“I would I had the tongue of Harek the scald, that I might thank you for gift and words, my fairy princess.”
“I have half a mind to take it back for that fine saying,” she answered.
And then she gave me her hand, and I kissed it; and she went from me with her eyes full of tears for all the trouble that was on us, though she had tried bravely to carry it off lightly.
Then I would stay in the house no longer, but went out to the fort, and sat down by the great Dragon banner of Wessex, Heregar’s charge, that floated there, and ate and drank with the other chiefs, and waited. But my mind was full of what I had heard, and the war talk went on round me without reaching my ears.
Chapter XI. The Winning of “The Raven.”
Now we none of us like much to speak of the fight that came next morning, for it went ill enough. Yet we were outnumbered by twice our force, for some more of the host beyond the fens made Alfred send many of his men back to watch the crossing at Bridgwater.
Hubba brought his ships up on the tide, and when he saw that we were waiting for him, he made as if to go on up the river; and we began to move from our position, thinking that he would go and fall on the town. Then, very suddenly, he turned his ships’ bows to the bank at the one place where he saw that the land was high almost to the river’s edge; and before we knew that we must be there to stay him, his men were ashore, and had passed the strip of marsh, and were on a long, gentle rise that ends in Cannington hill and the Combwich fort, half a mile away.
We fought well for an hour, and then our men began to give on either wing, for they were, as I would have it remembered, raw levies that Odda had brought with him—valiant men and strong, but with no knowledge of how to fight in line or how to hold together. And when a force like that begins to go, it is ended.
Hard fought we in the centre after that. There were the Athelney thanes, and my fifty men, and Odda’s Exeter and Taunton townsfolk, who had fought before; but when the wings broke, Hubba’s great force of veterans lapped round us, and we had nought left us but to cut our way out, and make the best retreat we could. My men shouted as they struck, in our Norse way; but a deadly silence fell on the Saxons, and I thought that, as they grew quiet, their blows became ever more stern and fell, until at last even Hubba’s vikings gave way before the hard-set faces and steadfast eyes of the west-country spearmen, whom no numbers seemed to daunt, and they drew back from us for a space.
Then we were clear of them, and at once Ethelnoth closed in on the king, taking his horse’s rein, and praying him to fly to Bridgwater, where a stand could be made. And at last he persuaded him, and they turned. Then fearing that this might set the example for general flight, I spoke to Odda, and we shouted to the men to stand fast and hold back pursuit; and so a guard of some fifty thanes went with Alfred, and we faced the Danes even yet.