WILLIAM G. CARPENTER
Alfred and his thanes
fight their way to the stables. Ealhswith prepares to
take the children to Frome. The surviving guests flee across the Avon,
Alfred turns back to confirm Ealhswith’s escape. He and a small band
hurry to Frome. At the abbey they are spotted by Danes and pursued.
King Alfred wrestled on his
coat of mail
and joined the Somersetan in the doorway.
Pale smoke blanketed the yard,
transpierced by flames gleaming in blades and helms
like fallen stars buried in deep water.
Amid the murk, the Athulfing discerned
a straggling palisade of Wiltshire spearmen
anchored on his mailed household guards.
The crash of arms and cries of pain and hatred,
perhaps because the darkness shrank the scene,
conjured in Alfred’s mind the Roman folk
drunk on the liquor spilled in the arena.
“My God,” he said. But now
was not the time
to ask what sin, what vicious satisfaction,
had blinded him and his to an obvious peril.
“Caput porcinum!” the monarch cried.1
his thane repeated,
“for our Lord’s feast! Arm, you novice miners!
We’ll drive a bloody shaft to the king’s stables!”
“Not so, Lord,” a
rumbled below the shouts and clanking iron.
Old Cyma spoke, King Athulf’s Wiltshire thane,2
seconded by Ealhstan and Mildred.
“We claim the precedence,” asserted Cyma.
Into the smoking flood the gray thanes plunged,
then Athelnoth and two of Addi’s guardsmen,
succeeded by young Alfred and his bishop.3
The other guests, who dreaded lest their dryhten4
should die alone, now exited the hall,
while overhead the flame-cheeked billows shrouded
the moonless tomb of the Lord’s festal night.
1. Boar's head formation (L).
2. K. Athelwulf d. 858.
3. Athelheah 9th bp. of Sherborne.
4. lord (oe).
“For Athelwulf and Christ!”
Lord Cyma called,
a wisp of mist dissolving at his lips.
A hundred Saxon throats threw back the slogan,
but twenty score invaders bellowed, “Har!”
another name for Grim, the hooded one.
Thrusting himself among the thronging Danes,
beating his feet against the frozen floor,
the elder penetrated several steps
before the devils landed one good hit.
Shoving with his shield, the Wiltshireman
parted a pirate’s windpipe with his tip
and nimbly blocked and hacked at arms and limbs
deployed to check or hinder his attack,
till, staggered by an axe-blow to the helm
and a bold stroke that unhinged his jaw,
the warrior forgot to ward the oar
a steersman swung straight at his naked neck.
His arms hung from his
hands, his lean legs failed,
but Mildred rushed his shield against the sailor,
bore the man down, and drove through several more,
as Ealhstan and Athelnoth, his flankers,
bustled to blunt the blades the thane thrust past.
The thread of Wiltshiremen and royal guards,
now blown and bloody, cautiously backed in
to point and push the boar’s rooting snout,
the cleft between their folding wings now filled
with clerks and ladies gripping glinting flames.
Marshaled by Mildred’s banging boss and brand,
the band of Saxons bit into the body
more like an auger gnawing round its nib
than the keen edge of a maul-walloped wedge.
A slipping sailor stabbed his outstretched sword
through Mildred’s foot, fixing him where he flailed.
The thane gave back a
but mangled mail clung to searching steel,
the veteran could not retract his blade,
and the burst brigand, buckling as he bowed,
drew the guþrinc over his nailed shoe.5
A sudden sidestroke sundered hand from wrist,
and the gore poured as Mildred, in a muddle,
brusquely covered the cursing northerner.
5. war-man (OE)
Ealhstan flung forward, but
could not fend off the flash that freed his friend’s
illustrious headdress from his prostrate trunk.
The last of Athulf’s Wiltshire ministers
piloted his point at eyes and ears
and twiddled teeth and noses with his shield
before a foreign oarsman speared his side.
Down he drooped and doused
the iron ground,
but Athelnoth and Alfred understood,
hustling to advance the Saxon sally,
the aged thanes had carved the corridor
that Athelnoth designed full half the way
to Alfred’s burning barn, from which, they hoped,
their coursers might spirit them from this hell.
The king had grunted “Lord” at every blow
he dealt and every buffet he endured.
A miracle it was to have come so far.
“We need another miracle,” he muttered.
As Godrum saw from where he
sat, his stallion
stalled in the stogged, vociferating mob,
his mass of warriors could not get at
an enemy thus crushed among their friends.
Contented that the newborn moon had set
as forecast, scurrying abaft the sun,
he glimpsed only a string of bobbing helms
slithering through the chop of smoke and steel.
Meanwhile, monks and women hurled themselves
into the gallery that gaped before them,
stumbling on unseen, unstiffened corpses,
sluicing their shoes in uncongealed grume,
one hand gripping a neighbor’s fur-clad elbow,
the other brandishing a one-edged blade.
Inimical to law and love and form,
it seemed a feast or liturgy of nothing,
the next-to-nothing out of which our Father
concocted all good things in earth and heaven.
The last to leave the hall,
old Bishop Tunbert,6
whose lifting hairs flared with the rooftop’s fire,
lingered to sing a hymn to Christ the King,
who’d parted this flood of fiends with his arm
as once he spread the waves to rescue Moses.
6. Tunbert 19th bp. of Winchester; Wini 1st bp. cons. 662.
“The Lord,” he intoned, “is
a man of war—”7
Wigred and Wulfred, thanes Wulfheard had charged8
to bring the bishop safely home to Hampshire,
grappled his gaunt bones and bore him onward.
Behind their backs, a Wiltshire soldier toppled.
From where he lay in pain, the beorn saw9
a bear-cloaked lord, framed by the hall’s dark doorway,
clasping a black, shapeless mass to his chest.
In town, the royal offspring sat on horseback,
each curtained by a guardsman’s mailed arms.
Oppressed, the king’s lady, Ealhswith,
raised her rushlight to examine Edward,
then beamed assurance into the dazed eyes
of Athelgeofu and little Elfthryth10
and hardness into the eyes of their young warders.
She peered with fear at steadfast Athelflaed,
her eldest, and the eldest of her girls.
Hearing a shout go up beyond the houses,
which instantly a roaring answer whelmed,
she turned to see a raft of ugly smoke
sprawling and bulging over Athulf’s lodge,
its nether parts inflamed by glaring thatch.
“Let’s go,” said Addi,
tapped to head this band,
“at this point we can only save ourselves.”
The lady held her dim wand to his chin.
Hand in hand, they’d scrambled from the hall,
evaded Godrum’s gathering heathen horde,
and roused the cubs and Hilda at the inn.
Her other hand rose to her breast and touched
the chain from which her silver sieve had fallen.
“Shall I abandon Alfred?”
“For all I know, the Danes have slain my kinfolk,
and he and these poor lambs are all my flesh.”
The bearded hoard-guard
said, “I too, dear lady,11
would rather fight and fall by my lord’s side.
It shames a scealc to be sent away.”12
He cast a glance that compassed her five children.
“I’ve never seen him
fight,” said Ealhswith.
“The next time we embrace, we shall be changed.”13
. . .
7. Ex. 15:3.
8. ald. of Hampshire.
9. hero (oe).
10. her youngest daughters.
11. hlæfdige (oe).
12. soldier (oe).
13. 1 Cor. 15:51.
Be sure to read Frederick
Turner's review of
(see EPO front page for Reviews section).