Read CHAPTER II: THE BATTLE OF KESTEVEN of The Dragon and the Raven / The Days of King Alfred, free online book, by G. A. Henty, on ReadCentral.com.

The following morning early the little party started. The great chest was dug up from its place of concealment, and they resumed their ordinary dresses. The ealdorman attired himself in a white tunic with a broad purple band round the lower edge, with a short cloak of green cloth. This was fastened with a gold brooch at the neck; a necklet of the same metal and several gold bracelets completed his costume, except that he wore a flat cap and sandals. Edmund had a green tunic and cloak of deep red colour; while Egbert was dressed in yellow with a green cloak the Saxons being extremely fond of bright colours.

All wore daggers, whose sheaths were incrusted in silver, in their belts, and the ealdorman and his kinsman carried short broad-bladed swords, while Edmund had his boar-spear. Eldred placed in the pouch which hung at his side a bag containing a number of silver cubes cut from a long bar and roughly stamped. The chest was then buried again in its place of concealment among the bushes near the hut, Edmund placed his bows and arrows in the boat not that in which Edmund had fished, but the much larger and heavier craft which Eldred and Egbert had used and then the party, with the hound, took their places in it. The ealdorman and Egbert were provided with long poles, and with these they sent the little boat rapidly through the water.

After poling their way for some eight hours they reached the town of Norwich, to which the Danes had not yet penetrated; here, procuring what articles they needed, they proceeded on their journey to Croyland, making a great circuit to avoid the Danes at Thetford. The country was for the most part covered with thick forests, where the wild boar and deer roamed undisturbed by man, and where many wolves still lurked, although the number in the country had been greatly diminished by the energetic measures which King Egbert had taken for the destruction of these beasts. Their halting-places were for the most part at religious houses, which then served the purpose of inns for travellers, being freely opened to those whom necessity or pleasure might cause to journey. Everywhere they found the monks in a state of alarm at the progress of the Danes, who, wherever they went, destroyed the churches and religious houses, and slew the monks.

Eldred was everywhere received with marked honour; being known as a wise and valiant noble, his opinions on the chances of the situation were eagerly listened to, and he found the monks at all their halting-places prepared, if need be, to take up arms and fight the pagan invaders, as those of Mercia and Wessex had done in the preceding autumn. The travellers, on arriving at Croyland, were warmly welcomed.

“I heard, brother,” the abbot said, “that you had bravely fought against the Danes near Thetford, and have been sorely anxious since the news came of the dispersal of your force.”

“I have been in hiding,” Eldred said, “hoping that a general effort would be made against the invaders. My own power was broken, since all my lands are in their hands. The people of East Anglia foolishly seem to suppose that, so long as the Danes remain quiet, the time has not come for action. They will repent their lethargy some day, for, as the Danes gather in strength, they will burst out over the surrounding country as a dammed-up river breaks its banks. No, brother, I regard East Anglia as lost so far as depends upon itself; its only hope is in the men of Kent and Wessex, whom we must now look upon as our champions, and who may yet stem the tide of invasion and drive back the Danes. This abbey of yours stands in a perilous position, being not far removed from the Humber, where so many of the Danes find entrance to England.”

“It is not without danger, Eldred, but the men of the fens are numerous, hardy and brave, and will offer a tough resistance to any who may venture to march hitherward, and if, as I hope, you will stay with us, and will undertake their command, we may yet for a long time keep the Danes from our doors.”

For some weeks the time passed quietly. Edmund spent most of his time in hunting, being generally accompanied by Egbert. The Saxon was an exceedingly tall and powerful man, slow and scanty of speech, who had earned for himself the title of Egbert the Silent. He was devoted to his kinsmen and regarded himself as special guardian of Edmund. He had instructed him in the use of arms, and always accompanied him when he went out to hunt the boar, standing ever by his side to aid him to receive the rush of the wounded and furious beasts; and more than once, when Edmund had been borne down by their onslaughts, and would have been severely wounded, if not killed, a sweeping blow of Egbert’s sword had rid him of his assailant.

Sometimes Edmund made excursions in the fens, where with nets and snares he caught the fish which swarmed in the sluggish waters; or, having covered his boat with a leafy bower until it resembled a floating bush, drifted close to the flocks of wild-fowl, and with his bow and arrows obtained many a plump wild duck. Smaller birds were caught in snares or traps, or with bird-lime smeared on twigs. Eldred seldom joined his son in his hunting excursions, as he was busied with his brother the abbot in concerting the measures of defence and in organizing a band of messengers, who, on the first warning of danger, could be despatched throughout the fens to call in the fisher population to the defence of the abbey.

It was on the 18th of September, 870, that a messenger arrived at the abbey and craved instant speech with the prior. The latter, who was closeted with his brother, ordered the man to be admitted.

“I come,” he said, “from Algar the ealdorman. He bids me tell you that a great Danish host has landed from the Humber at Lindsay. The rich monastery of Bardenay has been pillaged and burned. Algar is assembling all the inhabitants of the marsh lands to give them battle, and he prays you to send what help you can spare, for assuredly they will march hither should he be defeated.”

“Return to the ealdorman,” the abbot said; “tell him that every lay brother and monk who can bear arms shall march hence to join him under the command of lay brother Toley, whose deeds of arms against the Danes in Mercia are well known to him. My brother here, Eldred, will head all the inhabitants of the marshes of this neighbourhood. With these and the brothers of the abbey, in all, as I reckon, nigh four hundred men, he will to-morrow march to join Algar.”

Messengers were at once sent off through the surrounding country bidding every man assemble on the morrow morning at Croyland, and soon after daybreak they began to arrive. Some were armed with swords, some with long sickles, used in cutting rushes, tied to poles, some had fastened long pieces of iron to oars to serve as pikes. They were a rough and somewhat ragged throng, but Eldred saw with satisfaction that they were a hard and sturdy set of men, accustomed to fatigue and likely to stand firm in the hour of battle.

Most of them carried shields made of platted osiers covered with skin. The armoury of the abbey was well supplied, and swords and axes were distributed among the worst armed of the fenmen. Then, with but little order or regularity, but with firm and cheerful countenances, as men determined to win or die, the band moved off under Eldred’s command, followed by the contingent of the abbey, eighty strong, under lay brother Toley.

A sturdy band were these monks, well fed and vigorous. They knew that they had no mercy to expect from the Danes, and, regarding them as pagans and enemies of their religion as well as of their country, could be trusted to do their utmost. Late that evening they joined Algar at the place they had appointed, and found that a large number of the people of the marshes had gathered round his banner.

The Danes had not moved as yet from Bardenay, and Algar determined to wait for another day or two before advancing, in order to give time to others farther from the scene of action to arrive.

The next day came the contingents from several other priories and abbeys, and the sight of the considerable force gathered together gave heart and confidence to all. Algar, Eldred, and the other leaders, Morcar, Osgot, and Harding, moved about among the host, encouraging them with cheering words, warning them to be in no way intimidated by the fierce appearance of the Danes, but to hold steadfast and firm in the ranks, and to yield no foot of ground to the onslaught of the enemy. Many priests had accompanied the contingents from the religious houses, and these added their exhortations to those of the leaders, telling the men that God would assuredly fight on their side against the heathen, and bidding each man remember that defeat meant the destruction of their churches and altars, the overthrow of their whole religion, and the restored worship of the pagan gods.

Edmund went about among the gathering taking great interest in the wild scene, for these marsh men differed much in their appearance from the settled inhabitants of his father’s lands. The scenes in the camp were indeed varied in their character. Here and there were harpers with groups of listeners gathered round, as they sung the exploits of their fathers, and animated their hearers to fresh fire and energy by relating legends of the cruelty of the merciless Danes. Other groups there were surrounding the priests, who were appealing to their religious feelings as well as to their patriotism.

Men sat about sharpening their weapons, fixing on more firmly the handles of their shields, adjusting arrows to bowstrings, and preparing in other ways for the coming fight. From some of the fires, round which the marsh men were sitting, came snatches of boisterous song, while here and there, apart from the crowd, priests were hearing confessions, and shriving penitents.

The next morning early, one of the scouts, who had been sent to observe the movements of the Danes, reported that these were issuing from their camp, and advancing into the country.

Algar marshalled his host, each part under its leaders, and moved to meet them. Near Kesteven the armies came in sight of each other, and after advancing until but a short distance apart both halted to marshal their ranks anew. Eldred, with the men of the marshes near Croyland and the contingent from the abbey, had their post in the central division, which was commanded by Algar himself, Edmund took post by his father, and Egbert stood beside him.

Edmund had never before seen the Danes, and he could not but admit that their appearance was enough to shake the stoutest heart. All carried great shields covering them from head to foot. These were composed of wood, bark, or leather painted or embossed, and in the cases of the chiefs plated with gold and silver. So large were these that in naval encounters, if the fear of falling into the enemy’s hands forced them to throw themselves into the sea, they could float on their shields; and after death in battle a soldier was carried to his grave on his buckler. As they stood facing the Saxons they locked their shields together so as to form a barrier well-nigh impregnable against the arrows.

All wore helmets, the common men of leather, the leaders of iron or copper, while many in addition wore coats of mail. Each carried a sword, a battle-axe, and a bow and arrows. Some of the swords were short and curled like a scimitar; others were long and straight, and were wielded with both hands. They wore their hair long and hanging down their shoulders, and for the most part shaved their cheeks and chins, but wore their moustaches very long.

They were, for the most, tall, lithe, and sinewy men, but physically in no way superior to the Saxons, from whom they differed very widely in complexion, the Saxons being fair while the Danes were very dark, as much so as modern gypsies; indeed, the Saxon historians speak of them as the black pagans. Upon the other hand many of the Northmen, being Scandinavians, were as fair as the Saxons themselves.

The Danes began the battle, those in front shouting fiercely, and striking their swords on their shields with a clashing noise, while the ranks behind shot a shower of arrows among the Saxons. These at once replied. The combat was not continued long at a distance, for the Danes with a mighty shout rushed upon the Saxons. These stood their ground firmly and a desperate conflict ensued. The Saxon chiefs vied with each other in acts of bravery, and singling out the leaders of the Danes engaged with them in hand-to-hand conflict.

Algar had placed his swordsmen in the front line, those armed with spears in the second; and as the swordsmen battled with the Danes the spearmen, when they saw a shield uplifted to guard the head, thrust under with their weapons and slew many. Edmund, seeing that with his sword he should have but little chance against these fierce soldiers, fell a little behind his father and kinsman, and as these were engaged with the enemy he from time to time, when he saw an opportunity, rushed in and delivered a thrust with his spear at an unguarded point. The Saxon shouts rose louder and louder as the Danes in vain endeavoured to break through their line. The monks fought stoutly, and many a fierce Norseman fell before their blows.

The Danes, who had not expected so firm a resistance, began to hesitate, and Algar giving the word, the Saxons took the offensive, and the line pressed forward step by step. The archers poured their arrows in a storm among the Danish ranks. These fell back before the onslaught. Already three of their kings and many of their principal leaders had fallen, and at last, finding themselves unable to withstand the impetuous onslaught of the Saxons, they turned and fled in confusion towards their camp. The Saxons with exulting shouts pursued them, and great numbers were slaughtered. The Danes had, however, as was their custom, fortified the camp before advancing, and Algar drew off his troops, deeming that it would be better to defer the attack on this position until the following day.

There was high feasting in the Saxon camp that evening, but this was brought to an abrupt conclusion by the arrival of a scout, who reported that a great Danish army marching from the Humber was approaching the camp of the compatriots. The news was but too true. The kings Guthorn, Bergsecg, Oskytal, Halfdene, and Amund, and the Jarls Frêne, Hingwar, Hubba, and the two Sidrocs, with all their followers, had marched down from Yorkshire to join the invaders who had just landed.

The news of this immense reinforcement spread consternation among the Angles. In vain their leaders went about among them and exhorted them to courage, promising them another victory as decisive as that they had won that day. Their entreaties were in vain, for when the morning dawned it was found that three-fourths of their number had left the camp during the night, and had made off to the marshes and fastnesses.

A council of the chiefs was held. The chances of conflict appeared hopeless, so vastly were they out-numbered by the Danes. Algar, however, declared that he would die rather than retreat.

“If we fly now,” he said, “all East Anglia will fall into the hands of the heathen. Even should we fight and fall, the example of what a handful of brave men can do against the invaders will surely animate the Angles to further resistance; while if we conquer, so great a blow will be dealt to the renown of these Danes that all England will rise against them.”

On hearing these words all the chiefs came to the determination to win or die as they stood. Eldred took Edmund aside after this determination had been arrived at.

“My son,” he said, “I allowed you yesterday to stand by my side in battle, and well and worthily did you bear yourself, but to-day you must withdraw. The fight is well-nigh hopeless, and I believe that all who take part in it are doomed to perish. I would not that my house should altogether disappear, and shall die more cheerfully in the hope that some day you will avenge me upon these heathen. Therefore, Edmund, I bid you take station at a distance behind the battle, so that when you see the day goes against us you may escape in time. I shall urge our faithful Egbert to endeavour, when he sees that all is lost, to make his way from the fight and rejoin you, and to journey with you to Wessex and there present you to the king. For myself, if the battle is lost I shall die rather than fly. Such is the resolution of Algar and our other brave chiefs, and Eldred the ealdorman must not be the only one of the leaders to run from the fray.”

Edmund was deeply touched at his father’s words, but the parental rule was so strict in those days that it did not even enter his mind to protest against Eldred’s decision.

As the morning went on the Danes were engaged in the funeral ceremonies of their dead kings, while the Saxons, quiet and resolute, received the holy sacrament and prepared for the fight. Algar chose a position on rising ground. He himself with Eldred commanded the centre, Toley and Morcar led the right wing, Osgot and Harding the left.

Each of these wings contained about five hundred men. Algar’s centre, which was a little withdrawn from its wings, contained about 200 of his best warriors, and was designed as a reserve, with which, if need be, he could move to the assistance of either of the wings which might be sorely pressed and in danger. The Saxons formed in a solid mass with their bucklers linked together. The Danish array which issued out from their camp was vastly superior in numbers, and was commanded by four kings and eight jarls or earls, while two kings and four earls remained in charge of the camp, and of the great crowd of prisoners, for the most part women and children, whom they had brought with them.

With the Danes who had come down from Yorkshire were a large body of horsemen, who charged furiously down upon the Saxons; but these maintained so firm an array with their lances and spears projecting outward that the Danes failed to break through them, and after making repeated efforts and suffering heavy loss they drew back. Then the Danish archers and slingers poured in a storm of missiles, but these effected but little harm, as the Saxons stooped a little behind their closely packed line of bucklers, which were stout enough to keep out the shower of arrows. All day the struggle continued. Again and again the Danes strove to break the solid Saxon array, and with sword and battle-axe attempted to hew down the hedge of spears, but in vain. At last their leaders, convinced that they could not overcome the obstinacy of the resistance, ordered their followers to feign a retreat.

As the Danes turned to fly the Saxons set up a triumphant shout, and breaking up their solid phalanx rushed after them in complete disorder. In vain Algar, Osgot, Toley, Eldred, and the other leaders shouted to them to stand firm. Weary of their long inactivity, and convinced that the Danes were routed, the Saxons pursued them across the plain. Suddenly the Danish horse, who after failing to break through the ranks had remained apart at a short distance from the conflict, dashed down upon the disordered Saxons, while the flying infantry turning round also fell upon them with exulting shouts.

Taken wholly by surprise, confused and disordered, the Saxons could offer no effectual opposition to the charge. The Danish horse rode among them hewing and slaying, and the swords and battle-axes of the footmen completed the work. In a few minutes of all the Saxon band which had for so many hours successfully resisted the onslaught of the Danes, not one survived save a few fleet-footed young men who, throwing away their arms, succeeded in making their escape, and a little group, consisting of Algar, Toley, Eldred, and the other leaders who had gathered together when their men broke their ranks and had taken up their position on a knoll of ground rising above the plain. Here for a long time they resisted the efforts of the whole of the Danes, surrounding themselves with a heap of slain; but at length one by one they succumbed to the Danish onslaught, each fighting valiantly to the last.

From his position at a distance Edmund watched the last desperate struggle. With streaming eyes and a heart torn by anxiety for his father he could see the Danish foe swarming round the little band who defended the crest. These were lost from his sight, and only the flashing of swords showed where the struggle was still going on in the centre of the confused mass. Edmund had been on his knees for some time, but he now rose.

“Come, old boy,” he said to the hound, who lay beside him watching the distant conflict and occasionally uttering deep angry growls. “I must obey my father’s last command; let us away.”

He took one more glance at the distant conflict before turning. It was plain that it was nearly finished. The swords had well-nigh ceased to rise and fall when he saw a sudden movement in the throng of Danes and suddenly a man burst out from them and started at headlong speed towards him, pursued by a number of Danes. Even at that distance Edmund thought that he recognized the tall figure of his kinsman, but he had no time to assure himself of this, and he at once, accompanied by the hound, set off at the top of his speed from the field of battle. He had fully a quarter of a mile start, and being active and hardy and accustomed to exercise from his childhood, he had no fear that the Danes would overtake him. Still he ran his hardest.

Looking over his shoulder from time to time he saw that at first the Danes who were pursuing the fugitive were gaining upon him also, but after a time he again increased the distance, while, being unencumbered with shield or heavy weapons, the fugitive kept the advantage he had at first gained. Three miles from the battle-field Edmund reached the edge of a wide-spreading wood. Looking round as he entered its shelter he saw that the flying Saxon was still about a quarter of a mile behind him, and that the Danes, despairing of over-taking him, had ceased their pursuit. Edmund therefore checked his footsteps and awaited the arrival of the fugitive, who he now felt certain was his kinsman.

In a few minutes Egbert came up, having slackened his speed considerably when he saw that he was no longer pursued. He was bleeding from several wounds, and now that the necessity for exertion had passed he walked but feebly along. Without a word he flung himself on the ground by Edmund and buried his face in his arms, and the lad could see by the shaking of his broad shoulders that he was weeping bitterly. The great hound walked up to the prostrate figure and gave vent to a long and piteous howl, and then lying down by Egbert’s side placed his head on his shoulder.