Oxford, November 1002
The smell of blood grew stronger. The church was crammed with others who’d had the same idea: sanctuary. For surely they wouldn’t be harmed in the house of God? Gunhilde peered through the wooden slats that made up the outer wall of St. Frideswide’s church, holding tightly to her son. Her husband had tried to fight off the attackers. She’d heard his final scream as she ran with their boy, not daring to look back.
Gunhilde gagged, covering her mouth with her hand, fighting her body’s reaction to the sights, sounds and smells around her. She wanted to look away, to cover her ears and block out the screaming but she was compelled to watch, to bear witness. Her neighbours, people she had known for years, had fled in panic. She prayed they would make it to the church. After a while, all hope faded. Yet still, she stared through the tiny slit in the wattle.
It seemed that only Danes were being slaughtered, brutally attacked on all sides by multiple assailants, hacked down by sword and axe. There was so much blood that it became difficult to tell the victims from the attackers. Gunhilde was getting used to the screams, but the smell could not be ignored. The metallic scent of blood mixed with the emptied bowels of the dead and dying was too thick, too cloying. Outside, a confused child, separated from his parents, wandered straight into the path of the attackers. She couldn’t bring herself to look and she turned her head away.
Gunhilde’s stomach betrayed her at that moment, and she vomited, retching noisily. No one paid any attention. As she straightened, she looked up in apology to the painted image of the virgin princess, St. Frideswide, on the far wall of the church. That was when she noticed the stranger, prone on the floor, one hand holding his shoulder where blood seeped through. Grasping her son, she knelt to help the man.
She could see the muscle open on each side of the gash and a flash of bloodied white beneath the hacked flesh. She had no water to clean the wound; the best she could do was bind the man’s shoulder with her headscarf. He nodded gratefully when she was finished; it was crude, but there was nothing more she could do for him. Gunhilde stood, preparing to go back to her spot at the slats. She needn’t ask how he was injured, indeed there was only one question she had at that moment. “Why?”
“Why?” His voice startled her; she hadn’t realised she’d spoken the word aloud. The man’s pale face looked up at her, emotionless, then to her son who stood close behind her. “Why? Because the king wants it, that’s why.” He spat out the words.
Gunhilde’s eyes widened. “Aethelred? He ordered this? ” She waved her hand in frustration, not having the words to describe the horror around them.
“He did. I overheard one of the soldiers encouraging a Saxon boy. Told him there`d been a plot against the king’s life by the Danes who had originally fought for him.”
Gunhilde thought of her husband, Pallig, once a mercenary for the king. “But we’re settled here. We pay our taxes like anyone else.” She paused. “And we’re Christians.”
The man shook his head, causing the blood from his shoulder to flow once more. “It makes no difference to a man like Aethelred. He has treacherous advisors. They fill his head with fear and mistrust.”
“How do you know these things?”
“My brother served with the king. I was here visiting when the attack took place.”
Gunhilde was silent for a moment, the groans of the injured inside the church growing louder than the screams from outside. “But the people. They’ll surely help. They know us!”
“The people are doing the king’s work, turning on their Danish neighbours. They’ve been affected by bloodlust, are fevered with it.”
There had always been an uneasy peace between the Saxons and the Danish settlers. The Danes were never fully accepted, despite their similar dress, their marrying into Saxon families and their adoption of the Christian faith. She herself had been baptised upon her arrival in England from Denmark, and had had a Christian marriage ceremony.
She felt a tug at her dress and looked down at her son, only to see him pointing at a corner of the church roof. Smoke was pouring in and it was only a moment before panic spread throughout the room. There was a rush towards the door but Gunhilde held her son back, fighting her own urge to run. She had her suspicions and was proven right when those who arrived at the door found it barred from the outside. In a cruel act of fate, those who had tried to save themselves first, who ran for the door and left others behind, found themselves being crushed by those who followed.
The smoke was all around them now, and people began to scream as flaming pieces of thatch fell, burning them. Gunhilde led her son back to their original spot at the rear of the church. Sitting, the air was clearer, but she knew it wouldn’t last. Her son shivered, a whimper escaping. She held him close, running her fingers through his hair.
“Will Uncle Sweyn help us?” They were the first words he had spoken since they fled their house, and they came out hoarsely.
“Your Uncle is in Denmark, he cannot help.” She knew if her brother had been here, he and his men would have cleared Oxford of the attackers. Sweyn Forkbeard ruled Denmark fairly. He would never allow such unprovoked madness in his kingdom.
The air grew hot and breathing more difficult. She felt her son’s body slump against her and she wailed, the smoke strangling the sound in her throat. With her last breath, Gunhilde offered a prayer to God.