Their hands kept slipping while they lashed the bodies to the stakes driven into the iron-grey silt. The ocean- an even deeper shade of grey but subtly alive, foaming and bubbling- held back its fury and waited. One of the men, stuffing his hand between a captive’s black teeth to put an end to her godforsaken screeching, felt as if the sea was observing them through the prism of many melancholy eyes and lamenting what would come of their work.
Cnut stood overlooking the tenuous plot of half-land, this gloomy island that existed only in certain stretches of the blighted day, with his closest men. It was a supposedly wise one, foolishly emboldened by his position, who whispered to him.
“It’s the third tide here already at Hamtun today. Begging your pardon, my Lord, but what other reason could there be to explain this?”
Cnut said nothing at first, but mounted his horse to gain a better aspect and rest his wearied legs. When he eventually spoke he was neither imperious nor definitive but slow, quiet, contemplative. He, like the sea, was already in mourning.
“If you still, after all, refuse to accept that there is but one true power, and not many middling and earthbound ones, then look and see now.”
The captors, their work done, came slouching up to the road dropping stinking clods of mud and leaking saltwater. They were as dark and unknowable now as they often were in battle and just as displeased with their lot. In this dreary landscape drained of colour, where the sea could not be made separate from the sky, where people were shadows and day was perpetual twilight, there was no nobility amongst any, and Cnut would have tied himself to one of the stakes below if the last solitary glint of light shining in his heart at that moment had been any feebler.
“Curse this land. Curse what they make us do to them.”
He adjusted his crown and turned his head away. His men were shivering; the rope-bearers were smearing the dirt from their clothes in the long grass. Little puddles were drying on the cracked brown earth where they had wrung out all they could wring out.
Time crawled by as Cnut preoccupied himself with thoughts of Wareham. He saw the piles of bodies, inkless and bloodless, their throats slashed by the heathens. Only the scale, only the numbers moved him. Individual bodies, dead and defiled: he had seen enough of those, and seen what his men did to them. There always arrives a time, he thought, when a King becomes blind to individuality in either living or dead subjects; when a person becomes but a vague thing, and the kingdom- once even vaguer than that- clear and defined and strong. The latter vision, he knew however, was usually a false one: a dream to pass on, to lull one to sleep, to turn scarlet in sacred premonitions that demanded the swiftest action. The people on the stakes before him, his men succumbing to their native beliefs, their distance from him now on this bank- that was proof enough that nothing is ever really united, everything is blurred and all is always on the point of collapse.
The sea was flowing in and was almost up to the knees of the savages below.
“Do you see them commanding their ranks of white horses?”
Cnut turned to his men, but they shrunk back, refusing his gaze. He had tried to force fire through his weariness; tried to put black in his eyes, a sharp edge on his words, unlike the last time he had spoken.
He returned to watching. The bound figures were absolutely still and silent now. If he were not afraid to admit it, Cnut would almost have thought them holy in their pose and manner. They had bowed their heads to watch the water rise upon them, to see white salt marks climbing up their clothes, filling their wounds with stinging. They did not scream, protest or squirm any longer. They seemed to accept their dual fate as martyrs to disproof and unwitting confirmers of beliefs that were not theirs.
When the sea finally came and filled their lungs and buried them, without treasure or comfort for the afterlife, in its great grey tomb, they continued to stay as motionless as they had for almost the whole period of waiting once the men had left them and ascended the path. They did not thrash about in whatever pathetic way their binds would allow them; they offered no reproach or remonstrance. The unfortunates on their primitive crucifixes were swept out of existence so utterly and so brutally that it was as if they had never existed at all. Neither the ancient and near barren fields of their recent workaday pasts or this stark and frigid harbour appeared prepared to remember them.
Cnut’s men were almost as silent as the drowned at the end. There was no call of triumph, no jubilations, no apologies to God or King. If Cnut had not present perhaps there would have been weeping. His words were brief. There was no need for anything more.
“They control no tide. They have no powers. Sack the rest of them. No fear. Take them for all they have. Our truth is the only truth. Those who accept it, follow to Wintanceaster.”
Cnut led his horse off. The men followed, not looking over the bank at the water where the silt and coarse bunches of seagrass had been. The wind whistled a ballad, no heroic poetry, no sword-bearing parody. Seabirds filled the dark cavern of the sky, waiting for the third tide to subside and the carcasses to become uncovered. What was known- really known, truly known, but hidden until the end- was carried away on the white horses. No more would have it, as they shouldn’t, and it would dissolve to nothing as it was spread around the great expanse of the world.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com