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“5 out of 5 stars. Impressive.”
                                                                                                        “I am impressed. The author seems to have done his homework. The story seems well researched and moves along. Fast pace. Lots of action. Historically accurate. What more do you want!?”
                                                                                                      “5.0 out of 5 stars. Very Interesting Read.”  
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“A adventure worth reading ,interesting time period to learn about.”  

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.


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



"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.









"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!"



"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.

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