The sound of hundreds of anxious hooves, digging into the soft earth, closed in on King Alfred and Guthrum, as they met in the center of the impending battlefield. The two leaders brought only their most trusted warriors to guard them. For Alfred, it was Uhtred, Father Beocca, and Leofric, and for Guthrum, it was Brida, Ragnar, and Skorpa. Both men knew the importance of this battle. It would be the deciding battle over territory and honor.
“I do not wish to fight, Guthrum. This does not need to happen, if you allow our Lord into your heart. Then you will see that we can be one people,” Alfred declared.
“You speak like a coward, Alfred. If you were a true leader, you would show your people that you are willing to die for them, as I am for mine,” Guthrum replied without hesitation.
“I will show my people that peace is worth fighting for. Hopefully, you will come to understand that the Danes cannot live without the Saxons, and the Saxons cannot live without the Danes.”
The two men locked eyes, considering their next move. It was clear that the two men had the same wish – to protect their people and preserve their culture.
“If your god can manage to lead your army to victory,” Guthrum laughed, “then maybe I will accept him.”
“Your god is nothing compared to ours, just as your warriors are weaker than ours. Because of your foolishness, you will watch your people be slaughtered, and their blood will be on your hands,” Skorpa sneered.
“How dare you insult my king and my God!” Beocca cried, gripping his spear.
“Calm yourself, Father. He is beneath you,” Alfred said evenly.
“It appears as though the battle has already begun, Alfred. I would advise you to prepare your troops for slaughter,” Guthrum turned and rode back to his warriors, who lifted their weapons and let out the deafening cries of hungry excitement. Alfred began to return to his army and could see that they were not as hungry for blood.
“Don’t worry, my Lord. God will see us through.”
“Yes, Father Beocca, and I must do what’s right for my people.”
* * * *
King Alfred stood before his army, holding himself higher than he ever had before. No sickness could stop him from leading his people, not on such an important day. The men waited anxiously for their leader to command them. In the distance, they could hear Guthrum’s booming voice, which was followed by cheers from his army. Alfred’s army appeared to be momentarily weakened by the sound; they began glancing at each other uneasily – their eyes revealed their fears.
Alfred looked at his people and cleared his throat.
“Today, I will ask much of my men,” Alfred started. “I will ask them to give their lives for our righteous Lord and our mighty kingdom,” The men cheered in response, and urged Alfred to continue. “I do not wish to force Christianity onto these people, as Charlesmagne had in the past – through sword and blood. I wish for them to find God, as we all have here. I am confident that once they feel His strength, they will be compelled to join us. Unfortunately, it seems that only by winning this battle will God’s will be revealed to them.” Alfred’s army cheered again, louder this time, but Alfred was not finished.
“Only by joining together and saving Wessex can we save England,” Alfred lifted his sword, hilt up to show the sign of the cross. “We must become one people, even if that means we must fight for it,” his men let out a final cry, which echoed across the battlefield and silenced their enemies, if only for a moment.
Alfred stepped closer to his men and urged them to gather around him: “Now, we must devise our battle strategy.”
* * * *
The Saxon army had been training, with Uhtred’s help, to defeat the Danes. They knew that their enemies were often driven by their instinctive anger, which with their practice the Saxons would be able to withstand. Alfred also knew that the Danes would naturally fear for Saxon reinforcements and be positioned close to their ships; therefore, if his army were in the correct position, the Danes would be virtually trapped, between his army and the sea. Were the Danes to attack, they could easily be picked off, and if they tried to run, they would be killed by arrows. The men were prepared in these tactics; they just needed to stay strong and not let the taunts of the Vikings get to them.
“The time has come, men. We must march boldly into battle. Get into position!” Alfred cried. “Shields up!” The men yelled out in agreement, as they lined up, arm-to-arm, and lifted their shields.
“Together!” Uhtred yelled.
* * * *
For what felt like an hour, the only sound was the marching of boots on the soft grass as the opposing armies inched closer to each other. The Saxons, of course, were afraid of their enemies; however, what many of the Saxons didn’t realize was that Guthrum had told his men about the Christian God, and many of the Viking, too, were afraid.
Just as Alfred and Uhtred had predicted, the Vikings were the first to attack. It did not take much taunting before their men began to charge. The gap between the two armies closed quickly, and on Uhtred’s command, the Saxons help strong, and their shields closed tightly against each other. Men on both sides prayed to their gods. Then the weapons began to fly, with the Saxons still on the defensive.
Alfred stood on the hill, with the archers, commanding them when and where to shoot. He could see that the line of men were slowly separating. From Alfred’s viewpoint, he could see the blood that had been spilt – from the Saxons and the Danes. The massive amount of carnage was something that Alfred had seen before, usually from the frontlines, but this felt different. He wanted peace and it felt unbelievable that a war was happening right beneath him, with the hope that peace may arise from it. As Alfred lost himself in thought, Beocca rode up next to him.
“Lord,” Beocca started nervously, “our army holds strong, but Leofric’s life has been taken.” Both men instinctively made the sign of the cross.
“Decisions are made and consequences follow, it is the way. Our task is to deal with the present,” Alfred stated, looking over his brave warriors.
“Peace will come, my Lord. I am sure of it,” Beocca replied.
“I have lost many righteous men, but I will not lose hope.”
The two men were still looking over the battlefield, when Skorpa rode between the two armies. To their surprise, he was holding Uhtred’s pagan wife’s head.
“Skorpa will die by my spear, I swear it,” Beocca said through gritted teeth. King Alfred stopped him before he could start toward the battlefield.
“This is what I am wishing to change, Father. A person being attacked for daring to be of two cultures. I wish for us to be one people. Besides, it is up to Uhtred to get retribution for his queen.”
From the battlefield, Uhtred escaped from behind the Saxon shields and charged through enemy lines. The only thought on Uhtred’s mind was his queen’s beauty and killing her murderer. He attacked only the Danes that he knew would get in his way. He dragged Skorpa off his horse and attack him with pure rage and hatred. It wasn’t hard, for Uhtred, to knock Skorpa off his feet. As the Danes and Saxons watched, Uhtred mercilessly killed Skorpa with his own spear and looked him in the eyes, as his final breath escaped him.
Alfred, watching the scene from the hill, had only one thing to say: “Only someone who stands between two cultures will be able to close this divide.”
* * * *
The battle ended easily after Uhtred’s show of power. In part, it was because the scene made Guthrum believe in the power of the Saxon’s god. It was a power that Guthrum knew he would need, if he wished for his people to survive. This was much to Alfred’s surprise, but he accepted it quickly and set up Guthrum’s baptism to happen right away.
Both the Danes and the Saxons came to watch the baptism, although the crowd didn’t mingle and not many of the onlookers looked very happy. Despite the tension, in the air, Beocca gave a powerful speech. He gave thanks to the brethren that were about to join the Saxons in peace and prosperity. When Guthrum was finally baptized, and Alfred was announced as his godfather, there was a weak cheer. Then Guthrum stood tall and gripped the flag of his people, which was adorned with blue roses.
“The time has come for peace. Our people will come together King Alfred. The power of your God has been revealed to me, and it will now be my life’s work to show it to my people. The Danes, the Vikings, the Pagans – we are no more. Your wish for unity has been granted, my Lord.” Ragnar came to Guthrum’s side, after his speech, and handed him a flaming torch. With the help of one Saxon and one Dane, the flag was spread out and Guthrum touched the center of it with the torch. The flames took to it immediately. Guthrum stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Alfred and watched it burn. There was only silence as the flag burned. There was no rejoice. No cheers. Not a single smile amongst the crowd.
“You have won the war, but you must win the peace,” Guthrum said to Alfred. “So, now is the time to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood.”
* * * *
There was an official meeting with Alfred and his trusted advisers, shortly after the peace was made. The tension was palpable between both sides, even with their separate living spaces. It was something that Alfred knew he would have to address, just as Guthrum had said.
Alfred began: “One day, it is my hope that all kingdoms will be united under one God. If all men can agree, yes. The birth of an England, the idea of a single kingdom called England has to begin here. There is nowhere else.” The men did not wait long to voice their dissent.
“My Lord,” someone spoke up, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that there is no possible way to be with those heathens. They are interlopers; they have taken our land and our wealth. It is in their blood. I admire your vision of one England, but there cannot be peace this way, I’m sure of this.”
Before Alfred could respond, Aethelflaed stepped forward. “The Anglo-Saxons should develop into a nation of philosophers. They will no longer prefer instinct to logic and character to intelligence. But they must get rid of their downright contempt for ‘cleverness’. They cannot afford it any longer. They must grow less tolerant of ugliness, and mentally more adventurous. And they must stop despising foreigners.”
“And let us not forget,” Alfred chimed in, “it was a Pagan who saved my child. She worked tirelessly to make sure I would have an heir to the throne. She gave her life to our cause. And I will also remind you once more who landed the deciding blow of our battle for peace: Uhtred, a man truly of two cultures.” The men in the room where silent.
“I will advise you that if you wish to be a part of the kingdom of England, expel all of this hatred and let peace into your heart.”
* * * *
The Saxon officials were not the only ones who felt the peace would not be a lasting one. The separation and resentment was clear across the kingdom. Beocca and Uhtred would often spend their afternoons strolling through the village, working together to create unity. During one particular show of strain, a fight broke out between a Saxon and a Dane; Beocca and Uhtred were quick to separate the men.
“He shouldn’t be here!” The Saxon yelled.
“I could end your life easily!” The Dane shot back.
“Uhtred,” Father Beocca whispered, “You are a Saxon who is also a Dane, the very embodiment of the England that must emerge. You need to say something to calm these men.”
“You must listen to me!” Uhtred yelled above their arguing. “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt like they’d really lost. All across the country people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. What matters now, what really matters now, is we find a way to live together. This is who we are now. This is our future.” When Uhtred was finished, the two men grumbled their apologies and walked off.
“You should be a priest,” Beocca snorted. “You have more skill than I do.”
* * * *
Months passed and slowly things began to change. Although neither side would admit it, they became rather fond of each other. Soon, there was to be a wedding between a Dane and a Saxon. Celebrations did not happen often, so everyone in the kingdom was likely to attend. Therefore, for weeks following the announcement, there was an air of excitement. Women began to string garlands of flowers, and the local seamstress made it her duty to create a beautiful gown for the glowing bride. Alfred even offered the courtyard of his castle for the ceremony to take place. Beocca of course, would be the priest to marry the couple.
The day of the wedding came, and there was excited chatter throughout the kingdom. Many people dressed in their finest clothing and brought gifts for the couple. The courtyard was heavily decorated, and there was a delicious feast waiting to be eaten, after the ceremony. Needless to say, the courtyard was packed with people, waiting for the event to start. Alfred was certain this was the beginning of the England he had been envisioning. Beocca made a beautiful speech, one of unity and acceptance. It was a new beginning for the couple, and for all of England.
And when the couple kissed, everyone cheered.