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Hunding's Saga - 35: King Eadmund 'Ironside' Betrayed, Wrong-Footed by Fight-Shy Eadric Streona's Folly
Knut Sveinsson's ambition called for cunning and leadership - the Danes would not follow a fool
Knut first wanted the ealdorman on his side. The Merician ealdorman had second thoughts.
The ealdorman was Aethelred's man, and although he was cut off from joining his king he held back from giving Knut Sveinnson his oath. Knut shrugged and turned to Eirik,
'This is one horse that will not drink; we must win over his followers and harness them to our war-waggon. They can do little otherwise, with the north cut off from this king's home shires. Eirik, how many men do we have?'
'More of the Danelaw lords have flocked to your standards, my Lord King, although many of them still hold with Eadmund 'Ironside'. We need to show them that we do not hold it against them that they have kept their oaths to the West Seaxan aetheling, as they call him. Give him time, and he will tire of 'Streona' and his hedging. We can push him southward with our ships cutting into the rivers along the east and west coasts. There are Dyflin Danes in the west who are willing to give you their support, Lord'.
'Good - although I am not yet your king. Yet, give me time... Everything in its own sweet time, Eirik. Thorkell, what are your thoughts?' Knut turned on his heels to hear how his friend saw things.
Once the scourge of the Danish isles, Thorkell 'Havi' had bethought himself. Jomsborg no longer had the might it once had. Many had taken the pay of the eastern lords, some fighting alongside the Wends against the Seaxans on the mainland. Time would tell if he had jumped the right way, in bringing what was left of his men to Knut. Here was a kingdom to be shared out, a young king who would tire of war-making... although his men were doughty warriors. who did not know when to yield. He would soon ensure they yielded to Knut, however. He cleared his throat,
'My Lord', Thorkell weighed his words. He knew better than to bring down Knut's wrath on his head, but he needed to put to this would-be king that without a strong arm his kingdom would never come about. 'My Lord, I think you are too soft on them'.
'Too soft?' Knut chewed his lower lip, taken aback. He thought that if he pushed the Danelaw nobles too hard they might go over to Eadmund. Aethelred was old, they would desert his army wholesale. He fixed Thorkell with a stare, saying nothing at first, then, 'Soft, you say? Do you want them to go over to Eadmund and Aethelred?'
'They are unlikely to go over to Aethelred in droves, Lord. Eadmund's numbers are growing. Leave it too long and even our Danes could go over to him!'
'You feel strongly that way, Thorkell?' Knut joked, 'What has stopped you from joining him?'
Thorkell cast Knut a hurt look; Eirik was puzzled, but brightened when Knut slapped Thorkell on the back and laughed,
'Thorkell, my friend! Your loyalty has never been short. The aetheling Eadmund would be hard-pressed to find a leader for his men as good as you are - and you are mine!'
Thorkell fixed Knut with an odd look. It was time to turn the tables,
'You are sure?'
It was Knut's turn this time to be taken aback,
'If you wish to join -' he began, looking awkwardly at Thorkell. Time seemed to drag.
Thorkell cut him short before he could say any more,
'Two can play that game', Thorkell laughed hoarsely, Knut and Eirik laughed with him, 'My Lord I am yours to command, you know'.
Loud laughter drowned any other sound in the camp, and Hunding knew he was with a winning king. Tofig and Herjolf smacked the insides of their shields with their axes, along with each other man within the camp.
'First we must find either Eadmund or Aethelred', Knut cupped a hand under Eirik's right elbow.
'Aye, though which way to go before they show under our noses?' Eirik's words brought nodding from other nobles.
'We should have word soon, trust me my good friend. I have sent riders every way. Aethelred will not want to take us on from the front, that much he has learned from the past. Eadmund will not want to tackle us head on, either', the young lord mused. They have too much to lose'.
'As do we', Eirik put in.
'We will not lose', Knut smiled and ruffled Eirik's coarse hair, 'no we will not lose, mark my words.
'I hope we can say that by the end of the year', Eirik mumbled.
'What have you eaten for your morning meal, my old friend - too many oats, perhaps? You need to take more meat!'
'Aye, Lord. I shall eat a horse before the day is out. Perhaps I should start with yours?' Eirik chuckled. Were he Sleipnir, I should have more meat!'
'Maybe he is Sleipnir, Eirik. I shall reach Eadmund before the rest of you, and show these Aenglishmen how to fight!'
More laughter. A rider came, dismounted and led his horse towards Knut,
'My Lord, there is a great army to the south, near Snotingaham!'
'How many, would you say?' Eirik asked.
'There could be hundreds that I saw. Thegns to the north of the burh say there are others further west, in Deoraby', the rider answered Eirik on a nod from Knut.
'Eadmund, do you think, Lord?' Thorkell wondered aloud, and asked the rider, 'Did anyone tell you who they were? Did you wait long enough to learn more about the leaders of this army? Do we send other riders to do what you ought to have done?'
'They seemed to think it was Ealdorman Eadric, from the west', the rider sniffed.
'Go, find something to eat', Knut told the rider. He turned back to Eirik and Thorkell, 'Does Eadric think he can take us on, or is he coming to join with us?'
'Your guess is as good as mine. But we must make for the road to Snotingaham. Every man to be ready before the next tide', Knut gave Eirik warning and turned to Hunding. 'You know the river to the south, Hunding?'
'Aye, my Lord. We can sail as far as Newerce, where the Defna meets the Treonta. It would not be wise to sail beyond there, as we could be cut off. A rider sent west from Newerce could tell whether there was a threat, and Snotingham is a half-day's march'
Knut shook his head, Eirik agreed with his lord and Thorkell stood, arms folded staríng at Hunding,
'That does not sound so wise to me, Hunding. We can leave men and ships at Newerce to guard the river Defna. We have enough of both, so we should use them', Thorkell half-laughed. 'We will ask you about the rivers, but you should keep your own counsel when it comes to warfare -'
'He might be right', Knut waved Thorkell silent. 'Why do you say it would be best to march from Newerce, Hunding?'
'They would not know about your coming, Lord. They would think you are coming from Gagnesburh anyway, further to the north. You would take them off guard coming from the east. They would think you to ride overland as t they might. If some men were sent overland from Gagnesburh, whoever it is at Snotingham would go out to meet them'.
'Thorkell - when you tell this fellow he should keep to sailing, remember he has fought with Basil 'the Bulgar-slayer'; he will have learned something from the great leader. I should send all my men to fight under him!'
Thorkell winced, but said no more. Eirik looked sideways at Hunding and raised his bushy eyebrows,
'With you we could take the kingdom, my good fellow. That night with Gunnlaug -' Eirik stopped himself.
'Eirik? What was that?' Knut's brow beetled. 'You have not been pushing our young friend at my wanton sister, have you? You know she is betrothed to Jarl Ulf!' Knut shook his head and stared briefly at Hunding, askance, 'Did anything happen?'
'I was drunk, my Lord', Hunding answered the unspoken question, to which Knut merely shook his head at Eirik and strode away, talking earnestly with Thorkell.
'I should watch my mouth', Eirik mumbled sidelong at Hunding.
'You should', Knut turned fully and stared him down. 'Hunding is more able at keeping his own counsel - another thing he learned from serving in the east, most likely. Come, Eirik, we must make ready for the next few days' fighting'.
Half Knut's fleet rowed upriver from Gagnesburh. Riders went ahead on both banks, to watch out for the Danelaw thegns loyal to Eadmund. Half as many again rode south overland, first to Roedeford and then south along the Great North Road from Markham. There was indeed a great number of men camped outside Snotingham, at the West Brycg ford, but they were led by Danelaw thegns who had been left behind for lack of mounts when Eadmund summoned men to join him in Lunden. Their men cornered at the riverbank by the Danish horsemen, the thegns yielded to Knut.
'Ealdorman Eadric is on his way here from Deoraby', one of the thegns told Eirik, who spoke for Knut.
Eirik and Thorkell did not want these thegns to know who their leader was, and dug more. The thegn, who gave his name as Harding told that Eadric was on his way south to join Eadmund, who had gallen out with his father.
'Why are you telling me this?' Eirik quizzed Harding.
'We do not trust Eadric. The Miercans are a shifty lot', Harding spat on the earth. 'We were told that Eadric would have horses for us, but he sent a rider to tell us that all his horses are needed! So we have to wait here like a gathering of fools'.
'If we leave you here, what then? Will you strike at our backs and tell your king you cut down a Danish army?' Thorkell's sword was half-drawn as he asked.
'Why should we help Eadric', Harding scowled. 'If he cannot see fit to give us his precious horses? No we will go back to our stock and our fields. We are land-men, not warriors. Our oath is to the king, but he cannot be bothered to help us. We might as well give our oath to the Dane, Knut Sveinsson. Do you think he would give us horses?'
'You may as well go back to your tasks, Thegn Harding', Thorkell looked along the lines of men. They did not look like warriors, and Knut would only be hampered by them on his way south to meet Eadmund in battle. He wanted a hard-hitting fist. Even this thegn looked as if he was beyond his fighting years.
Thegn Harding turned to his men and waved them away. The fyrd would not be needed after all, 'Ealdorman Eadric will not be as fast as he likes, either. The rivers to the south-west have burst their banks, and the Treonta is high under the bridges to the south-west of here. Not very good for riding, I fear...'
A faint, perhaps rueful smile came over him. He did not wish the ealdorman ill will as such. He did not know him that well yet. He was thinking and Hunding tried to read his thoughts, to weigh where next they were likely to aim for.
'You might well wonder where to next', Knut read Hunding well. 'How to cut the heart from this Ealdorman Eadric's resolve? He is not a fighting man, we have seen that. We only have to put ourselves between him and his king, my friend. This river reaches into his lands, is that true Hunding?'
Hunding only nodded. He had thoughts of his own now and, looking across flooded meadows near Snotingaham, he scratched his beard and beamed.
'What is that broad smile for, Hunding?' Knut's brow furrowed deeply.
'Keep ships here and sail around the coast into the Themese, Lord', Hunding answered. 'I think we will find 'Ironside' east of Lunden'.
Next - 36: Eadmund Ironside Fights On
Nobody's fool, when he took the reins of the Kingdom of England one of his earliest acts was to see off the two-faced ealdorman* Eadric 'Streona'. Having had dealings with the ealdorman of Mercia and none of them impressive, he had him executed. He just could not trust the fellow, who had wormed his way around Aethelred and Eadmund and would have tried the same with him. As it was he had problems with some of his Danish nobles... read on