I am Cerdic. Once, I was a great warrior, praised by my King and rewarded with this farmstead and land. Now I sit in my chair by the fire and see memories in the flames and smoke.
“Will you tell me about your sword, Granda?” This is the voice of my youngest grandson, my favourite. He has golden hair and blue eyes, like a good Saxon should, but he will not make a warrior. He loves to hear the stories and listen to the ballads but there is no aggression in him. I blame his mother.
He takes it down from its place on the wall and hands it to me. I show him the serpents stained into the blade.
“These are the marks of a Pagan’s sword”
He sits beside me on the floor. “Where did it come from?”
“I took it from a Pagan in battle, what…. two score years ago.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Yes, lad, even at your young age you must know that no warrior gives up his sword unless he is dead - especially not a Danish one.”
This is the boy’s favourite word. Perhaps he will be a scholar. He could make a good living if he could be a scholar at court. But I fear he will go into the church – and leave no heirs but bastards.
“The Northmen believe that if they die with a sword in their hand they will go to their heaven, which is a great feast with all the drink they want and many women to enjoy.”
“But you don’t believe that?”
I grasp the simple wooden cross that is always around my neck on a leather strip: “Alfred’s men are all Christians. We look for a heaven of peace and joy, not base roistering.”
“What did you do for Alfred that he should so reward you?”
“I stood in the shield wall for many of his battles, including the great victory at Edington. It was at this last great slaughter that I won renown by sealing up a breach when the Danish charge broke through. If the breach had not been healed quickly, it would have meant another disaster.”
I showed the boy the gold rings on my sword arm. “These I took from Pagan warriors after I slew them. Only their best had these rings as a sign of valour. But they fell to my sword.”
“But that is not your sword?”
“It is now. It is a far better one than I could have ever bought for myself. So, when I took it, I kept it as my own.”
“Was Edington the greatest battle that there ever was?”
“Perhaps it may have been. It was certainly a great battle. Many hundreds lay dead when it was finished.”
“So, it was Alfred and his army who freed us from the Danish raiders?”
“Why do you ask?”
“The priest says it was God.”
“Does he say God fought with us at Edrington?” I am angry now and the boy quakes in fright. I see it and soften, putting my hand on his shoulder.
Then I realise what the priest means: “Does he come from these parts, this man of God?”
“Yes, he is local. He was born in Swanwick. His parents were fisher folk.”
I stare into the fire as the wind blows its smoke back into the house. The boy coughs, his eyes watering.
I hold the cross again while gathering my thoughts.
“In a way, the priest is right.”
“Did you see God with you at the battle?”
“No, no it was not like that. If you stop interrupting, I will tell you.”
He looks shame faced but I do not pat his shoulder again. He must learn when to speak and when to be silent if he is to succeed at court.
“When Alfred’s great army fought at Edrington, he was strong. Many men had answered the levies, to rid the land of the plague of Pagan raiders. They were coming at least once a year, to burn and rape and take slaves to sell over the seas.”
“If the Danes had attacked earlier, Alfred would not have had the support he needed and might well have suffered a defeat from which he could not recover.”
“That is why the priest says God defeated the Danes – because they had tried to come in far greater force a year earlier.”
“I was a servant then, in this very farm. It seems snug and secure now, set it the fold between two great long hills. We are out of sight from the sea, but we are still very close to it. And there are good sandy landing places within a league of us, to the north or to the east.”
“In those days we lived in constant fear, especially at harvest time. They often came when the harvest was in, knowing there we would have ample grain for them steal. They were happy to leave us with nothing, to starve.”
“So, one of my jobs, when the harvest was in and there was less work to do in the fields, was to take the farm horse every morning and ride up through the woods to the point that looks out over Swanwich bay to the island they call Whitland. If the Danes came, I would see them first and could ride back to warn everyone to take what they could carry and hide in the forest.”
“On that morning, there was a strong north wind blowing, and it had rained all night. We made heavy work on the slippery hillside. At the top we had to fight through the gorse until I could see the white cliffs of the island in the distance.”
“What I saw filled me with dread. I could see scores of ships streaming past the point to the north of the bay, heading out to sea. They had to be raiders, we had far fewer ships than I could see, and more were coming all the time.”
“And they were in a hurry. Their great square sails were full as they ran before the wind. They had their banks of oars out too, rowing hard.”
“I immediately knew this was no raiding party. This was a full-scale invasion force.”
“I turned to make all speed down to warn the farm but then thought better of it. I had seen something that made me realise why they were in such a hurry. Out beyond the island, a great bank of black cloud was building. Underneath it looked like fog, or heavy rain. And the wind was veering.”
“I don’t understand what that means?”
“The wind direction was changing. There was a bad easterly storm coming. Unless those ships could make the open sea before it hit, they would be smashed on the shore.”
“So, I watched them stream out in front of me, hundreds of them, their dragon prows thrashing through the rising waves.”
“Soon they were smothered in the storm. I could no longer see anything.”
“But I then I began to hear sounds. Like the noise of a sea battle, men shouting and screaming, and the crashing and splintering of wood. It went on and on, louder and louder. Hundreds of ships were smashed that day onto the ledges to the west of the bay. In the fog they didn’t realise that the wind had changed still further; and the rocks were exposed by an ebbing tide. The tide is strong and that would have helped to suck them onto the jagged, hard rock. The bottoms were ripped out of the ships one by one. They must have thought the sound was of the leading ships being attacked. So, the followers rushed blindly in to help.”
“When I went back the next morning, it was like a field of battle. The weather had cleared, and the sea was strewn with wreckage as far as the eye could see. Bodies were piled up, two and three deep on the tide line, the beach stained with blood.”
“That disaster discouraged them. When they came to invade again the next year, fewer of their warlords were prepared to come and their smaller army was slaughtered by Alfred.”
“That is why the priest says that God fought for us. The battle that fatally weakened the Danes, was a battle their ships fought only with a great storm.”
The boy’s eyes are now drooping, so I tell him to sleep.
But he cannot resist one further question: “Were you always a Christian, Granda? Mummy says you converted as a grown man.”
“She is right, I sighed, it was only when Alfred insisted that I accepted baptism.”
“Now off with you, I am tired too.”
When dawn came, they found me sitting in that same chair, my head slumped on my chest.
My sword still lay across my lap - the hilt grasped firmly in my cold hand.