What seekest thou here?
For what is thy search?
What, friendless one, fain wouldst thou know?
By ways so wet, must thou wander hence,
For, weakling, no home hast thou here.
Aelle stood on the grassy hillock, above the bay of Swanwich. It was a perfect landing point for a Viking ship, being a long stretch of shallow sandy coast. The sea was fairly calm even though the sky was the same dirty grey as the water. Wind whipped around Aelle, lifting his bear skin and cooling his body. His instinct told him a storm was coming and he hoped it would be wild, long and treacherous to all ships.
The King had requested the Winchester militia protect the coast near his birthplace of Corfe Gate. The local thegn, Alwin, had brought a few men along, but not enough to make a difference, although all of them carried a bow. Aelle had half of the militia plus far too many new recruits. He was not happy, he had enough men to maybe deal with three longships and even then he would have to be lucky.
“Do you think they will come?” Alwin looked tense, reflecting how Aelle felt.
“They will come Alwin, they always do. I was told that their land is in eternal winter and no crops can grow there. Though their lands grow plenty of Norse and Dane, who swarm over our land like flies on a pat.”
Aelle patted Alwin on the back with his warrior’s hand and Alwin could feel that pat for a long time after. “Come on Alwin, we have enough recruits to keep a look out while we have some warm stew.” The pot of stew had been boiling for some time, containing mushrooms, wild garlic and roots plus hare and gull.
Swanwich had a long strip of sand running south to north along the eastern coast of Purbeck. At the north it opened into Poole Harbour, with easy access to the walled town of Wareham. The other half of the Winchester militia was stationed there in case the Norse raided the precious mint for silver. At the southern end of the beach the land turned west and rose to accommodate high cliffs. If or when the Vikings came they would land at Swanwich or approach the River Frome to Wareham. Aelle had three men up on the cliff to raise the alarm if they saw an attack coming from the west. He hoped he had thought of everything, although he knew that his troops were spread very thin. There was nothing more for him to do but wait, so he ate the stew and welcomed the warmth of it inside him.
Alwin walked over and woke Aelle from his doze.
“Time for fighting, the Vikings have been spotted.”
Aelle had felt comfortable after his meal and so had rested a little on the hillside.
“Where are they Alwin?” he asked as he stood and concentrated his gaze at the sea.
“They have been spotted coming from the west.”
“Okay Alwin, we will wait but I want the men hidden from the strand. It is better if the enemy lands here than if they sail right up to the walls of Wareham.”
Alwin resented being ordered around by Aelle, especially as he was a thegn and Aelle was only a captain. But Aelle commanded obedience and was a formidable-looking foe.
They lay atop the small hill above the strand and saw the first of the six longships come round the rocks at Handfast Point. All they could do was wait, and it was a strange feeling for Alwin. If they landed here he would have to face Vikings intent on killing him, but if they sailed past they would cause destruction in his own neighbourhood.
“Right Alwin, we will let the swine approach the beach but as soon as they land we will attack. We can start with your bowmen and then launch our spears at them and when they have got used to that we will cut them down.”
Aelle spoke with the confidence of a seasoned soldier but in his heart he was concerned. There were over three hundred Norsemen in those boats and the Saxons numbered only two hundred. The six longships seemed to be struggling to get round Handfast Point. Aelle could see flecks of white on the wave tops and he noticed the wind was blowing harder on his face. The pagans were trying to pull down their sails as the wind blew in off the German sea. The Viking war ships, dragons of the sea, had their oars deployed, but the last one was close to the devil and his wife, the two tall chalk monoliths standing out in the cold salty water. As the Winchester militia watched, the waves were whipped up against their foe and the longship was driven against the devil rock. Aelle could see men being tipped into the ocean. He hoped they were wearing chainmail, axes and swords, metal to drag them down to their watery hell.
Whether the Danes had wished to land at Swanwich or had planned to sail to Wareham, the weather ensured they made for the sandy beach and the comfort of dry land.
“Alwin, when they land do you think your bowmen could hit them from here?”
“Almost, but it would be better to stand a little closer, then we could kill more Vikings.”
Aelle noticed that Alwin was smiling at last; maybe this would be easier than he thought.
“Get them ready but do not show yourself, we do not want to scare them away just yet.”
The waves were rough, and the oars of the longships spent half the time rowing in the air. You could almost feel sorry for the invaders. As they headed towards the bay another longship tilted too far and took on water. Soon it was spilling more Danes to their cold salty death. Some of the sister ships tried taking on survivors, but it was so rough and most were too far away. The four surviving ships struggled on to reach land and Aelle could almost see the determination etched on the faces of the sailors.
The first longship scraped across the shingle and sand. Soon enough the Danes leapt out and started to pull the boat up the beach.
“Okay Alwin, let them get a second boat ashore and then let fly with your arrows.”
The warriors in the first ship got it safely on dry land and then went back into the surf to help their comrades. They managed to get two more longships on land as the last surviving ship struggled to straighten and come ashore. When the second and third ships were halfway out of the surf Alwin gave the order and his bowmen ran down the hill. They stopped on the high ground and let loose their first volley. Across the sand, with the sea only about thirty paces away, even a poor bowman could find his target. There were twenty archers and now there were twenty dead Vikings. The invaders tried to reach into their ships to collect shields and weapons but another eighteen where dead before they were fully armed. A few men were still stuck in the longships and tried to use the ship for protection. Still out at sea the final longship was being spun round, its occupants could see their colleagues were under attack. The Vikings on the shore looked up at the twenty archers and then saw them joined by ten times as many warriors. At the front was a big man with long brown hair and a bushy brown beard. Across his shoulders was the hide of a great bear and in his hand was a double-headed axe. If any of the invading Vikings said they were not scared that day they would have been lying. Ahead of them was a Saxon army and behind them was the angry sea.
Aelle called a halt to the arrows; he could see that they were low anyway. On another order his front row ran towards the bottom of the hill and launched their spears at the enemy. As soon as they were in the air his second line ran forward and launched their spears. When the spears hit their targets the Winchester militia ran screaming across the sand. The Vikings suffered even more casualties under the onslaught of spear, and it was only because the militia found it difficult to run through the soft sand that the Vikings had time to form a simple shield wall. Aelle was on the right flank and Alwin took the left and they ran hard at the hastily formed wall of shields. Aelle hit one hard with his broad axe and he felt joy as his great weapon cut through the birch, disabling the Viking behind it. He pulled his axe towards him and opened up a gap in the thin wall. His men poured into the gap, cutting and slashing and causing panic among the pirates. Aelle dropped his faithful axe to the ground and pulled out his sword, screaming as he entered the fray.
Alwin was glad to have Aelle’s militia around him; they knew what to do in a shield wall. They were all well drilled and knew how to break down the enemy. He felt pleased with himself that he kept his bowmen well trained. The arrows and spears had cut the Viking numbers on the beach in half. Now they had to face twice as many Saxons, all well fed and well rested. Alwin was sure that the trial of rowing through the storm had sapped their strength, and Aelle’s men knew it too.
Aelle thrust his sword deep into the belly of a Norseman and was sprayed in a vomit of blood. He withdrew his sword and hacked at the Viking to his left, but he was already falling under a blow from one of Aelle’s men. Aelle stood and watched as his men finished off the Vikings, killing everyone. The sea was coming in to wash away the blood, but there was so much soaked into the sand it would take a high tide to remove it all. Aelle looked out to sea and saw that the last longship had gained control and was now being rowed away to the south as the storm finished. Alwin approached the captain of the militia and they hugged with joy and relief. The King would be pleased: they had repelled another invasion, albeit a small one.