The Warrior with the Pierced Heart
By Chris Bishop
In the second book in the exciting and atmospheric Shadow of the Raven series we rejoin novice monk turned warrior, Matthew as he marches ahead of King Alfred, to Exeter to herald the King’s triumphant return to the city, marking his great victory at Edington.
It should have been a journey of just five or perhaps six days but, as Matthew is to find to his cost, in life the road you’re given to travel is seldom what you wish for and never what you expect.
In this much-anticipated sequel Chris Bishop again deposits the reader slap-bang into the middle of Saxon Britain, where battles rage and life is cheap. An early confrontation leaves Matthew wounded, but found and tended by a woodland-dwelling healer he survives, albeit with the warning that the damage to his heart will eventually take his life.
Matthew faces many challenges as he battles to make his way back to Chippenham to be reunited with King Alfred and also with the woman he wants to make his wife. This is an epic tale of triumph over adversity as we will the warrior with the pierced heart to make it back to those he loves, before it is too late.
Must my conscience to be burdened for ever by all that transpired that first day after we left Chippenham? Am I to be blamed for all those who perished simply because I did as I was ordered? If so, then I must crave forgiveness even though I contend that I was not at fault – my only sin was one of undue haste and that I’ve freely acknowledged before God. Even though I might well have been counted among the number of those who were slain that fateful day, all that occurred still weighs heavy on my soul and thus I would now relate my account of those events –- and all that followed –- and will do so as faithfully as my memory allows.
You will recall that I, Matthew, christened Edward, third born son of the noble Saxon Edwulf, had forsaken my commitment to the Holy Church and declined the chance to become a warrior. Lord Alfred, in recognition of all I’d endured and achieved on his behalf, then offered to let me serve at his court as he sought to secure and restore his Kingdom. He even agreed not to oppose my marriage to Emelda, the girl I loved, even though she was, in his eyes and that of many others, both a whore and the daughter of a traitor.
My first mission was to march ahead of Alfred’s army and prepare for his triumphant entry into Exeter to mark his great victory at Edington. Thus, with an escort of a dozen men together with Edmund, the boy I’d offered to adopt and whose father my brother had slain, I set off across our still troubled land knowing full well that bands of restless Vikings still roamed free, armed and intent on vengeance. Even so, it should have been a journey of just five or perhaps six days but, as I was to find to my cost, in life the road you’re given to travel is seldom what you wish for – and never what you expect.
Even as we left Chippenham things did not bode well for our journey. One member of my escort was unwell and had to turn back, little knowing that the pains in his belly would serve to save his life. The weather then turned against us so that we struggled through the wind and rain until forced to seek shelter, thereby losing several hours of precious daylight. Little wonder then that when I saw the chance to make up lost time I was tempted to take it.
Perhaps I should have known better than to make haste through such hostile terrain but I was far from being reckless. I sought only to ensure that we reached Exeter in time so, rather than skirt around the forest when we reached it, I ordered my men to follow a trail which led directly through it. The trail was wide with a small stream running beside it and trees steeped high on either side. I knew that these offered the perfect cover for an ambush and was prudent enough to order my men to keep their rank and walk side by side, each of them raising a shield so as to offer protection from both flanks. As Edmund carried no shield I gave him mine then shared the cover of those behind me, walking with them to make a less obvious target.
At first everything seemed as it should. There was no sign of any Vikings and I knew that such a large group of armed men had nothing to fear from robbers. Even so, we remained wary as we pushed on hard for the rest of that day hoping not to have to make our camp for the night whilst still within the forest. Perhaps in our haste we grew careless or perhaps we were just unlucky. Either way, we walked into the Viking trap like a linnet flying straight into the talons of the a raven.
It was Edmund’s young eyes which saw them first and he at once drew his sword and raised it as high above his head as he could manage. I was not sure what had riled the boy but then caught sight of a glint of light as the rays of the setting sun struck the brightly burnished blade of a sword or perhaps a spearhead. I cannot say which but, like Edmund, I recognised at once what it meant. I turned to give the order to close up, but even before I could speak I was struck by an arrow which took me full in the chest. For a moment I remained standing, shocked by the sudden pain and by the sheer force of the strike. Then I staggered a few paces before falling, stunned and helpless. Although desperate to get up and relay my orders I found that I couldn’t move - I was pinned to the ground like a beetle stranded on its back.
Had I breath enough to shout anything it would have been for the others to save themselves. In truth, there was nothing they could do to aid me, and, in any event, they reacted exactly as they were trained to do, turning to defend themselves back to back with their shields raised and their spears poised.
Thereafter all I could hear was the dreadful din of battle. I guessed that the Vikings had come down upon us in force. Men were shouting and calling as they locked in combat, some screaming in fear or from whatever madness they find in battle whilst others acknowledged their wounds with groans or shrill cries of pain and anguish. As I listened to all this I was surprised not to feel more pain but then recalled being told that the full agony of death comes only as the end draws nigh – - as if some last, dreadful spasm is needed to force the soul to actually leave the body.
With my hand, I reached up and found the shaft of the arrow. I couldn’t see it clearly as my vision was blurred but I could feel it well enough. There was blood from the wound but not as much as I expected, the arrow having blocked the flow of it. Even so, I judged that the arrow head was embedded deeply enough, though I could not be sure exactly how far as part of the shaft had broken when I fell. From all I could tell it had pierced my heart or was so close to it as to make no difference; death would come as soon as it was pulled from my chest, or sooner. Certain that I could not survive the wound, I was tempted to pull it free myself and thereby hasten any final agony and be done with it; but to take my own life thus was against my Christian creed. In deference to my former calling as a novice monk I therefore lay back and prepared to endure what I was sure would follow.
During all that time the battle raged around me. I desperately wanted to see how my men fared but all I knew was that which I could hear. There was little comfort in that. Their screams seemed to echo from the trees and I knew that with such numbers set against them they would all be slain or taken soon enough. Even as I listened I kept seeing again that image of young Edmund with his sword held high and I prayed he would be spared even though I knew it was a futile hope; surely none would survive the blood fest which would follow such a crazed attack.
It was then, in what I thought to be my final moments, that my spirit seemed to leave my body. I found myself floating over the frenzied battle and looking down upon the slaughter.
What I saw saddened me beyond words as my men were being slain and butchered. Like me, two of them had fallen to arrows as the Vikings attacked and they also lay dead or dying whilst the rest fought back against overwhelming odds. The Viking warriors numbered perhaps thirty or more and even having taken so few casualties seemed inclined to show no mercy. For them it was about vengeance, not stealing our supplies or looking for plunder, therefore only blood would serve to satisfy their cravings. Having split my small force, they had only to run the few survivors to ground to complete their slaughter. I watched as a man named Eagbert, whom I had chosen personally for the mission, ran towards the cover of the trees but was caught and skewered by spears from two sides at once. As he fell to his knees they twisted the shafts to increase his pain. Athelstan, another fine warrior, was slain with an axe blow to his forehead which all but cleaved his skull in two, whilst his brother, Aethelred, had been strung up against a tree and was being disembowelled, screaming as they pulled the entrails from his body.
I was helpless to assist but watched as the Viking warriors made themselves busy probing the bodies of the fallen with their swords and spear points to make certain that none still lived. Then I noticed that young Edmund had indeed been spared. I was at once grateful for that small mercy and could only assume that he had perhaps been recognised by one of his Viking kin.
Still looking down on them, I watched as the Vikings then started to strip the bodies, taking jewellery, weapons and anything else worth stealing. In my case they roughly turned my body over and removed my still sheathed sword ‒- the one Edwin had given me and which had once belonged to our beloved father. They also took my birth ring, my gold crucifix and my purse before stripping away my fleece jerkin and my shoes to leave me naked but for my undershirt and leggings. They would have taken all except that my shirt had been soiled by blood and the leggings by the fact that I’d loosened my bowels as I fell.
I recall looking down on two men who were standing over me at that point, but they didn’t finish me. Either they thought me dead already or reckoned that I couldn’t hope to survive such a dreadful wound and would die more slowly if left for it to take its course. Instead, they kicked my ribs then spat in my face before leaving me to my fate.
I cannot now say how much of what I recall after that is true. Possibly it was just a dream or a manifestation of my tortured mind yet, if pressed, I would swear that I was engulfed in a pool of utter darkness through which I seemed to swim as though in the deep, dark waters of a lake at night. There I saw the faces of many men I recognised but knew to have died, some of them many years before. Edwin was among them, as was my father, their arms waving as if to welcome me. I moved towards them, struggling to pull myself through the darkness, but, as I drew closer, I realised that they were not beckoning me as I’d thought, rather they were ushering me away, imploring me to turn back.
After that I seemed to wake. My limbs had grown cold and numb by then but the pain in my chest was much more intense. I shivered and convulsed in a way I’d seen dying men do and wondered how long it would take for me to die. I hoped it would be soon as all was quiet by then and I was probably the only one still living, the Vikings having gathered up their spoil and gone. Next would come the crows and the wolves and the other wild beasts of the forest intent upon feeding on the corpses which were still strewn across the battlefield. To be taken thus whilst still alive would test my faith to the limit. It was a terrible way to die and I had the means to avoid it by simply pulling the arrow from my chest.
As I lay there I recall that I could hear my own breathing, which was rasped and hoarse, sounding like a chain being drawn across a pebbled courtyard. I felt again for the shaft of the arrow and calmed myself when I found it, certain that when removed it would rip my heart from my breast so that death would then be instant. Thus reassured, I uttered a few short prayers before closing my eyes and prepared to surrender myself to God.
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Chris Bishop is a retired chartered surveyor who has pursued his love of writing for as long as he can remember. He is an intrepid traveller and a retired Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He is married with two children and four granddaughters and lives in London.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx