The Battle for the Thames
In the first year of Cerdic's reign the Yule feast was held at his new capital of Wincen Cæster on the banks of the Itchen. Looking back over the year Cerdic was pleased with how things stood. He had taken land from the Dumnonians and had captured Venta, renaming it Wincen Cæster. The siege and battle had been costly in men but those that had survived had been richly rewarded with silver and lands.
Cerdic had made a treaty with Octa having killed enough of his men to make him think about who held the real power in the land. He had not wanted to expend more troops in an assault on Whitwarasburgh which would have been bloody but would have been of little value either strategically or in treasure. Cerdic wanted to weaken Aelle and the price for the treaty was that Octa would need to be active in keeping Aelle busy.
Aelle did not seem overly concerned that Cerdic had declared himself Westseaxacyning but he was demanding that Cerdic acknowledge him as Brytenwealda. Cerdic had not done so yet. He informed Aelle that he had important tasks of pacifying the land between the Moen and the Itchen and would not be able to visit him.
Cerdic had raided across the Itchen into Dumnonia and the Dumnonians had raided his new lands. Both sides had been content with raiding but it was rumoured that the Dumnonians would try and take Venta back. Cerdic was also keen to push north and secure a way to get over the Tamyse River into Mierce. He had spoken to Wulfhere after the taking of Venta to sound out his views on an undertaking to the Tamyse valley. Cerdic was aware that Aelle was also keen to establish more settlements along the Tamyse valley and that meant they were likely to come into conflict with Guercha One-eye, the Angelcyning. Guercha had long been a rival to Aelle and had been annoyed that Aelle had claimed to be the Brytenwealda. This year Guercha decided that he would challenge Aelle and his supporters had acclaimed him Brytenwealda too.
The Yule festival was not as extravagant as the previous year. Cerdic had put a lot of effort into repairing the damage to Venta after the city was sacked. It had been a frontier fortress for years and many of the buildings had fallen into ruin before the city was partially burnt during the sack. Cerdic had repaired the walls and had taken over the barracks as his feast hall, digging a fire pit down the centre of the main hall and building benches for his warriors to eat at and sleep after a feast.
Cerdic called the Hrothgarsons to see him in his private chambers to hear Wulfhere's reply to his suggestion about securing the north. Wulfhere had talked it over with his brothers and had agreed that it would present a good opportunity to gain land and wealth. Cerdic told him he was pleased with the decision and made Wulfhere a KingsÞegn. He was keen that they use their knowledge and relationships to scout out the Tamyse valley and try and secure a bridge or at least a passage across the Tamyse into Mierce. He also was keen that they develop more alliances and eliminate any hostile settlements. Wulfhere said that he was honoured by being made KingsÞegn.
Cerdic reminded Wulfhere that this task was important to him and he was keen that it did not fail. He gave Wulfhere eighteen warriors, five pack mules and five bars of silver and one of gold to help complete the task. Cerdic said that since Wulfhere was likely to remain in the north the situation in Glawmæd needed to be resolved. He therefore made Lucnot the Þegn of Glawmæd as he had been loyal and he thought it a good thing that Britons also got promoted to positions of responsibility.
They all returned to Glawmæd to prepare for the trip into the north. Wulfhere made a list of things that he thought might be useful and paid for it with the silver Cerdic had given. Dunstan wondered if they were expected to build a fortification and thought that perhaps they did not have the right skills to do it properly. He did offer to make withies for the settlement but Wulfhere thought that if the area was hostile that he would prefer the gates to be of something more solid than withies. Uthric said that solving that problem would be Wulfhere's task. He was now a KingsÞegn and Cerdic would be asking Wulfhere why their mission had failed. Wulfhere said that this was not an individual task but one that they all had a responsibility to fulfil. Uthric disagreed. He said that in his opinion Wulfhere had accepted the responsibility and as far as he was concerned Wulfhere was also the buffer between himself and Cerdic. So it would be Wulfhere that Cerdic would be asking if they failed in their task.
They all thought that they would be in a relatively good position to achieve their task as they were held in high esteem in the north. They had restored Tadda to health, eliminated the threat to Taddenlæge from Cœlfrith and helped the Artrebates get justice. Wulfhere thought that Orin would he useful contact. He was not only likely to know the area but would have contacts with local settlements and people.
The major concern that all had was how they would tell their wives that they were going away. This was always a point of contention and always fuelled by their mother, Hildegard, who had no faith in their timekeeping. Halig who was going north with them was keen to remind them that they had not been generous to Hildegard when they had gone to Ratae which had had negative consequences for their lives and relationships. Dunstan thought it was unfair of Halig to bring up their failure again. Halig said that he could accept that they had not meant to let their mother starve to death but he found it upsetting that they were still intending to kill Beorthric. He said he had only fond memories of Beorthric and particularly since he had paid with his own money to provide Halig with weapons and armour. He did not feel it was appropriate that has three elder brothers intended to kill Beorthric when they were the ones that had been negligent towards their mother and siblings. Wulfhere said this was an old argument and that it was his opinion it was not important at present. If and when they found Beorthric they could decide on the proper course of action. Dunstan agreed but said that he still intended to kill both Beorthric and Wilfrith. Wulfhere stopped the argument by sending Dunstan to get some dry firewood for the trip that they could load on the mules.
Uthric told Meire that he was likely to be gone three or four moons and gave her silver that would last for a year. Wulfhere told Bronwyn that it was likely that he would be back within one and a half Moons and Dunstan told Gwenith he would be home inside a moon to be on time for the birth of their child. Both Wulfhere and Dunstan left their wives silver that would last half a year. All three woman discussed the Brothers intended absences with Hildegard. Hildegard said that in her opinion her sons had no intention of being back either in one moon or in four moons. Why else would they have given them so much money? She said it was her greatest regret that she had not been able to breed sons who were able to keep to their word and were good at time-keeping. She thought that they had taken after their father in this and had not inherited her nature. Hrothgar had frequently left her and never returned on time.
Wulfhere met with the warriors that Cerdic had sent when had arrived in the morning. They were led by Mærleswein, a veteran of many Shieldwalls. He has tall and his face was covered with scars from fights he had had over the years. Five of the others were also veterans and the rest had arrived from Friesland either last summer or had just come with the opening of the seas after the Winter. Wulfhere asked if they had any other skills other than fighting. Helpric said that he was a Smith in Jutland but had given that up to get land and silver in Britain. Most of the others were farmers or hunters. Eadbald said that he had trained dogs for an Ealdorman but when his lord was killed in a fight with another Ealdorman, he left and came to Britain to seek his fortune.
The journey to Taddenlæge was without incident. They had stayed the night in Wincen Cæster and had been surprised how much repairs had been completed since Yule. Cerdic was not in Wincen Cæster but had gone south to meet with Stuf. At Taddenlæge they met with Tadda who had recovered from the sickness spirit that Dunric had sent to him. Tadda had not met Wulfhere, Uthric or Halig. Dunstan had been the only one to see Tadda after his recovery but he had been told how the others had thwarted Cœlfrith's attempt to kill him. He welcomed them and asked for their news. Rowena was also glad to meet them again and told them that she had gone back to being a merchant. She thought that her warrior days were now finished.
Tadda held a feast and afterwards discussed how he could help them with Cerdic’s task. Wulfhere had already talked to Uthric about asking Orin ap Brinn if he could be of help and Tadda also suggested that this could be a useful idea. They thought it was better not to arrive at Orin's village with a Warband and left Mærleswein with twelve of their warriors. They took five warriors with them in case there was trouble but nothing of importance happened on the journey.
They found Orin helping to re-construct his ruined village. He was welcoming particularly of Uthric for Uthric had saved his life when he had been imprisoned. Wulfhere told him of their task and asked Orin for information. Orin told them that the people who lived in these parts were fiercely independent. Most had chosen to live here because they did not want to be tied by oaths to some distance Ealdorman or King. Orin felt that Wulfhere would have his work cut out for him. Nevertheless, he explained to Wulfhere about the closest settlements that he knew. Some of them were friendly and others would be neutral to any proposal of alliance.
Orin told them that in the north the old peoples road split into two. One branch went north until it came to the river Cunnet that in Saxon was known as the Kinnete. The river was the boundary for the Kingdom of Gwent and the bridge was guarded by a fort called Brige. If they had followed the north-west road they would have come to Spinae, a town that also guarded the crossings of the Kinnete. The Kinnete was a long and wide river and flowed into the Tamyse. If the Hrothgarsons took the road east from Calleva they would come to Dunbriwan. The Chieftain there was Taran and his Hillfort guarded the ford at the Bourne. Taran was friendly to Tadda and paid taxes in previous years. If they followed the Bourne to the Tamyse then they would come to the wide marsh that protected Duromagus. Issa was the Chieftain and he was friendly with Tadda. His marsh people were famous for eels and fish which they traded with Taddenlæge. He had heard Rowena packed the eels in salt and sent them south.
Further to the west of Dunbriwan were two Saxon villages. Farnhamble had a Thane called Darwyne. They were fiercely independent and had not paid any taxes to anyone in years. They worked a salt mine and made charcoal for the smiths of Venta. On the banks of the Tamyse was the village of Hambladensted. The Thane of Hambladensted was a man called Aart. It is a strong village that made their living from fishing the river. They too are independent and pay no taxes. Wulfhere asked if they had boats that could carry people across the Tamyse but Orin said that he thought it unlikely as their boats would be small and light. The villagers lived by fishing and were unlikely to be interested in wars.
Another half day march from Hambladensted they would come to Pontes. Pontes had a large bridge that stretched across the Tamyse. Dunstan asked if Pontes was occupied by anyone but Orin said he thought it was unlikely. Pontes was difficult to hold without a big Warband because it had no fortifications. Uthric thought that whoever had built Pontes had done a poor job if they had not fortified such a strategic point. Orin said that he had not been there for many years. but when it was built by the Romans, people had not needed fortifications. Dunstan asked who the Romans were and where they dwelt. Uthric said that he had heard that they lived near Kernow and were allied to the Dumnonians. Orin said that the Romans had left Britain years ago to go back to their city called Rome. They had lived in Britain for hundreds of years and all that was left of them were their buildings and roads. Wulfhere asked if they would come back in the future but Orin said he did not expect them to return. Their cities were being attacked and their kings were fighting each other. He thought it was likely they had been defeated by their enemies so Wulfhere did not have to worry about having to fight Romans.
Wulfhere asked Orin if he could travel with them to be a guide and help with the people they met. Orin declined. He said that they were trying to rebuild their destroyed villages and make sure the fields were planted. He said that Tadda had helped getting more livestock but it was going to be a hungry year. He needed to be sure that the people had proper shelter for the winter.
The Hrothgarsons returned to Taddenlæge and got their men ready. They were heartened that Orin’s son, Brinn, had come to join them. He was keen for some adventure and told them he had persuaded his father to let him travel as a guide for the Hrothgarsons. Brinn was a tall, well-built 14-year-old. He said that he had experience in fighting when Cœlfrith's men had attacked their villages and had fought at the battle of the Calleva Road and at the taking of Venta. Wulfhere said that despite his experience in recent wars he would prefer if Brinn didn’t join in any fighting as he was unsure how he could tell his father that Brinn had suffered a misfortune.
They discussed how they might achieve Cerdic's aims. Dunstan thought it would be best to go directly to Pontes. He was keen to see a bridge that the Romans had built. Uthric said that one bridge was much the same as another and it was unlikely that it was as impressive as the bridge at Lundenwic. Tadda had told them what he knew of Pontes. He was of the opinion that no-one had tried to hold it because there was no hinterland to grow food. Any Warband stationed there permanantly would need others to supply them so it would be costly.
Wulfhere was unsure how they should proceed. He was keen to visit all the villages to find out how things stood but was rather pessimistic about finding a bridge if they could not hold Pontes. Halig said that they might not be able to eliminate hostiles but they could make alliances.
After more discussions they agreed that Pontes should be their first goal and they could visit the villages along the way. Wulfhere thought that the settlements in the north in Gwent were unlikely to be helpful in their fulfilling their task and he did not think Cerdic would be pleased if they invaded Gwent. Dunstan remembered that he had heard Aelle's son, Cissa, was in Aeglesburgh and he asked Tadda if he had heard any news of his visit. Tadda said that he had not had much time to listen to the news but he had heard that Cissa was hoping to secure the area for Aelle. Dunstan said that they would need to be careful. Wulfhere agreed and said that he did not see their job as starting a war between Aelle and Cerdic.
Brinn proved an interesting guide. He was able to tell them stories about this land they walked through. When they came out of the forest they could see the valley slope down to the river Tamyse. They all felt a bit exposed by the open lands. Smoke from villages’ cooking fires could be seen to the west, north and east. Dunstan thought that a lot of people lived in this area. Brinn said that previously more people had lived along the banks of the Tamyse but war and plague had reduced their numbers. People had moved away from the river and into the forests where they could be safe.
At evening they came to Dunbriwan. Their approach caused concern and they could see the villagers running to the safety of the Hillfort. Brinn said that this was a usual reaction if armed men approached. People were suspicious and with good reason. Most Warbands took what they wanted without paying. Wulfhere took his brothers and Brinn forward. They laid down their spears and shields and went forward signifying they wanted to talk. Four men left the village and walked towards them. One of the men introduced himself as Taran ap Gweir, Chieftain of the village. Wulfhere introduced himself and his brothers. Taran knew Brinn and he gave them welcome for his sake. Wulfhere explained that they had been sent by Cerdic who was King of these parts. Taran said that he was surprised by this news and that he had not heard of Cerdic. He said that he usually paid his taxes to Tadda and he was sure that Tadda was not called Cerdic. Wulfhere had to spend some time explaining the new political situation. Taran said that in his opinion it didn't change his situation as he would continue to pay his taxes to Tadda and what Tadda did with his own oath was of little concern to him or his people. He did invite the Hrothgarsons to spend the night in his Hall. He would not allow eighteen warriors inside the Hillfort but made room for them to sleep in one of the outhouses outside the palisade.
In the morning Wulfhere gave Taran a silver armring as a gift from Cerdic. Taran was impressed. He had not been given an armring from a King before and asked them to send his gratitude. He said that he would keep his oath to Tadda who he knew to be a good man despite the recent troubles in the area. From the hilltop they saw the valley better in the morning light. Their initial impression that the valley was well populated was confirmed. To the west they could see the border fortress of Brige on the banks of the Kinnete and further off the town of Spinae. They bade farewell to Taran and went to the north along the Bourne to talk with Issa in Duromagus.
Duromagus was built on a hill in the middle of a marsh. They could not get closer than five bow shots. Dunstan thought that there might be a path through the marsh and pointed to the withies that seemed to mark out a hidden way. If there was a path it was under water and none of them wanted to attempt a passage without a local guide. Uthric and Dunstan waved until they saw one of the marsh boats come toward them. The Warband moved back at Wulfhere's request and he rest laid down their weapons to signify they came in peace. The boat stopped a bow length away and a man who named himself as Issa ap Arryn asked them for the news. Wulfhere told Issa that he brought messages from Cerdic. Issa agreed to come closer and Wulfhere explained why he had come. Issa was obviously an experienced warrior but he said that that life was now behind him and that now his goal was to protect his people. He confirmed that he would continue to pay his taxes to Tadda and when Wulfhere gave him an armring he was pleased. He did not offer to take the group to Duromagus and none of them pressed the issue. Issa bade farewell and told Brinn to tell his father to visit when Orin had time to do so.
The Warband returned to the Roman road and went north-east towards Pontes. On the way they passed numerous ruins of houses. Dunstan thought that the Romans must have needed lots of space. Their houses were larger than most Saxon or British houses and were constructed with stone. Some of the houses still had colourful pictures on the walls but most were ruins which had been scavenged for stone.
Wulfhere decided that they should press on to Pontes and visit Farnhamble and Hambladensted on the way back. He thought otherwise they would arrive in Pontes after dark and he thought that could make for a difficult situation. Pontes is dominated by a huge stone bridge that crosses the Tamyse. There is another tributary river that joins the Tamyse from the north and there is a lesser bridge there too. Nearly all the buildings on the south bank were ruins but the bridge remained. There were two towers on either end of the bridge that must have at one time been able to stop people crossing. They could not see any sign of life on the buildings of the north bank. They crossed the Bridge and searched the buildings. There were recent signs of occupation but whoever had lived there had left. One of the large buildings had been used as a byre for cattle and they found difficulty exploring it because of the dung, the smell and the flies. Dunstan thought the smell of byre reminded him of Kernow and he shuddered at the thought.
In other buildings there were signs that people had cooked but the ashes were cold. Ingeld and Brynstan told Wulfhere that they had found a large building that was defensible which they could all sleep in. The floor had been tiled but someone had broken sections in the middle to make a fire pit. They brought their gear into the building but when a strong gust of wind lifted dust and swirled it around several of the men thought that Old peoples’ ghosts were coming to haunt them and wouldn't go in. Wulfhere had to re-assure them that they would be protected from ghosts but many of the men did not sleep well.
In the morning they continued to look at the buildings. Alongside Roman buildings there were halls that had been built by Saxons and British. Dunstan thought many different people had lived here but it seemed none could hold it for long, Uthric thought they should maybe track the cattle who had been here recently as that might lead to a fruitful encounter.
Mærleswein had posted guards on the north bridge and the guards alerted Wulfhere that there was a warband coming from the northwest. Wulfhere told his men to withdraw across the bridge to the south bank. He and Dunstan climbed the tower on the north side of the bridge. They could not recognise the badge on the shields and left to re-join their men. Dunstan told Uthric that the men coming towards them had bulls on their shields. Uthric said that he was sure Cœlfrith had a bull on his shields. He wondered if Aelle had really killed Cœlfrith after all and that the rumours of his death had been just rumours.
The other Warband stopped on the north side of bridge and a man walked forward. He laid down his spear and shield. Uthric said that he was surprised that neither Dunstan nor Wulfhere had recognised Cissa's charging bull that was on the man's shield. Wulfhere went forward to the middle of the bridge to where the other man had stopped. He named himself as Sæwine Godwinson one of Cissa's Þegns. He asked who Wulfhere was and why he had a Warband in Aelle's lands. Wulfhere acknowledged Sæwine and told him he was Cerdic's Þegn. Sæwine said he was surprised that Cerdic had men in the north and was keen for Wulfhere to explain his purpose in being here. Wulfhere said that they were viewing the bridge as they had been told it was a marvel. Sæwine did not believe that Wulfhere was merely viewing bridges and he said that he had two options. He could either leave immediately or come with him to Aeglesburgh and swear an oath to Cissa. Wulfhere said that he was happy to withdraw as he had no wish to antagonise Cissa. He said he was oath sworn to Cerdic and therefore sadly felt unable to go to Aeglesburgh. The Conference ended and both men returned to their Warbands.
Wulfhere took his men along the Roman road and stopped at Farnhamble. He met with Darwyne and told him his purpose. Darwyne said that he was not presently interested in what Kings did or said. In his opinion kings wanted money for wars and the ordinary people got little benefit from these conflicts other than violent death, their farms destroyed and their women and children enslaved. Besides he said Kings come and go and they are only interested in taxes, he was keen that his village was left in peace. He said that Cerdic was welcome to spend as much time around here as he wished but Farnhamble would not be paying taxes. Wulfhere said that he thought Darwyne had a short-sighted view and there were other things to consider when it came to Kings but he said he would accept his decision and discuss it with Cerdic. He gifted Darwyne an armring and left.
The Warband travelled to Hambladensted and met with the Thane, Aart. Aart gave much the same answer as Darwyne. He said that he and his people valued their independence and while he would not be hostile to Cerdic he did not see any benefits in swearing an oath to him. Wulfhere said that in his opinion these were dangerous times and that situations could change quickly. Aart said that in his experience the world around here changed slowly like the passing of the river but he had no difficulty in accepting Cerdic's gift of an armring.
It was getting toward evening and Wulfhere said that they needed to find a camp. It was too far to return to Dunbriwan so they decided to camp in the ruins of a Roman villa. Dunstan wasn't keen to stay the night. He said that ever since the ghosts had been disturbed in Pontes they had been unlucky. Wulfhere said that he was concerned that recently Dunstan had become superstitious. Dunstan said he had still not got over the horror of Kernow which was making him have evil dreams. Besides he thought it unwise to provoke more ghosts.
In the morning they awoke to see people coming down the Roman road from the north. They were a large group of woman and children and when they got closer they could see that all the warriors with them were wounded. All four brothers went to find out the news. The people were led by a warrior called Wulfroth and they had come from a place called Wealdnathorp, on the north side of the Tamyse. Wulfroth explained that they had rejected Cissa's offer to swear an oath to him and several days later their steads had been attacked and burnt. He believed that they had been allowed to escape but did not know for what purpose. Wulfhere gave them food because none of them had eaten for days and offered to escort them somewhere safe. He thought that he could take them to Taddenlæge but they were moving slowly and travelling with them for any long distance was going to be slow. The children needed rest and the wounded warriors could hardly stand.
While he was deliberating about what was best with his brothers, Eadbald drew their attention to smoke that was visible in the north. Eadbald said that he was sure the smoke came from burning thatch, which he thought would mean more villages burning. The Warband escorted the refugees back to Dunbriwan and agreed with Taran to let them stay the night. Wulfhere gave Taran another armring as payment and then took his brothers to see Issa in Duromagus.
They discussed how things stood and warned Issa that it was likely trouble was coming his way. Issa said that he thought Duromagus would be safe because the marsh protected it from attack and unless someone spent time and effort to understand the twists and turns of the marshes. He acknowledged that Aelle's men seemed to clearing the area of any settlements that would not swear oaths to him. Wulfhere gave him another armring as he felt that Issa might need silver in the near future.
They spent the night in Dunbriwan to allow the woman and children to rest and get food. Wulfhere fretted that any attempt to move fast would be thwarted by slow moving children and he was in a hurry to make sure the settlements were protected. The next day it became clear that the refugees would not be able to travel. Many of the children were unwell after two days of travelling and the old people were still exhausted. The fires on the north side of the river continued to burn throughout the day and Wulfhere warned Taran that he could expect more refugees coming south. Uthric thought it unlikely that the refugees could be absorbed by Taddenlæge and its surrounding villages. The death, destruction and ruin of the crops last year had put a strain on the available food and shelter. Dunstan and Halig thought it would be better to send them to Wincen Cæster but all wondered how many would die on the way,
They stood on the fighting platform and watched to the north throughout the day. In the late afternoon, more refugees could be seen coming down the Roman road from Pontes. Wulfhere took some of the Warband north to help the refugees and find out information. They were led by Stranebeorg. He had three injured warriors and fifty-two children, woman and older people. Stranebeorg told of sudden attacks by Aelle's men and destruction of their village. They had been driven south by Spearmen until they crossed the bridge at Pontes.
The Hrothgarsons wondered at the strategy behind the refugees. Dunstan said that he thought it was a simple answer, Aelle was clearing the north of people who would not support him. Wulfhere agreed and said he suspected if the positions were reversed Cerdic would be doing exactly the same. They discussed what they should do about the refugees. Wulfhere was quite forthright in his view. In his opinion it was not possible to look after all these people. He said that he was prepared to give them what food they had left and then they must make a decision to either go to Wincen Cæster and seek help from Cerdic or to continue down the Roman road and found a new settlement on Old Wincen Cæster Hill. The people were not happy with Wulfhere's decision. They pointed out that many of the children and older people would die on such a journey. Wulfhere said that this was the way of Miðgarðr and that he had done what he
could and could do no more. Stranebeorg said that this was the reason that they never gave their oaths to kings. In the end, ordinary people were left to find their own way unless the king wanted taxes. Wulfhere shrugged and said that he had done all he could. He gave Taran another armring to help look after the refugees until they were strong enough to continue their journey.
Towards late afternoon a shout came from the guards on the fighting platform. They had seen smoke rising from the direction of Hambladensted and people went to the walls to see if they could see what was happening. The smoke was definitely from south of the river and there was a discussion on what that portended. Wulfhere agreed that the most likely explanation was that Aelle had sent troops over the river and was now attacking villages that would not give him their oaths.
Wulfhere said that he had invested an armring in Hambladensted and that in order to protect that investment they should see what had occurred. Wulfhere told Uthric to take the men to Hambladensted and use this as an opportunity to make friends and alliances. Wulfhere sent his brothers and sixteen warriors to see what was happening at Hambladensted. He kept two warriors to accompany him to Wincen Cæster. He was of the opinion that Cerdic urgently needed to understand what was happening in the north and send more men. He thought that it would be best to argue the case himself rather than just send a messenger. He delayed his departure while he talked to Taran about his thoughts for the refugees. He was interrupted by one of the guards who told him there were more refugees on the road. Wulfhere and Taran went to the walls and watched the crowd of people moving down the road. There appeared to be spearmen behind them who were marshalling them toward Hambladensted. It was too far to count how many spearmen there were but their red and black shields identified them as belonging to Aelle's son, Cissa. There was no sign of the troops Wulfhere had sent to Hambladensted so he assumed that they must have got there and would probably be trapped by the force behind the refugees.
In Hambladensted, Uthric was discussing the situation with the Thane, Aart. Aart had allowed them inside the palisade and Uthric's men had helped extinguish the fire in the storehouse where the boat supplies were kept. Uthric asked Aart what had happened and Aart told him that they had been attacked by people from boats who had come ashore and killed a few villagers and had then set the store house on fire and had gone away again. He thought they might have been Aelle's men but could not be sure. Uthric and Dunstan discussed the raid. Dunstan thought that the purpose might have been to calculate the defences.
They were interrupted in their discussion by shouts from the guards on the wall. A crowd of woman and children had appeared out of the forest and were asking for entry. The women were saying they had been forced to come here by spearmen. Aart refused to open the gates as he feared that the spearmen were hiding in the woods and would use the opportunity of the open gates to force an entry into Hambladensted. He was forced to reconsider when his own people appeared running out of the forest and demanded entry. They appeared to have been forced from their steadings by spearmen. Dark clouds of smoke rose behind them. Aart ordered the gate to be opened and got his warriors to form a shield wall outside the gate to protect the people as they were going in.
In the end no spearmen appeared out of the forest and the people were bought inside. Aart tried to get information from the people who had seen the spearmen but no-one could give accurate numbers. Most people said there were hundreds. Aart admitted he was at a loss about what to do. Uthric said that he and his men would support Aart in the defence but he should remember that they were Cerdic's men and that without Cerdic’s help they would likely be overwhelmed. Aart said that he was mindful of such connotations and if they survived this then they could talk about it more. In the meantime, they calmed the distressed people who had fled the spearmen and gave the northern refugees food and water. Many of those that fled had not brought weapons and Aart feared that their defence was severely reduced.
The arrival of spearmen on the northern road forced Wulfhere to rethink his plans. He decided that he would gather what warriors he could from the surrounding villages and defend their settlements. Wulfhere left Taran to gather the warriors. Taran was willing to commit to the actions Wulfhere proposed but he was not willing to leave Dunbriwan undefended. They eventually agreed that the nine wounded warriors would stay in Dunbriwan and would be supported by the fyrd. Taran armed his fifteen warriors and awaited Wulfhere's return from seeking help in Duromagus with Issa.
Wulfhere did not find Issa hard to persuade but like Taran he was not willing to leave his village undefended. He left five warriors and the fyrd to defend the village. He did not think the risk great as no Warband could easily attack Duromagus because of the surrounding marshes and wetlands. Wulfhere was disappointed that Issa could only give a further nine spearmen but he did not make his disappointment known and only grumbled to himself. Issa was an experienced spearman and had led Warbands in his youth and was only too keen to get involved in fighting. Now that he was going to war again Issa was of the opinion that life had been too tame recently.
Wulfhere had now twenty-six spearmen which he thought formidable but he did not know the number of his enemies. He thought it wise to talk to Darwyne and ask his views in joining an alliance against Aelle’s forces. They set off along the Roman road but their scouts reported that there were spearmen on the road on the south side of the Pontes Bridge. It was too far away for the numbers to be counted but it looked like there were more than forty spearmen. Taran asked one of his hunters to take them through the forest game trails to Farnhamble so that they would not been seen by the enemy.
Darwyne had seen the burning steads in the south and had withdrawn his people and their animals behind the stockade. The arrival of spearmen caused a panic but Wulfhere identified himself and Darwyne came out to meet him. Darwyne was not at first interested in Wulfhere's proposal to join forces to fight the invading Warbands but when he saw the Warband that had come over the bridge at Pontes and he listened to Wulfhere's views that Aelle would not allow any independent settlements remain in the area. Wulfhere said that they had two options that they could either all fight together or get destroyed individually. He pointed out that Issa and Taran had also had to make decisions to fight. Both could have stayed behind their walls and been safe. Darwyne recognised the truth in Wulfhere's words. He agreed he and ten warriors would join Wulfhere's alliance. Darwyne sent the old, the women and children into the forest. He kept some men of the fyrd to guard the walls so that they would have a fortified place to retreat to if they were overcome by Aelle's men.
The battle took place on the Roman Road south of Farnhamble. Wulfhere, Darwyne,bIssa and Taran met with Bryning and Mearcred before the battle. Bryning was an Ealdorman of Aelle and offered to accept their surrender. He said that they would be treated well if they swore allegiance to Aelle. Wulfhere declined his offer and suggested that Bryning might want to go back north of the River. Wulfhere thought it might be a pity that Bryning and his men would leave their bones on the road. He said he would try to make sure they were buried but he said he could not be sure it would be his priority as he was busy at that moment. Bryning laughed at Wulfhere and pointed out that he was outnumbered and faced hardened warriors whereas his force had spent their time farming for the last number of years. He was also dismissive of the Artrebates who he declared to be an effete and weak force. Issa, when it was translated for him, spat at Bryning’s feet and promised he would use his head as a standard. The conference was finished and both sides separated to marshal their warriors into a Shieldwall.
Wulfhere encouraged his men by telling them that they were fighting for their villages and the right not to be dictated to by Aelle. He told them they had worked hard to build their farms and their children deserved peace and should inherit their hard work. His men cheered him and were strengthened in their view that they would win the battle.
Bryning was confident of victory but his men were not keen to close the Shieldwalls. They knew they were going to win but they would rather not have to fight and risk injury or death. As they advanced they did not lock shields properly and advanced slowly. Issa was an experienced Warleader and although it had been many years since he stood in or commanded a Shieldwall, he organised it well. He recognised the reluctance of the enemy and shouted at his troops to advance quickly. The Shieldwalls met and pushed and shoved each other. Greater numbers began to tell and the wings of Wulfhere's force were under pressure. Issa roared at his men in the centre to follow him into a gap in the enemy wall where the fighting had become ferocious. Issa speared Bryning in the throat and the enemy recoiled when they saw their Warleader die. Issa encouraged the men forward again and the enemy centre broke and started to flee. Issa however did not see his victory. An axe caught him in the helmet and while he was stunned one of the enemy rear rank stabbed him with a spear in the eye. The force of the blow was stopped by the cheek piece of his helmet and although he lived he was known from then on as Issa One-eye. Darwyne too was seriously injured defending the right flank, taking a spear wound to the thigh and it would be weeks before he would be able to walk. Taran had also suffered a serious wound from an axe in the shoulder. Afterwards he developed a fever and spent several days close to death before he eventually recovered.
Wulfhere allowed his men to pursue the broken enemy but called them back as he was keen to go to the help of his brothers in Hambladensted. He could see smoke rising in the forest and thought it did not bode well. Wulfhere's decision to recall the men from the pursuit allowed many of the enemy to escape over the Pontes bridge but he thought it would carry the message to Aelle that taking the south of the Tamyse would be difficult. He took their wounded back to Farnhamble and took Bryning's head and put it on a spear for his standard, just as Issa had promised. He thought it might discourage the enemy if it came to another battle.
At Hambladensted the village was overcrowded by the people driven in by the spearmen from their scattered dwellings outside the palisade and by the refugees from the north. From the fighting platform they could see spearmen in the forest watching the defenders. Dunstan thought they were in trouble. They had about forty warriors and it was unlikely they could hold the palisade if the enemy had large numbers. Three men came out of the forest and laid down their weapons seeking a Conference. Aart, Uthric and Dunstan went out to meet them and introduced themselves to Edric, Sæwine and Wynsig. Edric who was an Ealdorman, asked Aart to surrender and spare his men and their families slaughter. Edric said that Aelle was a good Brytenwealda and would support them if they agreed to swear an oath to him. Aart said that he had not been keen to swear an oath to any king. He said he wanted to be clear that he was not particularly against Aelle but his people had come north to avoid the wars that kings always brought. Edric said that unfortunately this was a time to choose sides and that independence was no longer an option. Aelle was asserting his right to these lands and they could choose loyalty or death. He said that it didn’t matter to him what they chose.
Dunstan offered to fight Edric in single combat but Edric just laughed at him. Edric said that it was beneath his status to dispatch young boys. Dunstan would have pursued the matter but Uthric told him to let the matter go. Dunstan complained to Uthric that he just did not want to see him triumph again. Uthric pointed out that Edric was a battle-hardened veteran who looked like he had spent his whole life fighting. While Dunstan’s victory over Anyon had been impressive he was like a lamb in comparison with Edric. Halig said that despite their differences about Beorthric and their mother, he would prefer Dunstan to be alive. and he was glad Edric had refused the fight.
Aart arranged fifteen men on the palisade either side of the gate. Uthric commanded the left side of the gate and Aart took the right. A small force of ten warriors under the command of Dunstan and Halig were left in reserve in reinforce either palisade if they became overwhelmed. Their plans went array when they saw five small boats approaching the shore where there was no protecting palisade. Dunstan and Halig knew that they would have to beat the men landing from the boats or they were doomed.
Outside two separate Warbands formed up to assault the palisade. The war band in front of Uthric's section made an assault against the palisade. His men met the assault by throwing a hail of javelins and rocks. They repulsed the attack and one of his men wounded Edric with a javelin. Edric’s men dragged him out of range of more missiles. Uthric saw that Edric looked badly wounded and thought that he was unlikely to participate in further fighting.
Dunstan and Halig had told some of the woman to collect rocks and asked for volunteers to pelt the boats with missiles. There was thick mud on the shore and the boats grounded before they reached solid ground. Two men jumped out of the two lead boats but were immediately struck down by a hail of javelins and rocks. The next two men floundered in the deep mud and could not move toward the shore. One was injured by one of the hunter’s bows and their comrades pulled them back into the boats. They rowed off seemingly having no appetite for a landing. The men on the bank jeered at them and made obscene gestures. Halig said that if he had been attacking by boat he would have checked that the river was higher before trying to land. Dunstan acknowledged Halig's view and said that it is definitely hard to fight if you are up to your knees in mud. Their jubilation was short lived when they heard screams and warning calls from behind.
Aart had a larger section of the palisade to defend than Uthric. Some of the Warband outside engaged his men in throwing javelins and making feint charges against the wall while others went to the far side and climbed over the undefended palisade. Aart had tried to warn the Uthric and Dunstan but they were already engaged in fighting and did not hear his warning in time. By the time the others realised what had happened there was already an enemy shield wall forming inside the palisade. Aart withdrew his men from the palisade so that they would not be attacked from the front and the rear. He formed them up in a thin shield wall hoping to protect their woman and children. He shouted for others to join him. Uthric saw the Warband in front of him running to the right and guessed that something must have happened on the other palisade. He brought his men to strengthen Aart’s thin wall. Dunstan and Halig brought their men too and added to the line that protected the children and woman.
The two Warbands faced each other only briefly before both Shieldwalls clashed. The sounds of battle drowned out all other noise with the grinding death of the Shieldwalls. The defenders although outnumbered, were fighting for their lives and fought fiercely and their ferocity at first seemed to take them forward. However weight of numbers began to tell. No matter how many of the enemy they killed, their Shieldwall was getting bigger as more of the enemy climbed over the palisade and the defender’s wall grew smaller as men fell wounded or dead. Despite their loses the defenders did not give way until both sides became exhausted and the Shieldwalls drew apart, separated by a wall of dead or dying. By this time many of the woman and children had escaped out the now open gate. All or most of the enemy were now inside the palisade and their escape was unopposed.
Both sides had fought themselves to a standstill. Aart had been killed trying to rescue his son who had been wounded and the remaining warriors looked to Uthric for leadership. Uthric knew that if the enemy charged again their end would be swift. Dunstan said that he thought that they had given a good account of themselves and despite being outnumbered they had outfought their enemies. He said he was content to die knowing that he had sent many warriors to their deaths. Halig said he had a different opinion. He said that while he was not afraid to die, he had only begun to enjoy seeing different lands and that this had encouraged him to do more travelling. He also thought that if they tried to escape now most of them would likely make it as the enemy, in his opinion, did not look up for more fighting. Uthric agreed and on his command, they ran out of the gate.
The enemy warriors only half-heartedly chased them. They seemed content that they had won the battle and not particularly interested in putting themselves at further unnecessary risk. Uthric led his few warriors south hoping to find safety at Farnhamble. He did not think that the men would make it to Dunbriwan without being overrun by the enemy. As they came out of the woods they met Wulfhere coming north with the remnants of his army. Wulfhere discussed if they should go back to Hambladensted and attack when the enemy thought they were safe. Uthric said that he was unsure how many of the enemy were left but he knew that none of the men he had brought could fight again without a rest. Wulfhere only had thirty-seven warriors but both Dunstan and Halig estimated the enemy still had twice the numbers. Wulfhere agreed reluctantly to retreat to Farnhamble. They collected the woman and children who had fled and were scattered throughout the woods and took them to Farnhamble.
Wulfhere and Halig inspected the fortifications at Farnhamble and decided that they could not be held against an overwhelming attack. They reluctantly thought that they would need to retreat to either Dunbriwan or Duromagus. Dunbriwan was a hillfort and had steep embankment with a palisade and fighting platform. To assault it the enemy would suffer significant loses. Duromagus was built on a hill in the marshes, and would be almost impossible to assault either by land or by river. Both were good sites for defence but in the end, they chose Dunbriwan so they could control the road coming from the south. Wulfhere still hoped that Cerdic would send warriors north to support them.
It took almost a day to get everyone ready to leave Farnhamble. They collected everything of value that they could carry and buried whatever they couldn't take in the hope that they could return to get it. Wulfhere asked that the hunters who knew the trails through the forest, to mark out a path that the people could take so they would not be seen by the enemy. They could see the enemy watching them from a distance. It seemed that no-one was really intent on fighting at present. Aelle's men collected their dead from the battle on the road and buried or burnt them on pyres. They were content to watch Farnhamble and did not come close enough to see the preparations to leave. Wulfhere kept as many men on the palisade as possible to keep the pretence that they were prepared to defend the village. The battles they had fought had been vicious affairs and not many of either his own warriors or seemingly the enemy wanted another battle.
When darkness fell, Wulfhere got the villagers to leave in small groups and make their way through the forest. The distance to Dunbriwan was not far but they were encumbered by food, livestock, children and the old. It was just before dawn when the last people left Farnhamble. Wulfhere hoped that the enemy would not notice they had gone and that by the time they did it would be too late for pursuit. Wulfhere did not want to fight a running battle through the forest. He knew his men would not keep in any order as they would want to protect their families. Fortunately, either the enemy had not noticed their departure or were not interested in pursuing a retreating enemy. It took most of the day for all the stragglers to make it to safety. The warriors were exhausted in trying to move so many people and there were lots of grumbling but not within Wulfhere's hearing.
Wulfhere called his brothers and Issa to make plans for defence. Taran was still feverish and did not take part in the conference. Darwyne was equally too hurt to attend and his daughter told Wulfhere that she feared he would die of his wounds. Issa was keen that Duromagus be reinforced with some more warriors. He had only left five when he had gone with Wulfhere. He was willing to stay in Dunbriwan to help organise the defence and help with the Artrebate warriors who might not be keen to take orders from a Sais. They also made a decision to send the women and children to Taddenlæge and Dunstan volunteered to take them. The plan was to get all non-combatants out of Dunbriwan and also ask Tadda for some help. If the northern villages fell to Aelle it would be likely that Taddenlæge would be next.
Dunstan set off in the morning and by midday an enemy army had encamped outside the walls of Dunbriwan. Uthric and Wulfhere counted the warriors and estimated there were at least 150 of them. Halig was of the opinion that even with an army that size they would be safe inside the walls. They had food to last several months and the army outside had a long supply chain.
Over the next few days the besiegers tested out the strength of the defences by feinting attacks but they did not press any attack home. It was clear that climbing the bank to the palisade would end in death and whoever commanded the troops would likely not risk it. The besiegers spent the time making shelters on the other side of the ford. They did not seem worried about surrounding the village and Wulfhere thought it would be possible to get men in and out.
After two day of slow travel, Dunstan arrived in Taddenlæge. He spoke at length with Tadda and Rowena, explaining what had befallen the settlements on the Tamyse. Tadda said that he was willing to send men north became both Taran and Issa paid taxes and he was obliged to help them. He was not that thrilled by the number of refugees Dunstan had brought. Food was still in short supply and Dunstan had added almost 200 hungry people. Dunstan was apologetic and gave Tadda two armrings to go towards some of the cost. He thought that Tadda might want to send some of the northern Tamyse refugees on to Wincen Cæster in the hope that Cerdic could feed them. Tadda agreed that if they were to have a chance of survival he had no other option but he thought Cerdic might equally not be impressed as he was aware there were food shortages until the harvest was gathered.
Dunstan was keen to return north as soon as possible and asked Tadda how quick he could have men ready. Tadda said that ideally he would like three days to get the men equipped and make thrice-baked bread for trail rations. Dunstan thought that if they didn't hurry they might arrive too late and all they would be able to do would be to bury the dead bodies. Tadda agreed that this could be a possible outcome but he thought that Aelle would have difficulty assaulting either Duromagus or Dunbriwan. Dunstan asked if he had seen the messenger Wulfhere had sent five days ago. Tadda confirmed that Heathbeorht had passed through four days ago and would have been with Cerdic two days ago. Tadda asked Dunstan how large Aelle’s army had been but Dunstan said that he could not be sure. The fighting had been ferocious and they could not rule out that Cissa had not sent reinforcements. Dunstan left at first light with twenty warriors. He asked Tadda to tell Cerdic to hurry if he did not want to lose the south side of the Tamyse.
As Dunstan approached Dunbriwan he could see that his brothers still held the village. He came along the road hoping to get inside before the besiegers on the other side of the ford noticed. Wulfhere was told by some of the guards that Dunstan was coming along the road with reinforcements. Wulfhere sent Halig and Uthric to guard the east walls with ten men each and some of the fyrd. He took forty men outside the walls and formed a Shieldwall outside the west gate. Aelle's men noticed the newcomers and sent over a hundred warriors across the ford to intercept Dunstan's force. They did not see Wulfhere's force hidden behind the hill of the fortification and where surprised by an already formed Shieldwall. Their Þegn shouted at them to move toward Wulfhere’s force to engage them. It seemed that it was a race for Dunstan's men to get to the gate before Wulfhere's force was engaged by an overwhelming greater force. Uthric could see that Wulfhere's force was in danger from the east wall but he could not move to help because two smaller forces had moved to their section of the wall and if he took his men to the west gate they would climb over the palisade and the fortress would be lost. He and Halig had to content themselves with exchanging javelin throws with the enemy.
Outside Wulfhere knew he had misjudged the speed of the enemy reaction and the numbers they had sent. The enemy was coming fast over the corn fields and was likely to engage him before Dunstan arrived. Wulfhere had never claimed to be lucky but that day his luck was there for everyone to see. The front ranks of the enemy force ran into an irrigation ditch and tumbled over. The following ranks either fell or jumped their comrades. Either way their momentum was stopped and they could not reform in time to engage Wulfhere's men. before Dunstan got to the gate and Wulfhere was able to withdrew and close the gate. He did say afterwards that he had considered charging the enemy but if he did not break them then he would have been heavily outnumbered. His men jeered at the enemy from the safety of the fighting platform.
The next day three men came forward and laid down their weapons looking for a Conference. The leader introduced herself as Aethelstan Dycgheorhtson. Aethelstan said that he had decided to offer the defenders terms. If they surrendered then Aethelstan would allow them to leave unmolested. They could take their weapons and any goods they could carry. Wulfhere thanked Aethelstan for his offer but he felt compelled to remain in his place. Dunstan momentarily thought about challenging Aethelstan to single combat but decided that he would need to be very lucky to beat the Ealdorman. Aethelstan noticed Dunstan had been paying him close attention and asked Dunstan what had been on his mind. Dunstan was surprised at the question but decided to be forthright in his answer. He said that he had been weighing his chances if he challenged Aethelstan to single combat. Aethelstan laughed and said that he was more than welcome to try but Dunstan should be aware that he had fought twenty-three single combats and won them all. He said he admired Dunstan's thinking and if he would consider joining Aelle's men, he would be made very welcome. Dunstan thanked him for his offer but thought he should remain with his brothers. Aethelstan said that his offer to leave remained open until nightfall. He would come back tomorrow but the offer would be reduced and that every tenth man would be killed. The offer would remain open but increase by a tenth every day. Wulfhere said nothing in reply and left.
Wulfhere called a conference and discussed Aethelstan’s offer with the other Þegns and his brothers. He said he thought the offer was to scare them. Wulfhere reckoned they had enough food for a month and it was unlikely Aethelstan could take Dunbriwan by assault. He hoped that Cerdic would send help within that time.
Aethelstan met Wulfhere and Dunstan for three more days. He and Dunstan grew to respect each other in their exchanges and Aethelstan said he would exempt them from being killed when they eventually surrendered. Wulfhere said that he was expecting Cerdic to send help any day and then they could have a proper battle to see which King would rule south of the Tamyse. Aethelstan was amused by the boast and said he was confident that the King would still be Aelle.
On the fourth day the defenders could see a Warband coming up the road from the south. The men on the wall cheered which alerted the besieging warband. They could see Aethelstan ride out alone towards the new warband and he had a conversation with the leader. He then rode back to his men and they began to leave and went east towards Pontes.
A short time after, they could see Stuf's Wolf Standard approach and Wulfhere and his brothers went out to meet him. Wulfhere thanked him for coming. He told Stuf that they had been heavily outnumbered but had managed to hold unto most of the territory. Stuf listened to the news and praised their actions. He said he had agreed to meet Aethelstan in Pontes in two days to conclude a treaty and they were welcome to join him.
He told them news from the south that Octa had declared war on Aelle and had besieged and taken Hamafunta and was now besieging Cissa Cæster. He thought that might attract Cissa’s attention back to the south.
The peace of Pontes was concluded two days later. Aelle would hold the north of the Tamyse and Cerdic would hold the south Tamyse as far as Lundenwic.