As history tells it, Harald Hardrada waded into the battle of Stamford Bridge with both hands on his sword, cutting men down left and right. Buoyed by battle-rage, he refused to wear body armour and carried no shield; as a result, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when he died, although the precise manner of death—an arrow whistling through the air like a plummeting hawk, piercing his throat—was perhaps a little unexpected. History would like us to remember that Harald Hardrada died on 25th September 1066, the heels of his blood-soaked boots drumming a faint tattoo on the ground.
History would like us to forget that Hardrada resurrected precisely one week later.
Luckily, those near and dear to the man had buried him in the aforementioned boots; coffins being less sturdy in those days, he was able to kick his way out with relative ease. After breaking the surface and retching up several lungfuls of soil onto the dry grass, Hardrada made it onto all fours.
He called for a sword. No sword appeared.
Panting, he looked up. The field around him was dotted with patches of overturned earth; in some cases, the surface of larger patches of soil had been broken by a hoof here, a helmet there. Silence, apart from a single magpie who watched him from a nearby low branch and accompanied each of Hardrada’s movements with a chirp. One for sorrow—the old saying about the birds assigned an emotion or warning to each number. The magpie chirped again, and was joined by a fellow. Two for joy.
The warrior staggered to his feet, swaying. He pressed dirty fingers against his throat and found a large hole on both sides of his neck. He had not dreamed his own death and yet here he stood. Hardrada—not one of humanity’s natural philosophers—felt his palms itch for a weapon. The magpies followed him, flitting from tree to tree, as he stumbled across the field. When he reached the low wooden fence, three of them were already perched. Three for a girl. He had children, although he couldn’t remember their names. Four for a boy.
He walked for days, shading his eyes against the setting sun, swollen like a festering wound and just as scarlet. The army would go west. He would find them, eventually. Thirst lapped at the edges of his vision. The rings on his fingers had long since rusted. Five for silver. Six for gold. How long had he been buried? Why had they not taken his bones home to Norway?
The flock had grown in number, circling overhead. When he finally dropped to his knees, the birds landed, bowing. Black beaks bobbed; winged witnesses to courage and cowardice alike. The largest of them hopped forwards as Hardrada crumpled.
Harald Hardrada ascended into the air, held aloft by beating black and white wings. A reward for his berserkergang. A true king. A fallen fool.
Seven for a secret never to be told.
Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by/is forthcoming in Catapult, Flash Fiction Online, Pseudopod, and more. She is a member of the SFWA, a Rogue Mentor, and is represented by Headwater Literary Management. She is on Twitter @lindzmcleod and her website is www.lindzmcleod.co.uk.
Detail of illustration of Harald Hardrade’s defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris, 13th century. Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Ee.3.59, f. 32v; MS produced c. 1250-60.