I had left Finan and a handful of men as our only sentries. They were posted at the edge of the fields, halfway between the village and the old hall and Finan had sent one man to warn me that the Danes were moving. "They're in the woods, lord," the man told me, "by our camp."
"We can"t tell, lord, but it sounds like a horde."
Which could mean two hundred or two thousand, and prudence suggested I should wait till Finan could estimate the enemy more accurately, but I was in that bleak mood, feeling doomed and desperate for a sign from the gods, and so I turned to Æthelflæd. "You wait here with your bodyguard," I said, and did not wait for an answer, but just drew Serpent-Breath, taking comfort from the sound of the long steel scraping through the scabbard's throat. "The Danes are at our camp!" I shouted, "and we're going to kill them!" I spurred my horse, the same stallion I had taken from Aldhelm. It was a good horse, properly schooled, but I was still unfamiliar with him.
Ælfwold spurred to catch me. "How many are there?" he asked.
"Enough!" I called to him. I was feeling reckless, careless and I knew it was foolish. But I reckoned the Danes would attack the encampment and almost immediately realise we had anticipated them, and then they would be wary. I wanted them unaware and so I kicked the stallion into a trot. My whole force, nearly four hundred men, was streaming along the track behind me. The day's first shadows were being cast into the furrows and birds were flying up from the woods ahead.
I turned in my saddle to see spears and swords, axes and shields. Saxon warriors, grey-mailed in a grey dawn, grim-faced beneath helmets, and I felt the battle anger rising. I wanted to kill. I was in that bleak mood, assailed by the certainty that I had to throw myself on the mercy of the gods. If they wanted me to live, if the spinners were willing to weave my thread back into the golden weft, then I would live through this morning. Omens and signs, we live by them, and so I rode to discover the will of the gods. It was foolish.
Horsemen appeared on our left, startling me, but it was only Finan and his seven remaining men who galloped to join us. "There might be three hundred of them," he shouted, "or maybe four hundred!"
I just nodded and kicked the horse again. The track to the old hall was wide enough for four or five men to ride abreast. Finan probably expected me to halt our horsemen short of the space we had cleared about the old hall and line the men in the trees, but the carelessness was on me.
Light flared ahead. The daylight was still grey, night shrouding the western horizon, but the sudden new light was red and bright. Fire. The Danes, I guessed, had lit the hall's thatch, so now let it light their deaths. I could see the edge of the trees, see the fallen trunks we had felled the day before, see the dull glow of dying campfires and the dark shapes of men and horses and the glimmer of reflected fire from helmets, mail and weapons, and I kicked the stallion again and roared a challenge. "Kill them!”
We came in a ragged order, bursting from the trees with swords and spears, with hatred and fury, and almost as soon as I entered the clearing I realised we were outnumbered. The Danes had come in force, at least four hundred, and most were still mounted, but they were scattered throughout the encampment and few realised we were approaching until our horses and blades appeared in the dawn. The largest body of the enemy was at the clearing's western edge, staring across the dark land towards the faint glow of light betraying the fires of Lundene. Maybe they suspected we had given up any hope of capturing the forts and, under the cover of night, had slunk back towards the distant city. Instead we were coming from the east with the growing light behind us, and they turned as they heard the first screams and shouts.
We were lit red by the growing fire of the old hall's burning thatch. Red fire was flashing from the horses" bared teeth, from our mail, from our blades, and I was still shouting as I swung my sword at the first man. He was on foot and holding a broad-bladed spear that he tried to level at my horse, but Serpent-Breath caught him on the side of the head and I lifted the sword and lunged it at another man, not bothering to see what damage I did, just spurring on to provoke more fear. We had surprised them, and for a moment we were the lords of slaughter as we spread from the track and cut down dismounted men who searched for plunder around the dying camp fires. I saw Osferth hammer a man's head with the flat of an axe blade, knocking off the man's helmet and hurling him back into one of the fires. The man must have been in the habit of cleaning his hands after eating by running them through his hair because the grease caught the flames and flared sudden and bright. He screamed and writhed, head like a beacon as he staggered to his feet, then a rush of horsemen overrode him. A hoof threw up a spew of sparks and riderless horses fled in panic.
Finan was with me. Finan and Cerdic and Sihtric, and together we rode for the large group of mounted warriors who had been staring west across the night-shadowed land. I was still shouting as I charged into them, sword swinging at a yellow-bearded man who deflected the blow with his raised shield, then he was struck by a spear below the shield, the blade ripping through mail and into his belly. I felt something strike my shield, but could not look to my left because a gap-toothed man was trying to lunge his sword through my stallion's neck. I knocked his blade down with Serpent-Breath and cut at his arm, but his mail stopped the blow. We were deep among the enemy now, unable to ride farther, but more of my men were coming to help. I lunged at the gap-toothed man, but he was quick and his shield intercepted the sword, then his horse stumbled. Sihtric slashed with an axe and I had a glimpse of splitting metal and sudden blood.
An excerpt or chapter from "THE BURNING LAND" of Bernard Cornwell