A story from long ago

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Invasion

Our kinsmen on the eastern coast north of here, had already been fighting the invaders from across the sea for most of the summer. Now the icy tentacles of early winter blew; heavy sea mist rolled in. Our clan chief Aiken together with our king, Eardwulf of Kent, and his high council of chiefs firmly believed that the invaders would continue south to our homeland rather than wait until next spring.

This was the reason for our lonely frozen enforced vigil here above the only safe landing place for many leagues along the coast in either direction. My half wild wolf Æthelwulf had been howling at the pale yellow disc in the misty sky for most of the day in an attempt to scare it away.  Ædelric, Amluth and Beorwthwulf sat shivering with their backs to the rocky outcrop, sheltering from the icy wind and pounding waves, attempting to warm their feet by the pathetically small, damp driftwood fire, which was more smoke than flame, while I, Ceneric, son of our chief Aiken, wrapped in my wolf skin cloak, stood leaning against my shield watching absentmindedly as my wolf continued to howl himself hoarse.

“Why do we have to be here; why can’t we keep watch from the safety and warmth of our home up yonder?” Amluth grumbled as he drew his cloak around him in a futile effort to keep out the cold. Ædelric and Beorwthwulf nodded glumly in silent agreement.

“Patience my brothers, patience,” I muttered; like my seasoned companions, I was suffering from the cold. My hands had already slowly turned blue.

Æthelwulf finally gave up his futile attempt at banishing the sun from the sky and joined us, sharing the weak warmth of the now dying embers of the fire. Like his human companions, he longed for the warmth of the great hall’s fire and the prospect of meaty bones brimming with juicy marrow to fill his empty belly.

Ghostly shapes appeared and disappeared within the thick blanket of sea mist. The rocky headland took on grotesque shapes. For all intent and purpose, looking like the many demons we had been told about by the travelling story-teller down the years, when his tales caused the young and not so young of our clan to shiver in terror, during the many nights of our innocent childhood spent gathered around the roaring fire in the safety and warmth of our great hall.

Beorwthwulf lifted his cloak and placed it over his balding head. Amluth drew up his knees, wrapping them in his cloak while his teeth began to chatter uncontrolably. Ædelric sat with his head supported by his left hand, while with his right he stirred the barely glowing embers of the fast dying fire at their feet.

“I’m going to fetch more driftwood for the fire; keep a sharp lookout while I’m gone,” I commanded as I lifted my shield and spear. “Æthelwulf – time to hunt,” I added, as he fell in step beside me; both of us glad to be doing something, if only to get our circulation going and to relieve the rheumatic pains in both his and my own frozen frames.

We climbed up the narrow slippery cliff path and started for the small inlet to the west of the landing beach. I knew the early winter storms had driven a wealth of driftwood ashore there, more than enough for our immediate needs.

Æthelwulf cautiously sniffed the thick salty air as we walked the short distance across the narrow headland, then let out a low growl as the hackles on his back rose. I had smelt it to!

“Where are they old friend?” I asked of my trusted companion. Æthelwulf’s growl intensified. Both warrior and wolf now stood at the top of the barely negotiable path leading down to the inlet, each of them sensing that trouble was coming their way. Æthelwulf’s ears pricked. His nose twitched as the unmistakeable odour of sea-wolves invaded his nostrils. His bared fangs dripped with saliva as a newer, far fiercer growl, slowly ascended from the very depths of his canine soul.

“Go get the others, quickly now,” I whispered in his ear, “I’ll keep watch for the Danes till you return; now go – hurry!”

By now the sea mist completely covered the whole headland, reducing Ceneric’s vision to a miserable handful of feet. It also deadened any sounds coming from the sea and more importantly from the as yet unseen danger below.

Soon the familiar odour of his brother warriors signalled their presence beside him.

“What is it Ceneric – trouble?”

“Aye – Danes,” I whispered, pointing down below from where they lay in the corse sea grass of the headland still hidden from the Danes by the heavy sea mist. Amluth’s keen eyesight soon picked out the leading figure of the invader’s party climbing steadily towards where the defenders lay.

The razor sharp edge of Beorwthwulf’s heavy iron Seax gleamed in the weakened rays of the sun, ready to drink the blood of a sea wolf. He absentmindedly fingered the line of runes along its length, spelling out the name of his ancestor Beagnoth.

“Ædelric, go back to our hall and tell my father we have unwelcome guests, bring the rest of our warriors back with you – be silent mind, we have surprise on our side, now go.” Nodding, he did Ceneric’s bidding and soon vanished into the mist to tell Aiken that the Danes had chosen the dangerously rocky inlet to launch their raid.

The fingers of Amluth’s right hand flexed, opening and closing around his battleaxe’s alder handle in anticipation of the imminent defence of his homeland. Like Beorwthwulf’s Seax, Amluth’s great double-headed battleaxe bore the runes denoting the name of its first owner Bertolf – Amluth’s illustrious ancestor.

Ceneric drew his iron spear and shield close to him as he shifted his weight, ready to pounce on the first Dane foolish enough to climb up and over the rocky edge.

Aiken and the rest of his warriors soon joined them in the course sea grass above the inlet. “So they think to surprise us son,” Aiken whispered in Ceneric’s ear as a cold grimace broke out across his father’s battle scarred face. Soon they were all spread on either side of the only path that the Danes could take towards the defender’s home high above.

~~~

The wind began to build as a violent storm far out in the channel between Kent and the vast European continent to the south, still hidden by the sea mist, inevitably increased the size of the waves smashing against the rocks below. The Danes temporarily halted their relentless climb towards where the warriors lay in ambush when a low whistle from somewhere far below signalled them to return.

Too late, the sickening sound of Viking longships in their death throes signalled that our island’s greatest ally the sea was smashing them to matchwood in the mists below. Now with their retreat cut off they had little choice but to continue their climb.

~~~

I swear I saw Æthelwulf smile that day as we prepared for battle; more than enough fresh marrow for him was coming directly towards his sharp fangs. As the first sea-wolf’s head appeared, he ran forward, fangs bared in anticipation with Ædelric, Beorwthwulf, Amluth and myself in close pursuit. My father Aiken and the rest of our warriors closed in behind to cut off the Danes should they break through.

The unsuspecting Dane that Æthelwulf had sunk his sharp fangs into briefly screamed in great pain as his powerful jaws closed around his throat.

Beorwthwulf’s hungry Seax bit deep into the breast of the sea-wolf following close behind, ending his life and sending his soul to Valhalla.

Amluth’s great battle axe slew the next two Danes as they climbed up and briefly stood in the swirling mist on the sea grass. My iron spear skewered the next two as they appeared above the edge, one behind the other. My father Aiken blew the battle horn signalling the rest of our warriors to join battle.

~~~

By nightfall our brief bloody encounter with the Danes’ abortive invasion of our homeland was at an end. No prisoners had been taken, no quarter given.

That night Aiken held his drinking horn high, filled to its silver tipped brim with mead, in toast to our victory that day. Laying at my feet beneath the vast oak table amidst the discarded bones of our victory feast, Æthelwulf’s yellow eyes were screwed shut in pure ecstasy as he gnawed on the severed arm of a Dane he had dispatched…

😉

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