Eileen Maitland  The Comet

 

The Comet.

1065.

“Edward vowed I was his heir.  If Harold Godwinson is crowned king, I’ll fight him for the throne which is rightfully mine.”

1066.

      “Men, we must fight for what’s right.  It may be necessary for us to do so soon.  We start preparing now.”

      Seigneur Mautalent’s words were the first indication I had about the great adventure.  I was ready to do anything for him.  After my parents died he’d found me asleep in Big Black’s stall one winter’s night and said he’d give me a home in return for my work with the horses.

      I learned from the others that the smiths were sharpening swords, fletchers were making arrows and our men were practising fighting using our new longer shields painted with our colours of blue and yellow.  We’d have better protection with them without making a lot of the heavy chain mail.   Lucky men had leather jerkins.  Many had nothing.

      One morning Seigneur Mautalent came to me.  “Charles, I want you to get the horses used to the sea.  You’re the only one who can manage Big Black and I want him with us if we have to fight.”

      Now I knew we’d be taking the battle to the enemy not protecting our own land.  I heard that boats were being built all along the coast including special ones for the horses.

     I took Big Black down to the beach.  He stood bravely letting the waves break around his feet, gradually venturing deeper until he was swimming.  I began to bring other horses to join him.  They seemed to take courage from him and soon there was a regular group of riders and horses enjoying the water.

      “I’m glad you’ll be with us to manage the horses,” Seigneur Mautalent said one day.  “They trust you and if the sea is rough you will be able to keep them calm.”

      “But, Seigneur, I’m too young and know nothing about fighting.”

       “My sons Roger and Humphrey are both younger than you and they’re coming.  They can do little close-up fighting but both are good bowmen.  You’re the one I need to look after injured horses and bring replacements for the mounted men.”    

      I ought to have been pleased to be considered worthy but, to tell the truth, I was scared.  I’d never gone far from my birthplace and the idea of crossing the sea was something I’d never imagined.  I began to visit the church daily and pray to Our Lady for a sign that we were doing the right thing.  Going into the battle to catch frightened horses was a terrifying thought but I couldn’t leave Big Black.

      Then around Easter I saw a great long-haired star shining brightly in the sky.  I was even more fearful but our Seigneur and Duke William who was visiting told us all that it was a good omen.  They told us that their grandfather’s fathers had seen such a star when they first came here and see how their families had prospered.  We were sure to be successful. 

      I was still uncertain.  What was a good omen for one was a bad omen for another.  The star led the wise men to Bethlehem but lots of babies died too.

      We continued to make preparations.  I was so proud of the horses when they walked through the water, up a ramp and into one of the new boats, not bothered by the flapping sail.

      It was after harvest when a message came that Harold had gone north to fight Harald Hardrada.  The Norwegian also claimed the throne from the man who’d been crowned by a bishop the Pope hadn’t appointed.  We had both a banner from the Pope and his blessing.

      The weather was settled when we were crossed the sea to do battle with any of the remaining forces.  Big Black and Goldie, the mare, were quiet on the voyage.  Perhaps the swell made them feel as sick as some of the men.  I thought I was going to die.  No matter what the future held I was heartily glad to reach shore.

      Duke William fell as we landed.  A bad omen we all thought but he lifted handfuls of sand saying, “Look, I have already taken the land.”  Then he ordered many of the ships to be broken up and used for firewood or to build shelters.  No escape if we lost.

      Man and beast had time to recover from the voyage, warm up, eat and sleep in the two days before Harold came.  By then we knew he had a broken army at the end of a forced march.  Duke William and the barons had chosen Senlac Hill for the battle.

      Even the best laid plans can hold unfortunate events.  I felt it started badly when the Duke put his hauberk on back to front.  Once again he reassured his followers.

      “Just as I have turned the hauberk around I’ll turn myself from Duke to King.”

      The enemy rained arrows and other missiles down on us while we were firing uphill against a shield wall.  They had the most horrible maces, balls of iron covered with jagged bits of metal all fastened to a chain and swung from a rod.  They did the most appalling damage tearing flesh out of horse and rider, gouging out eyes and breaking bones. 

       Seigneur Mautalent had left me where I could recognise our people by our colours.  He charged me to rescue any of our horses and find fresh ones if possible for the riders.  I wept when I saw how badly Goldie was mauled by a mace.  She was shaking with terror when I caught her, covered with blood and flecks of foam at her mouth.  I led her to a quiet corner, if anywhere could have been called quiet that day, washed her wounds and put cobwebs over the worst of them.  She’d live but she’d always have the scars.

      I watched the Saxons retreat up the hill.  It didn’t seem right somehow but our men pursued them.  Just as we appeared to be winning the enemy attacked again and drove us back down to a ditch.  As only part of their army followed ours our greater number of mounted men defeated them easily.  Our archers and foot soldiers could finally make an impression. 

      I only saw fleeting glimpses of the battle and heard about it afterwards.  Most of the time I was rushing about finding horses and even rescuing some of our people.  Those who had chain mail were not necessarily safest.  It is hot and heavy and some who wore it that day couldn’t get up.  Their bodies were minced under the weight of the horses.

      Late in the day I found myself by Seigneur Mautalent.  Big Black had a red light in his eye, anger, fear and tiredness were as obvious in his body as in his rider’s.

      “How goes it with our men?” he asked.

      “They fight well,” I replied.  I dared not tell him that both his sons were dead.  I’d seen the lifeless body of Humphrey when I carried Roger out of the battle.  He died in my arms shortly afterwards.

      “See if you can find a spare horse for the Duke.  He’s lost three and has taken his helmet off so we might know he still lives.”

      I returned to the encampment to look for an animal that seemed capable of carrying a rider still.  I found Hubert, one of the Duke’s men. 

      “Let him have another horse?” Hubert exclaimed.  “Let him find his own.  Other men need one too.  They’ve fought as bravely and have only lost one or re-caught their own.  Anyway, I’m not going back into that melee.  I’ve been once and that’s enough.  Don’t you go either.  You’ve no protective jacket.”

      It was unbelievable that we had such men on our side.  I wondered if there were cowardly horse-handlers like him among Harold’s men neither caring about riders nor animals.   I hoped there might be someone who loved horses as I did.

      I couldn’t let the Duke finish the day without a mount.  Returning to our horses I looked to see if there was one who could carry him safely.  Some had strained legs, many had deep cuts, others were breathing strangely.  The only one who seemed a vague possibility was a tired young animal, a son of Goldie and Big Black, as brave as his sire, with a coat like his dam’s.  I gave him a carrot, rubbed the sweat from him again and rode him back into the battlefield.

      “Duke William,” I called.  “A mount from Seigneur Mautalent.”

      So the Duke won the battle at Hastings on one of our horses.

      But it was not all joy at the end of the day.  Seigneur Mautalent mourned his sons while praising God there were two babes-in-arms still in Carteret.  I grieved for the animals in my charge who had died on the field or who had to be slaughtered. 

      Harold was dead but it was not the end.  It was only the beginning of the campaign and much was to happen before Duke William was crowned king.

      Yet, looking back, I thought the long-haired star probably was a good omen.