Eþandun: An Epic Poem in Twelve Parts (Bk V)
V. This Captive Land
Alfred and Beornwulf arrive in Sherborne, where the episcopal palace now serves as Toca’s headquarters. They continue on to Dorchester, where Hrothulf rules unhappy Saxons. A morning on the downs after a snowstorm persuades Alfred to make his way to Rome.
Under a leaden breastwork of cloud,
a pair of herdsmen hobbled into Sherborne,
the one bearing a carcass on his shoulders,
the other leaning on an antique spear.
A gang of sailors, drunk with the new wine
of easy triumph, loitered by a doorway,
attracted like a pack of peevish hounds
by any hint of feebleness or fear.
Their rancor towards the Saxons had deep roots.
The early Danish kings, including Offa,
the ancestor of Mercia’s royal house,
fought frequent feral frays with Saxon neighbors
and won and lost Saxon and Jutish lands
long years before King Pippin’s son, great Charles,
annexed the Saxons to his “Roman” empire.
An icy snowball struck one herder’s ear.
“Easy,” his fellow urged, “they’d love to pick
a fight, but that won’t help us find the bishop.
Remember how our Lord endured men’s blows.
Take this one and ponder it in your heart.”
A sweating devil stepped astride their path.
“Halt, boys,” he said, “and pay your penny.
Ugh, did hunger make you slaughter your daughter?
She has her mother’s pretty pointed teeth.”
The mariners guffawed. King Alfred paid.
“I see she turned to rend you,” said the devil.
The lidmenn laughed again, for they had lived
long years in Christian lands and knew the Scriptures.
The seed of Ingeld grinned and shook his head.
He becked at Beornwulf’s frost-stiffened burden
and stammered they were headed for the palace,
at which the brigand briskly waved them on.
“But give me this,” he said, gripping the weapon.
“You Saxons may no longer carry spears.”
The travelers approached the bishop’s hall
adjoining the cathedral Ini built,
in the old Roman style he’d revived,
of quarried limestone blocks, with leaded windows
and limestone roofing sealed with lead flashing—
a high-walled grotto open to God’s light.
Within, the king’s two eldest brothers slept,
though Athelred rested his bones at Wimborne—
the abbey built by Cuthburh, Ini’s sister—
where Leoba, Saint Wynfrith’s cousin, trained
before she joined his mission to the heathens.
Fearing to find His Stoutness bound in fetters,
Alfred pounded the door with frozen fist.
“Your Grace,” he cried, “Your Grace, we’ve brought your supper!”
A black-bristled cook unlatched the door
whom Ingeld’s injured scion recognized,
though Gyrth (the cook) saw only grizzled churls,
for Denewulf had mowed the pilgrims’ crowns
and Denehild, with blushing cheeks, had raked
ground chalk into their locks and whiskers.
Noting the dressed barrow Beornwulf bore,
Gyrth said, “Come in, come in, and thaw your trotters.”
Alfred, wincing, lowered his rump to the hearth,
a scullion drew two wooden cups of ale
(in which the king discerned the fragrant Yeo),
and the cook proffered Beornwulf a penny.
“I dare no more,” he said. “Our Savior keep
this vanished, yet, we pray, unvanquished head.”
The herdsmen frowned, but Gyrth threw one white thumb
behind him towards the fiend-infested hall.
King Alfred curbed his tongue and took the token,
which showed him in the headdress of a Caesar
goggling at the world with one good eye—
a coin indeed four times more valuable
than anything his brothers ever minted
as struck on unadulterated silver.
He’d based it on King Offa’s Mercian penny,
modeled on Charles the Great’s denarius,
which Charles, in fact, had copied from his father—
a triumph of administration like
the solidus of Constantine the Great.
Some even trace the West Saxon pening
to Alexander’s stater of pure gold—
an oddity of our Lord’s providence
perhaps, to be unraveled in reverse,
for little did the Christian Athulfing,
who claimed our common parent for his sire
and labored to preserve his Christian flock,
resemble that well-educated butcher
who undertook to conquer all the world
and dubbed himself son of the Most High God—
though maybe it attests the Spirit’s force
in leading men to light from heathen darkness,
for Saxon folk, says Widukind the monk,
derived from that same Alexander’s host,
a shaving of which sailed north at his death—
where, by the Father’s grace and Charles’s ardor,
they became famous soldiers, kings, and saints.
“The earl thanks you, sir,” said Gyrth, relieved,
“as I do, for considering my hide.”
“May we salute the bishop?” Alfred asked.
“We’re lay brothers up from Muchelney.”
“Old Burghelm is our bishop now,” said Gyrth.
“The mermen mitered the meek monk in jest.”
“The other was a sturdy lad,” said Alfred,
turning aside to contemplate the fire.
“I saw him hunting over Blackmoor way.
Does he yet live? Did he escape our friends?”
“Who, Lord Athelheah?” the cook replied.
A fiend exploded through the inner door
and glared disgustedly at Gyrth’s two guests,
two staff-churls crawling from door to door.
“I only tell you what we tell the northmen,”
Gyrth said. “Our guma’s gone. To Gaul, I guess.”
His bulging back withdrew.
The scullion spoke.
“Good thing for you the jarl governs here.
When Hrothulf brought his crew from Dorchester,
he sacrificed a traveler to Grim.”
Uncertainly, the strangers sipped their ale.
Alfred didn’t distrust Gyrth or the scullion
but feared his scars might mark him, to the fiends,
as one who herded fiercer beasts than swine.
He quaffed the cup and struggled to his stumps
and, grunting an old grudge against his bladder,
he dribbled out the door. His fellow followed.
Three ruddy heathens tippled at the counter,
absorbed in quiet banter re: their lands.
The king and Beornwulf hunched at a table,
sipping at pots of honey-tinctured ale
with two Dorsetan couples wrapped in woolens.
Worn from wandering all night and a day,
they hadn’t caught a whiff of the blithe bishop.
The Dorset folk surpassed the two in years
if not the haggard wranglers they portrayed.
The monarch recognized them from his circuit,
though never having numbered them as tenants
or led the men as soldiers in his wars,
he had no ready notion of their worth.
His neighbor on the mead-bench, whose beard
encroached the tawny clearing of his cheeks,
arranged his whiskers with a sharp-crooked wrist.
“You’re better off in Hampshire,” he declared.
His balding, blazing friend tightened his grip
on the glazed crock before him, frowned, and said,
“At least King Hrothulf won’t devour you there.”
“Or Earl Wan, his watchdog,” said the other.
“They keep their heathen feast in Alfstan’s hall—
where he’s their prisoner, if he yet lives.”
“The kid claims half the herds,” the bald one charged.
“And every maid in town,” alleged his wife,
whose creased hide shone like wax in the lamplight,
“as if he were old Solomon of the Jews.”
After a pause to taste, her husband said,
“They burned one of their great ones yesterday.
Gorged and guzzled a fortnight beforehand,
pegging the poor maids in a sailcloth tent.
Then cut their throats and cooked them with the corpse.”
The seed of Ingeld sickened at the word.
He waited for the outraged Dorsetans
to lengthen out the count of Hrothulf’s sins,
but they just sipped their clover-honey brew.
“It makes a man abashed,” said Beornwulf,
eyeing his interlocutors in turn,
“to hear such deeds and know our king has failed
both to prevent such crimes against the weak
and to avenge our loving Father’s laws.”
He looked at Alfred. “Think of those young girls
who died in terror at the gates of hell.”
The monarch flushed so darkly that his scars
drowned in the vinous flood that swept his face.
To Denehild’s bold uncle he unclosed,
“High heaven heaps these horrors on our heads,
whether to test or teach or torture us
we do not know, we shall not know till doomsday.
In every age, he bids us fight like men,
not against flesh alone but fallen powers,
the ranks commanded by our enemy.
Thus some must face the fiends with heartfelt prayer,
while others hack them on the battlefield.
We’re lay brothers up from Muchelney,”
he ended, facing each of the Dorsetans,
“willing to serve wherever we are called.”
Bending over his beverage, Alfred asked,
“Have you heard hide or hair of Athelheah?
They say he and his men escort the queen.”
The elders traded looks but uttered nothing.
“Is Hrothulf holding them?” the stranger pressed.
“We don’t know you, friend,” the dark one answered.
“There’s hungry Welshmen,” his companion added,
“would sell a Saxon servant for a shilling,
say nothing of a king for seven pound.”
“If he yet lives,” the gleaming matron added,
touching her brow, her belly, and her breast.
The others crossed themselves, and Beornwulf
and Alfred did the same. The latter felt
a qualm of fear, as though the feigned interment
somehow gnawed at the chilled root of his soul.
“And hasn’t died of shame,” the bald one said.
The king sat back and squared his shoulders towards
this loose-tongued, ignorant accuser.
“What shame?” he said. “A lord who saw him swore
he fought like fourteen fiends at Chippenham.”
The Saxons stared at him like wooden saints.
“We mean no disrespect,” said Hedda gravely,
“but Alfred left these devils on our hands,
which his three kingly brothers never did,
nor Athelwulf, his faithful, fruitful father.”
“I tell you,” said the dame with shining skin,
“I never said one word against the boy,
but this time Godrum snuffed him like a candle.”
She leaned across the planks and blew a puff
of honey-scented breath in Alfred’s face.
The pair of pilgrims paced the wintry downs,
still chasing Sherborne’s lord and Alfred’s lady.
No butterflies adorned the air, no blues
or coppers that patrol the turf in summer;
no grasses yielded, glinting, to the breeze,
revealing nests where bustards fed their young;
no wheatears whitened vacant rabbit holes;
no partridges scrabbled at dry anthills;
and no dull larks, ascending by gradations,
descanted on the excellence of heaven.
Instead, the tent of lead enclosed a plain
emptied of living things, though raised above
the snow-filled dells that cupped the naked elms.
The wind had fanned the plots of snow like sand,
raking them into corrugated rows
or sculpting frigid haunches, hips, and flanks
whose northward hollows harbored bowls of shadow.
But all around the boundaries of this desert,
beneath the pall of mist and drifting forms,
a band of color curtained the horizon,
paler than peach or apricot, yet mild,
as if midwinter’s menacing arena
were guarded by angelic sentinels.
The fellows’ features roughened and grew lean
from short days in icy airs and gales
and long-drawn nights endured in herdsmen’s huts,
but mainly from uninterrupted hunger.
They’d brought bread alone from Dorchester
nor had they bow or spear to take a deer.
A gray morning found them atop a ridge
peering down on the ditched Roman road,
on three British barrows built nearby,
and farther off, the ruined Badbury fastness,
from which the Virgin’s champion, Artorius,
dispersed the overconfident Saxon host.
The seed of Cerdic said to Beornwulf,
“How hard it is to keep a people’s love!
The emperor who mastered all of Britain
without shedding a drop of Roman blood,
when famine struck, was pelted in the forum
by Romans chunking loaves of moldy bread.
When fat Vitellius was deposed, the Romans
flung filth in his face, bored him with brooches,
and dragged his stripped carcass through the streets.
I myself was present as a child
when the mob maimed and jailed Benedict,
the newly elected vicar of our Lord.
Three times I purchased peace, sparing our people.
Unthroned, I’m the cynosure of scorn.”
After a time the swineherd asked the king,
“And has the Holy Ghost advised my lord
whether to fly to Rome like Mercian Burgred
or lie in wait like David in his cave?”
The king said nothing. He could hardly cry,
Retro me, Satana, to a churl
for urging him to fight the foreign killers.
They watched a gliding merlin scan the plain,
quartering the lower heights for grouse
or waterfowl blown inland by the storms.
A shepherd of the downs would have the skill,
thought Alfred, with one deftly darted stone
to knock a flapping blackcock to the ground.
As shadows lengthened (later every day,
according to our Father’s providence),
a sharp dampness nettled Alfred’s nostrils.
They stopped. A merlin stooped on a lone stonechat,
riding the birdling earthward, pierced and stunned.
Beornwulf ran to meet them where they fell
and snatched up both predator and prey.
They found a shepherd’s shelter stocked with wood,
a spare spindle idle on the floor,
and as the seed of Ingeld laid the tinder
the smothered sun slipped underneath the cloud
and set the ruckled countryside on fire.
The travelers eyed the gold streaks of snow,
the burning turf, and the far flaming hills,
and Alfred said a prayer to praise the Lord’s
mercy in serving up a Shrovetide feast.
They crossed themselves and plucked and dressed the fowls
and roasted them attentively on sticks.
That night they fell asleep, not satisfied,
but on the upward slope from desolation.
Like the Greek giant who regained his strength
from the earth’s breast, the king sucked his from heaven.
All night he sensed the fullness of the air
until the dawn revealed a pregnant dream.
He stood atop a saddleback amid
thick snowflakes swirling in faint light.
Congealed in the twinkling of an eye,
he saw Athelnoth knotting his helmet,
Athelheah touching the edge of his sword,
his guardsmen (some of whom he knew were dead)
gazing ahead, adjusting layered shields
or breaking icy scales from their eyebrows.
The West Saxon levies stood behind them
unmoving under the biting, blinding flaws
like the crushed Latin bands a blizzard caught
fleeing the consul’s wrath into the mountains
after the ugly fight at Asculum—
men rigidly at rest on stumps or stones
or leaning on their spears, eyes wide with fear.
When Alfred woke, the dream fresh in his mind,
he knew he’d lost all that was precious to him,
his lady, children, servants, friends, and crown,
this last the emblem of God-given service.
He didn’t know how he could bear such sorrow,
though by his will, it was our common fate.
For all flesh perished. Only Spirit lived.
He heard the morning’s muffled soundlessness
and blinked at the low doorway filled with light—
or rather at the cloudless azure castle
presiding over an exploding field
of pure, plump, unblemished virgin snow.
Like heaven on earth it was, an earth of light,
the glory of the Lord made manifest.
He crossed himself and blessed the Thunderer;
he blessed the Word through whom he made each day
and blessed the Holy Ghost, by whom his power
was rendered knowable to mortal minds.
The Lord, he saw, had sent the sign he sought,
a heading for their march from that day forward.
How many kings the King of Kings had summoned
to quiet lives of scholarship and prayer:
West Saxon Ini, Centwine, Ceadwalla;
Mercian Athred and his nephew, Cenred;
East Saxon Offa; Ceolwulf of Northumbria,
to whom Bede dedicated his historia,
and Eadbert, the master of Strathclyde;
and East Anglian Sigebert, a saint
who rode to war armed with only a wand.
All had exchanged their crowns for shaven polls,
their royal robes for rough monastic gowns.
Now Alfred, too, would make his pilgrimage
to end his days, the Most High permitting,
praising him from the foot of Peter’s tomb.
“To Rome,” he said to bleary Beornwulf
emerging from beneath his salted cloak.
He exited the hut to gather wood,
wading down the slope to a buried grove,
for none who found that hut should die of chill
because the king had used up all the kindling.
Toiling eastwards into the sun, they trudged
between blue-shadowed domes of shrubs and anthills,
the rebounding light basting them from all sides.
They turned south and followed a thawing rill
down where snowdrifts shrank and the stream broadened
reflectively, observed by stands of alders
and flocks of snowdrops blotless as young nuns
and birches whose integuments were scarred
with ink-black, impenetrable spells.
The port caught fleeing families like a weir:
defeated people loitered will-lessly,
exhausted, hungry, guilty, hurt, bereft.
Some camped in blackened hulks that once were houses,
while others went about their rounds, bowed down
by the stout yoke the Lord had laid on them,
dismay stamped indelibly on their brows
in place of the day’s cinerary stain.
Such plentiful distress he’d never witnessed,
the seed of Ingeld, Athulf’s youngest son,
even when reoccupying Reading,
or Wareham, or Dumnonian Exeter,
or Nottingham, when Burgred purchased peace
and Alfred won his lovesome Mercian bride.
The monarch crossed himself. “And Jesus wept,”
he said to Beornwulf, who made the cross.
They asked for Athelheah and Ealhswith
at inns and churches and at noble doors,
but none would say they’d seen or heard of them.
Careful of children underfoot, the two
joined the solemn progress towards the quay
(even the dogs were quiet, out of respect)
and slid, their eyes downcast, along the flags
where Frisians, Franks, and Arabs handled freight.
The trade in thread and cloth somehow survived,
inspected and assessed by Wulfheard’s reeves,
and casks of salt beef and cured pork
and columns of big cheeses cased in wax
embarked to make their way to distant tables
as wooden crates of clayware out of Frankland
or Anglian towns now governed by the fiends
in blackware, buffware, orange-, green-, or grayware,
wheel-thrown, incised, and glazed (as Alfred
once longed to manufacture in his realm),
were disinterred from belowdecks and stacked
on the slick, mobbed wharf for further haulage.
Thus men continued at their worldly chores,
which stupefied the roadworn travelers
as if the sun still drove his daily circuit,
as if the Lord still ruled in highest heaven,
as if the Saxon nation had not fallen,
dismembered, pierced, and flayed by sailors’ blades.
A people does not perish when it yields,
Alfred mused, thinking of his past truces,
but when it spreads its spent limbs on the soil
and calls to wolves and ravens, “Come and feed.”
Beornwulf and Alfred passed, appalled,
where heathen strangers hawked their haunted captives
to masters who would float them overseas
to Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Spain.
Seals thrust their heads up from the water
and disappeared on business of their own,
while pairs of mallards paddled past the ships
and seagulls loitered hungrily on piles.
Leading bewildered Beornwulf aboard,
the seed of Ingeld found a willing skipper
preparing to make sail on the ebb,
paid the inflated fare to Frankish Cantwic
(first founded as a Saxon settlement),
and joined the refugees that jammed the rail,
keeping his distance from two hard-faced lords
as heedful of his humble herdsman’s garb.
Both had inherited lands near Winchester
and so owed threefold duties to the king,
road-work, wall-work, and war-work, meaning men.
One was meager Wulfric, Wulflaf’s son,
whose cloak was lined with squirrel. The other, flushed,
was Boda Bolla’s son, to cushion whom
from cold a sept of stoats had shed their coats.
“God keep My Loftinesses,” Alfred said,
“and may he keep your relatives and friends.
Does a vile churl err in premising
my frean freight their families to Frankland?”
“We do,” the son of Wulflaf answered quickly,
dispensing with the chilliness of rank.
“The Danes have ousted us from house and home,
compounding with our puissant alderman.”
“The jarl is the law in Hampshire now,”
said Bolla’s son. “Old Wulfheard keeps to his bed.”
Keeps to his bed. The seed of Ingeld swallowed
as Beornwulf considered all three speakers.
“Have we no hope,” the monarch asked, “in Alfred,
the son of Athelwulf?” The nobles glared.
“In him who fled at the first whiff of fiend?”
asked Wulflaf’s son.
“Who vanished into Mercia,”
cried Boda, “thus disowning his own folk?”
“Why into Mercia?” Athred’s heir inquired,
his ruffled blood surging under the grime,
but Boda had his reasons near at hand.
“First,” he explained, extending a pink finger,
“he lives, or else the avaricious Danes
would hardly offer ten pounds for his head.”
He peered into the churl’s one good eye,
glancing reluctantly at its dull twin
and doubtfully at frowning Beornwulf.
“To Mercia,” adding in the middle digit,
“for Alfred was last seen in Chippenham,
not far from Mercian land.” The king said nothing,
but thought he saw a skulking shade of shame
dive for cover deep in the exile’s eyes.
“Item,” said Boda, proffering three clean nails,
“his lady was of Mercian royal blood,
her father one of the top Mercian nobs.
And fourth, his sister, Lady Athelswith,
was married to the marrowless Mercian king.”
Alfred refrained from seizing Boda’s “reasons”
and snapping them off backwards at the knuckles.
“Then surely Athulf’s youngest son,” he said,
“will reappear from Mercia with an army.”
“For what,” retorted Wulfric, grimacing,
“to gather gavel for our foreign feasters?”
“To feed their swine, more likely,” Boda said.
“Old Gorm’s a gutsy, galloping, godlike guþfrea.
Our Alfred was a cockerel beside him.”
“A field mouse.”
“The runt of a depleted, blighted litter.”
“Who snatched the crown from Athred’s little sons.”
“A theft for which we thole a thousandfold.”
Sensing the swineherd stiffen at his side,
the prince placed a palm on his potent forearm,
dissembling, as he did so, like our Lord,
whom scholars, scribes, and scoundrels scurrilized,
the black storm that boiled in his breast.
“I see you suffer keenly,” he replied.
“Gee, truly,” Boda blubbered, “what a blessing
to beg a barren bone-house abroad!”
The seed of Ingeld eyed the filthy flood
that rose and fell along the vessel’s side.
He turned from Beornwulf to streaming Boda
to Wulflaf’s lad and cautiously inquired,
“But what if God has called our king to spend
his days in prayer, prone at Peter’s bier?”
Boda’s offspring spluttered wrathfully,
“What God would call a king to leave his people
when they most long for their anointed lord?
By Thunder, if the runt were here,” he cried,
his features bulging hideously with grief,
“I’d claim the Danes’ twenty pounds in a twinkling!”
He rubbed his tears away and sniffed and swallowed.
“Forgive me, sirs,” he said. “You’re bound for Rome?
A worthy offering for evil times.
King Athulf traveled there, with little Alfred,
and Athelswith, his daughter, lives there still.”
“Our ancient kings repose in Rome,” said Wulfric.
“The pope himself christened Ceadwalla Peter.”
The pope himself, thought Ingeld’s scion grimly.
The graceless meddler, Gregory the Fourth,
induced the pious emperor’s commanders
to shirk their oaths and join his rebel sons.
That was the Field of Lies, where honor died.
King Alfred would not hammer brass in Rome
like captured Alexander, Perseus’ son,
nor, by God, would Ealhswith partake
of the fate of Beorhtric’s vicious queen,
who died alone, a beggaress, in Pavia.
The Lord, it seemed, now granted him his Spirit,
his thirst for justice, hunger for revenge,
disgust at abject cowardice and treason,
and scorn for mere pain and bodily death.
“Not yet,” the seed of Ingeld said, “not yet,
much as we’d like to ride the whale-road
with two such patient, loyal, warlike thanes.
Hold, sailors!” Alfred shouted to the hands.
Just as the vessel parted from the quay,
he clambered on to the ship’s rail and leapt,
and Beornwulf, elated, did the same.
Elated, ill, King Alfred watched the hull
wallow like a stunned ox on the tide.
William G. Carpenter lives near Lake Hiawatha in Minneapolis. Eþandun: Epic Poem (Beaver's Pond Press, 2021), hardbound with illustrations by Miko Simmons, is available in Minneapolis at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, St. Mark's Cathedral Book Shop, Doodle Bird Design & Gifts, and Nokomis Beach Gallery. It may be ordered from www.williamgcarpenter.com and Amazon, and as an e-book from Amazon and other e-book outlets.