The construction of the ship went on steadily. King Alfred, who was himsel_uilding several war vessels of ordinary size, took great interest in Edmund'_raft and paid several visits to it while it was in progress.
"It will be a fine ship," he said one day as the vessel was approachin_ompletion, "and much larger than any in these seas. It reminds me, Edmund, not indeed in size or shape, but in its purpose, of the ark which Noah buil_efore the deluge which covered the whole earth. He built it, as you know, t_scape with his family from destruction. You, too, are building against th_ime when the deluge of Danish invasion will sweep over this land, and I trus_hat your success will equal that of the patriarch."
"I shall be better off than Noah was," Edmund said, "for he had nothing to do, save to shut up his windows and wait till the floods abated, while I shall g_ut and seek my enemies on the sea."
The respite purchased by the king from the Danes was but a short one. In th_utumn of 875 their bands were again swarming around the borders of Wessex, and constant irruptions took place. Edmund received a summons to gather hi_enants, but he found that these no longer replied willingly to the call.
Several of his chief men met him and represented to him the general feelin_hich prevailed.
"The men say," their spokesman explained, "that it is useless to fight agains_he Danes. In 872 there were ten pitched battles, and vast numbers of th_anes were slain, and vast numbers also of Saxons. The Danes are already fa_ore numerous than before, for fresh hordes continue to arrive on the shores, and more than fill up the places of those who are killed; but the places o_he Saxons are empty, and our fighting force is far smaller than it was las_ear. If we again go out and again fight many battles, even if we ar_ictorious, which we can hardly hope to be, the same thing will happen. Man_housands will be slain, and the following year we shall in vain try to put a_rmy in the field which can match that of the Danes, who will again hav_illed up their ranks, and be as numerous as ever. So long as we continue t_ight, so long the Danes will slay, burn, and destroy wheresoever they march, until there will remain of us but a few fugitives hidden in the woods. W_hould be far better off did we cease to resist, and the Danes become ou_asters, as they have become the masters of Northumbria, Mercia, and Anglia.
"There, it is true, they have plundered the churches and thanes' houses an_ave stolen all that is worth carrying away; but when they have taken all tha_here is to take they leave the people alone, and unmolested, to till th_round and to gain their livelihood. They do not slay for the pleasure o_laying, and grievous as is the condition of the Angles they and their wive_nd children are free from massacre and are allowed to gain their livings. Th_est Saxons have showed that they are no cowards; they have defeated th_orthmen over and over again when far outnumbering them. It is no dishonour t_ield now when all the rest of England has yielded, and when further fightin_ill only bring ruin upon ourselves, our wives, and children."
Edmund could find no reply to this argument. He knew that even the kin_espaired of ultimately resisting the Danish invasion, and after listening t_ll that the thanes had to say he retired with Egbert apart.
"What say you, Egbert? There is reason in the arguments that they use. You an_ have neither wives nor children, and we risk only our own lives; but I ca_ell understand that those who have so much to lose are chary of furthe_ffort. What say you?"
"I do not think it will be fair to press them further," Egbert answered; "bu_ethinks that we might raise a band consisting of all the youths and unmarrie_en in the earldom. These we might train carefully and keep always together, seeing that the lands will still be cultivated and all able to pay thei_ssessment, and may even add to it, since you exempt them from service. Such _and we could train and practise until we could rely upon them to defeat a fa_arger force of the enemy, and they would be available for our crew when w_ake to the ship."
"I think the idea is a very good one, Egbert; we will propose it to th_hanes." The proposition was accordingly made that all married men should b_xempt from service, but that the youths above the age of sixteen and th_nmarried men should be formed into a band and kept permanently under arms.
Landowners who lost the services of sons or freemen working for them shoul_ay the same assessment only as before, but those who did not contribute me_o the levy should pay an additional assessment. Edmund said he would pay th_en composing the band the same wages they would earn in the field, and woul_ndertake all their expenses. "So long as the king continues the struggle," h_aid, "it is our duty to aid him, nor can we escape from the dangers an_erils of invasion. Should the Danes come near us all must perforce fight, bu_o long as they continue at a distance things can go on here as if we ha_eace in the land."
The proposal was, after some discussion, agreed to, and the news cause_ladness and contentment throughout the earldom. The younger men who had bee_ncluded in the levy were quite satisfied with the arrangement. The spirit o_he West Saxons was still high, and those without wives and families who woul_uffer by their absence or be ruined by their death were eager to continue th_ontest. The proposal that they should be paid as when at work was considere_erfectly satisfactory.
The men of Sherborne had under their young leader gained great credit by thei_teadiness and valour in the battles four years before, and they looke_orward to fresh victories over the invader. The result was that ninety youn_en assembled for service. Edmund had sent off a messenger to the king sayin_hat the people were utterly weary of war and refused to take up arms, bu_hat he was gathering a band of young men with whom he would ere long joi_im; but he prayed for a short delay in order that he might get them into _ondition to be useful on the day of battle.
After consultation with Egbert, Edmund drew up a series of orders somewha_esembling those of modern drill. King Alfred had once, in speaking to him, described the manner in which the Thebans, a people of Northern Greece, ha_ought, placing their troops in the form of a wedge. The formation he no_aught his men. From morning to night they were practised at rallying fro_ursuit or flight, or changing from a line into the form of a wedge. Each ma_ad his appointed place both in the line and wedge. Those who formed th_utside line of this formation were armed with large shields which covere_hem from chin to foot, and with short spears; those in the inner line_arried no shields, but bore spears of increasing length, so that four line_f spears projected from the wedge to nearly the same distance. Inside th_our lines were twenty men armed with shields, bows, and arrows. The sides o_he wedge were of equal length, so that they could march either way.
Egbert's place was at the apex of the wedge intended generally for attack. H_arried no spear, nor did those at the other corners, as they would be covere_y those beside and behind them; he was armed with a huge battle-axe. Th_ther leaders were also chosen for great personal strength. Edmund's place wa_n horseback in the middle of the wedge, whence he could overlook the whol_nd direct their movements.
In three weeks the men could perform their simple movements to perfection, an_t a sound from Edmund's horn would run in as when scattered in pursuit o_light, or could form from line into the wedge, without the least confusion, every man occupying his assigned place.
The men were delighted with their new exercises, and felt confident that th_eight of the solid mass thickly bristling with spears would break through th_anish line without difficulty, or could draw off from the field in perfec_rder and safety in case of a defeat, however numerous their foes. The tw_ront lines were to thrust with their pikes, the others keeping their lon_pears immovable to form a solid hedge. Each man carried a short heavy swor_o use in case, by any fatality, the wedge should get broken up.
When assured that his band were perfect in their new exercise Edmund marche_nd joined the king. He found on his arrival that the summons to arms had bee_verywhere disregarded. Many men had indeed come in, but these were in no wa_ufficient to form a force which would enable him to take the field agains_he Danes.
Edmund therefore solicited and obtained permission to march with his band t_ndeavour to check the plundering bands of Danes, who were already committin_evastations throughout the country.
"Be not rash, Edmund," the monarch said, "you have but a handful of men, and _hould grieve indeed did aught of harm befall you. If you can fall upon smal_arties of plunderers and destroy them you will do good service, not only b_ompelling them to keep together but by raising the spirits of the Saxons; bu_void conflict with parties likely to defeat you."
"You shall hear of us soon, I promise you," Edmund replied, "and I trust tha_he news will be good."
The little party set out towards the border, and before long met numbers o_ugitives, weeping women carrying children, old men and boys, making their wa_rom the neighbourhood of the Danes. The men had for the most part drive_heir herds into the woods, where they were prepared to defend them as bes_hey could against roving parties. They learned that Haffa, a Danish jarl, with about 600 followers, was plundering and ravaging the country about twelv_iles away. The force was a formidable one, but after consultation wit_gbert, Edmund determined to advance, deeming that he might find the Dane_cattered and cut off some of their parties.
As they neared the country of which the Danes were in possession the smoke o_urning villages and homesteads was seen rising heavily in the air. Edmun_alted for the night in a wood about a mile distant from a blazing farm, an_he band lay down for some hours.
Before daybreak three or four of the swiftest-footed of the men were sent ou_o reconnoitre. They learned, from badly wounded men whom they found lyin_ear the burning farms, that the Danes had been plundering in parties o_wenty or thirty, but that the main body under Haffa lay five miles away a_he village of Bristowe.
A consultation was held, and it was agreed that the party should remain hidde_n the wood during the day, and that upon the following night they should fal_pon the Danes, trusting to the surprise to inflict much damage upon them, an_o be able to draw off before the enemy could recover sufficiently to rall_nd attack them.
Accordingly about nine o'clock in the evening they started, and marchin_apidly approached Bristowe an hour and a half later. They could see grea_ires blazing, and round them the Danes were carousing after their forays o_he day. Great numbers of cattle were penned up near the village.
Edmund and Egbert having halted their men stole forward until close to th_illage in order to learn the nature of the ground and the position of th_anes. Upon their return they waited until the fires burned low and the soun_f shouting and singing decreased. It was useless to wait longer, for the_new that many of the Danes would, according to their custom, keep up thei_evelry all night. Crawling along the ground the band made for the great pe_here were herded the cattle which the Danes had driven in from th_urrounding country, and over which several guards had been placed. Befor_tarting Egbert assigned to each man the special duties which he was t_ulfil.
The Saxons crept up quite close to the Danish guards unobserved. To each o_hese three or four bowmen had been told off, and they, on nearing th_entries lay prone on the ground with bows bent and arrows fixed until _histle from Edmund gave the signal. Then the arrows were loosed, and th_istance being so short the Danish sentries were all slain. Then a party o_en removed the side of the pen facing the village; the rest mingled with th_attle, and soon with the points of their spears goaded them into flight. In _ass the herd thundered down upon the village, the Saxons keeping closel_ehind them and adding to their terror by goading the hindermost.
The Danes, astonished at the sudden thunder of hoofs bearing down upon them, leaped to their feet and endeavoured to turn the course of the herd, whic_hey deemed to have accidentally broken loose, by loud shouts and by rattlin_heir swords against their shields. The oxen, however, were too terrified b_hose in their rear to check their course, and charged impetuously down upo_he Danes.
Numbers of these were hurled to the ground and trampled under foot, and th_ildest confusion reigned in the camp. This was increased when, as the herd_wept along, a number of active men with spear and sword fell suddenly upo_hem. Scores were cut down or run through before they could prepare fo_efence, or recover from their surprise at the novel method of attack.
At last, as the thunder of the herd died away in the distance, and they becam_ware of the comparative fewness of their foes, they began to rally and mak_ead against their assailants. No sooner was this the case than the note of _orn was heard, and as if by magic their assailants instantly darted away int_he night, leaving the superstitious Danes in some doubt whether the whol_ttack upon them had not been of a supernatural nature.
Long before they recovered themselves, and were ready for pursuit, the Saxon_ere far away, no less than 200 of the Danes having been slain or trampled t_eath, while of Edmund's band not one had received so much as a wound.
The Saxons regained the wood in the highest state of exultation at thei_uccess, and more confident than before in themselves and their leader.
"I am convinced," Edmund said, "that this is the true way to fight the Danes, to harry and attack them by night assaults until they dare not break up int_arties, and become so worn out by constant alarms that they will be glad t_eave a country where plunder and booty are only to be earned at so great _ost."
Knowing that Haffa's band would for some time be thoroughly on the aler_dmund moved his party to another portion of the country, where he inflicted _low, almost as heavy as he had dealt Haffa, upon Sigbert, another of th_anish jarls. Three or four more very successful night attacks were made, an_hen the Danes, by this time thoroughly alarmed, obtained from some Saxo_ountry people whom they took prisoners news as to the strength of Edmund'_and.
Furious at the heavy losses which had been inflicted upon them by so small _umber, they determined to unite in crushing them. By threats of instan_eath, and by the offers of a high reward, they succeeded in persuading tw_axon prisoners to act as spies, and one day these brought in to Haffa th_ews that the band had that morning, after striking a successful blow at th_anes ten miles away, entered at daybreak a wood but three miles from hi_amp.
The Northman, disdaining to ask for assistance from one of the other band_gainst so small a foe, moved out at once with 300 of his men towards th_ood. The Saxons had posted guards, who on the approach of the Danes rouse_dmund with the news that the enemy were close at hand. The Saxons were soo_n their feet.
"Now, my friends," Edmund said to them, "here is the time for trying wha_enefit we have got from our exercise. We cannot well draw off, for the Dane_re as fleet-footed as we; therefore let us fight and conquer them."
The men formed up cheerfully, and the little body moved out from the wood t_eet the Danes. The latter gave a shout of triumph as they saw them. The Saxo_orce, from its compact formation, appeared even smaller than it was, and th_orsemen advanced in haste, each eager to be the first to fall upon an enem_hom they regarded as an easy prey. As they arrived upon the spot, however, and saw the thick hedge of spears which bristled round the little body o_axons, the first comers checked their speed and waited till Haffa himsel_ame up, accompanied by his principal warriors.
Without a moment's hesitation the jarl flung himself upon the Saxons. In vain, however, he tried to reach them with his long sword. As he neared them th_ront line of the Saxons dropped on one knee, and as the Danes with thei_hields dashed against the spears and strove to cut through them, the kneelin_en were able with their pikes to thrust at the unguarded portions of th_odies below their shields, and many fell grievously wounded. After trying fo_ome time in vain, Haffa, finding that individual effort did not suffice t_reak through the Saxon spears, formed his men up in line four deep, an_dvanced in a solid body so as to overwhelm them.
The Saxons now rose to their feet. The spears, instead of being pointe_utwards, were inclined towards the front, and the wedge advanced against th_anes. The Saxon war cry rose loud as they neared the Danish line, and then, still maintaining their close formation, they charged upon it. The assault wa_rresistible. The whole weight was thrown upon a point, and preceded, as i_as, by the densely-packed spears, it burst through the Danish line as if th_atter had been composed of osier twigs, bearing down all in its way.
With shouts of surprise the Danes broke up their line and closed in a thic_ass round the Saxons, those behind pressing forward and impeding the motion_f the warriors actually engaged. The Saxons no longer kept stationary. I_bedience to Edmund's orders the triangle advanced, sometimes with one angl_n front, sometimes with another, but whichever way it moved sweeping away th_anes opposed to it, while the archers from the centre shot fast and stron_nto the mass of the enemy.
Haffa himself, trying to oppose the advance of the wedge, was slain by a blo_f Egbert's axe, and after half an hour's fierce fighting, the Danes, havin_ost upwards of fifty of their best men, and finding all their efforts t_roduce an impression upon the Saxons vain, desisted from the attack and fled.
At once the wedge broke up, and the Saxons followed in hot pursuit, cuttin_own their flying enemies. Obedient, however, to Edmund's repeated shouts the_ept fairly together, and when the Danes, thinking them broken and disordered, turned to fall upon them, a single note of the horn brought them instantl_ogether again, and the astonished Danes saw the phalanx which had proved s_atal to them prepared to receive their attack. This they did not attempt t_eliver, but took to flight, the Saxons, as before, pursuing, and twice a_any of the Danes were slain in the retreat as in the first attack.
The pursuit was continued for many miles, and then, fearing that he might com_cross some fresh body of the enemy, Edmund called off his men. Great was th_riumph of the Saxons. A few of them had suffered from wounds more or les_erious, but not one had fallen. They had defeated a body of Danes four time_heir own force, and had killed nearly half of them, and they felt confiden_hat the tactics which they had adopted would enable them in future to defea_ny scattered bodies of Danes they might meet.
For a week after the battle they rested, spending their time in furthe_mproving themselves in their drill, practicing especially the alterations o_he position of the spears requisite when changing from a defensive attitude, with the pikes at right angles to each face, to that of an attack, when th_pears of both faces of the advancing wedge were all directed forward. _essenger arrived from the king, to whom Edmund had sent the news of hi_arious successes, and Alfred sent his warmest congratulations and thanks fo_he great results which had been gained with so small a force, the kin_onfessing that he was unable to understand how with such disproportionat_umbers Edmund could so totally have routed the force of so distinguished _eader as Haffa.
For some weeks Edmund continued the work of checking the depredations of th_anes, and so successful was he that the freebooters became seized with _uperstitious awe of his band. The rapidity of its maneuvering, the manner i_hich men, at one moment scattered, were in another formed in a serried mass, against which all their efforts broke as waves against a rock, seemed to the_o be something superhuman. In that part of Wessex, therefore, the invader_radually withdrew their forces across the frontier; but in other parts of th_ountry, the tide of invasion being unchecked, large tracts of country ha_een devastated, and the West Saxons could nowhere make head against them. On_ay a messenger reached Edmund telling him that a large Danish army wa_pproaching Sherborne, and urging him to return instantly to the defence o_is earldom.
With rapid marches he proceeded thither, and on arriving at his house he foun_hat the Danes were but a few miles away, and that the whole country was in _tate of panic. He at once sent off messengers in all directions, bidding th_eople hasten with their wives and families, their herds and valuables, to th_ort. His return to some extent restored confidence. The news of the victorie_e had gained over the Danes had reached Sherborne, and the confidence o_heir power to defeat the invaders which his followers expressed as the_cattered to their respective farms again raised the courage of the people.
All through the night bands of fugitives poured into the fort, and by mornin_he whole of the people for many miles round were assembled there. Egbert an_dmund busied themselves in assigning to each his duty and station. All th_en capable of bearing arms were told off to posts on the walls. The old me_nd young boys were to draw water and look after the cattle; the women to coo_nd attend to the wounded. The men of his own band were not placed upon th_alls, but were held in readiness as a reserve to move to any point whic_ight be threatened, and to take part in sorties against the enemy.
Soon smoke was seen rising up in many directions, showing that the enemy wer_t their accustomed work. Cries broke from the women, and exclamations of rag_rom the men, as they recognized by the direction of the smoke that their ow_omesteads and villages were in the hands of the spoilers. About mid-day _arty of mounted Danes rode up towards the fort and made a circuit of it. Whe_hey had satisfied themselves as to the formidable nature of its defences the_ode off again, and for the rest of the day none of the enemy approached th_ort.