Alfred the Great;

Viking Invasion

By Bruce Corbett.


 

Copyright © 2011, by Bruce Corbett.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 


Dedication:

 

 

To my wife - the light of my life,

 

Cynthia.

FOREWORD

This is the seventh book in the Ambrose historical adventure series, and this and the next novel cover a time when England came very close to becoming a Danish kingdom. I have followed the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as closely as I can, but it is a rather bare-bones listing of long-ago events. I therefore took it upon myself to fill in the gaps with literary license. The title of the books have changed, since the main character from now on is Alfred the Great, though Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip will continue to play a major part in the war against the pagan Danes.

***

In 875 A.D., Alfred, eventually to be known as the Great, is the king of Wessex, a Saxon Kingdom that stretches from Dover to the western tip of Cornwall, and from the southern coast north to the Thames and (eventually) Watling Street. Ten years before, the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Ubbi, Halfdan and Ivar, had arrived with the 'Great Army', the largest Viking invasion army ever seen in England until that time.

Instead of lightning raids or seasonal forays, as had been the pattern for the previous two generations, the Danes conquered, one by one, every single Angle and Saxon kingdom in England except Wessex. As this story opens, King Guthrum of Denmark is about to lead a strong Viking force south into Wessex. This is the story of that struggle.

Most of the events you are about to read about, although fictionalized, really did occur, more or less in the order in which I describe them. The quotes are from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Alfred really did put together a fleet and defeat seven enemy vessels, though he did this in 875 A.D., the year before Guthrum arrived with his army. Words in italics generally have special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix III.

The author

Bruce Corbett

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Cast of Characters

Aldwin:  (Fictitious) Was a thane of a small village in the woods of Selwood. He asked Ethelnoth to act as judge in a rape case.

Alfred: The younger brother of Ambrose, Ethelbert, and Ethelred. He was an intensely curious man who unexpectedly became king at the death of his brother, in 871 AD. A great general, he drove King Guthrum out of Wessex, but was almost taken captive in a surprise winter attack. Hiding first in the forests, and then at his island base of Athelney, he started to strike back at the hated enemy. When his men rallied to him in the spring, he was able to defeat Guthrum. Surprisingly, he treated Guthrum generously, and became his godfather.

Ambrose: (Fictitious) He was an Anglo-Saxon bastard prince of Wessex. Kidnapped by Viking slavers as a boy, he was taken to Denmark, and then fled to Norway and Sweden. Chased by the Danes, he joined Gunnar of the Rus, who sent him and his two companions, Phillip and Polonius, to trade on his behalf down the Russian rivers. Ambrose set up trading posts in Novgorod, and then Kiev. Finally, he travelled to Constantinople as an emissary for the Kiev leaders. From there, he eventually returned to England to help his brothers fight against the Viking raiders.

He and his friends became a legend when they first joined the Danish Great Army, and then stole a princess from a Norse ruler in Ireland.

Anwell: (Fictitious) He was the Ealdorman of Cornwall who had made an alliance with the Danes in return for nominal independence. Polonius and Ambrose captured his sons, and he was forced to support Alfred.

Asser:  A bishop who later lived at King Alfred's court and was his biographer. He actually joined the court in 886 AD.

Axton:  (Fictitious) A thane of Devon, he was chief lieutenant to Ealdorman Odda.

Boc:  (Fictitious) A senior thane who delivered a message to Anwell of Cornwall.

Burgtun: (Fictitious) A thane of Alfred, who commanded the scouts at Wareham when Guthrum escaped.

Brok:  (Fictitious) A messenger who breathlessly reported to Ethelnoth that the Vikings were attacking a village.

Byram: (Fictitious) A ship officer aboard Alfred's Leaping Stag, he was the thane who went out to collect all the boats beached at Chippenham.

Calldwr:(Fictitious) Thane at the siege of Chippenham who sent boats up and down river to destroy any vessels they couldn't use.

Claeg:  (Fictitious) Stewart of the royal estate where the queen stopped on her flight from Chippenham.

Cliftun:  (Fictitious) A boy accused of raping Naomi, who was tried by Ethelnoth.

Cyne:  (Fictitious) Cousin & acolyte of Bishop Asser.

Delwyn:  (Fictitious) A thane of Ethelwold who was blamed for Guthrum's escape at Wareham. Ethelwold had him hanged to hide the truth.

Eadric:  (Fictitious) A forester who lived in the forest of Selwood, and went to get Alfred's men when the king twisted his ankle.

Ealhswith:  Wife of Alfred.

Egbert:  He was an ancestor of Alfred's. He ruled Wessex from 802 to 839 AD.

Ethelnoth:  Ealdorman of Somerset, he was a loyal friend to Alfred, and hid him in his forest territory of Selwood, and later at Athelney.

Ethelwold: Alfred's nephew and Ealdorman of Dorset. His father was Ethelred, older brother of Alfred, and king from AD. 866 until his death in 871.

Glydan:   (Fictitious) The shrewish wife of EADRIC, a forester who provided shelter to King Alfred. It was she who attacked the king with a broom.

Galar:  (Fictitious) The commander of the thirty thanes who escorted the royal family from Winchester to Selwood Forest.

Gretchen:  (Fictitious) Was the daughter of Osmond, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and distant cousin to the royal family of Wessex. She first met Ambrose at the Wessex court, and then nursed him back to health when he was wounded during his earlier escape from the Danes. They were betrothed, but Gretchen is first kidnapped by Welsh, and then Viking brigands. Ambrose travelled to Ireland to free her. After many adventures, they were married.

Godwin:  (Fictitious) Was a thane and member of King Alfred's Personal Guard.

Guthrum: A king of Denmark who conquered East Anglia. He attacked Wessex, was bought off, and then attacked from Mercia at Christmas of 878.

Halfdan:  He was elder brother of Ubbi and Ivar the Boneless. He was one of the three leaders of the Great Army in England. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok.

Hamar:  (Fictitious) Was the name Ambrose used when he pretended to be a Swedish trader in Guthrum's camp at Chippenham.

Halsig:  (Fictitious) Was the thane who held Twineham against the Viking Fleet.

Hrycg:  (Fictitious) A faithful thane of Alfred's, who agreed to pay Danegeld to Guthrum so Ambrose could sneak into the camp.

Ivar the Boneless:  The brother of Halfdan and Ubbi and joint leader of the Great Army. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok. He died in 873.

Korni:  (Fictitious) A commander of Ubbi's from when the army landed on the Dorset coast.

Kuralla:  (Fictitious) She was a Slav chieftain's daughter whose village defied Bothi, a Rus warrior settled near Novgorod. Bothi ordered her father tortured and killed, and she was about to be given to his warriors when Ambrose purchased her to save her life. Polonius married her before they returned with Ambrose to England.

Matilda:  (Fictitious) Was the flaxen-headed and sharp-tongued wife of Phillip.

Naomi:  (Fictitious) A young maiden raped by a Saxon boy named Cliftun.

Odda:   The Ealdorman of Devon, he raised an army to face Halfdan when the Viking arrived with his fleet on the northern Devon coast. Having retreated to the fort at Countisbury, he sallied forth and surprised and defeated the Danish army. Later, his force kept Ethelwold from joining Guthrum's army and betraying Alfred.

Oskar:  (Fictitious) Danish commander of the fort just across the Avon River from Chippenham. He later commanded the Viking force chasing Alfred into the swamps near Athelney.

Owein:   (Fictitious) A Cornishman, he was one of Anwell's two sons.

Phillip:  (Fictitious) A giant of a man, he was the free-born guardian of Ambrose. Often called the weapons-master, he had trained several generations of athelings in the military arts. Wherever Ambrose went, there was Phillip. His great goal in life was to protect his prince.

Pitanig:   (Fictitious) A loyal thane to Odda, the Ealdorman of Devon.

Polonius: (Fictitious) He was born to noble Byzantine parents, and given an excellent education. When his family had financial reverses, he and his sisters were sold into slavery. He was taken to Lombardy, France, and eventually Frisia. There, he chanced to meet Ambrose and Phillip. Together they embarked on a series of adventures that took them to Norway, Sweden, Novgorod, Kiev, and eventually Constantinople itself. An expert linguist and knife-thrower, he returned to England with Ambrose, helped him spy on the Danish Great Army, and steal Gretchen back from the Irish Vikings. He taught Alfred to read, and acted as his senior military advisor and spy master. 

Pyt:  (Fictitious) Thane of Alfred's Personal Guard, who arranged to hang the hostages at Chippenham.

Radnor:  (Fictitious) Was a loyal thane to Odda, the Ealdorman of Devon.

Ragnar Lodbrok:   A powerful Danish chieftain who invaded England and France. Legend had it that he was killed in Northumbria by being thrown in a pit of snakes. His three sons were Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubbi.

Ryscford: (Fictitious) Thane of a little marsh village near Athelney, he arranged for transportation for Alfred's fighting thanes.

Saer:   (Fictitious) A Cornishman, he was the second son of Anwell.

Seger:   (Fictitious) A faithful thane of Ealdorman Ethelwold. He rode to Alfred in Selwood Forest in the hopes of capturing the king. If that was impossible, he was expected to invite him to visit Ethelwold.

Sitric Ivarsson: The son of Ivar the Boneless. He previously met Ambrose at the Wessex court, where he was a spy with the identity of a Frisian peddler by the name of Harold. Phillip rescued him later, and they shared adventures in Ireland together. He did not join his uncle on the attack on Wessex.

Thawian:   (Fictitious) A messenger who brought proof to Alfred of the sinking of the Danish fleet at Swanwich.

Thormond: (Fictitious) The commander, after Seger was sent back, of the Dorsetmen sent to capture King Alfred for Ethelwold.

Ubbi:   He was younger brother of Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless. He inadvertently allowed Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius to join the Great Army. Furious when he found out they were spies, he sent out hundreds of warriors to track the fugitives down. In this story, he arrived from southern Wales. He landed in Dorset, besieged Odda, and was then killed in a surprise dawn attack. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok.

Uigbiorn:   (Fictitious) Danish sub-commander of the Viking force chasing Alfred into the swamps near Athelney.

Ura:   (Fictitious) A Jarl, he was one of Guthrum's commanders. He was sent to negotiate with King Alfred at the siege of Wareham and Exeter.

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Table of Contents

Forward

Cast of Characters

Chapter 1

BOOK 1          KING GUTHRUM ATTACKS.

Chapter 2        "AD. 876:  This year the army stole…"

Chapter 3        "AD. 876:  The king afterwards made peace…"

Chapter 4        "AD. 877:  This year came the Danish army…"

Chapter 5        A Truce is Signed.

BOOK2          KING GUTHRUM RETURNS

Chapter 6       "AD. 878: This year about mid-winter…."

Chapter 7       Ealhswith & Polonius Ride to Winchester.

Chapter 8      The Survivors Flee.

Chapter 9      Ambrose Reaches Winchester.

Chapter 10    The Rule of Law.

Chapter 11     Ealhswith is Reunited with Alfred.

Chapter 12     A Spy is Caught.

Chapter 13     "And in the winter of this same year…"

Chapter 14      The Puzzle.

Chapter 15     A Message Comes from Ethelwold.

Chapter 16      The Cakes are Burned.

Chapter 17     The Saxons Finally Strike Back.

Chapter 18     The Perfect Site is Found.

Chapter 19     "In the Easter of this year King Alfred…"

Chapter 20      A Spy Goes to Guthrum's Camp.

Chapter 21      The First Foray from Athelney

Chapter 22      The Warriors Return, and Polonius has a Plan.

Chapter 23     Ambrose Rides to Cornwall, and Meets with Anwell.

Chapter 24     Ambrose Meets Ethelwold of Dorset.

Chapter 25     Alfred Fights Again, and Guthrum Seeks the secret Base.

Chapter 26     "Then, in the seventh week after Easter…"

Chapter 27     Alfred's army)...riding after them as far as the fortress...

Chapter 28     "They told him also, that their king would …"

Appendix I      Timeline

Appendix II     Treaty of Wedmore

Appendix III    Glossary

Appendix IV    Maps

 

 

 

 

 

 


CHAPTER 1

"This summer King Alfred went out to sea with an armed fleet, and fought with seven ship-rovers, one of whom he took and dispersed the others."

The clatter of galloping hooves could be heard over the rustle of wind in the trees and the rigging of the little fleet that lay tethered along the riverbank. The staccato sound indicated a message, and an urgent one. Alfred, king of Wessex and all its tributary domains, stood expectantly.

The rider followed the river trail along the shoreline. He was riding hard and when he saw his king, he galloped directly to him. The excitement was alive in his eyes and his voice.

"Majesty, there are seven craft coasting westward. They're long-ships, and they're Viking!"

Alfred's face wore a wolfish grin. He turned to his brother and his two companions.

"Ambrose, I told you some of the devil spawn would come. Phillip, pass the word to board, and quickly! Let us go and welcome our guests properly."

At Phillip's shouted instructions, ship commanders ran to fetch their crews. In only minutes, the crews of all eleven vessels were boarded and at their stations. The rowers eagerly pushed their oars into the water, while the extra crewmen untied the vessels and removed the boarding planks. The Angle and Saxon crews had been practising for weeks, and the vessels, double crewed and stripped for action, were soon pulling strongly out to sea. King Alfred had prepared a special greeting for his uninvited visitors.

The eleven vessels cleared the headland. Seven enemy vessels suddenly hove into sight, strung along in a ragged line. Their masts were stepped, in anticipation of a favouring breeze, but the sails were furled. As the winds this close to land were contrary, the Vikings were forced to man their oars.

Alfred smiled. "Well, brother, it looks like we will get some serious exercise today. Increase the beat and let's catch the devil's hounds!"

Ambrose relayed the order to the ship's commander and the drummer beat a faster cadence. The men, fresh and well-trained, easily increased the speed of their stroke. Polonius and Ambrose, having spent considerable time on Byzantine dromons, had recommended to Alfred that they adopt some of the simpler code systems of the sophisticated Eastern Romans. The friends, travelling to the Golden city itself, had watched in awe as hundreds of Byzantine vessels had sailed as if they were but various parts of one single giant organism. The code flag that instructed the crew to increase the beat was hoisted, and the other ships followed suit. The Saxon fleet sped through the choppy water.

It had been centuries since the Saxons of Angleland had been feared as sea-rovers. The only war fleets that normally coasted these shores were Danish or Norse. The seven Viking vessels stopped in confusion when the intercepting fleet was spotted, but they soon went about. The Viking commanders were no fools, the Norse and the Danes were not always friends, and it was not unknown for Danes to attack Danes. The fleet that had just slipped out of the river mouth was flying no identifying pennants, but, faced with a strange fleet of superior size, the Vikings rowed for their lives.

Alfred smiled as his larger fleet gradually closed the gap. Most of the ships of his new fleet were Viking in construction, but the pagans were not naively trusting. He had helped design the lead ship, his flagship, himself, and the Frisian craftsmen had done their job well. Alfred had ordered them to strip out the normal storage areas and add more oars and room for his doubled crews. The pagan Danes had to travel long distances by sea and they were forced to carry the supplies necessary for weeks afloat.

Alfred had ordered that his vessels be designed or modified for use as short-range fighting vessels. They were supplied from shore. Several south-coast sea ports had been assigned to repair and re-supply them. The vessels were filled with fighting men who never needed to be at sea for more than a few hours.

Alfred turned to his bastard brother. "At last, Ambrose! Our people have endured onslaught after onslaught by these savage northern barbarians. I thank merciful God we are finally able to strike back at the curse that had fallen on Angleland's shores. Control of the sea has for too long given these devils the ability to land and pillage where they please, and then provides them an escape route once our fyrdmen finally catch up with them. Today we will show these Viking dogs that Saxons have sharp teeth, too!"

The ship-commander saw the head-long pace faltering. "Sire, the men are tiring. I would suggest a change of rowers."

Alfred looked down at the rowers. Some smiled back, even as they leaned into the massive oars.

"Aye. We will lose a little headway, but the crews are practised and can switch quickly."

 Polonius ran up the appropriate signal-flag, and Alfred knew that each of his other ship-commanders would follow suit. The gap widened briefly, but then began to close again as the fresh rowers began to synchronize their strokes.

Alfred's command vessel, the Leaping Stag, led the formation. Alfred had ordered his Frisian builders to build it with a deep keel and high sides. It tracked beautifully, and, with its extra oars and crew, could easily match the pace of the smaller Viking vessels.

As the last enemy vessel came into bow-shot, Alfred ordered his Hampshire archers to empty their quivers. A hail of arrows soon arced down on the long-ship, and several of the Viking crewmen fell wounded over their oars. The enemy tried to reciprocate, but most of their men were needed to row, and the higher sides of Alfred's ship protected both the archers and the rowers.

As more Vikings fell wounded or killed, their oars tangled with their neighbours', and the stroke faltered. Alfred's flagship closed rapidly, and the king turned to his ship officers.

"Phillip! Have the near-side crew watch for my signal. I want the oars drawn in when I drop my right arm! Byram! Run to the stern and tell the steersmen to turn hard into the enemy ship at the same signal. I want to sheer into their oar bank. Quick now! If we hit them right, their oars will snap like kindling."

Ambrose watched in satisfaction as Alfred dropped his arm. Their own left bank of oars was quickly pulled onto the deck, and the three strong men assigned to the steering oar threw their weight against the massive beam. The vessel heeled right into the Viking oar bank. The Vikings manning them were thrown about like dolls in the hands of a young child having a tantrum. From the higher deck of the Leaping Stag came a torrent of spears and arrows. The Vikings who fled the partial shelter of the rowing benches were cut down.

Alfred looked down on the chaos his men had created in the Viking long-ship. Having crippled one ship, he was eager that they press on.

"Phillip! Those devils are not going anywhere for a while. Pass the word for the steering crew to veer away, and for the rowing crew to get those oars back into action just as soon as we are free of this mess! One of our lesser vessels should be able to finish taming this wounded beast."

Alfred turned to Polonius with a look of satisfaction on his face. 'Polonius, I told you that higher sides were an advantage! We were able to shoot down on the devils and overwhelm them!"

Polonius had earlier in his life been a citizen of far-off Byzantium, and then an escaped Viking slave.  He had even served for a time as chief military advisor for the audacious Rus Vikings who conquered an entire river system stretching for hundreds of Roman miles, all in the space of just a few years. He now served as spy master and senior military advisor to the king of Wessex. He was also one of the few men who dared to tell the unadorned truth to the young king he had tutored for years.

"Aye, Sire. The extra weight is a disadvantage, but you have made up for that by adding the extra oars and crew. She will track well on the open ocean, but she will not be useful in shallow water. Now what we used on the rivers of the Slav land were . . ."

Alfred smiled at his friend and advisor. "I know, Scholar! Wide hull and shallow draft allowed you to carry large cargoes and still sail through shallows. But this is the ocean, and we will not skulk far up rivers!"

"I hear you, Sire, but look ahead. Is it my imagination, or are the enemy vessels angling towards the shore?"

Alfred moved forward to get a better view. His bastard brother Ambrose followed the king to the bow, and Phillip, having relayed the king's commands, rejoined the party. Soon enough they all saw what Polonius' sharp eyes had spotted. The enemy captains, realizing that they were both outnumbered and losing the race, were veering gradually into where the surf foamed over shallows. Alfred's Viking-built long-ships, for the most part seized from Northmen foolish enough to be caught on the shore, should be able to follow through the shallows, but Alfred's larger flagship would find this impossible.

"By the bones of all the Saints, you are right, Polonius! Commander, make for the nearest vessel before it slips into shallow water where we cannot follow. They will not so easily escape us!"

The royal party watched in frustration as the Vikings sailed into shallower and shallower water. The Leaping Stag touched the gravel bottom twice, and the rowers hurriedly threw their backs into reversing the direction of the massive ship.

The other ten ships, built of the same design as the ships they were pursuing, were able to follow. Several caught up to the last of the fleeing vessels, but the pagan Northerners fought heroically, and the Saxon vessels did not now have the advantage of the larger vessel, with its higher sides and overwhelming numbers of crewmen.

The fights were indecisive, with considerable injuries on both sides. The Saxon captains called off the chase when the Viking vessels took a dangerous passage between two looming rocks. Less experienced and less desperate, the Saxon commanders were unwilling to risk the rocks and the treacherous current.

Alfred was furious. He turned to his captain. "Take us out to deeper water! Parallel the course of the God-cursed Vikings. We will attack any who attempt to escape by heading out-to-sea!"

Polonius stood by his side. "Look, Sire! Your long-ships are returning."

"Returning! I didn't order them to break off the fight. Hoist the flag to attack!"

"Sire, you can't get close enough to command the battle, let alone intervene. I think your commanders quite properly judged the danger to be too great, and broke off the chase."

King Alfred, still red-faced, turned to the thin Byzantine who had dared question his decision. "I know! Too deep a hull!' He suddenly grabbed Polonius in a fierce bear hug. 'Damn it, Polonius, but it is good to have a man who dares to tell me the unadorned truth! I don't know what would happen if I didn't have you and Ambrose whispering the truth in my ear . . . even when I don't want to hear it. Promise me you will always be bluntly honest, Scholar. Didn't you once tell me that the ancient Caesars used to do something similar to prevent themselves from becoming foolishly arrogant?"

"Well, Sire, when they rode in a Triumph and the Roman mobs cheered in adulation, they had a slave stand behind them on the chariot. His sole job was to constantly whisper to the Caesar that he was only mortal."

"My friend, I am grateful that you and Ambrose provide me the same service. You don't know how much I count on you two to tell me the truth. Too many tell a king only what they think he wants to hear.

And look! The Vikings escape, but at least we have savaged them. Commander, turn back and renew the attack on the long-ship we crippled. Let's at least add another ship to our fleet today."

The Saxon flag-ship swept down a second time on the crippled long-ship. The Viking commander had not been idle. He had shifted half of the crew from the unscathed side to replace the wounded and maimed. As the Leaping Stag returned, the long-ship was slowly making for the open sea.

Alfred stood surrounded by his royal party and the ship commanders.

"Order an all-out attack! If the bastards offer to surrender, we will find a stout rope and offer them to Odin!  Either way, they will see their gods this day.

The officers ran to obey their king. The ship easily overtook the crippled vessel, and the archers and spearmen, resupplied, took up their harvesting again. The Vikings were brave men, and they fought as best they could, but the larger numbers and superior protection provided by the Saxon vessel's high sides made the battle cruelly uneven.

Outnumbered, and with a half-dozen more ships closing on his position, the Viking captain knew he could not escape. Suddenly, the long-ship turned towards its tormenters and steered directly for the Leaping Stag. Two naked Vikings stood in the bow waving their weapons and shouting curses at the Saxon foe.

Ambrose, standing amidships, saw the rapidly approaching danger. He had watched the havoc wrought by Viking berserkers in several battles. Well aware of the superstitious awe and fear the Saxon warriors felt towards these men, he rushed for the nearest rank of archers.

"Commander, tell your men to concentrate all their fire on those two in the bow. They must not be allowed to set foot on this deck!"

"You heard Prince Ambrose! On the count of three, I want every last one of you mother's sons to shoot at the two crazy men. One. Two. Three. Shoot!"

Ambrose smiled in relief as first one berserker, and then the second one, collapsed under the concentrated fire.

As the ships veered together, Polonius ordered the Corvus, his secret weapon, deployed. Once the two ships were near enough, the long gangplank pivoted and dropped. Its long metal spike struck the deck of the enemy vessel solidly, and the two vessels instantly became one.

The Viking crew, suddenly realizing the purpose of the massive plank, charged for the Corvus, but the Saxons were on it first, and were soon pouring down onto the deck of the long-ship. Alfred ordered the entire crew to attack, except for a row of archers who continued to shoot down from their higher deck. The Vikings seemed to have known their fate if they were captured, for none even attempted to surrender. One by one they fell, fighting bravely to the very end.

 


 

BOOK ONE:

KING

 GUTHRUM

ATTACKS.


 

CHAPTER 2

"AD 876:  This year the army stole into Wareham, a fort of the West-Saxons."

"Polonius! Stand up, man. Here, in private, we are just friends. What is the word from the north?"

"Not good, Your Majesty. Guthrum and his Danes have crossed our northern frontier."

"May God strike down the devils! Do we have any idea how many warriors he has brought and where he is headed?"

"Our scouts are killing horses to get the latest information to us, Sire, but the short answer is no, we do not know as yet. The last reports were that he was definitely heading south and probably westward."

"I see!' Alfred called to the dreng who stood stiffly at attention by the door. 'Godwin! Find Ambrose and Phillip. Have them report here immediately. Polonius, get out the maps. Let's try and figure out what those devils might be up to."

Within a thousand heartbeats, Ambrose and Phillip ran breathlessly into Alfred's Great Hall. Ambrose gasped. "Brother, what is it?"

"Grave news! Messengers from the north have just reported that Guthrum and his Danes have crossed the border into Wiltshire."

"That is serious indeed. Do we know their destination and numbers?"

Alfred looked grim. "Polonius?"

Polonius turned from the map he was spreading on the trestle table. He gave his best friend and companion a wan smile. "No, Prince Ambrose. The preliminary report indicates that several unprotected tuns were overrun, while more defensible burhs were by-passed. Guthrum seems to be in a hurry to go somewhere. A rough estimate of numbers might be over a thousand, all mounted, but that is just an unsubstantiated guess."

Ambrose looked at his brother the king. "Well, Alfred. We have faced worse than that before. The crops are in the ground. You have a standing force of almost three hundred drengs of your Personal Guard with you here, leavened with another hundred odd duguos, all ready to ride at a day's notice, and the fyrds of the empire only await the call-to-arms. Let us show the pagans good Saxon steel!"

Polonius spoke without looking around. "First, my Prince, we have to have a better idea where they are headed. Brave as our fighting thanes of the Personal Guard may be, they would find themselves heavily outnumbered by the Viking army. It will take the combined fyrds of several shires to assure victory over Guthrum's Danes. And is this the only thrust we are facing?"

Alfred looked over Polonius's shoulder at the map of southern Angleland. "If Guthrum runs true to form, he will head for a strong defensive point, which he will further fortify. From there, he will raid in all directions. The real devastation will start once he is securely ensconced somewhere."

Ambrose looked over Polonius's other shoulder. "Unless, my brother, we are there with the fyrd to bottle him up."

Alfred stabbed at the map with his finger. "Here is Portchester, near where we met those ships last week. They were coursing westward when we met them. Our experience has been that the Vikings always try and choose a defensive site near water. More than once they have slipped away by sea when we finally manage to bring together enough resources that we could crush them. Could the fleet we met have been a prong of Guthrum's attack?"

Polonius stroked his chin. "Aye. If Guthrum wanted a southern port as his main base of operation, he would have been smart to send a ship-born expedition to take it. Coming from the north as he is, he has to fight his way across Wessex. Meantime, the local ealdormen, given warning of his approach, will do their best to deny the Danes any fortified positions. But a force that comes by ship - there would be no warning of an impending attack, and no time to adequately provision or garrison their target."

Ambrose smiled. "Unless a king's brand new fleet just happened to be cruising the southern coast and made an unexpected attack on the Viking fleet."

Alfred gestured at the large-scale map. "Well, my friends, we may have finally figured out what that fleet was up to. Exactly which southern ports would meet Guthrum's needs?"

Polonius pointed at several. "Too many to predict, Sire. Based on where we met the Viking fleet, I would guess Southampton or further west."

Alfred bent down to look closer at the map. "That leaves Southampton itself, Wareham, Exeter, Bredy, or a dozen small vills or monasteries that could be fortified. Polonius, which would you pick?"

"I would stay away from Southampton, at least once I found out that you have a fleet at the mouth of the river. It's also too central. Unless I was going direct for your throat in a lightning attack, I would stay away from the Wessex homeland entirely. Here, the people will rise to a man to defend you. To the east or west, in the conquered provinces . . . it would be easier to sow discontent. You might not have the same level of support, and Guthrum might even manage to find a local ealdorman with pretensions to his ancestor's throne. It would not be the first time the Danes have installed an Angle or Saxon puppet."

Alfred straightened and started to pace. Man of action that he was, it was clear that he had come to some conclusions. "Diplomatically put, Scholar. What you are telling me is that Guthrum is probably moving his army towards our western provinces. He is mounted, so he intends to move fast. He may be heading for the southern coast, and probably will attempt to seize a port, or at least some fortification convenient to the coast. We suspect that he has allies. Fortunately for us, we ran into and drove back what was probably one prong of his force. He may have more surprises for us. Guthrum may have turned some of our own leaders, or, at least, might be trying to.

Until more messengers arrive from the north with new information, let's work with this hypothesis. We can order the ealdormen to garrison the southern ports, particularly the ones that are fortified. We can send word to the eastern provinces and Cornwall to send mounted contingents, and we can call up the full fyrds of Wessex, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset, and Devon.' The king sighed. 'My friends, Wessex is once again at war!"

***

Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius watched from horseback as Alfred rode westward at the head of a long column of some six hundred mounted drengs and duguos. The king, impatient at the slow gathering of his fyrd, had impulsively decided to chase after the Vikings, even before his full forces had gathered.

Somewhere to the east, some ten columns and a total of eight hundred more churls and thanes, along with hundreds more retainers and dozens of cart loads of supplies, were wending their way towards their present position. As soon as Polonius had drawn up the marching orders for the late-arriving forces, the three companions intended to ride after their king.

As the late arrivals plodded past into camp, Ambrose noted that relatively few riders wore the chain-mail shirts that were almost standard in the Danish army. Each warrior, however, carried a spear, and all wore a battle-axe or sword strapped to their belt. They were Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Britons and Celts, but all owed military service to their king or ealdorman, and they were united in fierce hatred of the savage pagan Northmen who had invaded their lands. They were the fyrdmen; the militias of Alfred's empire that stretched from Cornwall to the Anglish Channel. With a last glance backward, Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip started out in pursuit of their king.

 It had taken almost two weeks for the mounted thanes and the infantry to gather in one place, and in the interim, Guthrum and his raiders had ridden swiftly southward and westward, bypassing Alfred's position. The newly-arriving columns of infantry and late-arriving horsemen would continue to gather for another few days and then would march in Alfred's wake. Along the way, other columns were supposed to join up, until an army almost two thousand strong would arrive to support their king and his hard-riding vanguard.

As Ambrose and his two friends rode in the wake of Alfred, they passed through devastated lands that had been plundered by Guthrum and his army as it had made its way south and west. The prince turned to Polonius and Phillip.

"It is all too easy to follow Guthrum's trail, my friends."

The three men stared at the still smouldering vill that had been, until recently, a prosperous settlement.

Polonius replied. "We saw the same in Mercia, Master."

"Aye, and along the Dnieper River, around Constantinople, and even in the Frankish coastal lands. This time, however, it is our own people who are dying, Scholar."

Suddenly Phillip spoke. "The heathen devils have been raiding our lands since the time of my grandfather, but never like this. This is not a raid - it is an invasion."

Ambrose replied. "I hope that Alfred is careful. He has good men with him, eager to show their king what they can do and win both land and glory, but if Guthrum decides to turn on them, they could easily find themselves going into battle badly outnumbered."

Phillip spoke again. "Once we catch up, Prince, we will have the men necessary to crush Guthrum."

Ambrose sighed. "I hope so, Weapons-master. There were few enough families who have not lost a son or uncle to the Vikings. North of the Wessex border, not a single Angle or Saxon kingdom has been able to hold out against them. We are the last unconquered Angelisc country on the island.

***

It took the three friends two days of hard riding, but eventually they caught up to Alfred's force of mounted infantry. Alfred smiled in greeting as the three rode up to his position.

"Welcome, gentlemen! Did I at least give you a merry chase?"

Ambrose grinned at his royal brother. "We had to ride hard, brother, but your trail was easy to follow."

Alfred suddenly looked very serious. "Yes, brother. As easy as it was for us to follow the Viking devils. We just followed the smoke from the burned vills."

***

The scouts rode hard for the Saxon column. When they spotted the royal banner, they swerved to report directly to their king. The commander of the little squad gasped.

"Yer Majesty! There be Viking raiders just ahead . . . just the other side of that there hill!"

Alfred turned a calm eye to the man. "Well? How many, and are there any other Viking forces around?"

"I know not, Sire! I rode directly to report to you!"

"Next time, I expect that you will bring me a complete report. Did you send out men to flank the Viking force and see what is behind them?"

The scout now looked thoroughly miserable. "No, Sire."

"And just what are the Vikings doing?"

"There is a little burh, Sire, just the other side of the hill, and they are looting it. I would guess that there are no more than a hundred of 'em."

"All right. Catch your breath, man, and wait. I may have some more work for you."

"Yes, Sire."

Alfred turned in his saddle to his two faithful companions. His childhood weapons tutor, Phillip, had ridden back to check on the slow moving supply and infantry column. "Ambrose and Polonius, what do you think?"

Ambrose replied. "There are almost 700 of us in the vanguard, brother, all mounted.

 I would propose that we send 300 to try and loop around them. The rest of us should wait a thousand counts, and then ride to the attack! Put Polonius' pig-stickers in front, and we will make an imposing array."

Polonius had been listening. "Could I add that we send out a screen of scouts so that we are not, in turn, ambushed ourselves? Remember that, not too far away, there is the main Viking force that, at least until Phillip's column catches up, outnumbers us. They, too, are mounted. While we don't know their exact location, we are closing on them. Given an adequate warning system, however, I would concur with Ambrose. Let's attack!"

Alfred grew more excited. "So be it! Ambrose, please split up the force and get the first column moving. Tell them I want a big enough loop that the Vikings are not forewarned.

Polonius, be so good as to arrange for that screen of scouts ahead of and around the first column. Send them far. I want no surprises. Make sure that everyone knows we are to retreat towards the main body if faced with a superior force. I have no wish to have my gallant thanes crushed before the rank and file are here to support us."

Alfred signalled the main force to dismount. With no further words, he had the men walk their mounts to near the crest of the hill. The king strode back and forth dressing the line. When they crested the rise, he wanted a disciplined and organized force sweeping down on the hapless raiders.

Each man stood by his horse and waited silently for the word to mount. Firm discipline was kept. Not a word was spoken in the long line. Satisfied at last, Alfred led his horse to the middle of the line and then paused dramatically. Having carefully counted to one thousand, he raised his arm. The men swung into their saddles. When Alfred let his arm fall, the signal horns blared.

If the sounds of the Saxon war horns did not warn the Vikings, then the sudden thunder of hundreds of galloping horses certainly did. The raiders looked eastward to see a long line of armoured men topping the rise and riding hard at them. The line was so long that it threatened to flank the Vikings on both ends.

The Northmen abandoned their loot and captives, and ran for their horses. It was a close thing. The Vikings had no time to form up into any kind of formation, but those few who managed to reach a horse rode hard for the west. Those who were a little slower were run through with the long lances Polonius had been training the Saxons with.

In the case of pockets of resistance, the Saxons preferred to leap from their horses and attack on foot. The fifty or so Vikings who had not made it to their horses in time were quickly cut down by the overwhelming numbers of attackers.

The other Danes, the ones who had been lucky enough to be on the other side of the settlement managed to reach their horses. They rode desperately for their lives. The sounds of battle horns suddenly blared ahead of them, however, and a fresh line of horsemen suddenly stretched in front of them.

The Vikings were no cowards. Behind them was certain death, and ahead lay their only hope of escape. Some bunched up for support, but, to a man, they rode at the oncoming horsemen.

The two lines clashed, and most of the charging Vikings were killed in the savage melee. Some, however, lucky enough to find a chink in the on-rushing line of riders, made it safely through. The collision was so sudden that each rider got a quick jab or swing with spear, axe or sword, and then the surviving Vikings were away.

Alfred's men swung their horses around and pursued, but the king had instructed his thanes not to go too far. Somewhere, not too far ahead, were between one and two thousand hostile Viking warriors. All were battle-hardened veterans, and all were mounted.

***

True to Alfred's prediction, Guthrum continued to lead his Danes south and west, until it became clear he was heading for Wareham. Messengers from Alfred's own nephew, Ethelwold, the Ealdorman of Dorset, reported that a lightning attack by Guthrum's best horsemen took the easily-defended nunnery just hours before Ethelwold had been able to garrison it with a strong force. Cursing Ethelwold as either a fool or a coward, Alfred pushed his mounted column hard along the trail of destruction, until the sturdy stone buildings of Wareham came into sight.

The king stared at the stone walls and palisades that blocked the end of the peninsula. "May God curse the wily heathen! It's Nottingham all over again."

Ambrose stared, too. "What do you mean, brother?"

"Guthrum uses our own defences against us. We don't have enough men to storm those damn walls!"

Polonius spoke. "I fear that the fly has caught up with the spider, Sire."

Suddenly, Alfred grinned. "Well put, Scholar. Yes, I know we are no match for Guthrum, at least not until Phillip arrives with the rest of our men and our supplies. Fear not - I will do nothing rash.

Ambrose, spread the word. We will retreat to that natural strong point you noted earlier as we rode past it. We will camp there and wait for the rest of our army to catch up.

Polonius, I want you to organize a strong screen of scouts. I intend to use these eyes and ears not only to warn me of a serious threat, but also to allow us to locate any Viking foraging parties.

Once our position has been adequately fortified along the model of the old Roman marching camps, I want strong columns sent out on systematic sweeps of the area. I want any isolated raiding parties overwhelmed and killed.

Somewhere to the east, and the north, and the west, converging on this site and hopefully not more than a day or two away, should be the peddlers and the prostitutes, the ox-carts, and the rest of my damn fyrdmen!"

***

Alfred sat on his horse on a high spot overlooking the peninsula made by the joining of the From and the Tarrant Rivers. Secure on the end was the nunnery of Wareham. His commanders and advisors were gathered around, and not far away sat his Personal Guard of three hundred young but battle-tested drengs.

The king turned to his brother and Polonius, once chief military advisor to the Varangian state of Kiev, and subsequently ambassador to imperial Byzantium. Polonius had followed his friend Ambrose to the frozen north, and then south, by way of the Asian rivers, to his own eastern homeland. Then, he followed again, all the way to Angleland. Now, Polonius served as Chief Advisor to Alfred, king of all the West Saxons.

Alfred looked at his two best friends. "Well, gentlemen, what do you think? Can we take the convent?"

Polonius spoke first. Military strategy was his specialty.

"Remember the teachings of Master Sun, Sire. 'If you outnumber the opponent ten to one, then surround them; five to one, attack; two to one, divide.'"

Alfred smiled. "Well, I hope that we will soon outnumber the heathens by at least two to one, but I am damned if I know how to divide them. What does the master strategist Polonius say?"

"Sire, when all of your forces finally gather, you could probably take it. It will be costly, however. You can only attack on one front, unless you bring in fleets of boats. The Danes fight well, and they have done a lot of work. It will be a tough nut to crack, even with a several-times advantage in numbers. I fear that you would only achieve a Pyrrhic victory."

Alfred looked puzzled. "Pyrrhic victory?"

"Prince Ambrose, do you remember your Latin history?"

"Probably not to your satisfaction, Scholar, but I do remember the story about Pyrrhus of Epirus."

"And so what is a Pyrrhic victory?"

"Did not Pyrrhus defeat a Roman army at the cost of most of his own?"

"Exactly, so, Prince."

Alfred interrupted. "I think, Polonius, that you are trying to tell me that if I attack, I might win, but it would be at a terrible cost."

"Or that you might not win at all."

Alfred nodded. "And if we lay siege?"

"It must eventually fall. We arrived too soon after them to have allowed them much time to build up supplies. Your aggressive sweeps have crippled their foraging expeditions. They cannot have much food. There is just one catch."

"Yes, Polonius. And just what is that?"

"Is there another prong to Guthrum's attack? We turned back one small fleet, but we have reports of another dozen scattered throughout Wales, northern Angleland, and Ireland. What if he has more reinforcements coming by water? There is a reason he moved his army close to the sea."

"Then the choice is between losing many of our finest young men on a frontal assault, or hoping that Guthrum will starve because he has no fleet to bring in either food or reinforcements?"

"In a nutshell, majesty."

"If we attack and fail?"

"Then his army is loose in Wessex, and may God help us all. We run, and try to raise another army."

"And if we lay siege and he gets reinforcements?"

"Then we retreat, but with an intact army. He can't go far, as long as we are sitting nearby with a couple of thousand men under arms."

"Except that these men will eventually want to go home to harvest their crops. Still, that's months away. Polonius, my friend, you make it all so simple.

I want the two of you to get to work organizing a siege. Don't neglect our own fortifications. We don't want an unhappy surprise early one morning. And if their reinforcements do arrive, the ramparts we build in the next few days may save all of our lives. It looks like we are going to sit in the mud here for awhile. And Polonius, I want the entire southern coast put on ship alert. Send word that the signal fires are to be prepared and manned twenty-four hours a day. I want no surprises from the sea!"


 

CHAPTER 3

"AD 876:  The king afterwards made peace with them; and they gave him as hostages those who were worthiest in the army.....and that by night they broke (out)."

On the twentieth-sixth day of the siege, a lone warrior strode out of the main gates of Wareham. He was dressed for war, wearing expensive chain-mail, and with a sword at his waist, but he carried a white-covered shield high over his head. Sentries ran to inform Alfred, and both the king and his court retinue hurried to the ramparts opposite the main gate. The throbbing note of a single war horn put the rest of the camp on alert, but Alfred had ordered that one quarter of his men man the ramparts at any given time, so there was no great panic.

The king and Ambrose watched the lone warrior climb down into the dry ditch Alfred's men had dug so laboriously. The ditch stretched from one side of the little peninsula to the other, effectively isolating the solidly built nunnery from the mainland. It was not so deep that the Danes could not clamber through it, but its depth, and the many randomly placed stakes, ensured that no large formation of infantry or horsemen could pass quickly through it. Thus, the defences prevented Guthrum's Danes from escaping the siege on horseback, and made it difficult even for mass movements of infantry. The single man, however, had no problem negotiating the obstacles. He stopped an easy spear cast from where Alfred was idly watching him approach.

The man spoke in rough Saxon. "Great king, I am Jarl Ura, and my master Guthrum has sent me to deliver a message to you."

"Then speak, Ura. What message has your master sent me?"

"Guthrum's army is strong, and in spite of the numbers of your warriors, he feels he could cut his way through you at any time."

"But, Ura, he does not. Is this because he wishes to show Christian mercy to me and my people?"

"You make a joke, I think. My king respects you, Anglishman, and he admits that it will be expensive for us to cut our way out through your army.' He smiled. 'You dig ditches well. Your peasants will be pushed aside like tall blades of grass before a scythe, but your fyrdmen give a good accounting of themselves. Instead of death for many of both our nations, my master Guthrum has a proposal for you."

"I am listening, Ura."

"He wishes to call a truce. If you pull your army back, provide us with five hundred pounds of gold, a thousand pounds of silver, and enough cattle and pigs to supply all our needs, we will pack up and march north."

"I think Guthrum must have forgotten who is trapped on a peninsula. And by now you know your fleet isn't coming. Here are my terms. If you surrender half of your horses and all your slaves, we will let you keep the rest and march home unmolested. We would even provide the necessary food, as you request."

"King, we have not been defeated. We may yet be strong enough to destroy your entire army. If you refuse our offer, then we will soon find out. The choice is yours. My king instructed me to tell you that you have two days in which to ponder his proposal. In those two days we will make no hostile move."

"Take as long as you wish, Ura. Who knows, you might still have a few horses left that you can eat if you get hungry. I will agree, however, to make no hostile move until we receive your answer. Is that satisfactory?"

"Aye, king. I will convey your words to my master."

***

It was very late, but Alfred had asked all of his senior commanders and advisors to join him in his Command tent. Alfred paced the large single-roomed structure from end to end impatiently. He seemed in a foul temper, occasionally holding his stomach.  He stared in turn at the various ealdormen, bishops, athelings and others who made up his advisory body.

"Well, Councilmen, what do we do?!"

Polonius looked up from the map he was studying. "Sire, that he offers any terms at all, means that he is worried, and probably hungry. But Ura is right. They are not defeated, and a sudden breakout might be very hard for us to stop."

"Then you are saying we should pay the bastard Danegeld and just let him ride home?"

Phillip, generally a very taciturn man, spoke up, to everyone's surprise. "I would like nothing better than to crush this army, Majesty. Say the word. Let us be a tide that rolls irresistibly, until no Vikings are left alive."

Alfred smiled fondly at the blond giant. "I, too, would like nothing better, Phillip. And yet, what will it cost us? How many widows will be grieving this winter? What if our men do break? Only our veteran thanes can be counted on to hold, and we have a high percent of raw levies. Dare I risk the fate of the entire kingdom on a mad attack? There is also the reason that they chose the nunnery. Guthrum is in a position to be easily re-supplied, and we know that the Danes have several fleets somewhere to the north of us, or in Ireland."

"Polonius, what does the Master Sun Tzu have to say on this matter?"

"I can remember nothing pertinent, Sire, but his student Cao Cao said "When the enemy has called in its resources and is defending a city, to attack them in this condition is the lowest form of military operation."

Alfred sighed. "We don't know if they are adequately provisioned, but an attack would certainly be costly."

***

As the fire started to die down, Alfred rubbed a hand across his tired eyes and spoke to the men gathered before him. "Members of the Witan, the hour is late. I think that all that can be said has been said. I thank you for your thoughts. It has helped me come to a decision.'

Tired as the advisors were, they all roused themselves to listen. The king's next few words would determine if Wessex would have uneasy peace, or suffer further bloodshed.

'I have decided that we will agree to let Guthrum and his men through our lines, and I might consent to pay a small amount of Danegeld. I will, in turn, however, demand more than promises. I will only agree to a treaty if they give us some of their senior officers as hostages. We will work out the details in the morning.

Good night, my friends. Go to your beds, and sleep well."

Alfred stood, and the noblemen, warriors, and churchmen who made up the king's Council hastily rose and excused themselves.

Ambrose slipped naked under the deerskin covers of his bed and heaved a giant sigh. He had heard his brother's decision, but he was still not sure in his heart that it was the right one.

His body was exhausted, but his mind would not stop racing. He knew the army's ranks were full of ill-armed churls and retainers who had been called up especially to provide labour and support the mounted fyrdmen. These same men were beginning to melt away in the night.

Having faithfully served their time, and with the crops ripening at home, there was no keeping them for the onerous siege duty. Alfred had ordered some deserters hung, but his commanders only hung the slow and foolish ones. The rest just disappeared when no one was looking. Ambrose was not sure how long his brother could keep together a large enough force to contain Guthrum. Thus, he assumed that was why Alfred so suddenly agreed to come to terms with the powerful Danish king who had so brazenly invaded his kingdom.

For the thousandth time he cursed the fact that Wessex didn't have a professional standing force capable of dealing with an invading army. Polonius had warned him of the need many years before. With these thoughts roiling through his mind, it was dawn before he was able to fall into an uneasy slumber.

***

It was near high noon of the second day when it was reported to Alfred that Ura was once again nimbly clambering down into the ditch and calling loudly for Alfred. Although Ambrose knew that Alfred was eager to talk to the man, the king intentionally delayed climbing into view for several minutes. At last, unable to contain himself, he climbed up onto the earth ramparts and casually looked through the gap in the palisade, down into the ditch. He stared at the Danish Jarl for some moments before he spoke. "Well, Ura. Have you come to surrender?"

"The fate of my people who surrender to your tender Christian mercies are well known, King-of-the West-Saxons."

"I would have hoped that such an object lesson would have kept you and your kind far from my lands, Ura."

"Once we were, like your own people, simple pirates raiding a foreign land. Now king, we are conquerors of kingdoms!"

"Except Wessex, Dane. Except Wessex. We are the burial ground for some thousands of your countrymen. Any Dane who comes here is only entitled to the land it takes to bury him in."

"Alfred-of-the-West-Saxons, today you agree to pay Danegeld and my king rides north in peace, or your land will run red with blood, and we shall see who it will belong to."

"Do not push me, Ura! Rub your empty belly and ponder my words carefully. In order to prevent the needless death of some of my faithful men, I have decided that we would be willing to pay fifty pounds of gold and three hundred pounds of silver. Your king, however, must give me ten senior officers from amongst his High Council. These men will instantly pay with their lives for any treachery on your part."

"Guthrum is not accustomed to giving hostages to an enemy who has not managed to defeat him, King."

"Then tell Guthrum to either swim home or sharpen his sword, Ura. I will pay the Danegeld to save Saxon lives, but I will have iron-clad guarantees in return. I expect both a personal oath from Guthrum, and the ten hostages. I also expect half of your horse herd."

"King, you ask too much! Our horses are our means of transportation. It is many days hard ride to reach your northern borders. The loss of so many mounts would cripple us."

"An army half on foot will have no choice but to head north. That is the entire point, Jarl."

"King-of-the-West-Saxons, what you ask for puts us at your mercy. We cannot agree to such terms!"

"Ura, tell your king that Alfred will give him a second fifty pounds of silver after you turn over the horses. That will buy you a dozen horse herds in Mercia. Go now. Our discussion is at an end."

***

 At dusk of that day, ten haughty Danish Jarls clambered through the deep ditch, climbed to the narrow gap in the palisade, and surrendered to the astonished Saxon Officer-of-the-Watch. The ten men were disarmed and sent directly to King Alfred.

The king sat regally in his ornately carved chair. The outer walls of the large tent were lined with bishops and ealdormen, athelings and ambassadors. Directly before him stood the ten Viking jarls that he had demanded from Guthrum.

Polonius stood beside Alfred in his capacity of translator. Alfred addressed them all, knowing that Polonius would provide any necessary translating.

"Welcome to my court. You are all honoured guests here, and will be treated as such, excepting only that you may not leave the encampment without permission, nor may you leave behind the men I assign to guard and protect you. I am a man of my word, and I tell you now that three months after your king and his army crosses our northern frontier, you will in turn be escorted north, with suitable gifts from me. If, on the other hand, your king breaks the oath he is to swear tomorrow morning, then you will pay for his treachery with your lives."

Alfred waited until Polonius translated his words. "Polonius, is what I said clear to each of them?"

"Perfectly, King Alfred. I translated exactly what you said."

Alfred spoke quietly to Ambrose. The king had agreed that the first fifty pounds of gold would be paid once the hostages had arrived, and Alfred wanted the Danegeld to be weighed and delivered to Guthrum.

"Brother, after you measure the gold and send it to Guthrum, please arrange with Ethelwold for a work detail. Starting at dawn tomorrow, I want them to widen the gap in the palisades and fill in a narrow stretch of the ditch. Tell Ethelwold that I want the work started just after sunrise, and it is to be complete by the noon hour oath-giving ceremony. It would not do for two kings to have to clamber up and down the steep banks of the ditch.

After the oath-giving, the Danes have promised to deliver several hundred of their horses. I told Guthrum I want a full half of the herd. We will need horse herders ready. Would you please take care of the details?"

Ambrose smiled. "Of course, Alfred."

Ambrose left his king's side and signalled for Ethelwold, atheling and nephew to Alfred, to join him. Ethelwold, as Ealdorman of Dorset, was overlord of most of the peasant workmen, and he commanded a force of thanes almost equal to Alfred's. As well, he was the night's Officer-of-the-Watch for the central portion of the Saxon siege-line.

"Ethelwold! The king has asked if you would arrange to have a ten foot span of the ditch completely filled in. He would like the job done right after dawn, and it must be completed before noon. Once that's done, you may have your men start removing the equivalent length of palisade along the ramparts. Until then, Alfred expects that you will keep your Dorsetmen in full military readiness."

"Of course, cousin. If that's all, I hope that you will excuse me. I have a great deal to do before I sleep tonight."

***

A single Saxon war horn suddenly sounded in the distance. Its throbbing note was soon picked up and echoed throughout the camp. Only a full emergency merited such a series of calls. Alfred's advisors and commanders looked at each other and then grabbed their weapons. Something was very wrong!

A rider galloped through the camp towards Alfred's Command Centre. In the wan torchlight, he looked scared. The sound of battle and many galloping horses managed to almost drown the blaring war-horns. Alfred and his comrades looked wildly about, but the sounds grew no closer.

Alfred focussed again on the approaching man, and the messenger, in turn, recognized his king. He yelled out. "Sire! There has been a breakout! The Danes have escaped!"

Alfred stood straight. "What are you talking about? How could the Danes escape? Did they swim?"

"No, Sire! They rode across the ditch you ordered filled in, and through the hole in the palisade."

"The ditch was to be filled in and the palisades were to be pulled down after our entire army was drawn up in battle formation; after dawn!"

"Be that as it may, Sire, hundreds of Viking horsemen tore through the gap in the palisades. We had no chance to stop them! They rode west!"

Ambrose called out. "What sector are you from!"

"Ethelwold is our Ealdorman, Atheling! We are Dorsetmen."

Alfred turned to his commanders. "All right, commanders! I want all men in battle gear and on full alert. We designed the marching forts so that each separate section is defensible. We have no idea where that lying bastard is going to strike, or if he is at all, but he's loose, mounted, and very dangerous! Button up each of your defence perimeters tight until dawn. Come sunrise, report back to me here, and then we will see what can be done.

Phillip! Take a strong guard and put our hostages in chains! Assign a double guard on them, and then stay with them until morning. If any Danes are so much as seen in their vicinity - you are to cut their throats immediately. Commanders, on your way! Hold your positions at all costs, and may God be with us all!"

Dawn found the men exhausted. Only half had been allowed to sleep, and that only while in battle gear and in position, behind their various barricades and ramparts.

Soon after first dawn, Polonius' best scouts reported back directly to Alfred. The squad was led by Thane Burgtun, who stood stiffly at attention in front of his king.

"Your Majesty! Guthrum's Danes rode right through the Dorset sector. There were relatively few casualties. Most of Ethelwold's men just dove for cover, and the Danes were in a great hurry."

"And blocking the escape was supposed to be hundreds of men, a deep dry ditch, many sharpened wooden stakes, a log palisade, and numerous small strong-points designed to prevent just this kind of sudden escape! Just how the devil did the Danes fly over all that!?"

Thane Burgtun looked straight ahead. Alfred rubbed his stomach, trying to sooth the burning pain within. He was in a furious mood, and stress often turned on a raging furnace in his belly. Burgtun had no wish to be the one Alfred vented his rage on.

"Sire, my men report that the dry ditch was filled with dirt for over fifteen paces. The palisade on the ramparts was cut down. After that, the only obstacle was the men, and the Dorsetmen ran and hid against such a force as descended upon them."

"The ditch was full! How in God's name did the Danes fill the ditch without being spotted by the God-cursed sentries on the rampart above!? Ambrose! Bring me Ealdorman Ethelwold, and bring him to me now! You other commanders! Return to your sections, and prepare to break camp. I want at least the mounted fyrdmen to be on the road and after Guthrum within an hour at most. Well, move it!"

***

Ethelwold, Ealdorman of Dorset, nephew of Alfred and son of a former king, stood before his king. "You sent for me, King Alfred?"

Alfred had changed to a dangerous calm. "Ethelwold, over a thousand mounted warriors managed to sneak up on your many alert sentries, filled in a huge ditch, dug through a rampart, removed several dozen sturdy logs, and rode out through a camp full of your men, who had been ordered to be extra alert. Would you care to explain to me just how any of that is possible?"

Ambrose noted that Ethelwold's face dripped perspiration. His voice, however, betrayed no nervousness when spoke.

"Of course, Your Majesty. I asked myself the same question, and, by God, I got some answers!"

"Then please be so kind as to share your revelation with your king!"

"Thane Delwyn was commander on duty last night. He told the men to start filling in the ditch and remove the logs."

"He what!?"

"Told the men to fill in the ditch and remove the logs. After that, he told the men to stand down, Sire."

"Ealdorman, do you remember my specific instructions passed on to you last night by your uncle?"

"Of course, Sire! And I faithfully reported them verbatim to my assembled commanders, as they will no doubt be happy to attest. I am aware of the enormity of what happened last night because of Delwyn's misunderstanding of your clear instructions. You may rest assured, Sire, that Delwyn has already paid fully for his stupidity!"

Alfred was twitching in anger, but his voice became calm again. "And just how did Delwyn pay for his stupidity, Ethelwold?"

"When I realized what he had done, I ordered him hung at once. He is still hanging from a tree, Sire, in my camp. I wanted it to be an object lesson to my other officers. What he did was inexcusable. I have already declared his land and property forfeited, Sire."

"Ethelwold, you were in charge of your men last night."

"No, Sire. After being excused from your presence, I met a delegation of my people several Roman miles to the north. Bishop Asser rode with me. I left Delwyn in charge, Sire."

"Ethelwold, you are from the loins of my own brother. In spite of that, we may yet put you to God's justice. At this moment, your land and your very life is hanging by a thin thread! For now, I want you to go to your camp and prepare your forces to ride. This issue is, however, far from settled!"

Runnels of sweat poured down Ethelwold's face, but he just bowed to his king, and backed out of his presence.


 

CHAPTER 4

"AD 877:  This year came the Danish army into Exeter from Wareham; whilst the navy sailed west about, until they met with a great mist at sea, and there perished one hundred and twenty ships at Swanwich. Meanwhile King Alfred with his army rode after the cavalry as far as Exeter; but he could not overtake them before their arrival in the fortress, where they could not be come at."

Alfred faced his chief advisors, though none looked into his eyes. The king was in pain, holding his belly again, and he was angry.

"I want only the men with horses, and I want them ready to ride by dawn. We will catch up to Guthrum and destroy him! Yes, what is it, Polonius?"

"Sire, with all due respect, at the moment you have less thanes than Guthrum has warriors. Running off after him now will be a case of the fly chasing the spider." Sun Tzu once said, "If you are fewer, then keep away if you are able."

"And is there anything wrong with that?"

"No, Sire, unless the spider turns to fight. We would be chopped to pieces and Wessex would lose its last hope against the Danes. Make no mistake, Sire. If you are killed, Wessex is defeated. If Wessex falls, there is no hope for all Britain."

"Then just what do you propose we do, Wizard? Let the devil's spawn destroy my entire country one vill at a time? As we talk, they are killing innocent men and raping their women. These are my people, and I must do something!"

"Then let us follow, Sire, but carefully. We must not be caught in the open until a lot more thanes join your banner."

"Look about you, Scholar. We have almost three thousand men in camp. How is Guthrum going to cut his way through so many?"

"Sire, what is the approximate number of Guthrum's warriors?"

"Probably thirteen hundred in total, though some will be walking wounded."

"And we have less than a thousand mounted thanes."

 "We have almost three thousand under arms, Scholar. Even a Saxon king can count!"

"You are correct, Sire, and over two thousand are churls who came to support their thanes. Most owe us no direct loyalty, Sire."

"My thanes and churls are brave men, Polonius, and they will stand and fight if I tell them to. You once told me that you went with the Rus tribesmen and conquered a river kingdom with fewer men than I have in camp today!"

"The Rus warriors became the core of a Slav force that numbered in the tens of thousands, Sire, and they also, not incidentally, recruited thousands more Vikings before they became a dominant force in the Dnieper River Valley."

"Then my thanes will be the core of my force, and they will support the churls. Any slaves who fight for me will be manumitted. You see, we have the men. Let us not waste more time arguing. I want to ride!"

"Sire, no one is saying that the churls are not brave men, and, they worked heroically building the defences and manning the walls. Without adequate armour or a horse, however, they can not match the Vikings in the open, nor can they even keep up with your mounted thanes."

The king looked at Ambrose. "Well, brother?"

"Polonius is right, Alfred. We both know it."

"Well then, advisors, advise me! What the hell are we going to do? . . . Polonius?"

"By all means, Sire, let us follow the Danes, but carefully. We keep out a screen of scouts between Guthrum and our column. He must never be allowed to know our true numbers. We, in turn, must avoid being caught in the open at all costs."

"And just how, Scholar, do you propose that we do that?"

"By leapfrogging from defensive position to defensive position."

"And if there is no available position when the day ends?"

"Then we build a Roman marching-fort, Sire."

"Such a task takes immense effort, Polonius."

"The ancient Romans did it, nightly, in hostile territory."

"Yes. Yes, but it is time-consuming. It will slow us down!"

"But it also makes us unassailable, Sire. It means eight hundred behind walls can likely hold against thirteen hundred or even more."

"Hmmm. I hate to admit it, but I suppose your plan makes sense . . . Ambrose?"

"Alfred, we have spare mounts. How many more men can we mount up? Let's ask for volunteers amongst the strongest and best equipped of the churls."

"Good thinking, brother. Phillip, how many men do you estimate you could mount if you took all the spare horses?"

"Perhaps four hundred, King."

"Now we are closer to Guthrum in number. But what do we do with the eighteen hundred men we can't take?"

Polonius spoke. "Send some of them home, Sire. We can gather more as we need them. The rest march in our wake, along with the wagon-loads of supplies.

As well, we call up every thane on our path, along with their retainers. Meantime, your messengers guide in the mounted fyrds from the far eastern and western shires. Eventually, we will again be more than a match for King Guthrum, even if we are forced to meet in the open."

Alfred looked at his advisors, and everyone waited with bated breath. At last, he spoke.

"You have convinced a stubborn king. I will give you twenty-four hours to bring in the horse herds and mount the extra men. Tell them there will be generous rewards for men who fight bravely under my banner. And Polonius, I expect you to study the maps and come up with easily-defensible positions for when we get close. I wish to avoid building marching-forts as much as possible."

Polonius smiled. "It will be done, Sire!"

***

Within twenty-four hours, Alfred led a force west of over twelve hundred men. As his mounted warriors rode after Guthrum, Alfred had his ealdormen send out messengers in all directions.

They stripped the vills and burhs bare of any remaining fighting men who could ride a horse. Many would serve for a few weeks, and then they had the right to return home, but Alfred planned to keep enough with the army at any given time that he would always have a force that would give Guthrum pause.

As it neared noon on the third day, Polonius rode up to his king. Ambrose smiled at the thin dark man.

"Well, Spy-master, what news have our spies and scouts brought us?"

"Not good, Sire. Guthrum's vanguard took the old Roman fort at Exeter, and his men are now busily strengthening its already formidable defences."

"Damnation! Again he goes to ground. Exeter is in Odda's territory. Just what does the old rascal have to say about this?"

"He is upset, Sire. As you ordered, he garrisoned Exeter with a strong force of thanes, but he then sent you most of the garrison troops to support your siege at Wareham. It seemed a safe bet, with Guthrum trapped."

"You are right, Polonius. Odda is a loyal friend, and he is stripping Devon bare to support us. I don't think that we can blame him when it was us who let Guthrum loose."

Less than two days after Guthrum's main army arrived at Exeter, the vanguard of Alfred's fast-moving force caught up. As soon as Alfred came within sight of the old walls, he split the force into two.

"Ambrose, take the left wing and loop around Exeter. Try and stay out of sight of the town, but kill every Dane you can find! Kill the men of the foraging parties. Kill their scouts. I want Guthrum to be hungry and totally blind. Back away only if you are facing a large force. In that case, return here as fast as you can."

Ambrose grinned wolfishly. "And what will you be doing, brother?

"Polonius is going to help me build a fine marching fort. We will have secure walls for you by the time you return."

The second column followed their king to a site recommended by Odda's local thanes. Following Polonius' advice, Alfred quickly put the men to work setting up another fortified marching camp based on the ancient Roman model.

Alfred knew that Polonius was right. Once Guthrum realized how numerically inferior the Saxon forces were, he would be tempted to attack. At all costs, Alfred's fyrdmen needed a strong defensive position, a secure base from which to harass the Danes.

Guthrum had no idea how many Saxons had arrived. His immediate priority had to be to have his men complete the repairs on the dilapidated defences of the ancient city of Exeter.

Once the marching fort was completed, Alfred breathed a sigh of relief. Now he waited impatiently for his probing columns to return. Behind secure walls, he felt much less vulnerable.

***

The Weapons-master bowed to his king. "Sire, you sent for me?"

Alfred smiled at his old tutor. "Yes, old warrior. We have the problem of our ten 'guests'. They are brave men and I feel no personal enmity towards them, but their lives were offered as a guarantee of Guthrum's word. He has broken his word, and they must pay the price. Let it be painless but public. Hang them from the trees near our main gate. Then I want you to ride back and see what is keeping the infantry and supply column. I wanted them here and safe last night!

Phillip bowed low. "As you command, Sire."

***

Like industrious ants, the Saxons once again started construction of ditches, ramparts and palisades. Once again the local thanes and ealdormen called in every able-bodied man within several days' march. It would be days and even weeks before the masses of churls would be able to gather and march to join their ealdormen and thanes, but they would come; mounted thanes leading their own personal bands, and ealdormen with the armed might of whole shires at their back. Both Alfred and Guthrum knew that Alfred's position, presently tenuous, would get stronger with time.

***

A grizzled thane called out to his king. "Sire, the Danes come!" The war horns were calling the men to the ramparts even as the breathless warrior reached his king.

Alfred looked impatient. "What exactly is happening?"

"Sire! It looks like the entire force of Danes is coming right at us!"

"Then thank the Merciful Lord for the protection of this fort. Get your weapons, man! Let's kill some Danes!"

The Danes rode right through the screen of Saxon scouts. In spite of the best efforts of Alfred's patrols, Guthrum obviously knew exactly where Alfred's marching fort was, and he was not be put off by the irritating cloud of Saxon lancers and archers mounted on speedy horses. Instead, he led his men directly to the Saxon camp.

Over twelve hundred mounted and armoured Danes rode right to the edge of the dry ditch. Leaping off their mounts and running past the swinging corpses of their own noblemen, waves of warriors charged headlong into the ditch. Alfred ordered his archers to the palisades, backed by a double row of spearmen.

Just behind the second row of fyrdmen, Alfred turned to his chief advisors and noblemen. "Well, gentlemen, I think we got Guthrum's attention. We have even made him cranky. This time, we are the ones behind the defences, and we almost equal the devil's spawn in number. Let's give these Danes a bloody nose! . . . Polonius!"

"Yes, Sire."

"How far back is the supply column?"

"Not more than a day or so, Sire."

"Numbers?"

"Phillip's last report stated that he was leading some six hundred infantry and three hundred mounted, Sire, plus what they have been able to sweep up along the way. That might be another five hundred; lightly armed. The fyrds from Kent and Essex are on their way, but their arrival time is unknown."

"May God help the poor devils if Guthrum learns of the supply convoy's location and gets past us. If we can keep his attention here for a few hours, then Guthrum will have lost his biggest opportunity, and we will be strengthened immeasurably!"

The palisade had been built so that the archers could shoot through the spaces between the logs. Alfred's men emptied their quivers at the men leaping into the ditch and struggling through the maze of sharpened stakes. The defences were not designed to stop any attackers; just slow them down. The Danes made easy targets as they struggled across the ditch and then started to climb the steep embankment. All too soon, however, they reached the ramparts. Some tried to climb the logs, while others set to with their axes.

The archers pulled back and headed for the supply depot and more arrows. The first rank of Spearmen stepped forward and tried to stab through the spaces. Behind them, the re-supplied archers formed up again, and took aim at the rampart top.

Guthrum had thrown his entire force at one side of the marching fort, in the hope that a concerted push would break the defenders. Most of Alfred's men, however, were his drengs, young men with no property, whose only hope to hold land was to impress their king with their ferocity, leavened with his old battle-toughened duguos, warriors who held land on the understanding that they would ride against Wessex's many foes whenever called upon. The tough Saxon thanes had conquered as far north as Mercia and Northern Wales, and had, between then, fought some dozen battles with various Viking war bands. They had won more than they lost. They feared the Danes, but they would fight until they could not stand. None among them were cowards.

The ditch filled with dead and wounded Danes, and more died as they struggled to get over or through the palisade wall. Those that reached the top were perfect targets for the archers.

Guthrum grudgingly accepted that he was wasting the lives of his men. With the sturdy walls protecting them, the Wessex fyrdmen were not about to break. His men were more than a match for poorly armed Saxon churls, but these veteran fyrdmen were the equal of his best Viking warriors, and the Saxons were using their defences very intelligently.

Furious at the losses, the Viking king grudgingly ordered the retreat. The throbbing notes of the war horn brought his men stumbling back. Many of them, however, lay where they had fallen. Cursing Loki, Guthrum retreated to his strong fortification of Exeter.

The next day found the main body of Alfred's infantry arriving, along with some more late-arriving mounted fyrdmen from the far-flung provinces. Straggling columns marched or rode in all day long. As each arrived, the men were quickly set to work unloading the ox carts and expanding Alfred's marching-fort.

Polonius and Ambrose stood beside Alfred, and Ambrose spoke.

"I am relieved, brother, that Phillip's screen of scouts kept Guthrum from catching the infantry in the open. Our Saxons are brave, but many are just raw levies. They would never have been able to stand against the Vikings."

Alfred turned to his brother. "Let us thank the Good Lord, Ambrose! God blinded Guthrum from the obvious. Guthrum threw his men at the wrong force, and do you know what?"

"What, brother?"

"It is going to cost him the war."

"So, Alfred, what do we do now?"

"Now I systematically crush Guthrum! Polonius, I want you to take charge again of designing and building inter-connecting defensive positions and ditches.

"Of course, Sire."

"Good. First of all, I want you to build a series of defensive fortifications, until they stretch all the way around Exeter. Put the new arrivals to work on that.

After that, we start systematically digging ditches and building ramparts from fort to fort, until they finally interconnect. Build the ditches first."

"Polonius spoke. Forts or ditches, Sire? Which do you want first?"

"I want it to be impossible for horsemen to ride out of Exeter. If Guthrum decides to break out again, I want him to have to walk."

"Sire, if we start with the ditches first, and he manages to get out, we will have no prepared defensive positions and he will go through our churls like a hot seax through butter."

   "Of course, you are right. Polonius, I will leave the details to you. I have no wish to have any of our men massacred because of my impatience. Build some basic fortifications at the same time as the ditches. Once the ditches are complete, we can finish strengthening the forts.  Then we build some serious ramparts along the ditches. I want them so high that a flea can't fly out of there.

Oh, and Ambrose, once the construction is complete, I want roving patrols, night and day, so the Danes can't fill in a section of ditch without being heard or observed. Sentries found asleep on duty are to be flogged."

"Alfred, what about Ethelwold and his Dorsetmen?"

"I still do not know if Ethelwold is a fool or a traitor, but I don't intend to give the man an opportunity for treachery again. Keep the men of Dorset in reserve."

"And Ethelwold himself?"

"Send him on some important mission - how about - to raise more Dorsetmen?"

***

Alfred was looking eastward, toward the coast, when he noticed the plume of smoke climbing into the leaden sky. "Ambrose! What is that over there?!"

"It's the coastal signal fire, brother!' Suddenly a second fire, much closer, struggled into being. 'The signal is coming from the east. There is an enemy fleet somewhere along our coast."

The rain which had fallen hard all day, and then slowed just the hour before, picked up again. The cold wind blew from the sea, causing the men to shiver from cold and wet, though by the calendar it was still summer.

Alfred turned to his friends and advisors. "There is little sense in standing here in the rain any longer. Our presence here will not speed up the news. We will know little more until the relays of messengers manage to ride here with a report. I do not envy them. It is a foul day to be riding muddy trails."

Polonius, visibly shivering, smiled as they headed for shelter. "Let us hope, good King, that the Vikings on the water are faring as poorly!"

***

The first messenger arrived late the next day. Though exhausted and covered in mud, he reported directly to the king's command tent, where Alfred greeted him.

"Stand up, lad. What is the news?"

"Sire! A massive fleet of over a hundred ships has been spotted just off the coast, near the Isle of Wight. They were last reported heading west and hugging the coast."

Alfred looked at Ambrose and Polonius with a frown. "By all the saints! A hundred ship-crews would make Guthrum unbeatable!"

Ambrose responded. "Plus give him the ability to leapfrog our armies. We saw Lodbrok's sons do that, all too well, at Nottingham.

"I understand that the summer storms have been fierce."

"The storms have been bad, Sire, and they continue."

"Most captains would head for the safety of the shore when the storms start to blow."

"They did, Sire. We almost lost Twineham."

"Oh? What happened?"

"The Viking fleet was clearly looking for shelter, Sire. They sailed boldly right into the harbour."

"And you say that the villagers there were able to beat off the combined crews of a hundred ships?"

"Yes, Sire. Not exactly."

"Did they or didn't they?"

Ealdorman Halsig followed your instructions, Sire. He had placed a strong garrison at the port, but he later sent most of the men to Wareham when you sent out the call for more warriors."

"Then how in heaven's name did he hold the port?"

"When the fleet was sighted, he ordered all the women and men in the vill and the surrounding countryside into the fort. He had them don the surplus helmets and shields left behind by the rest of the garrison when it marched to Wareham."

"And that saved the port?"

"Yes, Sire. The sight of an apparently strong garrison of troops manning the defences sent the ships back out into the stormy waters."

"This is good news, indeed. What else do you know of the progress of the fleet?"

"Thane Halsig ordered the few garrison troops he did have to mount up and try and follow, along the coastal trails. As each coastal burh or vill was passed, the thanes rounded up all the available able-bodied men and ordered them to head for the coast.' The messenger spoke proudly. 'I was one of the men who followed, Sire!"

"So what happened?"

"The ships themselves seemed to be in serious trouble, for they had furled their sails and even unstepped their masts.

Only backbreaking work with the oars kept the Viking ships from being blown unto the rocky shore. We waited impatiently, with our swords drawn. Farmers with sickles and mattocks ran through the driving rain to join us.

Thane Halsig was worried what would happen if large numbers of Vikings reached shore safely. We could have done little if they all tried to land at once.

Just before absolute darkness descended, however, we watched the Vikings turning back. Thane Halsig was sure that they were trying to reach the shelter of the Isle of Wight."

"But you don't really know what happened after that?"

"No, Sire. I was sent to bring you news of the fleet."

***

The second messenger arrived two days later. The man was exhausted, but jubilant. The well-trained sentries wasted no time, but took him through the camp directly to Alfred's command tent. In the king's absence, Ambrose and Polonius, who happened to be working in the command tent, received the report.

The prince and the spy-master listened briefly to the man's story. Ambrose smiled at Polonius, then spoke to the messenger.

"What you have brought is truly wonderful news, man! Now, I want you to follow me, but you are not to say anything until I say so. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Prince Ambrose."

Ambrose led the man directly to Alfred's private tent, and, after the sentries snapped to attention, called out to his brother.

"May a prince disturb his brother? I have a report for you."

"Enter, Brother."

Alfred looked up from his table, and seemed surprised when he saw both Polonius and Ambrose. "There appear to be two of you! And just what have I done that merits a visit from both of you together?'

As he spoke, he saw the mud-encrusted messenger follow the two advisors into the room. 'And yet another. You have brought me a visitor.'

His eyes fell on the bulky burlap bag the messenger carried. 'It appears the visitor bears gifts. Could they be for me?"

Ambrose smiled. "Yes, brother-of mine. We felt sure that you would prefer this gift to even gold or choice jewels."

"Really? What could be so valuable? Ambergris? A piece of the holy cross? I concede defeat. What is in the bag?"

Polonius turned to the messenger. "Show the king his gift; kindly presented by Thane Halsig of Twineham."

The man seemed extremely nervous. "Aye, Master Polonius. 'Ere it is, Yer Majesty!"

The man reached into the bag and drew forth several pieces of weather-beaten oak planks.

Alfred held one, and looked into the eyes of the man who had handed to him. "It is no doubt fine oak, but I do not see great value in my hands."

Polonius smiled. He loved riddles. "Then, Sire, you are not looking closely enough."

"Polonius, once again your Byzantine convolutions of thought have lost a simple Saxon king. Perhaps you could help a befuddled king understand just why these pieces of wood are so valuable to me?"

"They are Danish planks, Your Majesty."

"Polonius, I suspect that you are trying to tell me something. Saxon or Danish, they seem rather short to be of much use, and they seemed to have been in the water for some time. Are these here not barnacles?"

Ambrose smiled. "Yes, my brother, and therein lies their value."

"You two had better give me a better hint than that, before I have the two of you stripped naked and treated to the exquisite joys of the Thousand Touches of a Feather!"

Ambrose broke into a grin. "They came from the sea."

"That is often where one finds barnacles. And this fact makes these somewhat short boards valuable to me?"

Polonius now grinned. "Oh yes, Sire. They used to be part of a much larger structure."

"A glimmer of light begins to reach the deep recesses of my poor brain. Did this larger structure once float on the sea?"

Ambrose took his turn. "Yes, brother-of-mine. Exactly right! And each board is from a different structure."

"Are you two trying to tell me that this is all that is left of the Viking fleet!?"

Ambrose laughed. "Brother, I told you that they are more priceless than gold or jewels."

"The pair of you are rascals!"

The messenger watched in awe as the king of all the West Saxons chased the thin dark man and the legendary prince around the room. Finally, the three collapsed together, laughing until they cried.

At last, Alfred was able to control his hysterical laughter. He slapped Polonius on the back, almost knocking the thin dark man over, and threw a last pretend punch at his more agile brother.

"You are right, my friends. This is a gift greater than gold or jewels. I feel the urge to share it. Messenger of Thane Halsig, what is your name?"

"Thawian, Yer Majesty."

"Well, Thawian, you have done well to bring these to me. And were there any Danes who did not drown?"

"Some ships escaped east, Sire. There were hundreds of dead bodies on the beaches and in the surf. We did find perhaps two dozen still alive, Majesty. Me master, Thane Halsig, felt sure that ye would want to question 'em, so 'e had 'em securely shackled and loaded onto an ox cart. They be following behind me. Some of the men were serious hurt, and a few may not make it 'ere alive."

"No matter. This is excellent news. Polonius, write my thanks to Halsig. Phillip, when they arrive, I want each of the Danes to be put to the question, until we know where they came from, and if there is more on their way. Once you have the information we need, choose the five healthiest, and chop their right hand off. Sear the stumps with fire and then turn the five loose. I want them to be allowed to report to Guthrum. Hang the rest, alongside the dead hostages."

Ambrose looked up at his brother. This was a much colder and more confidant man than he had seen before. "And what message do you want them to carry to Guthrum, Alfred?"

"I think the captives will know what to say when they get there."

***

On the third morning after the five maimed Danes had staggered into the Danish-held fort of Exeter, the main gates opened with a flourish of war horns. Jarl Ura, dressed in burnished but dented chain-mail, strode boldly forth, waving a white-covered shield. He was forced to scramble in and out of two separate ditches before he could get within hailing distance of the body of advisors and noblemen who surrounded King Alfred. Alfred strode to the edge of the last ditch from where Ura stood looking up.

"Hail, king-of-the-West-Saxons! I bring you greetings from my master, King of Denmark and East Anglia."

Alfred stared down at the burly warrior. "But not Wessex, Jarl. I am still king here, and you are still trespassing."

"King, you dig deeper ditches, and more!"

"Viking, you ride over the little ones."

"We may again, King-of-the-West-Saxons."

"But, Ura. There is a 'but' again."

"Yes, King. We grow hungry, and we both know that our fleet is not coming."

"We know both those things."

"Yet my king is the greatest warrior in all Denmark. We cannot ride away. You have made sure of that. But we can come out and fight. And we will kill three or four of your warriors for every one of us who dies. Who knows, your peasants may yet run, if we meet in a real battle."

"It is a risk that I have considered, Ura. I have gathered enough men that if you were to kill ten of my men for every one of yours that falls, yet we must still win."

"My master says that he is willing to retreat and never return to your country. We will kill no more, if we are allowed to march, unmolested, north to Mercia."

"Jarl Ura, we have had this conversation before. We were still discussing it when you slunk away in the night like a fox before a wolf. Your king had given us his word, yet he broke it within two days!"

"My king promised to make no hostile move for two days. He did not. He did not attack you. He rode away."

"With my gold, and through my men. Many were killed, Ura."

"King, we did not make a hostile move until your men stood in our way! Our purpose was not to attack Saxons; just to ride free."

"We waste time in arguing, Ura. How can I believe a man with no honour?"

"Guthrum has much honour, King. He gave you the hostages, but he had not yet sworn an oath to you. He told me to say to you that if we come to an agreement, you can choose as many hostages as you want, including anyone in his camp. As well, he has promised to swear an oath on his sacred armband."

"We had ten hostages before, Ura. We had to waste a great deal of hemp rope on them."

"It was hard to see our friends hanging from trees, King."

"What is the value of giving hostages if you don't care what we do to them?"

"We care greatly, King-of-the-West-Saxons, but it was your right to hang them."

Alfred stared down at the proud Jarl who stood before him. "Go back to your king, Ura. You will have your answer tomorrow."

***

Alfred paced the confines of his command tent. Benches along the outer wall were lined with the chief noblemen and advisors from all the constituent provinces that made up his empire. Sprinkled amongst them were some senior clergy and several scholars. Alfred was a man with many different interests.

"Ambrose, what is the meaning of this oath he proposes?"

"Brother, it is one of the most sacred oaths a Viking can make. To break it is to have no honour before your fellow warriors."

Alfred raised his voice so all could hear. "Well, members of the Witan. Guthrum has again offered us peace. What are we to do?"

Phillip spoke up. "Sire, I am a simple man. We can have true peace when we stand over the bodies of these pagans. I have lived amongst the Vikings, and I say that Guthrum will only respect strength. Let us pay him with steel, not gold! Only thus can we teach these Danes to stay out of Wessex."

Alfred looked with fondness at the blond giant who had faithfully protected his brother all the way from Denmark to Novgorod, Kiev, and Byzantium. There were few men in the world Alfred respected more than this taciturn man. The weapons-master was a man of action, however, and he rarely looked beyond the immediate.

"Thank you, Phillip. I concur that a dead Guthrum may be the only one we can trust to keep his word. Unfortunately, if the man makes an all-out attack on us, we will take serious casualties. Ura is not bluffing. Man for man, his army is amongst the best in the world.

We have some of my Personal Guard who are their match, but many of our thanes and churls are not veterans, and they might well break. I must balance the satisfaction of Guthrum's death against the possible loss of a thousand or more of my fyrdmen. The harvest season is here, and our people want to go home."

"The men will not abandon you, King!"

"The landed thanes and will stay to the bitter end, my friend. The duguos are my chosen men, and any who do not will forfeit their property! And I know I can count on the drengs to hold at all cost. They must prove themselves if they ever want to hold land in my name. Most of the conscripted churls, however, will soon fade away. Some are from far away, and their time is up. We can't just keep replacing them indefinitely, and it is no pleasure to hang men who just want to go home.

 I am sure Guthrum's terms have not changed. If we let Guthrum go, he will ask for Danegeld and a food supply."

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke next. "Your Majesty, he has pillaged and enslaved, and desecrated Holy Mother Church. Will we reward him for this with gold and food?"

Alfred looked sad. "I understand, Archbishop, and I will think about what you have said. Ambrose, what do you say?"

"Brother, I did not believe him for a moment the last time. I thought he might go north . . . if we kept the army just behind him. This time? He didn't offer a binding Viking oath before. It is a powerful oath to a Dane. Having lived among them for some years, I respect them greatly, and, in their own way, they have a very strong sense of honour.

The death of all invaders is the clearest message we can give the Danes. Yet I do not want to be responsible for the making of hundreds of widows. I would be tempted to sign a treaty, take the most important hostages we can, and dog him all the way to the border with the army, as long as we can cripple them a little first."

Alfred turned to Polonius. "Well, my Byzantine scholar, what do you say?"

"I am reminded of the saying of a student of the great Sun Tzu, who lived almost a thousand years ago, in far off China."

"And what did the student of the master say, Polonius?"

"The student, Cao Cao, said, 'When a people are desperate, they will fight to the death.'

Make no mistake, Sire. The Danes will attack before they starve to death. We are making them desperate.

Unlike the Saxons and the Danes, Sire, my people do not glorify war, though we are very good at it. Byzantium regularly faces invasion armies of fanatics that are more numerous than all the warriors of your entire island. We do not see war as glory. Rather, we see it as a necessary part of diplomacy, after the words and bribery have failed.

If we could kill Guthrum and his Danes at little cost to the people of Wessex, then I would recommend that without hesitation. A dead enemy cannot betray a promise, and the message to others is unmistakable. We are really, then, talking of the cost to destroy Guthrum . . . and the risk. You can have an easy victory for the price of a bag of gold and some cattle, or an expensive one where there is a chance your army will be crippled or even defeated."

King Alfred looked around the room, and listened one by one to his advisors and noblemen. In the end he sent them all to bed. "Good night, members of my Council, I think I will sleep on this. Please report here just after dawn. And gentlemen, I want fully half of our force to be on duty tonight. Commanders, see to it."


 

CHAPTER 5

A Truce is Signed.

Jarl Ura stood again in the deep ditch, looking up at the Saxon king. "My master awaits your word, King-of-the-West-Saxons,"

Alfred stood tall in his magnificent shining armour. The warm sun reflected off the metal, and fleecy clouds scudded across the blue sky which colour so closely matched his eyes.

"Then hear me, Jarl Ura. Under our laws, you all deserve death for what you have done to this peaceful land. Yet my heavenly Lord teaches me that we must try and forgive.

Ura of Denmark, hear my words. Within two days you and all your people will ride directly to Mercia. Tomorrow, your king must come here and swear by his sacred armbands and all else that is holy to him, never to step foot in this land again.

 I expect that he will bring with him twenty of his most senior officers and Jarls. They will live with me as honoured guests for one year, after which they will be free to return home. And I will not give Guthrum one more ounce of gold for Danegeld. Yet in honour of our agreement, I will present your king with some suitable gifts. In return, I expect Guthrum to present to me every Saxon and Jute, Celt and Angle, in your camp.

My Christian brethren will not go north to servitude while I draw breath. And I want those horses. We will never have a deal unless you turn over to us at least one quarter of your horses."

"King, it may surprise you to know that some of our finest warriors are Saxons and Angles from north of your borders. I can tell you now that Guthrum will not turn these men over to you."

"If they ride voluntarily with your host, then they are lost in the eyes of Almighty God, and I will consider them to be Danish. But I am firm on this. The others must be freed. Further, the men of Guthrum will not pillage on the way north. In turn, my reeves will supply you with cattle and pigs, so that no one starves. My army will march north behind you, and if there is any betrayal of our truce, then we will kill you to a man. Is all that understood?"

"I understand, and will take this to my royal master. I will have an answer for you by midday."

***

It took the Danes several hours to fill in the deep ditches that had so effectively kept the Danish host from riding out. Long columns of Danes, as well as the Anglish captives, carried armloads of dirt and stones and threw them into the trenches. Alfred's force pulled back, and started further construction of its own.

At last the Danes completed the work. A wide portion of the ditches were filled in, and the ramparts painstakingly removed. In turn, Alfred's men had constructed, on their side, parallel ramparts steep enough to be impassable to horses, and then studded them with sharpened stakes. The twin ramparts stretched for hundreds of Roman feet. Any mounted column who wished to leave Exeter would be forced to ride the length of the ramparts. Lines of archers and spearmen stationed on the ramparts above would be able to easily launch a devastating hail of missiles on any force riding below.

Alfred waited. His main force of unmounted retainers, churls and peasants manned the new ramparts, while his mounted fyrdmen formed up and prepared for any surprises. As promised the day before, the main gates were thrown open and hundreds of horses galloped forth. They were funnelled down the road and between the newly constructed ramparts. Skilled horse-herders waited for them in the open area beyond.

The gates opened a second time, and a mob of running figures erupted through them. Alfred's men watched carefully from the ramparts, bows or spears in hand. All of the running people were captives, which, as promised, Guthrum had released. They too, were forced to run the gauntlet, and eagle-eyed commanders checked the runners as they ran past to insure they were not Danes in disguise.

Polonius had warned Alfred that this would be a very dangerous time. Alfred thus had several dozen thanes ready to quickly herd the former captives directly into one of the lesser fortifications. There they were free to hug their countrymen and cry. Behind this screen of milling people, Alfred moved his best thanes into a shield-wall formation, backed by more lines of spearmen and archers.

Once the horses and captives were taken care of, Alfred signalled the men standing by with war horns. At the series of short staccato blasts, the Angles and Saxons formed up into marching formation and started a withdrawal, as Alfred had previously agreed.

Alfred had ordered his force to retreat to a low knoll nearby. His men rode and marched into cunningly designed defensive positions Polonius had laid out and had constructed earlier.

Guthrum waited until the Saxon force was well clear, and then led his long column forth. Once free of the restrictions of the Saxon earthworks, they rode in a thick column, obviously ready for battle.

Alfred, watching them ride out, wondered what would have happened if his men had jumped down from the ramparts to greet the running former captives. Loose, the full force of thirteen hundred Danes, with almost a thousand mounted, fanatical and ready for battle, could have been an unmitigated disaster. He had ordered that the twenty Danish hostages be taken far to the rear, and temporarily shackled, but he was sure that Guthrum would have again sacrificed any number of hostages if it had meant the final defeat of the Wessex thorn.

The Danes headed north peacefully enough. Ambrose was pleased to see that many Vikings were forced to walk, and the horses they still had were weak from hunger. The famine had been severe enough that they had resorted to eating some of their mounts.

Alfred was relieved. It meant that Guthrum's Danes were not the mobile force they had been, just short weeks before. That, in turn, meant that his infantry could keep up. He had feared that Guthrum would have been able to outdistance the Wessex host. His mounted force, thanks to the arrival of more shire fyrds, was almost double that of Guthrum, but fully half of his force was churl infantry. Guthrum's army, however, even freed of the captives, was no longer in shape for another sudden escape.

***

Battle-hardened fyrdmen from Kent, from Cornwall, from Essex and Surrey, and from Wessex itself, rode proudly past their king and his assembled ealdormen. These men were the mainstay of the Wessex army. In return for the land granted them by their king or ealdorman, they provided military service when called upon. Each provided their own horse and equipment.

These heavily armoured men were, in turn, supported by large numbers of churls. Some of these also rode horses, but many marched. Those of them brave enough, or lucky enough, to please their master, could hope to be provided enough land so that they would become thanes themselves.

Lastly, the large, shapeless mass of locally conscripted peasants and retainers marched by on foot. Few were in armour. All carried spears. Only some carried axes or swords, but their numbers provided necessary labour and support, and many had fought bravely.

To the north, Guthrum fled ignominiously north across the border into Mercia. His army had been undefeated by the Wessex fyrds, but he had twice backed down from open battle.

Alfred turned his head towards his bastard brother. "Watch the Cornish contingent go by, brother-of-mine!"

"What do you want me to look for?"

"Oh, just describe the quality and quantity of what you see."

Just then, Alfred acknowledged the salute of the warriors from his most western province.

"Well, Alfred, I see a lot of men who, if they are fyrdmen, must have lost their horses somewhere."

"And I specifically commanded that only sworn fyrdmen be sent."

"I do see a small force of mounted fyrdmen, brother."

"Aye. I had Polonius check. Each of them are rivals or enemies of Ealdorman Anwell. That good man called up and sent only men who he hoped would die in battle. Their commander-in-chief is a thane called Aardwolf the Simple."

"Brother, I think that you are trying to tell me something."

"Aye. I guess I am. We have driven the foe from our land without as much as a battle. Yet as long as I have allies like Ealdorman Anwell, and nephew Ethelwold, I wonder how safe our empire really is."

"Brother, Anwell did not defy you. He sent the forces you told him to."

"Just barely, Ambrose. Just barely. What would happen if we really needed his support?"

Ambrose readjusted his harness and then replied. "Cornwall has long been our most rebellious province. I well remember Phillip telling us that, in King Egbert's time, the Cornishmen allied themselves with the Vikings in a major effort to break free of us. I hardly think, however, that there is a danger of them rising now. You have just driven a Danish army from our midst, and you have just had one of the most powerful armies under arms that you have ever had."

Alfred shifted his weight and tried to relax. "No, I don't think Anwell would dare anything now. His attitude tells me that he bears some watching, however."

"And Ethelwold?"

An expression of anger crossed Alfred's handsome face. "Ethelwold is either a fool or a traitor. He is of our blood, but I do not trust the man. The only way the Danes could have broken through his lines at Wareham was if Ethelwold intentionally withdrew the sentries assigned to guard that stretch of the ditch! We watched the Danes fill in the ditch at Exeter. How long did it take them?"

Ambrose pondered for a moment. "By using over two thousand soldiers and captives, they did it in about an hour."

Alfred pounced. "And the Danes did the same thing at Wareham, in the dark, and Ethelwold's men heard nothing? It is hard to believe, brother."

"Polonius checked with both Bishop Asser and several of Ethelwold's officers, as you asked him to do. What Ethelwold told us about his visit was true."

"Ambrose, Bishop Asser, a man we both love and respect, provides the perfect alibi. So Delwyn did call off the sentries. Maybe he even had a narrow strip filled in. Guthrum's men rode over a wide causeway! And who told Delwyn to do either?"

Ambrose replied. "He died conveniently quickly, brother."

Alfred looked grim. "Ethelwold bears some close watching, brother."


 

BOOK TWO:

KING

GUTHRUM

RETURNS


 

CHAPTER 6

"AD 878: This year about mid-winter, after twelfth-night, the Danish army stole out to Chippenham, and rode over the land of the West-Saxons; where they settled, and drove many of the people over sea; and of the rest the greatest part they rode down, and subdued to their will; all but Alfred the King."

Alfred turned from his wife to stare at the gasping messenger. "You say there is a full army of riders galloping at this moment towards Chippenham! God's oath, man! Were you able to identify who the enemy is?"

"Aye, Yer Majesty. Guthrum's banners flew at the head of the column. Me brother recognized it. 'E served with you at Exeter last summer."

Ealhswith, Alfred's wife, gasped and threw her arms around her husband. "My husband, what does it mean?"

Their children were young, but they sensed the fear in their mother's voice. Edward, the eldest boy, broke into tears as he squeezed his mother's leg tight. His younger sister wailed and had to be picked up.

"God in Heaven! Am I never to be done with this man!?' Alfred sighed. 'It means that we are in serious trouble! We have a great deal of planning to do, and no time to do it in. My love, go to our bower. Pack yours and my clothes, and throw in some warm clothes for the children. Hurry now!"

"Where am I to go?"

"Head for the main jetty, and take the first boat across that you can. Once you get to the other side, wait for Polonius. He will put together a small escort and take the Court's women and children directly to Winchester. Push the horses until they drop, if need be!"

Ealhswith was a stubborn woman, married to a warrior king, but she knew that this was not the time to argue. She just looked at her husband for a moment. She then hugged him tightly, and shepherded the youngsters away to their private quarters.

Gretchen came and stood by her husband. Ambrose gently put his hand on her slightly enlarged belly. They embraced, and Ambrose whispered in her ear for her to prepare to follow the queen. "Ealhswith and her children will have a hard time of it in the dark and the cold. There will be too few men to escort you, at least until you get well away and can stop at one of the royal estates to gather some warriors. Please, my love, take Kuralla, Matilda and the rest of Phillip's brood, and help them get away . . . and make sure you take good care of yourself and our new baby!"

Gretchen, too, was the intelligent wife of a warrior. She did not bother to argue, but instead headed over to collect Kuralla and Matilda. The three women rapidly followed in Ealhswith's wake. Today men would die to buy time for the womens' and childrens' escape. Gretchen had no intention of wasting that preciously bought time.

Thane Pyt snapped to attention in front of his king. "Sire, what do you want me to do with the hostages?"

"Have them all escorted here immediately, under heavy guard. Send for the blacksmith and put them in chains. Then take them to the ramparts. If it is confirmed that Guthrum is the enemy, then I want you to hang them from the guard tower. I want Guthrum to know that Alfred keeps his word!"

The twenty captives stared at the king of Wessex. Only a few months previously their lives had been given as a pledge by King Guthrum, Commander-in-chief of the Danish host who had shattered East Anglia and then set up a base in Mercia. Guthrum had promised to withdraw from Exeter, and all Wessex, after Alfred had doggedly followed him with his Saxon fyrdmen, and laid siege to the Viking base at Exeter.

Guthrum had retreated northwards, as he had promised. But it now appeared that soon after Alfred sent his army home for the winter, Guthrum dared to ride deep again into Wessex. His mounted army was even now reported to be sweeping down on to the royal burh of Chippenham. Except for the chance sighting by several Saxon hunters, Guthrum might have totally surprised Alfred and his court, and soon have been comfortably ensconced in the Great Hall of Chippenham, with Alfred and his family in chains before him.

The hunters, alarmed by the size of the force they saw riding southwards, took off-road short cuts, drove their horses mercilessly, and managed to reach the king's winter burh before the northern invaders. At their shouted warnings as they galloped in, horses had been hitched to the massive beams that spanned the dry ditch, and the beams themselves were pulled into the settlement. They would serve to strengthen the main gate. The gate itself was quickly closed and barred, and the alarm horn blared. The thanes of Alfred's Personal Guard, well-trained, were no strangers to violence.

  With the Avon river on three sides, and the fourth side protected by both a ditch and a palisade, the royal estate of Chippenham was eminently defensible, but only if Alfred had adequate troops. His army, one Guthrum had retreated from twice before, had been disbanded for the winter season! The only force Alfred had was the members of his court and the remnants of his Personal Guard. That added up to perhaps two hundred young thanes who were still landless, and thus stayed with their king for the winter. There were a few old veterans who had chosen to spend the Christmas season with Alfred, but pitifully few.

The problem of the hostages taken care of, Alfred became a whirlwind. He sent men running in all directions.

"Thane Byram! Collect all the boats tied up along the shore and have them moved to the main jetty, as far away out of sight of the Vikings as possible. The less the Vikings see the better. Man the ferries and get as many of the horses across as possible. Without them, there will be no escape for anyone.

Calldwr! Take some men and two of the boats. Send one upriver and one down. Destroy any other boats you can't bring here, especially on this side of the river.

Polonius! Our women are packing. Gather as many women and children as you can, and get them across the Avon as soon as possible! You are to escort the court's women and children directly to Winchester. Take only a small detail with you. We will need the rest of the men here, and you can pick up escort warriors at the next royal estate. Use some of the young lads as messengers. Send messages to all the nearer communities on the other side. I want all the horses they can spare, and I want them now.

Ambrose! Get the treasury out of here and unto that ferry. The devils will be here soon enough. I don't want that bastard Guthrum getting his greedy hands on any more of our gold and silver.

Well! What are the rest of you waiting for?! If you have nothing to do, get your weapons and man the palisade. It is the only thing between the enemy and your loved ones! And spread the word. Any slave who fights today at my side will be a free man by sunrise tomorrow. Issue weapons to any who want them."

Answering the strident summons of the horns, Alfred's Personal Guard raced to the ramparts. There, reinforced by the inhabitants of the little town, who had no illusions about would happen if the Vikings broke through the defences, the Saxons prepared to battle the invaders.

***

Guthrum's banners flapped in the breeze as the hard-riding force neared. Soon the Danish king's emblem could be clearly seen. The twenty hostages, lined up on the ramparts, recognized the symbols on the flapping pennants, and knew they must pay the price of their king's treachery. They shuffled along stoically, their newly acquired chains clanking forlornly.

The large column of Viking horsemen quickly transformed into long lines of Viking infantry. Without pausing, they charged the ditch and fortified walls that was all that kept them from the Saxon king and victory.

Thane Pyt and his squad marched the luckless Viking hostages along the ramparts until they reached the guard tower by the main gate. They tied a rope around each hostage's neck, and one by one, they pushed the men over the edge, leaving them to flap obscenely and slowly strangle in front of their attacking brethren.

Any movement on the guard tower was met with torrents of arrows from the massed Vikings. Howls of outrage went up each time the Vikings realized that they had shot one more of their own. Soon all twenty hostages hung limply from the battlements of the main guard tower.

The Saxons manning the ramparts fought bravely. They emptied their quivers at the flood of Danes clambering down into the ditch and then struggling up to the base of the palisade. Spears greeted any Vikings foolish enough to make it to the top of the palisade, but while the ditch filled with dead and dying, yet the Danes just kept coming. Two replaced every one who fell, and the big Northmen systematically chopped or pulled at individual logs until the palisade became porous. The irresistible tide of Danes flowed over and then through, and the Saxon shield-wall began the fighting retreat that could only end in death or the river.

Behind the slowly retreating wall of men, however, the town emptied of women and children. Boat-load by boat-load, the refugees were hurriedly ferried across the river.

At last the Saxons only held the small area that blocked entry to the burh's main jetty. As their defensive lines shrank in length, they thickened, but the bought time was expensive. Hundreds of Saxons, many ill-armed retainers or townspeople, had already fallen to the horde of Viking attackers.

Phillip, Ambrose and Alfred were retreating slowly, easily fending off the Vikings foolish enough to try and challenge them personally. Ambrose finally turned to Alfred.

"Brother, it is time for you to take a boat. Polonius is holding it ready for you!"

"I cannot leave my people here to die like dogs. I am their king!"

"That is the reason why you must, Alfred! Only you can lead us to victory over these treacherous bastards. You must live to raise the army that will expunge this evil from our lands! Get out of here now! Good as you are as a swordsman, we need you more as a king!' He smiled grimly. 'And, most important, I told Polonius not to leave for Winchester until he saw you safe on the other side of the river."

"Ambrose, you are a devil! I'm just glad that you are on my side."

"Get out of here, brother!"

Alfred sighed. "May God be with us all this day! I will go, but I want you to follow. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Alfred! I will keep evacuating men as long as you send boats back and we are not overrun. But I will come."

At last there were only a few dozen Saxons left alive and unevacuated. The jetty was narrow, and thus the Vikings could not use their overwhelming numbers effectively. Their sheer weight, however, pushed the Saxons inexorably to the end of the pier. Ambrose had held the men who could swim to the last. The boats would not return again, but they would hover just out of reach of the Viking archers on the shore.

Ambrose did not even look at his giant companion at his side. "Phillip, my friend! I fear it is almost time for our bath! Are you ready?"

Even as he spoke, three heavily armoured Vikings pressed forward. One swung a huge battle axe that was even heavier than the weapons-master's own mighty blade. The man was adorned with much gold, and was clearly a wealthy jarl. The giant Viking grinned. As his two companions protected him on either side, he started a mighty overhead swing that would be capable of penetrating the strongest armour, and a shield as well, if it was thrust in the way. He did not know Phillip, however.

The weapons-master's huge claymore, as long as Ambrose was tall, swung up in a counterstrike that cut deep into the axe handle. Both men's arms were numbed by the jarring collision. The brief pause allowed Ambrose to thrust his blade straight out. Suddenly the Viking on the left found a hole in his chest cut right through his chain-mail.

The construction of Ambrose's blade had been a mystery even to the experts in Byzantium, but the expert craftsmen Ambrose and Polonius had spoken to had guessed that it had probably been made in the Far East or by some unknown Arab metalworker. Its exact alloy composition could not be deduced, but it could be sharpened to an edge that allowed Ambrose to shave with it.

The Viking stared at Ambrose in silent wonder, and then toppled. Phillip's great blade was pulled back for another swing, but the wall of Vikings pressed forward again. There was no space for the claymore to be used effectively. A quick look behind him made Ambrose realize that they had little more room to back up.

"Are you ready for that bath, old friend?"

"On your command, Prince."

The weapons-master was a taciturn man, but he had helped raise Ambrose, and both his loyalty and his strength were prodigious. Ambrose knew that he would not go until he saw his charge hit the water.

The prince sighed and clipped a line to the handle of Victory-Maker. He had no intention of losing his precious sword if he could help it. It had been given to him by a gruff Dane when he had been the man's slave, and he had used it to protect himself from Sweden to Byzantium, and back again.

Realizing that one more push would force them all to topple backwards into the water, where none of them would have the chance to leap out of range of the battle-roused Danes, he knew they were out of time. The few remaining thanes were waiting for his signal. He pulled off his helmet and threw it at the head of the nearest Dane.

"Then let's go! Saxons, now!"

The remaining wall of battered warriors emulated their prince and hurled their weapons and armour at the nearest Vikings. Having cast off as much armour as they could, they turned and leapt into the chill river waters.

Alfred's Saxons had been lucky. Although a little ice had formed along the river's edges, the river itself was clear. Any Vikings who wished to cross would have to swim. Alfred's foresight had removed any boats for some distance both up and down river. That was the only hope for the refugees on the far bank.

The warriors who leapt in the water, however, were not yet completely out of reach of the furious Danes. The Vikings were angry that their hostages had been slaughtered in front of their eyes, and their blood-lust was up from the savage fighting. An avalanche of arrow and spears followed the Saxons into the water, the numbers limited only by the number of Vikings who could crowd onto the end of the jetty.

Phillip and Ambrose swam deep for the waiting boats. They had not had time to shed all of their armour, and thus felt very weighted down. It was a close contest between the heavy weight, the various projectiles and the intense cold, as to which would kill them first. In the end, less than half of the men who had stood on the jetty managed to make it to the waiting boats.


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