Who really won the Battle of Hastings? A romp through alternate time lines in England 1066 to mark the 950th anniversary of the invasion that shaped Britain and Europe today.
IT SEEMS INCREDIBLE TO ME NOW how casually we used our machines to knot and weave the threads of fate. At the beginning, before the damage to the Tempus Fugit left me stranded, time was ours to travel at will. The adventure that started it all illustrates this well.
Take it from me, history can be a real headache! Quite literally; as this story starts, I remember my skull feeling like a football grabbed from the opposition’s paws and kicked halfway down the pitch. I was a young eighteen-year-old waif, a twenty-first-century girl fresh from engineering college on my first field assignment. It should have been what my team leader Darius called a ‘milk run’, a simple observation mission to gently ease me into the time-bending realities of my new job. Yet here I was, plain Jane Kennedy from Chicago, lying semi-conscious amidst the wounded and dying of a particularly gruesome battle, wondering what the hell I had let myself in for.
Back then, way before our epic game of cat-and-mouse through the Industrial Revolution, I had no idea of Darius’ secret agenda. Quite frankly, I was terrified. The clothes I had been given to wear were of a lowly nineteenth-century maiden of the American frontier, but the fallen bodies around me looked fresh from the Dark Ages. My long blond hair was bundled up beneath a woollen cap and I was liberally smeared in dirt, not least through playing dead on a cold and gloomy mud-churned field for what seemed like hours. I was battered and bruised from a nasty encounter with a man brandishing a club but miraculously still in one piece. The same could not be said of the decapitated corpse at my side.
The battle in question was over. Night was falling and the victorious army had returned to camp, leaving the bloody arena crawling with opportunist thieves scouring the dead. I had lost Darius and did not know what to do. If anyone spoke to me, my orders were to act simple and pretend to be a dumbstruck local farmhand. On no account could I use my womanly charms. Battlefields were no place for a girl in any day or age.
One such scavenger shuffled closer and idly nudged a fallen body with his muddy boot. Back on campus I was always more than ready to lash out with an acid tongue when things got hairy, but right now I had a horrible feeling that tactics of a more physical kind might be required. The headless corpse next to me held a bow, quite unlike what the Chippewa or other tribes used, adding to my suspicions that we had missed Montana by a long shot. Archery was one of the few sports at which I excelled during college but I had never drawn a bow in anger. Moving slowly, I eased the weapon from the dead man’s grip. A couple of unspent arrows had fallen from his quiver and lay on the ground nearby.
The scavenger’s back was turned but something made him twist and stare in my direction. I instantly froze, my hand on the stolen bow. The man stiffened, then lumbered towards me. He was a big man, clad in a rough tunic and leggings in the manner of an extra from The Lord of the Rings, his face masked by straggly lengths of dark hair and a rather impressive bushy beard. In his hands was a short sword, possibly recovered from one of the fallen warriors. He came to within a few feet of me and stopped. His stare narrowed.
In a flash, I grabbed one of the arrows, scrambled back through the mud and raised the bow, drawing the arrow against the string as I went. My head pounded worse than ever, but my aim was true. At this range I could release a shot into his groin and emasculate him for life. The man took a step back and lowered his sword.
“Sum mægden eac sum beaduwæpen?” he remarked.
His voice was gruff, yet somehow playful. I did not understand a word but knew he had seen through my disguise. By the way, the earpiece I wore to keep in contact with Darius recorded everything I heard; I apologise if I have mangled transcribing what I later learned was Old English. In my panic, I forgot all about not speaking to locals.
“Back off, medieval dude,” I warned. “I’m just passing through. I’m a time traveller!”
The man paused. To my amazement, he threw back his head and laughed.
“I’d guessed as much,” he said, much to my surprise. He had switched seamlessly to modern English with a clear Californian drawl, which did not fit the way he looked at all. “This is day for surprises. I’ve been looking for you for hours!”
* * *
It was getting dark and I was tired, scared and feeling somewhat abandoned. Against my better judgement I allowed the mysterious stranger to lead me from the carnage of the battlefield to a nearby hamlet of squat wooden dwellings, muddy paths and incredibly foul odours. The thatched buildings looked in a good state of repair but there was not another soul in sight. I guessed the prospect of having two armies slugging it out on their doorstep had persuaded the villagers to make themselves scarce.
I kept a wary distance as I followed; I also held my stolen bow, an arrow still strung, a second arrow shoved into my belt for luck. The man moved quickly and quietly, continually darting his gaze back and forth as if to make sure we were not being followed. My attempted questions were met with a stern frown and a finger to his lips. My muttered curses as my boots flopped unsteadily through the mud did not go down well at all.
We reached a small hut on the edge of the village and paused by the door. Wisps of smoke drifted through the thatched roof; either the place was on fire or local builders had yet to grasp the concept of chimneys. A murmur of conversation came from within. The man rapped on the door with his gloved fist and waited.
A muffled female voice called from within. “Hwone sy geonre?”
“It’s me,” the man replied irritably. “Open up.”
A scuffle of movement was heard and the door swung open. The man gestured for me to enter. I stared into the gloomy, smoky interior of the hut and frowned. Inside were vague shapes that might be friendly but this was one leap into the dark too far.
“You must be joking,” I protested. “I don’t know who you are!”
“Professor Alexander Garcia, at your service,” he replied quietly, smiling. He glanced to my bow, which still pointed his way. “Time traveller, though a little more seasoned than yourself. Don’t worry, we’re all friends here.”
“Time traveller? But we’re the first...”
“Can we get inside? I would hate for the locals to hear us talk.”
He gestured to the open doorway, inviting me to enter. With a sigh, I stepped inside.
It was a great deal warmer within, thanks to the open fire in the centre of the space. Seated either side on low wooden stools were two figures, a man and a woman, both dressed in what to me looked like medieval garb. Tallow lamps added their flickering yellow light to that produced by the glowing embers of the hearth, but not much. The smoky atmosphere was vile, making my eyes water and my lungs squeeze tight in protest.
The man before me rose from his perch. “Jane!” he cried. “You’re safe!”
“Darius!” I cried, as he stepped from the gloom. To say I was relieved at seeing a familiar face was putting it mildly. “I’ve found you!”
He came forward and gave me a hug. Darius looked tired but remarkably unscathed, having somehow retained an air of unruffled detachment as if he had just stepped off the streets of his native Manhattan. His flowing locks were smoothly combed, as was his signature beard, a trim goatee that in my opinion had never been in fashion no matter what time period. I was furious with him for abandoning me, but not immune to the welcome sight of his dark smouldering looks and roguish wry smile.
“I fell asleep in the machine and awoke to find you’d gone,” I told him. “Why didn’t you respond on the earpiece? I came looking and got caught up in the fighting!”
“Many apologies,” he said, releasing me. “Fate took a somewhat unexpected turn.”
My new-found friend from the battlefield entered behind me and closed the door. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I turned my attention to the fourth figure in the hut, a striking middle-aged woman with dark hair, who watched Darius and myself with interest. She wore a simple belted robe with flared sleeves over a long pleated frock, topped by a large head-dress that fell to her shoulders. Her steady, confident gaze told me there was more to her than met the eye. She smiled, rose from her seat and offered me her hand.
“Doctor Catherine Hamilton, University College London,” she said. Her own modern English carried a crisp British accent. Her smile helped put me at ease. “Another time traveller like yourself. A pleasure to make your acquaintance! I see you’ve met Alex.”
“Jane Kennedy,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m with Darius.”
“I found her on the battlefield,” said Alex, coming to my side. “She was ready to shoot me! What do they teach young students in your day?” he asked Darius.
Darius smiled, though it did not remain on his lips for long. He gestured for me to take a seat, then waited until Alex too was settled before following suit. I lowered my bow to the floor and held my cold hands to the fire. Catherine handed me a wooden dish, upon which were scraps of cold meat and slices of a turnip-like vegetable. It was poor fare even by student cafeteria standards but I was ravenous and accepted it gratefully.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why are we here? We’re supposed to be in Montana.”
“Montana?” Alex raised a surprised eyebrow.
I nodded. “Well, it’s Montana now. Virginia City was in Idaho back in 1865,” I said. “Darius and I are researching gold thefts by Federal vigilantes during the Civil War.”
“Interesting,” mused Catherine. “Well, you’re a long way from Virginia City.”
Darius sighed. “Nor are we anywhere near the nineteenth-century,” he said gently. It was the tone he used when about to relay bad news, like when he handed back my essays. “We are in Europe. England, to be precise.”
“England,” I murmured, popping a lump of cold meat into my mouth. The battlefield, the football pitch down which my skull had been bounced, was on my least favourite side of the Atlantic. I was not sure if I wanted the answer to my next question. “But when?”
“The Battle of Hastings,” said Alex. “October fourteenth, 1066.”
“What?” I exclaimed. I looked at Darius. “How the hell did we get here?”
“It seems the Tempus Fugit drifted off course. A minor glitch, I’m sure.”
“A glitch?” I retorted, furious at the way Darius remained so calm. I suddenly realised that he wore similar garb to Alex, which was not how he was dressed last time I saw him. “We’re hundreds of years and thousands of miles from nowhere! You call that minor?”
“Jane, listen!” Darius said urgently. “Our time-travelling colleagues think there is a problem. Tell me, we’ve all studied history. Who won the Battle of Hastings?”
I forced myself to be calm and swallowed the lump of meat I had been chewing. Darius looked at me earnestly, awaiting my response. I had majored in the American Civil War but taken a few English history modules too. I gave him a curious look.
“King Harold of England, of course,” I replied. “Harold Godwinson.”
Darius raised an eyebrow and turned to Alex. The professor was clearly perturbed.
“From my time, the history books say differently,” said Alex. “The victor was Duke William of Normandy, later known as William the first or the Conqueror. Harold himself was famously felled by an arrow in his eye. But...”
Darius raised his hand to silence him. He turned to Catherine, who looked puzzled.
“You’re both wrong,” she said. “It was Harold’s brother Tostig. He agreed a truce with King Harold at Stamford Bridge, came south to help defeat the Normans and stabbed his brother in the back the moment William ordered his retreat. These are bloody times.”
Alex frowned. “This makes no sense. Catherine, which time period are you from?”
“My departure date was the fourteenth of June 2116,” she replied. “You?”
“I came a little later,” he said. “November 2124. How about you two?”
He looked from Darius to myself and back again. It was Darius who answered.
“We left way before you two,” he said. “April 2093. As far as I’m aware, our institute is the only one conducting time-travel experiments at this time. Sorry, our time.”
Alex gave a low whistle. “You’re part of those early trailblazers?”
Darius nodded. “This is Jane’s first proper trip. It was meant to be a straightforward reconnaissance run, the final part of her induction. I find myself at a loss to explain this. All previous experiments concluded that history was fixed. Time was thought to be a raging torrent of entropy that no one could divert from its path. Yet here we are.”
“History can be changed?” I remarked, surprised and alarmed.
“Fascinating,” said Catherine. “Is this a pocket universe, perhaps?”
Darius shrugged. “Professor Garcia, did you speak with any of the locals?”
Alex frowned. “I did.”
“So who won the battle?” I asked.
“Harald,” he replied. I responded with a triumphant grin, then frowned upon seeing the sad shake of his head. “King Harald Hardrada, otherwise known as Harald the third of Norway. Duke William and Harold of England were reportedly both slain. It seems that Catherine was partly right, only Hardrada came with Tostig to fight with Harold Godwinson against William at Hastings. And who then seized the throne for himself.”
“What?” I cried. Things were getting confusing. “Harald killed Harold?”
“That can’t be right,” protested Catherine. “England did not fall to the Vikings!”
Darius scowled. “William too was descended from Norse raiders,” he pointed out, not bothering to hide his scorn. “So which version of history do you think is correct?”
Alex shrugged. “I haven’t a clue. More importantly, can we fix it?”
* * *
Time travel is mind-boggling stuff. The principles underlying the physics of it all fell from lengthy research into an interstellar engine for spaceships, the elusive extra-dimensional drive. The ED drive creates a tiny artificial wormhole in space-time, aligns the quivering particles of a ship into a one-dimensional quantum string and pulls it across light years in a blink of an eye, just like a needle drawing thread. In theory, this happens so fast that the spacecraft and crew miraculously unfold themselves relatively unscathed back into what we call reality. In truth, a prototype ED-drive spaceship has yet to be seen for real.
To understand how an ED drive can be used for time travel, you need to get your head around the fundamental physics behind the age-old concept of time. The core structures of the universe are layers of two-dimensional membranes, onion skins of energy expanding away from the original Big Bang. The grand unified theory of quantum gravity sets out that all matter is created where these adjacent membranes touch, exchange energy and create particles. As the expanding onion skins of energy stretch, entropy increases as bonds become weaker. We see things crumble and fall apart and call it the passing of time.
Tiny holes constantly appear in these expanding membranes, some of which survive long enough to be drawn into tubes or wormholes. The discovery that got scientists excited was that these tubes can merge with others created at a different stage of entropy, creating a bridge across time. Therefore, the trick to using an ED drive for time travel is that rather than creating a new space-time wormhole from scratch, a time machine has clever detectors that monitor the natural wormholes constantly popping in and out of existence within the quantum foam. Once a time traveller has selected their destination, the machine waits for a wormhole to appear that comes close to what is needed and grabs hold of it before it decays. The trip itself is similar to the theoretical vomit-inducing tumble of a spaceship making an ED jump, only worse. Are you with me so far?
There is much more to time-travel physics than that, but for now I will refrain from blowing your mind any further. In short, time machines are real, they were invented in the last decades of the twenty-first century and we had three at hand with which to fix whatever damage had been done to history. What we did not have was an unlimited ability to traverse time. Taming wormholes and dragging vehicles through holes in the quantum foam takes a lot of power, which in our machines was provided by compact fusion reactors running on helium-three. None carried enough fuel in reserve for more than three temporal hops, one of which would be a trip home. We had to plan our strategy carefully.
Night was upon us by the time we finally left the smoky excuse for a house. We were heading for the Chrononaut III, Professor Alexander Garcia’s time machine, which he had left in a secluded wooded valley some miles from the village. The sky was clear, the stars unusually bright. I was a little disappointed that Halley’s Comet was not amongst them; it had been and gone earlier that year, a bad omen for the English throne.
Alex’s machine hid behind light-refracting stealth screens, an eerie blurriness that clung to the dark valley like fog, which brought with it a dull throbbing that gripped my nerves to the point where I wanted to scream and run away. The subsonic noise generator was designed to deter the inquisitive; Darius and Catherine too looked anxious but Alex just grinned. We walked closer and suddenly a huge mechanical monstrosity appeared from nowhere, materialising out of thin air as we crossed the threshold of whatever it was projecting the screens. The subsonic growl immediately faded, much to my immense relief.
Before us stood the Chrononaut III. Alex’s silver machine was a sturdy affair, a rounded cabin on mechanical legs with gas thrusters to help it move short distances. No time machine had wheels, for tyre tracks could prove embarrassing to future archaeologists. It surprised me that it looked so different to the Tempus Fugit, the tiny triangular craft in which Darius and myself had travelled. I hoped our own machine was still safe where we had left it, hidden beneath camouflage netting in a gloomy stretch of woodland.
Alex led us to a short ladder leading to the hatch, ran his fingers over the lock control and tugged open the door. Lights flickered on inside, revealing a glimpse of a bright white interior and proper padded seats. He smiled and waved his hand at the hatch.
“Ladies first,” he said, addressing myself and Catherine.
Catherine rolled her eyes, grabbed the ladder and hauled herself into the cabin. I looked to Darius for his nod and then followed.
The Chrononaut III was cramped but had seats enough for four. The lack of windows made it somewhat claustrophobic, even after Alex switched on a couple of wall screens to monitor the valley outside. Once we were all aboard, he swung the hatch closed and took his seat. White consoles hugged the walls on all sides, upon which coloured technical hieroglyphics shifted slowly across the pale glass of touch-screen interfaces. It made the robust switches and dials aboard the Tempus Fugit look positively antique.
“Welcome aboard,” said Alex. “Can I offer anyone refreshments?”
“Really?” retorted Darius. “History is fragmenting and you’re making us coffee?”
“Coffee?” I asked hopefully.
“We need a plan,” said Catherine. “First, I have a confession to make. My department has long suspected there may be a rogue time-traveller at work. Some even say that we’re up against a madman with a stolen machine committed to English nationalism, out to break age-old links with Europe! I was sent to clarify the historical record.”
“Which is?” I asked hesitantly.
“Tostig’s alliance and subsequent betrayal of King Harold does not appear in all contemporary accounts,” she said. “However, most historians agree that the defeated William retreated to Normandy, rebuilt his army and returned to finish what he started. England is supposed to fall to the Normans, not the Scandinavians.”
“Wait,” I said. “William wasn’t killed in the battle?”
Catherine shook her head. “Not in my history. He was wounded, as was Tostig. The Battle of Hastings saw the death of King Harold and most of his nobles, which made William’s second attempt at conquest so much easier. There is some academic debate as to whether Tostig Godwinson ever got crowned.”
“That’s not what happened in our history,” I replied. “Although it’s close. Harold won the battle, but William escaped and later returned with a larger army.”
“So the Normans took England regardless,” mused Alex. “In my version of history, William was victorious from the start. It seems that even if meddled with, history somehow manages to pull itself back on track.”
“Not this time,” Catherine pointed out. “You told us that Harald Hardrada won and both Harold Godwinson and Duke William are dead. Scandinavian Norsemen have seized England, not the Normans. Even if a successor to William tries his luck, I fear history has veered too far off course to correct itself. Heaven knows what the consequences will be.”
“You mean our future has changed?” I asked. “Our present? That’s impossible.”
“Resetting history does seem to contradict the second law of thermodynamics,” agreed Alex, who looked troubled. “I’m guessing we may be caught in a bubble of alternate reality, a deformity in space-time. That doesn’t sound good.”
“Like I said, a pocket universe,” Catherine said coolly. “It’s a causality nightmare.”
“Maybe this way the future is better,” suggested Darius, breaking his silence. He sounded oddly curious, with no hint of the gentle panic the rest of us betrayed. “Think how Viking outposts in America might have prospered within an Anglo-Scandinavian empire! It’s intriguing to think of what we might return to.”
“I want to go home to my own reality,” snapped Alex. “Catherine, my people too believe a rogue traveller is loose. It seems my mission here is the same as yours. What do you say to us pooling our resources?”
Darius frowned. “A madman with a time machine?”
Catherine nodded. “We must work together on this. Where do we start?”
“King Harald of Norway has just won the Battle of Hastings,” said Alex. “In my book, he shouldn’t even be here. Where else do you propose we start?”
“The Battle of Stamford Bridge?” I suggested.
Alex nodded. “Stamford Bridge it is. This may be a bumpy ride!”
* * *
[End of excerpt from the novella THE BATTLES OF HASTINGS]
Chicago teenager Jane Kennedy embarks on an adventure through multiple realities after fellow time travellers each realise they come from a future with a different past. Is there a rogue on the loose out to change history?