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

Edmund spent a month on his lands, moving about among his vassals and dwelling in their abodes. He inspired them by his words with fresh spirit and confidence, telling them that this state of things could not last, and that he was going to join the king, who doubtless would soon call them to take part in a fresh effort to drive out their cruel oppressors. Edmund found that although none knew with certainty the hiding-place of King Alfred, it was generally reported that he had taken refuge in the low lands of Somersetshire, and Athelney was specially named as the place which he had made his abode.

“It is a good omen,” Edmund said, “for Athelney lies close to the Parrot, where my good ship the Dragon is laid away.”

After visiting all the villages in his earldom Edmund started with Egbert and four young men, whom he might use as messengers, for the reported hiding-place of the king. First they visited the Dragon, and found her lying undisturbed; then they followed the river down till they reached the great swamps which extended for a considerable distance near its mouth. After much wandering they came upon the hut of a fisherman. The man on hearing the footsteps came to his door with a bent bow. When he saw that the new-comers were Saxons he lowered the arrow which was already fitted to the string.

“Can you tell us,” Edmund said, “which is the way to Athelney? We know that it is an island amidst these morasses, but we are strangers to the locality and cannot find it.”

“And you might search for weeks,” the man said, “without finding it, so thickly is it surrounded by deep swamps and woods. But what want ye there?”

“Men say,” Edmund replied, “that King Alfred is hidden there. We are faithful followers of his. I am Ealdorman Edmund of Sherborne, and have good news for the king.”

“If ye are indeed the Ealdorman of Sherborne, of whose bravery I have heard much, I will right willingly lead you to Athelney if you will, but no king will you find there. There are a few fugitives from the Danes scattered here and there in these marshes, but none, so far as I know, of any rank or station. However, I will lead you thither should you still wish to go.”

Edmund expressed his desire to visit the island even if the king were not there. The man at once drew out a small boat from a hiding-place near his hut. It would hold four at most. Edmund and Egbert stepped in with one of their followers, charging the others to remain at the hut until they received further instructions. The fisherman with a long pole took his place in the bow of the boat and pushed off. For some hours they made their way through the labyrinth of sluggish and narrow channels of the morass. It was a gloomy journey. The leafless trees frequently met overhead; the long rushes in the wetter parts of the swamp rustled as the cold breezes swept across them, and a slight coating of snow which had fallen the previous night added to the dreary aspect of the scene. At last they came upon sharply rising ground.

“This is Athelney,” the fisherman said, “a good hiding-place truly; for, as you see, it rises high over the surrounding country, which is always swampy from the waters of the Parrot and Theme, and at high tides the salt water of the sea fills all these waterways, and the trees rise from a broad sheet of sea. No Dane has ever yet set foot among these marshes; and were there but provisions to keep them alive, a safe refuge might be found on this island for hundreds of fugitives. Will you be returning to-night?”

“That I cannot tell you,” Edmund replied; “but at any rate I will hire you and your boat to remain at my service for a week, and will pay you a far higher price than you can obtain by your fishing.”

The fisherman readily agreed, and Edmund and his companions made their way into the heart of the island. It was of some extent, and rose above the tree-tops of the surrounding country. Presently they came to a cottage. A man came out.

“What do you seek?” he asked.

“You have fugitives in refuge here,” Edmund said. “Know you if among them is our good King Alfred?” The man looked astonished.

“A pretty place to seek for a king!” he replied. “There are a few Saxons in hiding here. Some live by fishing, some chop wood; but for the most part they are an idle and thriftless lot, and methinks have fled hither rather to escape from honest work or to avoid the penalties of crimes than for any other reason.”

“How may we find them?” Edmund asked.

“They are scattered over the island. There are eight or ten dwellers here like myself, and several of them have one or more of these fellows with them; others have built huts for themselves and shift as they can; but it is a hard shift, I reckon, and beech-nuts and acorns, eked out with an occasional fish caught in the streams, is all they have to live upon. I wonder that they do not go back to honest work among their kinsfolk.”

“Ah!” Edmund said, “you do not know here how cruel are the ravages of the Danes; our homes are broken up and our villages destroyed, and every forest in the land is peopled with fugitive Saxons. Did you know that you would speak less harshly of those here. At any rate the man I seek is young and fair-looking, and would, I should think” and he smiled as he remembered Alfred’s studious habits “be one of the most shiftless of those here.”

“There is such a one,” the man replied, “and several times friends of his have been hither to see him. He dwells at my next neighbour’s, who is often driven well-nigh out of her mind for she is a dame with a shrewish tongue and sharp temper by his inattention. She only asks of him that he will cut wood and keep an eye over her pigs, which wander in the forest, in return for his food; and yet, simple as are his duties, he is for ever forgetting them. I warrant me, the dame would not so long have put up with him had he not been so fair and helpless. However bad-tempered a woman may be, she has always a tender corner in her heart for this sort of fellow. There, you can take this path through the trees and follow it on; it will take you straight to her cottage.”

The description given by the man tallied so accurately with that of the king that Edmund felt confident that he was on the right track. The fact, too, that from time to time men had come to see this person added to the probability of his being the king. Presently they came upon the hut. A number of pigs were feeding under the trees around it; the door was open, and the shrill tones of a woman’s voice raised in anger could be heard as they approached.

“You are an idle loon, and I will no longer put up with your ways, and you may seek another mistress. You are worse than useless here. I do but ask you to watch these cakes while I go over to speak with my neighbour, and inquire how she and the child born yestereven are getting on, and you go to sleep by the fire and suffer the case to burn.

“You were not asleep, you say? then so much the worse. Where were your eyes, then? And where was your nose? Why, I smelt the cakes a hundred yards away, and you sitting over them, and as you say awake, neither saw them burning nor smelt them! You are enough to break an honest woman’s heart with your mooning ways. You are ready enough to eat when the meal-time comes, but are too lazy even to watch the food as it cooks. I tell you I will have no more of you. I have put up with you till I am verily ashamed of my own patience; but this is too much, and you must go your way, for I will have no more of you.”

At this moment Edmund and Egbert appeared at the door of the hut. As he had expected from the nature of the colloquy Edmund saw King Alfred standing contrite and ashamed before the angry dame.

“My beloved sovereign!” he cried, running in and falling on his knees.

“My trusted Edmund,” Alfred exclaimed cordially, “right glad am I to see you, and you too, my valiant Egbert; truly I feared that the good ship Dragon had long since fallen into the hands of our enemy.”

“The Dragon lies not many miles hence, your majesty, in the hole in which she was built, by the river Parrot; she has done bravely and has brought home a rich store of booty, a large share of which has been hidden away for your majesty, and can be brought here in a few hours should you wish it.”

“Verily I am glad to hear it, Edmund, for I have long been penniless; and I have great need of something at least to pay this good woman for all the trouble she has been at with me, and for her food which my carelessness has destroyed, as you may have heard but now.”

Edmund and Egbert joined in the king’s merry laugh. The dame looked a picture of consternation and fell upon her knees.

“Pardon me, your majesty,” she cried; “to think that I have ventured to abuse our good King Alfred, and have even in mine anger lifted my hand against him!”

“And with right good-will too,” the king said laughing. “Never fear, good dame, your tongue has been rough but your heart has been kindly, or never would you have borne so long with so shiftless a serving-man. But leave us now, I pray ye, for I have much to say to my good friends here. And now, Edmund, what news do you bring? I do not ask after the doings of the Dragon, for that no doubt is a long story which you shall tell me later, but how fares it with my kingdom? I have been in correspondence with several of my thanes, who have from time to time sent me news of what passes without. From what they say I deem that the time for action is at last nigh at hand. The people are everywhere desperate at the oppression and exactions of the Danes, and are ready to risk everything to free themselves from so terrible a yoke. I fled here and gave up the strife because the Saxons deemed anything better than further resistance. Now that they have found out their error it is time to be stirring again.”

“That is so,” Edmund said; “Egbert and I have found the people desperate at their slavery, and ready to risk all did a leader but appear. My own people will all take up arms the instant they receive my summons; they have before now proved their valour, and in my crew of the Dragon you have a body which will, I warrant me, pierce through any Danish line.”

“This tallies with what I have heard,” Alfred said, “and in the spring I will again raise my banner; but in the meantime I will fortify this place. There are but two or three spots where boats can penetrate through the morasses; were strong stockades and banks erected at each landing-place we might hold the island in case of defeat against any number of the enemy.”

“That shall be done,” Edmund said, “and quickly. I have a messenger here with me, and others waiting outside the swamp, and can send and bring my crew of the Dragon here at once.”

“Let that be one man’s mission,” the king said; “the others I will send off with messages to the thanes of Somerset, who are only awaiting my summons to take up arms. I will bid them send hither strong working parties, but to make no show in arms until Easter, at which time I will again spread the Golden Dragon to the winds. The treasure you speak of will be right welcome, for all are so impoverished by the Danes that they live but from hand to mouth, and we must at least buy provisions to maintain the parties working here. Arms, too, must be made, for although many have hidden their weapons, the Danes have seized vast quantities, having issued an order that any Saxon found with arms shall be at once put to death. Money will be needed to set all the smithies to work at the manufacture of pikes and swords. Hides must be bought for the manufacture of shields. It will be best to send orders to the ealdormen and thanes to send hither privately the smiths, armourers, and shield-makers in the villages and towns. They cannot work with the Danes ever about, but must set up smithies here. They must bring their tools and such iron as they can carry; what more is required we must buy at the large towns and bring privately in carts to the edge of the morass. The utmost silence and secrecy must be observed, that the Danes may obtain no news of our preparations until we are ready to burst out upon them.”

A fortnight later Athelney presented a changed appearance. A thousand men were gathered there. Trees had been cut down, a strong fort erected on the highest ground, and formidable works constructed at three points where alone a landing could be effected. The smoke rose from a score of great mounds, where charcoal-burners were converting timber into fuel for the forges. Fifty smiths and armourers were working vigorously at forges in the open air, roofs thatched with rushes and supported by poles being erected over them to keep the rain and snow from the fires. A score of boats were threading the mazes of the marshes bringing men and cattle to the island. All was bustle and activity, every face shone with renewed hope. King Alfred himself and his thanes moved to and fro among the workers encouraging them at their labours.

Messengers came and went in numbers, and from all parts of Wessex King Alfred received news of the joy which his people felt at the tidings that he was again about to raise his standard, and of the readiness of all to obey his summons. So well was the secret kept that no rumour of the storm about to burst upon them reached the Danes. The people, rejoicing and eager as they were, suffered no evidence of their feelings to be apparent to their cruel masters, who, believing the Saxons to be finally crushed, were lulled into a false security. The king’s treasure had been brought from its hiding-place to Athelney, and Edmund and Egbert had also handed over their own share of the booty to the king. The golden cups and goblets he had refused to take, but had gladly accepted the silver.

Edmund and Egbert had left Athelney for a few days on a mission. The king had described to them minutely where he had hidden the sacred standard with the Golden Dragon. It was in the hut of a charcoal-burner in the heart of the forests of Wiltshire. Upon reaching the hut, and showing to the man the king’s signet-ring, which when leaving the standard he had told him would be the signal that any who might come for it were sent by him, the man produced the standard from the thatch of his cottage, in which it was deeply buried, and hearing that it was again to be unfurled called his two stalwart sons from their work and at once set out with Edmund and Egbert to join the army.

Easter came and went, but the preparations were not yet completed. A vast supply of arms was needed, and while the smiths laboured at their work Edmund and Egbert drilled the fighting men who had assembled, in the tactics which had on a small scale proved so effective. The wedge shape was retained, and Edmund’s own band claimed the honour of forming the apex, but it had now swollen until it contained a thousand men, and as it moved in a solid body, with its thick edge of spears outward, the king felt confident that it would be able to break through the strongest line of the Danes.

From morning till night Edmund and Egbert, assisted by the thanes of Somerset who had gathered there, drilled the men and taught them to rally rapidly from scattered order into solid formation. Unaccustomed to regular tactics the ease and rapidity with which these movements came to be carried out at the notes of Edmund’s bugle seemed to all to be little less than miraculous, and they awaited with confidence and eagerness their meeting with the Danes on the field.

At the end of April messengers were sent out bidding the Saxons hold themselves in readiness, and on the 6th of May Alfred moved with his force from Athelney to Egbertesstan (now called Brixton), lying to the east of the forest of Selwood, which lay between Devonshire and Somerset. The Golden Dragon had been unfurled. On the fort in Athelney, and after crossing the marshes to the mainland it was carried in the centre of the phalanx.

On the 12th they reached the appointed place, where they found a great multitude of Saxons already gathered. They had poured in from Devonshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire, from Dorset and Hants. In spite of the vigorous edicts of the Danes against arms a great proportion of them bore weapons, which had been buried in the earth, or concealed in hollow trees or other hiding-places until the time for action should again arrive.

As they saw the king approaching at the head of his band, with the Golden Dragon fluttering in the breeze, a great shout of joy arose from the multitude, and they crowded round the monarch with shouts of welcome at his reappearance among them, and with vows to die rather than again to yield to the tyranny of the Northmen. The rest of the day was spent in distributing the newly fashioned arms to those who needed them, and in arranging the men in bands under their own thanes, or, in their absence, such leaders as the king appointed.

Upon the following morning the army started, marching in a north-easterly direction against the great camp of the Danes at Chippenham. That night they rested at Okeley, and then marched on until in the afternoon they came within sight of the Danes gathered at Ethandune, a place supposed to be identical with Edington near Westbury.

As the time for Alfred’s reappearance approached the agitation and movement on the part of the people had attracted the attention of the Danes, and the news of his summons to the Saxons to meet him at Egbertesstan having come to their ears, they gathered hastily from all parts under Guthorn their king, who was by far the most powerful viking who had yet appeared in England, and who ruled East Anglia as well as Wessex. Confident of victory the great Danish army beheld the approach of the Saxons. Long accustomed to success, and superior in numbers, they regarded with something like contempt the approach of their foes.

In the centre Alfred placed the trained phalanx which had accompanied him from Athelney, in the centre of which waved the Golden Dragon, by whose side he placed himself. Its command he left in the hands of Edmund, he himself directing the general movements of the force. On his right were the men of Somerset and Hants; on the left those of Wilts, Dorset, and Devon.

His orders were that the advance was to be made with regularity; that the whole line were to fight for a while on the defensive, resisting the onslaught of the Danes until he gave the word for the central phalanx to advance and burst through the lines of the enemy, and that when these had been thrown into confusion by this attack the flanks were to charge forward and complete the rout. This plan was carried out. The Danes advanced with their usual impetuosity, and for hours tried to break through the lines of the Saxon spears. Both sides fought valiantly, the Danes inspired by their pride in their personal prowess and their contempt for the Saxons; the Saxons by their hatred for their oppressors, and their determination to die rather than again submit to their bondage. At length, after the battle had raged some hours, and both parties were becoming wearied from their exertions, the king gave Edmund the order.

Hitherto his men had fought in line with the rest; but at the sound of his bugle they quitted their places, and, ere the Danes could understand the meaning of this sudden movement, had formed themselves into their wedge, raised a mighty shout, and advanced against the enemy. The onslaught was irresistible. The great wedge, with its thick fringe of spears, burst its way straight through the Danish centre carrying all before it. Then at another note of Edmund’s bugle it broke up into two bodies, which moved solidly to the right and left, crumpling up the Danish lines.

Alfred now gave the order for a general advance, and the Saxon ranks, with a shout of triumph, flung themselves upon the disordered Danes. Their success was instant and complete. Confounded at the sudden break up of their line, bewildered by these new and formidable tactics, attacked in front and in flank, the Danes broke and fled. The Saxons pursued them hotly, Edmund keeping his men well together in case the Danes should rally. Their rout, however, was too complete; vast numbers were slain, and the remnant of their army did not pause until they found themselves within the shelter of their camp at Chippenham.

No quarter was given by the Saxons to those who fell into their hands, and pressing upon the heels of the flying Danes the victorious army of King Alfred sat down before Chippenham. Every hour brought fresh reinforcements to the king’s standard. Many were already on their way when the battle was fought; and as the news of the victory spread rapidly every man of the West Saxons capable of bearing arms made for Chippenham, feeling that now or never must a complete victory over the Danes be obtained.

No assault was made upon the Danish camp. Confident in his now vastly superior numbers, and in the enthusiasm which reigned in his army, Alfred was unwilling to waste a single life in an attack upon the entrenchments, which must ere long surrender from famine. There was no risk of reinforcements arriving to relieve the Danes. Guthorn had led to the battle the whole fighting force of the Danes in Wessex and East Anglia. This was far smaller than it would have been a year earlier; but the Northmen, having once completed their work of pillage, soon turned to fresh fields of adventure. Those whose disposition led them to prefer a quiet life had settled upon the land from which they had dispossessed the Saxons; but the principal bands of rovers, finding that England was exhausted and that no more plunder could be had, had either gone back to enjoy at home the booty they had gained, or had sailed to harry the shores of France, Spain, and Italy.

Thus the position of the Danes in Chippenham was desperate, and at the end of fourteen days, by which time they were reduced to an extremity by hunger, they sent messengers into the royal camp offering their submission. They promised if spared to quit the kingdom with all speed, and to observe this contract more faithfully than those which they had hitherto made and broken. They offered the king as many hostages as he might wish to take for the fulfilment of their promises. The haggard and emaciated condition of those who came out to treat moved Alfred to pity.

So weakened were they by famine that they could scarce drag themselves along. It would have been easy for the Saxons to have slain them to the last man; and the majority of the Saxons, smarting under the memory of the cruel oppression which they had suffered, the destruction of home and property, and the slaughter of friends and relations, would fain have exterminated their foes. King Alfred, however, thought otherwise.

Guthorn and the Danes had effected a firm settlement in East Anglia, and lived at amity with the Saxons there. They had, it is true, wrested from them the greatest portion of their lands. Still peace and order were now established. The Saxons were allowed liberty and equal rights. Intermarriages were taking place, and the two peoples were becoming welded into one. Alfred then considered that it would be well to have the king of this country as an ally; he and his settled people would soon be as hostile to further incursions of the Northmen as were the Saxons themselves, and their interests and those of Wessex would be identical.

Did he, on the other hand, carry out a general massacre of the Danes now in his power he might have brought upon England a fresh invasion of Northmen, who, next to plunder, loved revenge, and who might come over in great hosts to avenge the slaughter of their countrymen. Moved, then, by motives of policy as well as by compassion, he granted the terms they asked, and hostages having been sent in from the camp he ordered provisions to be supplied to the Danes.

The same night a messenger of rank came in from Guthorn saying that he intended to embrace Christianity. The news filled Alfred and the Saxons with joy. The king, a sincere and devoted Christian, had fought as much for his religion as for his kingdom, and his joy at the prospect of Guthorn’s conversion, which would as a matter of course be followed by that of his subjects, was deep and sincere.

To the Saxons generally the temporal consequence of the conversion had no doubt greater weight than the spiritual. The conversion of Guthorn and the Danes would be a pledge far more binding than any oaths of alliance between the two kingdoms. Guthorn and his followers would be viewed with hostility by their countrymen, whose hatred of Christianity was intense, and East Anglia would, therefore, naturally seek the close alliance and assistance of its Christian neighbour.

Great were the rejoicings in the Saxon camp that night. Seldom, indeed, has a victory had so great and decisive an effect upon the future of a nation as that of Ethandune. Had the Saxons been crushed, the domination of the Danes in England would have been finally settled. Christianity would have been stamped out, and with it civilization, and the island would have made a backward step into paganism and barbarism which might have delayed her progress for centuries.

The victory established the freedom of Wessex, converted East Anglia into a settled and Christian country, and enabled King Alfred to frame the wise laws and statutes and to establish on a firm basis the institutions which raised Saxon England vastly in the scale of civilization, and have in no small degree affected the whole course of life of the English people.