“How long before they arrive Ceneric?” – “Soon my brothers – very soon…”
Our kinsmen to the north, on the eastern coast, 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. And so 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.
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 wolfskin cloak, stood leaning against my shield watching absentmindedly as my old hound barked himself hoarse.
“Why do we have to be here; why can’t we keep watch from the safety and warmth of our home yonder?” Amluth grumbled as he drew his own 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 angrily; like my seasoned companions, I too was suffering from the cold as my hands 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 us, his human companions, he longed for the warmth of the great hall’s fire and the prospect of meaty bones brimming with juicy marrow for his empty belly.
Ghostly shapes appeared and disappeared within the thick blanket of sea mist. The rocky headland took on grotesque shapes, for all intents and purpose, looking like the many demons we had been told about by the travelling story-teller so many years ago, 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. 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. “Come Æthelwulf, time to hunt,” I added, as my faithful old hound tagged along behind; 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 tired frozen frames.
We climbed up the narrow slippery cliff path and started for the small inlet to the west of the landing beach. Down there I knew the early winter storms had driven a wealth of driftwood ashore, 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 too!
“Where are they old friend?” I asked of my trusted companion.
Æthelwulf’s growl intensified.
Æthelwulf’s ears pricked. His nose twitched as the unmistakeable odour of sea-wolves invaded his nostrils. His fangs dripped with saliva as a newer, far fiercer growl, ascended from the very depths of his body.
“Æthelwulf go get the others, quickly now old friend,” I whispered in the great hound’s ear, “I’ll keep watch for the Danes till you return; now go – hurry!”
The sea mist by now completely covered the whole headland, reducing Ceneric’s vision to a miserable few feet. It also seemed to deaden any sounds coming from the sea and more importantly from the as yet unseen danger below. Soon the familiar odour of my brothers’ signaled their presence beside me.
“What is it Ceneric – trouble?”
“Aye Ædelric – Danes,” I whispered, pointing down below from where we now lay in the course sea grasses of the headland still hidden by the heavy sea mist.
Amluth’s keen eyesight soon picked out the leading figure of the invader’s party climbing steadily towards where we 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 the sea wolves. He fingered the line of runic letters in silent prayer, 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.”
Ædelric did my bidding and soon vanished into the mist to tell our chief 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 defense of our 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.
I drew my iron spear and shield close to me as I shifted my weight, ready to pounce on the first Dane foolish enough to climb up and over the rocky edge.
Aiken and the rest of our warriors soon joined us in the course sea grass above the inlet.
“So they think to surprise us son,” Aiken whispered in my ear as a cold grimace broke out across my father’s battle scarred face.
Soon we were all spread across the only path that the Danes could take towards our home high above, where we had prepared our ambush.
The wind began to build as a violent storm far out in the channel between us and the vast continent to the south, still hidden by the sea mist, slowly increased the size of the violent waves smashing against the rocks below. The Danes temporarily halted their relentless climb towards where we lay in ambush when a low whistle from somewhere far below frantically signaled their immediate return.
Too late, the sickening sound of ships in their death throws signaled that our great ally the sea was smashing their long ships to matchwood in the mists below. Now they had no choice but to continue their climb, their retreat cut off forever.
I swear I saw Æthelwulf smile that day as we prepared for battle; more than enough fresh marrow for my old hound to fill his belly was coming towards his sharp fangs.
As the first sea-wolfs head appeared, Æthelwulf ran forward, fangs bared in anticipation with Ædelric, Beorwthwulf, Amluth and I in close pursuit.
My father Aiken and the rest of our warriors closed in behind to cut off the Danes retreat should they break through.
The unsuspecting Dane that Æthelwulf had sunk his sharp fangs into screamed in great pain as my old hound’s powerful jaws closed around his throat.
Amluth’s great battleaxe 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 signaling the rest of our warriors to join the battle.
By nightfall, our brief bloody encounter with the Danes’ abortive invasion of our home was at an end. No prisoners had been taken, no quarter shown.
Aiken held his drinking horn high, filled to its silver brim with mead, in a 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 gray eyes were screwed shut in ecstasy as he gnawed on the bone from the arm of the Dane he had dispatched…