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Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14047

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


How Wyborga the Wise spoke with King Hardacnute

Far across the dark sea which rolls its waters to the northeast of this England of ours, there rise the dark cliffs and frowning heights of Norway's shores; and there, in the days of old, lived Hardacnute the King.

Far inland did his lands extend, fair with many a fertile field where broad streams flowed, and grim with snow-clad peaks, from which the torrents roared and foamed their way down to the sea.

On the cliff-top his castle was built, and around, on many a height, could be seen the halls of jarl and lord, each mighty in war, and each owning Hardacnute as master and overlord.

By night and by day did the warders guard his towers; by night and by day were his long ships ready to put to sea; by night and by day did a hundred shields gleam in his halls, and a hundred spears rest beside them; and by night and by day were there a hundred strong hands ready to grasp the one or to prise the other. For across the dark waves was the way of the sea-kings, and no man could say when their long ships might come sailing from Denmark or Juteland to carry fire and sword along the coast.

Well it became the King to be watchful; and for his watchfulness was there now peace in the land.

A great flaxen-haired man was this King, whose blue eyes could gleam with anger or sparkle with merriment; terrible was he in battle, and yet mild in the hall, and dearly did he love Wulfreda his fair wife, and little Guthred his son, who played in the great courtyard with a tiny shield and spear, which Hald the Constable had fashioned for him.

Blue-eyed and golden-haired was Guthred, with more of his mother's gentle nature than of his father's strong passion, so that Hardacnute frowned sometimes, and said that the boy was too timid, and that he feared pain; but old Hald would laugh and answer-

"Let be, O King; the tender shoot hath not the rough bark of the old tree. Let be. Guthred will prove a brave holda yet."

Now, some way from the King's castle there dwelt a wise woman, one who knew many things that other people could not understand, yet one who used her power well, and did not seek to cast spells upon man or beast; and it chanced that one day this wise woman came along the road by the castle as the King came riding home from the hunting, with his dogs leaping and the slain bear carried between two sturdy carls. Some of the dogs were fierce, but they tried not to harm old Wyborga; and the King saw, as he rode past on his great horse, that she looked pale and weary, as if from a journey.

So the King called to one of his followers to light from his steed, and he bade Wyborga ride with him to the castle; and he took her to the hall and treated her with honor, and gave her food and sweet mead, for King Hardacnute was ever kind to the old and the young, and to women.

And while Wyborga sat at meat, little Guthred came and played at her side, and laughed up into her face, and the wise woman placed one hand on his fair head and looked into his eyes and sighed, so that the King said-

"Why do you sigh, O mother, when you look into the eyes of this my son?"

"Because of what I see there, O King," answered the wise woman. And the King asked again-

"And what is it that you see, O mother?"

"A long journey to a far land, for a kingdom," answered Wyborga; and at that the King laughed heartily.

"Why, truly, mother, that is but a little thing, for the sea is the road of the sea-kings; and though Guthred will be king in my place when I have passed to the storm land, yet it may well be that he will carry fire and sword across the sea, and conquer other lands."

"Not fire nor sword will Guthred carry across the sea, O King," she answered, "nor will he reign as king here in thy stead, though he shall be king of a greater realm than thine. The thrall collar shall he wear, and the thrall's part shall he play, yet shall he become a king in his day, and a thrall shall help him to his kingdom."

Now, at that the King paused and pondered, and his brow was troubled, but he said at last-

"Thy riddle is too hard for me, mother, and it seems dark with evil, for how shall my son become a thrall?"

"Thrall makers ride the sea, O King," she answered. And the King said-

"Yet where shall the King be when they come, O mother?" And again she made reply-

"The sword has a death-song for each in turn, O King."

"Now truly, mother," cried the King, "this is a hard thing you say to me, after you have eaten at my table. Evil did I do to bring you here as my guest."

"Not evil, O King," Wyborga answered, "but good. And now listen to my words, O King. This thing will not be yet, and before it comes, over the Westarweg shall come wanderers seeking food and shelter. Be they poor or be they rich, high or low, let thy hand be to them, King, for of their number one will be the friend of Guthred the Prince. A thrall shall take the thraldom from the Prince, and that a thrall who shall mate with a king's daughter; and now-I go in peace, and thanks for thy kindness."

So Wyborga went her way, and the King pondered and was troubled. Much that she had said he could not understand, but this one thing seemed clear: the wise woman had foretold that foes would come and slay him and carry his little son away into captivity, and that seemed heavy tidings to King Hardacnute. Therefore he called in all his servants, and had great stores of food prepared for siege, and night and day kept watch and ward for the foe who should come across Westarweg, as they called the dark sea.

But no foes came; not a single dark sail appeared, not a single shield shone over the waves to catch the gleams of the sun; and at last the King laughed away his fears, and said that surely Wyborga the Wise must have lost her wisdom.

But in that the King was wrong, for had not Wyborga said that this would not be yet, and that ere the foe arrived wanderers would come seeking shelter and succor? King Hardacnute had forgotten that part of the prophecy.

But when the summer waned and the sea grew wild with the winter gales, when the ice came down from the North, to gleam ghost-like as it slowly floated by, when even the bravest of the sea-kings would have trembled to launch his stout ships-then, one day, as the pale sun died away and the fierce tempests sprang up, the warder came to say that out on the sea a ship of some sort was to be seen; and at that all men ran to their posts, for perchance this might be the enemy that the wise woman had foretold.

But when the King reached the castle walls and gazed out into the storm wrack, there, beating and buffeted and sore tried, he saw one poor boat, such as the fisher folk use, drifting almost at the mercy of the tempest, and yet seeking to make its way to the shelter of Lethra Fiord.

"Now who can these be?" cried the King. "What madman would put to sea in such a craft on such a night?" But to that old Hald answered-

"Not all who put to sea

do so willingly, O King. These are some poor castaways; and it minds me that the wise woman foretold the coming of some such. So I will get me down to the water with some stout hearts, and render them what aid I may."

Then the King gave permission, and Hald and his men went down and launched one of the King's ships to the storm, and with straining oars and slanting sail they came round and rendered help to the storm-beaten ones, and got them safely back, and carried them into King Hardacnute's hall and set them in his presence, so that he might see them for himself.

And the King stared, and perchance he frowned a little, for it seemed a foolish thing to endanger his stout hearts to rescue these travellers, seeing that they were but three, and poorly dressed like carls, and, moreover, two of them wore the collars of thralls.

There was a man, big and stalwart, with bold defiant eyes, and erect head, and he had a thrall collar; and there was a woman, fair and timid; and between them they held a child, a boy of about the young Prince's age, but more stalwart and well-knit, and he also had around his little neck the badge of slavery.

The three stood there waiting for the King to speak, and yet for the moment the King made no sound, for he gazed upon that child. A bold daring child he seemed. Tender of years though he was, his eyes were blue as the bluest summer sky, and his long hair shone yellow gold, as though the sun had kissed it; and the King looked and wondered, and thought that he had never seen so fair a child, no, not even when he looked at his own little son, Prince Guthred.

And while he sat looking, the Prince himself ran into the hall brandishing his tiny spear and shield, and seeing a little one of his own age, he ran to him, flourishing his baby weapons.

But the little stranger did not flinch; though the spear-head grazed his arm, he only smiled. And then Guthred slipped and fell, and his shield and spear went flying across the hall, so that the little stranger ran and gathered them up and then aided the Prince, and gave him his weapons back and stood beside him, his arm round the other's neck, as though he were holda and noble, and not a churl's child. Thereat the King frowned, and then he turned to the man and spoke and asked him whence he came, and who he was, and how came he to be in the boat, with woman and child, on such a stormy day?

"Wast thou washed away against thy will?" he asked, "and dost thou desire to be safely sent back to thy lord?" And at that the face of the man darkened, and the woman began to weep, while the child seized the baby spear, and cried so that even the King heard his shrill voice-

"My father, better this than to go back now."

"Now," said the King, "truly we have a young wolf cub here. Tell me your story, friend, that I may learn that from which you flee, and why this child, who is little more than a babe, talks so largely of choosing the kiss of the spear before return to that place from whence ye came. Methinks this means that we have thralls who have fled from their thraldom."

And then the man stepped forward, and he spoke, and his voice sounded strong and clear; nor, though he was in the presence of the King, did he show any fear.

"Truly, O King, this child speaks well," he said; "for there is no going back for us. And, truly, as thou sayest, we are thralls, and thralls who have fled from thraldom, seeing that is worse than death. Know, O King, that I am Cerdic, the son of Elchere; and this woman is Olfa, and this child is our son Wulnoth-"

"Thou art Saxon, then, if thy name speaks truly," said the King. "How comes one of the name of the noble Cerdic to wear a thrall's collar?"

"This is the matter of it, O King," Cerdic answered. "Of the blood of Cerdic am I; yet, as thou perchance knowest, the sons of Cerdic sailed across the Westarweg to the land of East Anglia, leaving Tholk to rule in the place where they were born. Yet Tholk was unworthy, and made a league with Berwulf the Viking; whereat I and others rebelled, and were therefore made landless and nameless, and the thrall collars were placed upon us. Yet this I might have abided, though the blood of jarls was in my veins; but this Berwulf broke his treaty, and put Tholk to death and made himself lord in his place; and because I would not own him he had me beaten with rods, and would have had me slain but that I burst my bonds and struck him down with his own axe; and then, escaping, made to the sea with my wife and my son. For it was better to trust to the fury of the winter storms than to abide the cruel wrath of Viking Berwulf. For six long days and nights have we battled with the tempests, while the storm sisters have ridden around us; and then we sighted thy walls, O King. And, now that we are here, either slay us or send us on our way if thou canst not keep us here; but send us not back to Berwulf, who, methinks, would be as much thy foe as mine."

Then did King Hardacnute swear a mighty oath by Thor's hammer that no harm should come to Cerdic or his while he bided in Lethra.

"These Danish pirates," he cried, "are foes to all honest men, and each should help the other against them. Bide thou here in safety, Cerdic, son of Elchere, thou and thine, and no harm shall come to thee. But as for thy thrall collar, it was put on by thy lord because thou didst rebel against him; and it is not meet that I should take it off until thou hast proved thyself in the man's game, making the sword sing the death song in the ears of thy foes."

"That will I do when the time comes, O King," answered Cerdic. "For the rest, I am content, and my service is thine."

"Thou shalt have house and a piece of land," said the King, "and my Stallere shall allow thee grazing; and as for thy little son-"

But then a little voice spoke, and Prince Guthred ran to his father's side, crying-

"Wulnoth must stay with me, O father. Wulnoth must stay and be my playmate." And at that the King laughed and said that it should be so.

So this is how little Wulnoth, the child of a fugitive and a thrall, and himself wearing a thrall collar, came to dwell in the King's hall and to play with Guthred the Prince; and though some of the jarls and warriors frowned and said that this thing should not be, the King took little heed; and the Queen smiled on the boy who played with her own son, and the two lads were happy together.

And all this time there was peace in the land, and no sign of the viking lords coming with fire and sword; and all this time did the King have watch and ward kept.

But sometimes, as he stood on his tower and looked over the long, rolling waves of the Westarweg, he would think of the words of Wyborga, and wonder within himself whether they would ever come true.

Now, this is how Wyborga the Wise prophesied evil tidings to the King; and this is how Cerdic, and Olfa his wife, and Wulnoth their son, came from the storm-sea to dwell in the King's land.

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