They left York by the Jubber Gate, what remained of it, like
thieves in the night. Behind them smoke from the blackened
timbers of the burning City billowed skywards, choking the
night air, obscuring the moon, covering their escape.
Every so often the man would cast an anxious glance over his
shoulder to ensure they were not being followed. His wife,
her face pale and drawn, clung tightly to him, her eyes
flitting from the darkness ahead to the small child clutched
to her husband's chest, cocooned in his muscular arms. She
prayed they would soon reach safety, some undergrowth or
undulation in the land to cover their retreat, to bring their
suffering to an end.
York was doomed. Five days ago, after a stubborn fight the
Norman army had forced the City walls, and then the gates,
ending the insurgents' resistance. Those that could not
escape were butchered where they stood: men, women, children,
babies. There was no discrimination between young and old,
innocent and guilty; no mercy either. Babies were put to the
sword, mothers raped and then murdered, houses looted and
burned. It followed a familiar pattern: kill, loot and burn
until all was gone. This was the Conquerors' way with the
Saxons, those that did not bend to his will. It had been so
for four years and now the north was a blackened wasteland
from the Humber to the Tyne, from the Severn to the Mersey.
Ranulf looked back again; a quarter of a mile and still no
pursuit. If they escaped it would be a miracle. By all laws
of reason they should be dead, lying butchered and broken
with the rest of their comrades in the City or dangling from
the City walls like some of their leaders, captured and
tortured, then left to rot as an example to the others.
For five days, since the Normans had stormed the City,
Ranulf and his family had evaded capture, eventually finding
refuge amongst the corpses of their comrades, their bodies
thrown into a burial pit as the purging of the City
proceeded. For the last two days they had feigned death, man,
woman and child, burying themselves ever deeper beneath the
pile of insensate bodies to avoid detection until they
thought they would go mad.
And then the opportunity that they had been praying for had
arisen. The gate momentarily unguarded, the moon obscured by
cloud and smoke, they had seized their chance. Hearts in
their mouths they had crept forward, clinging to the shadows,
Hal's tiny face tearful but blackened against detection,
sworn to silence by his mother. He had manfully nodded his
understanding, a boy of three, not really understanding but
sensing his mother's distress, the importance of doing as
asked. God alone knew what effect it was having on his tender
And then they were up to the gate, their hearts pounding
like hammers in their breasts as they paused, expecting a
challenge at any moment before making the final bid for
freedom beyond the walls that had held them prisoner for five
nightmare days and nights.
They headed south, searching all the while for some cover in
which to hide, to rest. There was precious little of that,
for the land had been stripped bare by the local populace and
by the Conqueror's army in their search for food and timber
for their camp fires. The land was in the grip of a famine.
Years of war had wasted both the people and the land and now
the people were starving.
Ranulf knew that unless he could find food and shelter soon
their chances of survival were slim. It was over two hundred
miles to where they were heading and without food they had no
chance. Alice's face was already thin and gaunt, her beauty
marred by the ravages of hunger. Hal was surviving on what
Ranulf could scavenge, depriving himself of much needed
nourishment in order that his offspring should not suffer.
But Hal was suffering, needed food and rest more than either
he or Alice. He hugged the boy to him, protectively,
compassionately. Somehow he would see that the boy lived,
even if it meant sacrificing his own life.
And deep down he knew that he should already be dead; that
his life was lived on borrowed time. He should have died with
his comrades on Caldbec Hill four long years ago. It was his
duty to have done so and the fact that he still lived was due
only to the futile order given to him by the late King,
Harold Godwineson, to abandon the field of battle to save his
Queen. He had failed, and now both were dead. He blamed
himself and sometimes, when the guilt became too great, he
wondered why he had been allowed to live when so many good
men, better men than him, had died. Perhaps God was punishing
him by allowing him to live, to see for himself the legacy of
defeat on Caldbec Hill.
That legacy was life, if one could call it that, under
Norman rule. William the Bastard, called "the Conqueror" by
his men, had no love, no time, for the Saxons. His conquest
of England had been based upon the promise of land to his
supporters; land that had once belonged to the Saxons. One by
one, at an ever increasing pace, the Earldoms and Shires and
Villages and Hundreds had been handed out to his Norman
supporters, resistance by the Saxon nobility, those that had
survived Caldbec Hill, being ruthlessly and efficiently
crushed until virtually the whole of the country was in
After Caldbec Hill Ranulf had sworn an oath to fight the
Normans until the last one had been driven from the shores of
England. That Oath was now in tatters, the Saxon cause
irredeemably lost, the Norman dynasty in supreme command. All
over England the Conqueror had erected fortresses from which
to govern, to control the people; timber fortresses perched
high on moated hills, impregnable against all but the most
determined attackers. And there were precious few of those.
Without a King to lead them, without a figurehead to unite
them, their revolts had been sporadic, doomed to failure.
It was hopeless, and even though Ranulf recognised the fact,
he also knew that he would continue to wage war on the
Conqueror for as long as he could. He owed it to his King and
his comrades, dead four years now, to continue the fight;
that they should not have died in vain.
And so he headed south with his wife and son to make an
unlikely rendezvous, hastily arranged with his fellow rebels
before the Norman army had flooded into York to end their
They had covered half a mile when he heard, in the distance,
the sound of horses' hooves. They were iron shod, heavy. It
was a single rider, a Norman. He would recognise the sound
anywhere; only the Normans had horses that large. Only the
Normans had anything. He handed Hal to Alice and ushered them
away into the darkness. He hunkered down behind a small piece
of scrub and waited for the rider to approach. He unhooked
the sword that hung at his side and eased it from its
scabbard. The sword was one of only two possessions that he
had managed to retain during four years of fighting and
running. The other was a slim stiletto, tucked into his belt,
both weapons a reminder of the past, the memories etched deep
into their steel like the scars that he bore on his body. The
sword was Requitur, the Sword of Kings. It had once belonged
to Alfred the Great and to every Saxon King since. He had
picked it up by mistake in the gloom gathering over Caldbec
Hill and had kept it safe ever since. It never left him, and
since that day four years ago it had tasted Norman blood
The rider was approaching quickly. His eyes now accustomed
to the darkness, Ranulf could see that he was only lightly
clad, no mail armour, no helmet. A courier or messenger
perhaps. It did not matter. What mattered was the horse, a
lifeline for them all. Heart pounding, his breath coming in
short bursts, he waited for the rider to approach. Ten
yards...five, and still he waited, crouched behind the scrub.
The man was almost past him when he made his move, springing
forward, swinging Requitur in a great arc that gave the man
no time to react, no time to avoid the blow. The blade hit
the rider in the chest, knocking him from the saddle. Moments
later Ranulf was upon him, driving the point of Requitur down
through his chest. The man hardly made a sound as he died.
The mare was a few yards away, having bolted in panic. The
rider was dead but the mare was the prize and now Ranulf felt
a different kind of tension as he slowly approached her. One
false move and she would be gone. Whispering softly, arm
outstretched to reach for the reins, he made it to within
five yards before the mare shied and trotted away, eyeing him
nervously. He cursed under his breath and tried again, this
time, keeping his arms by his side. He got to within two feet
of her, sensed that she was about to bolt and lunged for the
reins. His hand grasped leather and he knew that he had her.
He stroked her chestnut mane, nuzzled her cheek and whispered
soft words into her ear. She was his.
He checked the rider's saddlebag and found some papers,
sealed with wax. He could not read, English or Norman, and so
discarded them. What he did find was a hunk of dried bread
and some hard cheese. Manna from heaven. He called to Alice
and Hal and they divided the food between them, saving a
little for the journey.
They were safe at last. With food in their bellies and a
solid mount beneath them they would head south, for the Fens,
for a rendezvous with their comrades and with the most
charismatic Saxon of them all.
And there, in the last Saxon stronghold in England they
would challenge the Conqueror to fight them on their terms,
on ground where his cavalry was of no use, where chain-mail
was a hindrance rather than an advantage, and where the
Conqueror's massed ranks of infantry would founder and sink
beneath the treacherous miasma of the fens.
They were going to the Isle of Ely, to the camp of refuge,
to fight for Hereward the Wake.