ALFRED THE GREAT;

YOUNG EDWARD.

(#9 in the Ambrose series)

By Bruce Corbett


Copyright © 2012, by Bruce Corbett.

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This book is dedicated to

Jack and Miah, with love,

by a doting Granddad.

 


FOREWORD

This is the ninth book in the Ambrose historical adventure series and the third dealing specifically with King Alfred. In this novel, an alliance of Viking leaders threatens the very existence of Wessex as the Danes invade in unheard of numbers.

The more I read about Alfred the Great, the more impressed I am with his foresight. His innovations in Wessex prevented the Danes from conquering the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain. In his lifetime, he went from hiding in a swamp to being hailed as Bretwalda - over-king - of most of England. His military reforms meant that never again were the Danes able to land and ravage more-or-less at will. His son, introduced here, inherited a kingdom with burhs, military strong points within a day's walk for most of the inhabitants, with both a summer and winter army, and with permanent garrisons assigned to defend the women, children, and food supplies, leaving the rest of the king's sworn men, the fyrdmen, free to march where needed. His fleets sailed the coastal waters, and river forts stopped the Vikings from sailing up many of the rivers that had once been highways for their sleek ships.

The titles of this and the two previous books have changed, since the main focus in these three novels is on Alfred the Great, though Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip will continue to play a major part in the war against the pagan Danes.

***

Some years before this story begins, in 876 A.D., King Guthrum of the Danes invaded the Anglo-Saxon country of Wessex. Trapped at the town of Wareham by Alfred the Great and his West Saxon army, the Viking agreed to a truce, but, instead, slipped out and retreated to Exeter. After a Viking fleet was destroyed in a storm, Guthrum was forced to sue for peace and retreated to East Anglia, a country that he and his ravaging Vikings had already conquered.

Just before Christmas 877, Alfred, whose army was disbanded for the winter, was caught by surprise by a second invasion of Guthrum's army. The Saxon king was forced into hiding in the forest of Selwood. Eventually he found his way to Athelney, an island surrounded by marshes. From there, he organized a secret gathering of his fighting men. Meantime, to the west, one of his ealdormen, Odda, destroyed a second Viking army newly arrived from Wales and led by Ubbi Ragnarsson.

A single major defeat could mean the end of Saxon Wessex. All of the Angle, Saxon and Jute kingdoms north of the Thames were reeling or had already fallen under the Viking onslaught. Alfred's army managed to gather in May, however, and they confronted the Vikings at Edington. Alfred was victorious and the Vikings fled to Chippenham. After a two week siege there, Guthrum agreed to be baptized and signed a peace treaty with Alfred. Wessex was saved. This story is told in Alfred the Great; Viking Invasion.

In 885, Wessex was threatened by a new enemy. Another Viking army, fresh from France, landed in Kent and besieged the town of Rochester. This is where Alfred the Great; King's Revenge, begins. Guthrum and his powerful army were bound by treaty to stay out of the fight, but his men were ever hungry for more land and adventure. The territory north of the Thames River belonged to Guthrum. If the Viking king joined his forces with the Danes from France, Wessex may have been finally overwhelmed. Alfred arrived with his army before the city fell, and the combined Saxon forces routed the Vikings, who fled precipitously, even leaving behind their entire horse herd.

In this story, Alfred the Great; Young Edward, a Viking alliance brings an unprecedented number of Viking warriors into Wessex. Again and again, Haesten, a pirate leader, invades Wessex. Again and again, he pillages, is eventually cornered and besieged, and then manages to break free and retreat to safe territory.

I found this portion of Alfred's story very difficult to write. All of my stories, though fiction, are as close to historically accurate as I can make them. I actually enjoy doing the research as much as the creative writing.

I faithfully read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and the story was both very sketchy and far from clear. I turned to three different expert interpretations of the Chronicles, only to find each had interpreted the same data quite differently! At last, I took the novelist's way out. Since there are serious differences in my sources, I just picked the parts I liked best, and where the Chronicles were silent, I invented plausible facts to make the story flow. Nevertheless, I stuck as closely to the story as told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as I could. (See Appendix II) Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip, while old and dear friends of mine after eight stories together, are pure figments of my imagination.

Words in italics generally have special meaning and the details may be found in Appendix I. I hope you enjoy the story half as much as I did writing it.

The author,

Bruce Corbett


INDEX

 

Foreword

Index

Cast of Characters

CHAPTER 1   The Courier.

CHAPTER 2   "Upon this King Alfred gathered his armies"

CHAPTER 3   "The Northumbrians...oaths..."

CHAPTER 4   "Then went they forth..."

CHAPTER 5   Baptism

CHAPTER 6   Plans for Appledore.

CHAPTER 7   "The main army had come thither..."

CHAPTER 8   A Ship from the North.

CHAPTER 9   "Then collected together those that dwell..."

CHAPTER 10 "But the army rode before them..."

CHAPTER 11 A Battle, and the Vikings Flee.

CHAPTER 12 "And they (defeated Vikings) flew over Thames..."

CHAPTER 13 "Then the king's forces beset them..."

CHAPTER 14 Edward Finds out Haesten Is Raiding in Mercia Again.

CHAPTER 15 "Haesten had formerly constructed that work at Barnfleet..."

CHAPTER 16  Benfleet Falls.

CHAPTER 17 Viking Women of Benfleet.

CHAPTER 18 Ambrose rides toward Exeter.

CHAPTER 19 Ambrose Reaches Exeter.

CHAPTER 20 "Whilst he (Alfred) was thus busied there with the army ..."

CHAPTER 21 "And Haesten's wife and her two sons they brought to the king..."

CHAPTER 22 "Whilst he (Alfred) was thus busied there with the army..."

CHAPTER 23 "As soon as they came into Essex to their fortress ..."

CHAPTER 24 "Soon after that, in this year..."

CHAPTER 25 "When they (Vikings) went again out of North-Wales ..."    

CHAPTER 26 Winchester.

CHAPTER 27 "Then, in the same year, before winter, the Danes..."

CHAPTER 28 The Saxon Harvest their Crops.

CHAPTER 29 Ambrose Meets with Haesten.

 

Appendix I                  Glossary

Appendix II                Timeline

Appendix III               Map

Appendix IV               Kings of Wessex

Appendix V                About the Author

Appendix VI               Other books released by the author.


CHAPTER 1

The Courier.

The drivers' whips cracked and the massive oxen strained against their multiple yokes. One by one, the great wagons that made up the royal caravan crested the long rise. As the wagons appeared, dozens of armored Saxon riders escorted each wagon. The riders quickly spread out into a protective ring that spilled out over the chalk downs.

The royal court of Alfred, King of Wessex, Sussex, Kent and Cornwall, was again on the move. The two dozen wagons and the hundreds of young drengs, the warriors who made up the king's Personal Guard, were gradually joined by an equal number of servants, noblemen, churchmen, and a vast assortment of children.

The immense caravan paused to give the oxen, horses and children a chance to catch their breaths.

Toward the rear of the caravan rode four figures. One, Ambrose the bastard prince, was short and slim. The second, a rail-thin and dark haired former Byzantine named Polonius, had many nicknames. Askold, Rus conqueror of Kiev and vast stretches of land along the Dnieper River, had once called him the most dangerous man he had ever met. He was alternatively known as the Scholar, the Spy-master, and the Wizard. Most important, the emaciated looking foreigner was friend to Ambrose and royal advisor to Alfred the Great.

The third rider was so massive that he had been compared with a living oak tree. His name was Phillip, and he had been weapons-master to three generations of royal Wessex athelings.

The fourth rider was younger and handsome. His name was Edward, and he was the eldest son of King Alfred. Today he traveled with his father's caravan, but even at his young age he had already shown both exceptional maturity and intelligence. His father had recently given him responsibility for the entire expanse of land that made up the eastern portion of Wessex. As the four riders topped the rise, Phillip called out and pointed back the way they had come.

"Someone is hard on our trail - riding hard."

Polonius spotted the man in the distance. "It is a bit early for my next courier, but I was expecting one from Winchester somewhat later this evening."

Even as they watched, the rider appeared appreciably nearer. Ambrose shook his head. "Well, Scholar, that man is close to foundering his horse. He had better be carrying important news!"

"We shall see soon enough, Prince Ambrose. He will be here in a matter of minutes if he keeps up that brutal pace."

Ambrose stared back down the hill. "I am never happy when I see a courier killing his horse to bring us news. It is generally a hint that something is very wrong."

The royal courier let his mount slow from its headlong gallop to make the long climb up to the chalk downs, but he still urged it on at a merciless pace. The rider recognized each of the group waiting for him, but he rode directly to Polonius, long known as King Alfred's spy-master.

"Lord Polonius, I have an urgent message from Sigehelm, Ealdorman of Kent!"

Polonius dismounted and took the leather pouch from the rider's hands. He removed the single rolled sheet of parchment and broke the wax seal. After scanning the sheet quickly, he looked up.

"It is grave news, indeed. Prince Edward, would you please alert your father?"

"Polonius, he is finally sleeping after that last dose of elixir you gave him. He is not at all well."

"Prince, he needs to hear this now. Wessex is about to go to war. Wake him if you must."

"Very well! Before I disturb him, however, I will order the chamberlain to call a halt and to set up camp right here. Second, I will have the royal campaign tent erected immediately. You know that he will want to consult his precious maps.

The food supply caravan was supposed to reach us in another mile or two, so supplies should not be a problem. I guess there is no reason we cannot simply stay right here for the night. Phillip, would you please be so kind as to find all the available members of the Witan and alert them to a possible council meeting?"

Within minutes, the efficient servants had started to set up a comfortable camp. Alfred's campaign tent rose almost magically, and Edward escorted his father directly to it. The king appeared wan and held his stomach, but he looked alert when he caught the eyes of Ambrose, Edward and Polonius.

"It is rarely good news when a king is roused from his sickbed. What is the problem, my friends?"

Polonius held out the parchment toward the king. "Sire, I was expecting a dispatch from the continent, forwarded through Winchester, but this is direct and urgent, from Ealdorman Sigehelm of Kent."

Alfred took it in his hands, but didn't look down at it. "Spymaster, I have recently noticed that my arms are getting too short to allow me to see the letters clearly, and my stomach is not doing well. Just tell me what it says."

"Sire, you know that Eudes, Count of Paris, managed to defeat the Danes last year?"

"I remember, Scholar. Haesten and his Danes were soundly trounced. You told me all about it."

"And then Arnulf managed to inflict an even more crushing defeat on Haesten and his Vikings at the River Dyle."

"The story is etched forever in my mind. Scholar, just tell me what happened."

"Of course, Sire." Polonius took a deep breath and looked at the sheet again before speaking. "Two hundred and fifty Viking ships left Bastogne last week, and they subsequently landed in Kent."

Alfred groaned. "God's breath! I feel this is a bad dream. Edward! A chair for your father, before I fall down!

Was it only six years ago that I heard those same words?"

Ambrose spoke. "Then there were an initial fifteen ships at Rochester, but we defeated them, brother."

"Aye, that we did, though it cost us dearly in both treasure and lives, and fifteen is very different than two hundred and fifty!'

The king sank gratefully into the chair his son had brought him. 'Two hundred and fifty! Well, we have been preparing for a major attack for many years. We knew it would come one day, and truthfully, we have never been in a better position to defeat the pagan Danes than we are right now."

Polonius continued. "Ealdorman Sigehelm's scouts estimated the force at a little over five thousand warriors - with their own horses brought from Francia."

"That alone is serious cause for worry. Usually it takes them several weeks to steal enough horses to become mobile. This cuts into the time we have to react . . . Polonius, what else does our good ealdorman tell us?"

"Only that the Vikings beached at the mouth of the Lympne River."

Alfred idly pulled at his beard. "Well, that could be worse. It is boggy land thereabouts and I don't remember any strong point there that they can occupy. They will at least be tied down for a considerable time while they build a defensive position."

"Except they went up-river to the Forest of the Weald."

"Better. Then we can block the lower reaches and trap their fleet."

"Except Appledore, our soon-to-be completed fort for the region, was almost empty, and the Danes occupied it."

"By the cloak of St. Peter! So the pagan devils have both a strongly fortified strong point and are mobile . . . we have prepared for years for this eventuality, but Merciful God! Five thousand warriors? That is probably the largest invasion force in my lifetime . . . perhaps a little dose of your elixir would be in order, Polonius. Just a little to ease the pain. I can not afford to have my wits dulled right now."

King Alfred scanned the map that lay on the trestle table before him. "There are clearly pieces of a puzzle that I am missing. Ambrose, would you just land and attack a country with a strong fleet, dozens of fortified burhs, each with its own permanent garrison, and not one, but two fyrds - each numbering well over three thousand sworn warriors?"

"If I could raise a force of five thousand battle-hardened and eager warriors, brother - probably. You have a summer and winter army, but after the debacle at Chippenham, when you were left with few sworn men to fight with, I might conclude that you are unlikely to call up both together, and the garrisons, while they provide security for your subjects, eats up many thousand more fyrdmen. So, you would not, in actual fact, outnumber me on the battlefield."

"But my mounted and armored fyrdmen can be supplemented by five or even ten thousand other followers."

"The fyrdmen are the equal of the Viking warriors, brother, but the rest are churls and slaves, who might hold their own behind a city wall, but generally break before a determined Viking shield-wall. It is only your trained fyrdmen that I would fear, and that I outnumber. I would also be very aware that most of your sworn men have not faced serious action in six years.'

"And if I did call up both of my armies at the same time?"

"I would sit behind my walls until your fyrdmens' service time is up and they went home, leaving you with little more than your Personal Guard to face me."

"And if I ordered in the Saxon fleet?" 

"Against two hundred and fifty ships? It is true that some of your vessels are larger and higher than the Viking ships. On a one to one basis, the Saxon ships have shown themselves to be capable of holding their own, but we have dozens, brother, not hundreds, and you have already recruited most of the Frisian seamen that are available. Our fleet can play little part in this struggle - unless you want to lose it - as happened when we went against King Guthrum some years ago."

"Is it possible that this is a simple raid?"

Ambrose shook his head. "This wouldn't be the first time the Danes have tried to overthrow your kingdom, Alfred. To move five thousand warriors, and all their horses, is a massive undertaking. It has to be more than a simple raid."

"Ah, now we get to the meat of it! Polonius, pen and paper, please. Let us make a list of what we are likely to face."

Ambrose spoke first. "If I was the Danish commander, Brother, I would make big promises to any disaffected noblemen in the West Saxon Empire. I would offer to make any traitorous ealdormen into kings - until it is time, of course, to practice archery or perform the Blood-eagle on them."

Alfred nodded. "Noted. I have a short list of possible suspects in my mind. Both Ethelwold of Dorset and Anwell in Cornwall did their best to betray us when the Vikings invaded last time . . . Polonius, the sons of our two suspect shire commanders are needed immediately in Winchester. I have decided to allow them the honor of fighting in my Personal Guard. I will need their presence for the duration of the war. Please make sure . . . quietly . . . that their fathers understand that disobedience to this command will be construed as treason and punished with the utmost severity."

Polonius smiled. "Would you like me to arrange for their kidnapping, Sire, like last time?"

"No, I am, perhaps naively, hoping that their fathers learned their lesson from their last experience. Let us try a more subtle approach this time, but be sure the fathers understand all of the implications."

Polonius bowed his head. "I will send one of your most articulate senior duguos with both the public summons and the private message, Sire."

Alfred looked around the table. "What is next on our list?"

Polonius spoke. "Personally, I would have sent agents to Northumbria, East Anglia, Ireland, and Denmark itself, calling on any restless Danes to go a-viking.

"And how do we counteract that?"

Ambrose looked at the map. "Last time, we offered Guthrum legitimacy, if he respected our treaty and supported us."

Alfred frowned. "For all the good it did!"

"Brother, he did not openly lead his army against us. He merely did not prevent his warriors from coming south individually and joining their cousins."

"That is sophistry! Fifteen out of the thirty ships at Rochester were East Anglian . . . but Guthrum did pay for his perfidy . . . and the real truth is, which I will never admit to outside of this tent, I needed an excuse to seize both old London and Saxon Lundenwic.' The king sighed. 'So what do we do this time?"

"Brother, thanks to you seizing London and supporting your son-in-law Ethelred in Mercia, we are in a much stronger position north of the Thames. After Ethelred made repeated incursions into Wales, two of the major Welsh kingdoms begged to become your allies and acknowledge you as Bretwalda, and the East Anglian Vikings are well aware that you could have destroyed them if you had wanted, after you defeated Guthrum. The priests continue to make inroads amongst the Danes there, and in a generation or two, the Danelaw should be solidly Christian. Why do we not demand hostages from East Anglia and Northumbria both?"

Alfred looked around the table. "Please note that, Polonius. We shall do it. And what else can we expect?"

Polonius spoke. "I would arrange as many feints as I could, splintering your forces, and hopefully leaving the main force relatively unopposed."

"Then if this is more than a raid, we should expect more landings. All lookouts are to be on the alert for new landings. Polonius, is it noted?"

"It is all noted, Sire."

"Well, my friends, what have we missed?"

Edward turned to Alfred. "Father, I think that is a very thorough list."

Alfred smiled through his pain. "This is possibly the biggest crisis I have ever faced, but at least we have prepared for this day. If we survive this onslaught, my son, then you just might inherit a secure throne. My dream is to see all Angleland united as one country. Perhaps in your life you will make it happen, but first I fear we must deal with over five thousand seasoned warriors, plus whatever other devilment Haesten, Eohric, and Guthfrith have dreamed up for us. Polonius, are you still in contact with the Picts of Northumbria?"

"Sire, they will never love Saxons, but, as an old saying in my country goes, the enemy of your enemy can be your ally. We still have some influential friends amongst them, and their leaders are never averse to our gold and weapons."

"Let us wait to hear the answer from Northumbria before we foment more rebellions in the north, but it is an option that I won't forget. They may hesitate to send their young men south when the Scots and Picts keep swarming over their northern borders. Polonius, how about your spies?"

"I will have a half-hundred riding north before the week is over, Sire."

The king held his belly. "Be not stingy, my friend. I would rather deplete my kingdom of gold than lives . . . one more small dose of your elixir, and then I must sit down with the Witan . . . oh, and Polonius?"

"Yes, Sire?"

I will excuse you from the meeting of the Witan. Asser can act as secretary. We will no doubt meet until the dawn and painstakingly hammer out many important and intricate details, but the truth is, I want the couriers on their way by dawn. Will you see to the writing of the messages for me?"

"I will collect all the literate priests and clerks I can find, Sire, except Asser, and put them to work. What, specifically, do you want the summons to say?"

"The summer fyrd from Hampshire east is to answer the summons in full force and immediately. I expect the ealdormen to have their fyrd on the move within seven-night or less. They are to ride for Winchester or wait along the Dover Road for my Personal Guard to reach their position.

I expect strong mounted contingents from the western shires, but I do not want to denude those shires of the possibility of forming a mobile force for their own defense. I expect every subject in the eastern shires to head for the fortified burhs, without delay. I want every man, woman and child out of reach of the heathen devils, along with their pigs and cows and even their chickens - let the Vikings learn to eat grass . . . Garrison troops are to man their walls forthwith - throughout the kingdom. All coastal watchers are to man their posts, both by day and night. The sailors should hold themselves ready, but they are not to man their ships until called upon . . . You know what to say, Polonius. You are the man responsible for much of our preparation."

Polonius bowed to his king. "It shall be as you say, Sire."

***

Even as Polonius spoke, a mud-splattered courier pushed his way into the command tent. Seeing his king staring at him, he dropped to his knees and held out his courier pouch.

"Excuse me, my King, but I carry an urgent message from Ealdorman Sigehelm!"

Alfred nodded towards Polonius, who took the pouch, removed the parchment, broke the wax seal, and read the message.

"Well?" the king said, impatiently.

"It is another message from Ealdorman Sigehelm of Kent, Majesty. Jarl Haesten himself, with an estimated eighty ships, has landed at Milton Royal, on the bank of the Swale River."

"By all that is holy! I think God must be testing me.' He took a deep breath.

'No, that is just my frustration speaking. I will pray tonight for true humility and for divine guidance. Ambrose, you said that there would be more surprises. Here is the first . . . only eighty ships. If they are operating in concert, and we can assume for the moment that they are, why the discrepancy in numbers?"

"Brother, East Anglia is close to Haesten's camp. I would assume he expects considerable reinforcements from north of the Thames."

Alfred nodded. "That makes sense. This could also be, however, their first mistake."

Ambrose looked surprised. "How so, brother?"

"Seven thousand warriors would be more than we can handle without calling up every fyrdmen in the empire. Two separate camps, however, splits their forces, whereas we will have one single force. If we are careful, then we can set up camp between the two armies, strike in either direction, and do our best to keep the two Viking forces apart."

Edward spoke. "Father, this could add up to two thousand more veteran warriors to the struggle. Our main force will be heavily outnumbered. Surely we should consider calling up the winter fyrd as well as the summer army."

"Son, if we call up both fyrds for immediate duty, we will be left with nothing when they start to go home in six months. After Guthrum caught us at Chippenham with no army that winter, I swore I would never again be without an army at my back. You were young then, but it was a bitter winter, and only the swamps around Athelney kept us from dying at Guthrum's hands. What we shall do is build one of Polonius' Roman marching forts for protection, and then we will strike separately at the heathens."

"Father, if both Viking armies catch up to us at the same time, our fyrdmen are likely to be overwhelmed."

"You are right, Edward, if we are caught in the open. There is a risk, but Kent is our land and there are a lot of marshes and trees to slow the Danes. With the help of Sigehelm's foresters, we will systematically kill their couriers and scouts so they cannot communicate effectively. We should be able to ambush any Viking forces smaller than ours, and we will use Kentish scouts and the game trails to fade away before any larger ones."

***

The couriers rode with the dawn. Over a hundred riders spread out from the little encampment at the edge of the chalk downs. North, east, south and west, the riders rode hard to call the fighting men of Wessex to war. Seven thousand enemy had already landed on their shores, and it would take every fyrdman in the empire to prevent the final destruction of the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom on the island of Britain.

***

Ambrose sat across from his brother, and spoke. "Alfred, let me be the one to go to Eohric's court. It shows how seriously you take the threat of his army, and he will not play games with me. We will talk Dane to Dane."

Alfred sighed. "I was afraid you would ask that."

Ambrose smiled. "I will be safe enough, brother. I will take Phillip and a white shield. The Danes treat emissaries with great respect. It is in their culture to do so."

The king nodded. "I hope you will forgive me if I keep Polonius with me. I have great need of his skills."

"Of course, brother. The best place he can be is at the center of his web, feeling for various vibrations through his many contacts. It is what he does best."


CHAPTER 2

"Upon this (arrival of Viking armies) King Alfred gathered his army, and advanced, so that he encamped between the two armies at the highest point he could find defended by wood and by water, that he might reach either, if they would seek any field."

......The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Thousands strong, but stretched out for miles, the armored and mounted fyrdmen trickled into the site. Behind, thousands more, churls and slaves, traders and prostitutes, trudged along, followed by hundreds of wives, lovers, and even children.

Alfred stared at the high spot his scouts had chosen. There was water nearby, and Polonius' engineers had already hammered in pegs that denoted the size of the walls and the location of the various shire encampments. He spoke to the emaciated-looking Byzantine who sat his horse near the king's side.

"Well, Wizard, we are half way between Milton Royal and Appledore. We are now going to play a dangerous game."

"And what is that, Sire?"

"First I need a secure fort to rise here. I need you to use every devious trick you know to set up a fort that can hold out against several times our numbers."

"Sire, if you count the churls and slaves, you already outnumber the Danes, and more fyrdmen will be trickling in for days to come."

Alfred sighed. "After we have established a strong defensive position here, I do not want to sit on my hands. I want to send most of the men out to strike hard against any wandering Viking bands, and I want the entire forest to be filled with the bodies of Viking scouts hanging by their necks."

"And so there will be times when we have relatively few men to man the walls."

"Exactly so, Wizard, but I am also keenly aware that after our first rank or two of veteran fyrdmen, our battle lines will consist largely of our churls and former slaves. In order to help make up for the lack of heavily armed and trained fyrdmen, I intend to strike at any foraging parties with overwhelmingly massive forces."

"That is a recipe for success, Sire. If the veteran fyrdmen can break the Danish lines, the churls can kill as efficiently as your best warriors."

"But, Polonius, we are between a hammer and an anvil. If one Viking force can hold our attention, and the other can manage to secretly approach our rear, we will be massacred. We will use your maxim of local superiority and rapid mobility, but the truth is, their two separate forces, if united, would probably be able to chew their way through our veterans, and if that happened, we could be in very serious trouble."

"Thus the need for a strong fort, Sire. Even an untrained man on the wall is more than the equal of the best warrior on open ground."

Alfred was in pain, but he smiled. "Exactly so, Wizard. That is the very thing I am counting on."

"And my new title is a hint that I am in charge of having this miraculous fort built, preferably before the sun sets tonight."

"Astute as ever, my friend. I don't want to make you nervous, but there are five thousand Viking warriors over that way . . . and perhaps two thousand, armed and very hostile, in that direction. If they find us here, without those stout walls, we would be in serious trouble."

"Your logic is impeccable, Sire. Perhaps I should get to work."

The king held his stomach, but his voice, when he spoke, sounded normal. "Just tell me what you need, my friend, and you shall have it."

"I need every man and woman who is here, Sire. You are right. The fort must be a priority. The walls and ditches should be completed before anyone so much as unpacks."

Alfred turned. "Edward - spread the word to all the ealdormen. Until further notice, all men and women will work on our defenses - until Polonius here declares that he is completely satisfied."

"Father, it is going to be dark in a few hours, and everyone is exhausted from the march here."

"Then we will work by firelight, son-of-mine. The walls must be complete before the God-cursed pagans find our location. It could literally be a matter of life and death for all of us!"

Edward just nodded, turned his horse, and headed after the various shire fyrds and their commanders.

"I shall pass on the word, father . . . and then I will go find a shovel."

Within minutes, tired men were driven to strip off their armor and outer clothing, and take up shovels, mattocks and pickaxes. A deep ditch was laboriously dug, and the dirt and rocks were mounded on the inside, while others took axes and started to cut poles for the palisades. Four centuries after the last Romans abandoned the island of Britannica, a Roman marching fort began to appear on a modest height in the middle of Kent.

***

When the first rays of light illuminated the tents and shelters of the West Saxon fyrd, formidable walls surrounded the sleeping warriors. The work had taken long into the night, and Alfred allowed most of the men to sleep late. Everyone was exhausted from the long march and the back-breaking labor, but they were safe behind stout ramparts. Kentish scouts had been excused from the labor, and, as they had all night, they constantly patrolled the nearby forest trails. Somewhere in the Forest of the Weald were thousands of brutal raiders, intent on pillaging and raping, and, if they could, conquering the last free Anglo-Saxon kingdom on the island. Only Alfred of Wessex, his son-in-law, Ethelred of Mercia, and their sworn men, stood between the Danes and their final victory.



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