to his right he can hear the Saxon war cry: Goddemite, God Almighty. The men in the front line on top of the ridge shake their shields in time with the chanting. The sun is out now, burnishing blood and weapons, gilding the smoke pall. The iron rims and bosses of Saxon shields flash in the corner of his eye. To the left the Norman response, William's motto: Dex aie, God aid us.
Except that God is not helping them. God has taken William from them.
"Why?" he shouts, raising his eyes heavenward. "Tell me, I'm Your anointed priest. Make me understand."
His horse stumbles to a halt among a group of young knights whose armour is as pristine as their white, beardless cheeks. He can measure their inexperience by the shock in their eyes as they look at him. Look to him, identifying him by the hauberk of woven leather he wears over his mail. Courting disaster, William had snorted. Being myself, he had thought.
"Is it true, my lord?" asks one, scarcely audible above the din. "That the Saxons have broken through and Duke William is dead?"
He blinks away the tears, the blood, whatever it is, brings his gaze into focus on the boy's pleading face. He removes his helmet, pushes back his hood, and runs his hand through his hair, matted with sweat. He finds the odour of his own body reassuring as he raises his arms, familiar, human. Not the perfume of a soul mounting to heaven nor the reedy scent of a ghost. He smiles, he hopes, his parched lips cracking, his jaw aching. He only knows he has succeeded when he registers the effect of his smile on the young knights. It is a well-rehearsed smile, companionable, disarming. It usually serves him well. The young knights look relieved. They can trust him; he is the duke's brother, his confidant: he will know what to do.
He looks around the battlefield, seeing it suddenly as though he were a bird flying overhead, mapped out below him like a diagram in a text on military strategy. He sees foot soldiers from Harold Godwinson's right flank pouring down the ridge like water from a broken dam. They are in pursuit of the panicking Bretons who were supposed to hold the Norman left. Fucking Bretons, maids and milksops the lot of them; they'll pay for this. A low hillock rises some way to the west. Gathering the reins and coaxing his horse into the center of the group of boys, he beckons them closer, so they will be able to hear him above the noise of the battle. The horses stamp and snort and jostle one another, fighting for space. One thing they never tell you is how crowded a battlefield is.
"Look." He points at the Bretons and the pursuing Saxon fyrd, hoping the boys cannot see their faces from here. "See the Bretons over there, the ones who look as though they're retreating. They're not. They don't listen to rumours. They're leading Godwinson's men right into a trap. They're going to drive them up that rise and surround them. You men go to their aid. Quick as you can."
The young knights look where he points. They pause, nerving themselves for the fray, then one of them shouts, "Bishop Odo," his voice lurching up the scale from adolescent croak to childish falsetto, "it's the duke!"
Odo looks. The sun glances off swords, shields, armour, harness, arrowheads. Blinded by gold and iron, he raises one hand to shield his eyes. The gesture seems to take forever, as though the gulf between will and action is unbridgeable.
Then he sees a knight on a black war horse, bareheaded, his hair glowing like a firebrand as the wind catches it. William. And behind him, the Frenchman, Eustace of Boulogne, flamboyantly moustached, bearing the Papal standard. Odo catches his breath, realising as he does so that he has been holding it for several seconds. The sudden rush of air makes him dizzy.
William laughs as he draws rein and leans forward in the saddle to punch his brother's shoulder. Odo prays he will not feel him shaking. He clenches his hands, one over the other around the pommel of his saddle, to steady them, afraid he might revive the demons if he tries to speak. That if he does not cling to his saddle, he will find himself on his knees in the mud, clutching at William's stirrup, whimpering like a child unable to throw off a nightmare.
"You've a face like curds, little brother. Did you think I was dead too? They shot my horse out from under me, that's all. They can't touch me. I told you, God won't allow it." William pauses. The smile vanishes, and his mouth forms an obstinate line. The gaze he fixes on Odo is as blue and unstoppable as a glacier. "I am His Vengeance. Never forget it."
"No, Your Grace. I thank God you are unhurt."
"Time enough for that later, Odo. Shall we get on? I should like to put an end to this business before nightfall."
And he is the no-nonsense general again, a bulky, reassuring figure on his tall horse, trusting God but reliant on no one but himself.
The young knights ride after the Saxon fyrd, whose pursuit of the Bretons is already unravelling as Odo has predicted. Dex aie, they chant, Dex aie, Dex aie, Dex aie. Watching them, Odo has an idea. To begin with it seems too simple so he says nothing, but tests it in his mind for weaknesses. And finds none.
William and Eustace gallop on down the Norman line. The gold cross on the Papal banner glitters as the flag snaps in their wake. William waves his helmet in the air as though he has already won a famous victory. When he reaches a spot directly opposite the apple tree up on the ridge where Godwinson's personal standard flutters, the Fighting Man looking more like a dancer, he draws rein and bows. The unmistakable red hair falls over his forehead, catching the autumn sunlight.
For a measure of time that might be a second or might be forever, there is neither sound nor movement among the Saxons on the ridge. Their shield wall traces the contours of the high ground and behind it they are invisible. Then a single javelin thuds into the churned earth, yards short of William but close enough to unsteady his horse. The spell is broken. William crams his helmet back on his head, raises his sword and begins the charge up the hill, Eustace at his shoulder.
Odo gives certain puzzling instructions to units of cavalry under his command, but all are men who have been promised much in exchange for their support and they do not question him. Twice during the remainder of the day, they feign retreat as he has ordered, drawing off troops from the Saxon side and then surrounding them and so crucially weakening their force.
Odo himself fights beside his brothers, as he has been taught, with the club that is the weapon of priests, having no cutting edge. He stands in his stirrups to make best use of his height and lays about him, twisting his upper body this way and that, throwing its weight behind the blows. He is aware of nothing but the working of his body, the linkage of muscles from groin to waist to shoulders and arms, the flexing of joints in wrists and elbows, sweat running between his shoulder blades, the flow of the horse between his thighs. He splits skulls, cracks open breastbones, splinters vertebrae. A fragment of memory comes to him later, a strange and shaming impression that he was thinking, not of the lives of the men he killed and maimed, nor even of his own life, but of Tacitus' Agricola: "...atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant."
He is everywhere in the battle, yet he is off the field, changing horses behind the lines, when news reaches him of the death of Godwinson.
"Shot in the eye, my lord," says the page with relish, eyes shining in his grubby face. What is he? Ten, eleven maybe? Shortly to become a squire, dying to be a knight.
"In the eye, eh?" Good, fitting, though surprising it should be fatal. Blinding is how poachers are punished. Odo winks at the boy. "Thank you for your news, boy. Go safely. No, wait." He wants to give the boy something, out of gratitude for his good tidings. He feels he has not shown sufficient elation. The fact is, he is worn out. All he feels is relief, and a desire to sleep.
"My lord," says the boy. Odo fishes inside his hauberk and unclasps the brooch fastening the neck of his shirt. It is silver and amethyst, Celtic workmanship. He hands it to the boy, noting how warm it is to the touch. The boy beams as he takes the bishop's gift, a little too quickly perhaps, afraid that it might be withdrawn.
"For your pains, boy. Now off you go with your news."
The boy runs off, grinning, and is soon lost to view among the tents.
Odo mounts, takes helmet and shield from his squire and a mouthful of gritty water from the skin the young man offers him, and rides off westward at an easy canter. It is almost sunset, and the dead cast long shadows on the trampled ground. The last residue of fighting has moved away from the Norman lines to the far side of the ridge so the shouting, the clash of arms, are muffled by distance. Crows flap lazily into the air as he passes. Camp fires are beginning to flare, their glow competing with the bloody remains of the sun pushing between the horizon and the canopy of cloud stretched above it. The homely scent of woodsmoke overlays the stench of carrion.
It's over, he thinks. We've won. William and Robert and I have won. I've won. I've won. He tries to savour the moment, but his mind runs on. This is only the beginning. There will be so much to be done. Roads must be laid, fortifications built. There must be churches and abbeys, laws and inventories. Forests must be cleared and wildernesses claimed. The might of Christ will drive out wood sprites and water nymphs; His light will shine in the darkness. There will be order. Today they have dug a foundation only.
And now he is thinking of home, of his palace in Bayeux, of the plans for his great new cathedral of Notre Dame spread on the table in his dark, empty hall, weighted down with an assortment of plates and goblets, and a mottled pink stone Adeliza found on the seashore, years ago. Now he will be able to complete it, once William has kept his promises.
He finds William, together with Robert and several other lords, close to the tree where Godwinson had raised his standard at the beginning of the day. How long ago? Six, seven hours at least, to judge by the sun. Feels like more, feels like less. The men are staring at the ground, contemplating something. A corpse, naked, recently mutilated. Only now does he notice the shockingly intimate, meaty smell of butchered men. His gorge rises as he approaches. Sweat breaks on his top lip, and saliva floods his mouth. He removes his helmet, pushes back the hood beneath it, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, noting he needs a shave, hoping he isn't going to throw up.
"Shot in the eye, I was told," he says, drawing rein. His horse, unnerved by the stench, tosses its head and dances beneath him. He pulls its ears and talks nonsense to it until it settles.
"Might have been. We haven't found the head yet," says William.
"How do we know it's him, then?"
"She says it is." William nods toward the tree. Now he notices the women standing in the shade of its gnarled branches. There are four of them, Saxons, two ladies of high rank from their dress, and two others he supposes to be ladies in waiting.
"Godwinson's whore. The young one. You know her, don't you? The other's his mother for God's sake."
Odo gives a grim laugh. "How does she know? The part she's most familiar with is missing, as far as I can see."
William shakes his head. "Marks on the body known only to her, she says. How would I know? But that's his standard lying beside him. That'll do for me. The women want him for burial."
"Will you let them?"
The head is found. Some joker has stuffed the penis into its mouth, but the eyes are intact. Darkness has fallen when William gives orders for the remains to be taken to the beach and buried. Odo does not accompany the burial party. Godwinson has no need of a priest, William tells him, and Odo does not argue with him. Godwinson swore to uphold William's claim to the English throne, swore on holy relics from Odo's own church, fought alongside William against Conan of Brittany, and then grabbed the Confessor's crown before the old man was cold in his grave. The thought of his oath, his raw boned hands resting on the delicate reliquary shrines, makes Odo feel defiled. Of course Godwinson has forfeited his right to Christian burial.
Odo sleeps soundly in his tent pitched on the battlefield beside those of his brothers. When his servant removes the mail shirt that shields his body from neck to knee, he feels as though he is floating on a cushion of air as he slips into unconsciousness. The moans of the wounded and dying do not disturb him, nor the cold seeping into his bones. The blood dries on his face and beneath his fingernails. Corn gold stubble grows along the sweep of his jaw. He does not remember his dreams.