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Her women clutched each other, weeping. They could hear people dragging trestles across the flagstones in the hall. Soldiers began banging on the great front door.
Ulf clung to his mother’s hand.
Elditha said, ‘I’m going down.’
He snatched at her skirt with his other small hand. For a moment she froze, afraid for them all. Determination crept back into her voice, ‘Margaret, hold on to Ulf.’ She handed him to the nurse and pulled her cloak about her shoulders.
The calls continued. ‘Putain, putain!’ And in English, they bellowed, ‘Harold’s whore, come out.’ Holding her head high, she walked down the staircase into the crowd of servants, men, women and children who had already sought the shelter of the hall.
Children huddled behind pillars. Others clung to their mothers. Everyone turned to watch her pass. She saw her linen table covers in a heap amongst rushes on the flagstones. Wooden bowls had toppled from trestles which had been dragged away to make barricades. Dogs whimpered and cowered in corners.
Again and again, their chant penetrated the great door, ‘Concubine, concubine, come out.’ Guthlac ordered the men to pull more trestles against the door. Brother Francis sank against a pillar crying, shaking and sweating and holding aloft a great wooden cross that hung around his neck. There wasn’t a fighting man left in the hall.
‘Are they all out there?’ she said.
‘There’s none of them in here!’ Guthlac exclaimed. ‘Go back up to your women, my lady.’
She pushed him aside. ‘Let me through, Guthlac, and Brother Francis, too.’
Guthlac glanced past her to the priest. ‘Some luck that one will bring!’
A firebrand of rushes was shot into an opening; another and another and another. Hangings caught fire. Everyone began running. They tried to beat out the fire with linen cloths. More and more burning torches flew through window openings. The villagers ran along the wall beating at flames but to no avail. The flames took hold and snatched at banners, devouring them in a red-and-gold blaze.
‘Look out for the shields!’ Guthlac yelled and pulled Elditha towards him.
A shield with a great dragon painted on it came crashing down. The fire raced, eating into tapestries and hangings as it flew. Children were pulled from chests and clasped close to their mothers. Hounds went mad, barking and growling, snapping, wildly shaking the bells on their collars. Everyone coughed and spluttered as smoke rose in the hall. Those who could lay their hands on a ladle or a pitcher ran back and forth from the vat that stood by the central hearth. They hurled water at the flames. It was hopeless.
Flames grasped at Elditha’s swan pennant and Harold’s warrior, swallowing feathered bird and fighting man. Small fires began to flare up, catching at the straw strewn over the flagstones. Smoke thickened in dark, suffocating plumes.
Elditha’s ladies hurried down the stairway clutching veils over their faces. They ran with the crowd to the entrance. Elditha screamed at Guthlac. ‘Let my ladies out.’ Then she cried, ‘Where is my son?’
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