Read CHAPTER VI: THE SAXON FORT of The Dragon and the Raven / The Days of King Alfred, free online book, by G. A. Henty, on ReadCentral.com.

A strict watch was kept all night, and several scouts were sent out. These on their return reported that the Danes were feasting, having slain many cattle and broached the casks of mead which they found in the cellars of Edmund’s house. This they had not burned nor the houses around it, intending, as the scouts supposed, to make it their headquarters while they attacked the fort.

Edmund and Egbert agreed that it would be well to show the Danes at once that they had an active and enterprising foe to deal with; they therefore awakened their band, who were sleeping on skins close to the gate, and with them started out.

It was still two hours before dawn when they approached the house. Save a few men on watch, the great Danish host, which the messengers calculated to amount to ten thousand men, were asleep. Cautiously making their way so as to avoid stumbling over the Danes, who lay scattered in groups round the house, the Saxons crept forward quietly until close to the entrance, when a sleepy watchman started up.

“Who are ye?”

The answer was a blow from Egbert’s battle-axe. Then the leaders with twenty of their men rushed into the house, while the rest remained on guard at the entrance.

The combat was short but furious, and the clashing of arms and shouts of the Danes roused those sleeping near, and the men who escaped from the house spread the alarm. The fight lasted but three or four minutes, for the Danes, scattered through the house, and in many cases still stupid from the effects of the previous night’s debauch, were unable to gather and make any collective resistance. The two jarls fought in a manner worthy of their renown, but the Saxon spears proved more than a match for their swords, and they died fighting bravely till the last. Between Saxon and Dane there was no thought of quarter; none asked for mercy on either side, for none would be granted. The sea rovers never spared an armed man who fell into their hands, and the Saxons were infuriated by the sufferings which the invaders had inflicted upon them, and had no more pity upon their foes than if they had been wild animals. Besides the jarls some thirty of their minor leaders were in the house, and but five or six of them escaped. It was well for the Danes that the detachment which lay there was not their principal body, which was still a few miles in the rear, for had it been so two of their kings and six jarls, all men of famed valour, would have been slain. The instant the work was done the Saxons rejoined those assembled at the entrance.

Already the Danes were thronging up, but at present in confusion and disorder, coming rather to see what was the matter than to fight, and hardly believing that the Saxons could have had the audacity to attack them. In an instant the Saxons fell into their usual formation, and overturning and cutting down those who happened to be in their path, burst through the straggling Danes, and at a trot proceeded across the country.

It was still quite dark, and it was some time before the Danes became thoroughly aware of what had happened; then missing the voices of their leaders, some of them rushed into the house, and the news that the two jarls and their companions had been slain roused them to fury. At once they set off in pursuit of the Saxons in a tumultuous throng; but the band had already a considerable start, and had the advantage of knowing every foot of the country, of which the Danes were ignorant. When once fairly through the enemy, Edmund had given the word and the formation had broken up, so that each man could run freely and without jostling his comrades. Thus they were enabled to proceed at a rapid pace, and reached the fort just as day was breaking, without having been discovered or overtaken by the Danes.

The news of this successful exploit raised the spirits of the garrison of the fort. The Danes swarmed nearly up to the walls, but seeing how formidable was the position, and being without leaders, they fell back without making an attack, some of the more impetuous having fallen from the arrows of the bowmen.

About mid-day a solid mass of the enemy were seen approaching, and the banners with the Black Raven on a blood-red field showed that it contained leaders of importance, and was, in fact, the main body of the Danes. It was an imposing sight as it marched towards the fort, with the fluttering banners, the sun shining upon the brass helmets and shields of the chiefs, and the spear-heads and swords of the footmen. Here and there parties of horsemen galloped about the plain.

“Their number has not been exaggerated,” Egbert said to Edmund, “there must be ten thousand of them. There are full twice as many as attacked us on the field of Kesteven.”

The sight of the great array struck terror into the minds of a great part of the defenders of the fort; but the confident bearing of their young ealdorman and the thought of the strength of their walls reassured them. The Danes halted at a distance of about a quarter of a mile from the walls, and three or four of their chiefs rode forward. These by the splendour of their helmets, shields, and trappings were clearly men of great importance. They halted just out of bowshot distance, and one of them, raising his voice, shouted:

“Dogs of Saxons, had you laid down your arms, and made submission to me, I would have spared you; but for the deed which you did last night, and the slaying of my brave jarls, I swear that I will have revenge upon you, and, by the god Wodin, I vow that not one within your walls, man, woman, or child, shall be spared. This is the oath of King Uffa.”

“It were well, King Uffa,” Edmund shouted back, “to take no rash oaths; before you talk of slaying you have got to capture, and you will need all the aid of your false gods before you take this fort. As to mercy, we should as soon ask it of wolves. We have God and our good swords to protect us, and we fear not your host were it three times as strong as it is.”

The Saxons raised a great shout, and the Danish king rode back to his troops. The lesson which had been given them of the enterprise of the Saxons was not lost, for the Danes at once began to form a camp, raising an earthen bank which they crowned with stakes and bushes as a defence against sudden attacks. This work occupied them two days, and during this time no blow was struck on either side, as the Danes posted a strong body of men each night to prevent the Saxons from sallying out. On the third day the work was finished, and the Danish kings with their jarls made a circuit round the walls, evidently to select the place for attack.

The time had passed quietly in the fort. In one corner the priests had erected an altar, and here mass was said three times a day. The priests went among the soldiers exhorting them to resist to the last, confessing them, and giving them absolution.

The pains which the Danes had taken in the preparation of their camp was a proof of their determination to capture the fort, however long the operation might be. It showed, too, that they recognized the difficulty of the task, for had they believed that the capture could be easily effected they would at once upon their arrival have advanced to the attack.

“To-morrow morning early,” Egbert said, “I expect that they will assault us. In the first place probably they will endeavour to carry the fort by a general attack; if they fail in this they will set to construct engines with which to batter the wall.”

At daybreak the following morning the Danes issued from their camp. Having formed up in regular order, they advanced towards the castle. They divided into four bands; three of these wheeled round to opposite sides of the fort, the fourth, which was as large as the other three together, advanced towards the entrance. The Saxons all took the posts previously assigned to them on the walls. Edmund strengthened the force on the side where the gate was by posting there in addition the whole of his band. Altogether there were nearly 350 fighting men within the walls, of whom the greater part had fought against the Danes in the battles of the previous year. The attack commenced simultaneously on all sides by a discharge of arrows by the archers of both parties. The Saxons, sheltered behind the parapet on the walls, suffered but slightly; but their missiles did considerable execution among the masses of the Danes. These, however, did not pause to continue the conflict at a distance, but uttering their battle-cry rushed forward.

Edmund and Egbert had but little fear of the attack on the other faces of the fort proving successful; the chief assault was against the gate, and it was here that the real danger existed.

The main body of the Danes covered themselves with their shields and rushed forward with the greatest determination, pouring through the gap in the outer bank in a solid mass, and then turned along the fosse towards the inner gate. Closely packed together, with their shields above their heads forming a sort of testudo or roof which protected them against the Saxons’ arrows, they pressed forward in spite of the shower of missiles with which the Saxons on the walls assailed them. Arrows, darts, and great stones were showered down upon them, the latter breaking down the shields, and affording the archers an opportunity of pouring in their arrows.

Numbers fell, but the column swept along until it gained the gate. Here those in front began an attack upon the massive beams with their axes, and when they had somewhat weakened it, battered it with heavy beams of timber until it was completely splintered. While this was going on the Saxons had continued to shoot without intermission, and the Danish dead were heaped thickly around the gate. The Danish archers, assisted by their comrades, had scrambled up on to the outer bank and kept up a heavy fire on the defenders of the wall. The Saxons sheltered their heads and shoulders which were above the parapet with their shields; and between these, as through loopholes, their archers shot at the Danes.

Edmund and Egbert had debated much on the previous days whether they would pile stones behind the gate, but had finally agreed not to do so. They argued that although for a time the stones would impede the progress of the Danes, these would, if they shattered the door, sooner or later pull down the stones or climb over them; and it was better to have a smooth and level place for defence inside. They had, however, raised a bank of earth ten feet high in a semicircle at a distance of twenty yards within the gate.

When it was seen that the gates were yielding Edmund had called down his own band from the walls and formed them in a half-circle ten yards from the gate. They were four deep, as in their usual formation, with the four lines of spears projecting towards the gate. The mound behind them he lined with archers.

At last the gates fell, and with an exulting shout the Danes poured in. As they did so the archers on the mound loosed their arrows, and the head of the Danish column melted like snow before the blast of a furnace. Still they poured in and flung themselves upon the spearmen, but they strove in vain to pierce the hedge of steel. Desperately they threw themselves upon the pike-heads and died there bravely, but they were powerless to break a passage.

The archers on the mound still shot fast among them, while those on the wall, turning round, smote them in the back, where, unprotected by their shields, they offered a sure and fatal mark. Soon the narrow semicircle inside the gate became heaped high with dead, impeding the efforts of those still pressing in. Several of the bravest of the Danish leaders had fallen. The crowd in the fosse, unaware of the obstacle which prevented the advance of the head of the column and harassed by the missiles from above, grew impatient, and after half an hour of desperate efforts, and having lost upwards of three hundred of his best men, the Danish king, furious with rage and disappointment, called off his men.

On the other three sides the attack equally failed. The Danes suffered heavily while climbing the steep side of the inner mound. They brought with them faggots, which they cast down at the foot of the wall, but this was built so near the edge of the slope that they were unable to pile sufficient faggots to give them the height required for a successful assault upon it. Many climbed up on their comrades’ shoulders, and so tried to scale the wall, but they were thrust down by the Saxon spears as they raised themselves to its level, and in no place succeeded in gaining a footing. Over two hundred fell in the three minor attacks.

There were great rejoicings among the Saxons, on whose side but twenty-three had been killed. A solemn mass was held, at which all save a few look-outs on the walls attended, and thanks returned to God for the repulse of the pagans; then the garrison full of confidence awaited the next attack of the enemy.

Stones were piled up in the gateway to prevent any sudden surprise being effected there. The Danes in their retreat had carried off their dead, and the next morning the Saxons saw that they were busy with the ceremonies of their burial. At some little distance from their camp the dead were placed in a sitting position, in long rows back to back with their weapons by their sides, and earth was piled over them until a great mound fifty yards long and ten feet high was raised.

Three jarls and one of their kings were buried separately. They were placed together in a sitting position, with their helmets on their heads, their shields on their arms, and their swords by their sides. Their four war-horses were killed and laid beside them; twenty slaves were slaughtered and placed lying round them, for their spirits to attend them in the Walhalla of the gods. Golden drinking-vessels and other ornaments were placed by them, and then a mound forty feet in diameter and twenty feet high was piled over the whole.

The whole force were occupied all day with this work. The next day numbers of trees were felled and brought to the camp, and for the next two days the Danes were occupied in the manufacture of war-engines for battering down the walls. Edmund and Egbert utilized the time in instructing the soldiers who did not form part of the regular band, in the formation of the quadruple line of defence which the Danes had found it so impossible to break through, so that if more than one breach was effected, a resistance similar to that made at the gate could be offered at all points. The skins of the oxen killed for the use of the garrison were carefully laid aside, the inside being thickly rubbed with grease.

The Danish preparations were at length completed, the war-engines were brought up and began to hurl great stones against the wall at three points. The Saxons kept up a constant fire of arrows at those employed at working them, but the Danes, though losing many men, threw up breastworks to protect them.

The Saxons manufactured many broad ladders, and in the middle of the night, lowering these over the walls, they descended noiselessly, and three strong bodies fell upon the Danes guarding the engines. These fought stoutly, but were driven back, the engines were destroyed, and the Saxons retired to their walls again and drew up their ladders before the main body of Danes could arrive from the camp. This caused a delay of some days in the siege, but fresh engines having been constructed, the assault on the walls was recommenced, this time the whole Danish army moving out and sleeping at night close to them.

After three days’ battering, breaches of from thirty to fifty feet wide were effected in the walls. The Saxons had not been idle. Behind each of the threatened points they raised banks of earth ten feet high, and cut away the bank perpendicularly behind the shattered wall, so that the assailants as they poured in at the gaps would have to leap ten feet down.

Each night the masses of wall which fell inside were cleared away, and when the breach was complete, and it was evident that the assault would take place the next morning, the hides which had been prepared were laid with the hairy side down, on the ground below. Through them they drove firmly into the ground numbers of pikes with the heads sticking up one or two feet, and pointed stakes hardened in the fire. Then satisfied that all had been done the Saxons lay down to rest.

In the morning the Danes advanced to the assault. This time they were but little annoyed in their advance by the archers. These were posted on the walls at each side of the gaps to shoot down at the backs of the Danes after they had entered. On the inner semicircular mounds the Saxon force gathered four deep.

With loud shouts the Danes rushed forward, climbed the outer mounds, and reached the breaches. Here the leaders paused on seeing the gulf below them, but pressed by those behind they could not hesitate long, but leapt down from the breach on to the slippery hides below.

Not one who did so lived. It was impossible to keep their feet as they alighted, and as they fell they were impaled by the pikes and stakes. Pressed by those behind, however, fresh men leapt down, falling in their turn, until at length the hides and stakes were covered, and those leaping down found a foothold on the bodies of the fallen. Then they crowded on and strove to climb the inner bank and attack the Saxons. Now the archers on the walls opened fire upon them, and, pierced through and through with the arrows which struck them on the back, the Danes fell in great numbers. Edmund commanded at one of the breaches, Egbert at another, and Oswald, an old and experienced warrior, at the third.

At each point the scene was similar. The Danes struggled up the mounds only to fail to break through the hedge of spears which crowned them, fast numbers dying in the attempt, while as many more fell pierced with arrows. For an hour the Danes continued their desperate efforts, and not until fifteen hundred had been slain did they draw off to their camp, finding it impossible to break through the Saxon defences.

Loud rose the shouts of the triumphant Saxons as the Danes retired, and it needed all the efforts of their leaders to prevent them from pouring out in pursuit; but the events of the preceding year had taught the Saxon leaders how often their impetuosity after success had proved fatal to the Saxons, and that once in the plain the Danes would turn upon them and crush them by their still greatly superior numbers. Therefore no one was allowed to sally out, and the discomfited Danes retired unmolested.

The next morning to their joy the Saxons saw that the invaders had broken up their camp, and had marched away in the night. Scouts were sent out in various directions, and the Saxons employed themselves in stripping and burying the Danes who had fallen within the fort, only a few of the most distinguished having been carried off. The scouts returned with news that the Danes had made no halt, but had departed entirely from that part of the country. Finding that for the present they were free of the invaders, the Saxons left the fort and scattered again, to rebuild as best they might their devastated homes.

But if in the neighbourhood of Sherborne the Danes had been severely repulsed, in other parts of the kingdom they continued to make great progress, and the feeling of despair among the Saxons increased. Great numbers left their homes, and taking with them all their portable possessions, made their way to the sea-coast, and there embarked for France, where they hoped to be able to live peaceably and quietly.

Edmund placed no hindrance in the way of such of his people who chose this course, for the prospect appeared well-nigh hopeless. The majority of the Saxons were utterly broken in spirit, and a complete conquest of the kingdom by the Danes seemed inevitable. In the spring, however, of 877 King Alfred again issued an urgent summons. A great horde of Danes had landed at Exeter and taken possession of that town, and he determined to endeavour to crush them. He sent to Edmund begging him to proceed at once to Poole, where the king’s fleet was ready for sea, and to embark in it with what force he could raise, and to sail and blockade the entrance to the river Exe, and so prevent the Danes from reinforcing their countrymen, while he with his forces laid siege to Exeter.

Edmund would have taken his own vessel, but some time would have been lost, and the king’s ships were short of hands. He was not sorry, indeed, that his men should have some practise at sea, and taking his own band, in which the vacancies which had been caused in the defence of the fort had been filled up, he proceeded to Poole. Here he embarked his men in one of the ships, and the fleet, comprising twenty vessels, put to sea.

The management of the vessels and their sails was in the hands of experienced sailors, and Edmund’s men had no duties to perform except to fight the enemy when they met them.

The news of the siege of Exeter reached the Danes at Wareham, which was their head-quarters, and 120 vessels filled with their troops sailed for the relief of Exeter.

The weather was unpropitious, heavy fogs lay on the water, dissipated occasionally by fierce outbursts of wind. The Saxon fleet kept the sea. It was well that for a time the Danish fleet did not appear in sight, for the Saxons, save the sailors, were unaccustomed to the water, and many suffered greatly from the rough motion; and had the Danes appeared for the first week after the fleet put to sea a combat must have been avoided, as the troops were in no condition to fight.

Presently, however, they recovered from their malady and became eager to meet the enemy; Edmund bade his men take part in the working of the ship in order to accustom themselves to the duties of seamen. The fleet did not keep the sea all the time, returning often to the straits between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, where they lay in shelter, a look-out being kept from the top of the hills, whence a wide sweep of sea could be seen, and where piles of wood were collected by which a signal fire could warn the fleet to put to sea should the enemy’s vessels come in sight.

A full month passed and the Saxons began to fear that the Danes might have eluded them, having perhaps been blown out to sea and having made the land again far to the west. One morning, however, smoke was seen to rise from the beacon fire. The crews who were on shore instantly hurried on board. From the hills the Danish fleet was made out far to the west and was seen to be approaching the land from seaward, having been driven far out of its course by the winds.

The weather was wild and threatening and the sailors predicted a great storm. Nevertheless the fleet put to sea and with reefed sails ran to the west. Their vessels were larger than the Danish galleys and could better keep the sea in a storm. Many miles were passed before, from the decks, the Danish flotilla could be seen. Presently, however, a great number of their galleys were discerned rowing in towards Swanage Bay.

In spite of the increasing fury of the wind the Saxons spread more sail and succeeded in intercepting the Danes. A desperate fight began, but the Danes in their low, long vessels had all they could do to keep afloat on the waves. Many were run down by the Saxons. The showers of arrows from their lofty poops confused the rowers and slew many. Sweeping along close to them they often broke off the oars and disabled them. Sometimes two or three of the Danish galleys would try to close with a Saxon ship, but the sea was too rough for the boats to remain alongside while the men tried to climb up the high sides, and the Saxons with their spears thrust down those who strove to do so. Confusion and terror soon reigned among the Danes, and fearing to try to escape by sea in such a storm made for the shore, hotly pursued by the Saxons.

But the shore was even more inhospitable than their foes. Great rocks bordered the coast, and upon these the galleys were dashed into fragments. The people on shore, who had gathered at the sight of the approaching fleets, fell upon such of the Danes as succeeded in gaining the coast, and everyone who landed was instantly slain. Thus, partly from the effects of the Saxon fleet but still more from that of the storm, the whole of the Danish fleet of one hundred and twenty vessels was destroyed, not a single ship escaping the general destruction.