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   Chapter 2 No.2

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 20591

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


How Wulnoth saved Edgiva from the Bear

So Cerdic the Saxon took service with the King of Lethra; and the King gave him a cottage and a piece of land, where he lived with Olfa his wife. But Wulnoth his son was most of his time up in the King's hall playing with the little Prince Guthred; and, though some of the nobles frowned, a great friendship sprang up between the two children, so that they called each other brother, and each shared the other's joys and sorrows; and it was hard to say whether Guthred was most happy when he was with Wulnoth in Cerdic's cottage, or Wulnoth, when he was in the King's courtyard with the Prince.

And three years passed away with their sun and their snow, and still it was peace in the land, and the vikings did not appear. For some had gone to Angle Land, where there were fertile fields to be seized; and some had followed the mighty Hrolf-who was called The Walker, because he was so heavy that no horse could bear his weight-into Normandy to war against Charles the Simple; and others, again, had journeyed over the mighty river and the snow-clad mountains to carry fire and sword into the provinces of the Romans.

And in those three years the two boys grew strong and sturdy, and now they were each fourteen years old; yet still Wulnoth was the stronger.

If Guthred could run swiftly, Wulnoth could beat him. If Guthred could wrestle with any son of the jarls, Wulnoth could throw Guthred. If Guthred could send an arrow to the mark, Wulnoth could split the Prince's shaft from feather to head; so that the King said that the wolf cub would grow into a fine wolf one of these days and do great deeds in the land.

And though Wulnoth could best the Prince in most things, there was neither jealousy nor quarrellings; but the two boys loved like brothers, though Wulnoth never forgot that he was but a thrall's son, and wore thrall collar. The Prince would forget that, but Wulnoth never did, and he ever spoke of his companion as "my friend and Prince."

Now, you must know that about the time that Cerdic had first come to Lethra, the little Princess Edgiva was born; so that now she was three years old; and throughout all the land, yea, and throughout all wide Norway, there was not another child so beautiful as Edgiva, the daughter of Hardacnute.

Her skin was like the pink blush of the morning sky, or the tender leaf of the rose-bud; her teeth were like the purest pearls, and her eyes blue as the rarest sapphire; while, as for her hair, never spider spun thread so fine, never gold gleamed and played in the sunlight so brightly, and never down of the thistle, or wool of the sheep, was so soft.

The scalds sang songs in her praise, and said that when she grew up she would be the fairest woman in all the world, fit to become bride of the mightiest of kings.

And a dear, sweet, loving child she was, with a smile for all and a frown for none, except those who did wrong; and of all in Lethra she smiled most upon the little thrall-boy, Wulnoth; and Wulnoth was never so happy, no, not even when playing with Guthred, as when he was sitting watching Edgiva.

It was his strong brown hand that first held her as she tried to walk; and when they bought a little pony for her, it was Wulnoth who walked by her side and held the bridle, lest the creature should rear and throw his precious burden.

And at this some of the lords were more angry than ever; for they said it was a high honor for any lad to attend Princess Edgiva, and that their sons should come before a mere churl. And perchance the King would have listened to their speech, but that Wulfreda, the Queen, said their daughter liked the boy, and that it was a princess's right to choose her own servant; while as for old Hald the Constable, he laughed until the tears came into his fierce eyes, and he cried-

"By Odin! but some people are ever jealous, let what may happen. The boy is right, O King; and he has the thews of a young viking and the heart of a hero; and there is no peril would touch Edgiva while Wulnoth stood unwounded."

Hald, old and renowned as he was, had a big heart, and he did not forget that though he was noble and jarl now, his own father had been a churl until the day of his death.

So, despite frowns and grumblings, Wulnoth walked by the side of the Princess; and he and Guthred called themselves her knights, and waited upon her pleasure and delighted to do her bidding.

Now, all this time nothing had been seen of Wyborga the wise woman; for she had been a journey to places afar, as was her custom at certain seasons, despite her age; and the King had forgotten all about her dark sayings, or, if ever he remembered them, it was but as the idle tale of a poor old crone, whose wits had gone with the years that were fled. King Hardacnute ruled wisely and well, and was at peace with his neighbors, and the land was happy.

Only sometimes Hald and other old warriors would shake their heads when they took counsel together, and they would say-

"The times are too easy, and the people are too slow. They forget the hardships of war-time, and if the sword came into the land again, it would go hard with us."

Well, one summer's day, when the fields were bright with flowers and the corn grew high, almost ready for the reaping, and when the kine stood knee deep in the long grass in the valleys, Prince Guthred and Wulnoth set out for a long ramble, and between them, on her little pony, Edgiva rode, a garland of white blossoms, which Wulnoth had fashioned, upon her beautiful hair.

All the world seemed bright and beautiful: the sun shone, and the birds sang, and the brooks rippled, and all seemed to say to them-"Waes heal to you, little travellers-waes heal to the three fair ones." The squirrels played in the branches, and the sea-birds screamed as they passed overhead, and the great, lazy pigs grunted as they rolled in the woodland shade, and all seemed to say-"Waes heal to the three fair ones."

So they went through the meadow-land; and they went through the woodland glade, where the great ferns spring up and the good people hide from men's eyes all the day long, waiting for the gloaming, to creep out and dance their fairy dances; and yet, though they looked carefully and peered into many a tiny glen and sat without the least sound for quite ten minutes, never one of the good people could they see, but only the rabbits and the wild birds, and the little darting lizards.

And presently they came to a dell, and there they sat and ate their cakes, which they had brought with them, and drank from the skin of milk, which Wulnoth had brought especially for Edgiva-for he and the Prince would have had the cool water from the brook, only the Princess insisted that they three, who were friends, should share all things equally.

And while they sat there, a stick cracked in the woods, and Wulnoth started up, ready to guard the Princess if need be: for if a stick cracked some foot must have pressed it.

But no foe, either man or beast, came into the glade, but only an old woman with gentle face and kindly eyes, and hair white as the snow from the north; and this woman said, as she surveyed the children-

"Greeting to you, little ones. All good greeting to you." And they answered her-

"All good greeting to you also, good mother."

"And who are you, and how are you called?" asked the woman; "and how is it that a prince and princess have a thrall for their playmate?"

Then the Prince looked angry, for he did not like people to speak so to his dear Wulnoth; and even little Edgiva looked pained. But Wulnoth only laughed, and he made reply-

"Good mother, the great and high, if they are good and true, may hold out hand to the poor and gain no dishonor thereby. And those who are lowly born may take such friendship, and yet no harm be done; and so it is in this case."

"Thou hast answered well and truly, Wulnoth, son of Cerdic," the woman said; and at that Wulnoth stared, and demanded how she knew his name.

"I know many things," answered the woman, who was really old Wyborga returning from her travels to her own house. "I know many things, and this is one of them-many wonderful things."

"Tell us some more of thy wonderful things, good mother," pleaded the little Princess. "Tell us, for we are fond of wonder tales."

"Not now, little Princess," answered the wise woman; "go on with your play. And you, little Prince, when you get back home, say to your father the King that Wyborga sends him greeting, and says that the time draws nigh."

"What time, good mother?" asked Guthred curiously; but Wyborga shook her head.

"A dark time, little Prince, for thee and for thine, of which thou mayst not know now. But remember when sorrow and tears come, as come they will, that manhood and honor are better than a throne. Remember that a prince's word, and the word of every true man, must be kept, though death be the price of the keeping. Prince Guthred, remember this."

"Now truly, good mother," cried Wulnoth, "you do speak very hard things; and, truly, methinks you had little need to ask our names, seeing that without being told you have mentioned them all to us." And at that Wyborga smiled again.

But then little Edgiva drew close to her, and she again asked her of her wonder stories.

"Cannot you tell us even one?" she said; "not one about Odin or Thor and the heroes who dwell in Walhalla? For these are the most wonderful stories of all."

"Not the most wonderful, nor the most beautiful of all, little Princess," was the answer. "I know of one far better, far more wonderful, and far more beautiful." And at this they all three asked eagerly what this wonderful story could be.

"Oh, so wonderful and so beautiful," answered Wyborga. "The hearing of it turns sorrow to joy, and makes darkness become light, and weakness turn into strength. But you may not hear it yet; for, if I told it to you, you would not understand it. Yet this I promise, that one day you all three shall hear it."

"And will sorrow become joy, and weakness strength, and darkness light, when we hear it?" cried Wulnoth. And Wyborga nodded and said: "It will indeed."

"But when and where shall we hear it?" the children asked. "Shall we c

ome to you again?"

"Nay," answered the wise woman; "you will hear it from other lips, and in another land."

"But what shall be the sign that we shall hear it?" asked the Prince, "and how shall we know that it is the story when it is told?"

"Because it will turn weakness into strength," said Wulnoth. "We are sure to know then."

"And sorrow into joy, and darkness into light," added Edgiva. "Oh, we shall be sure to know, brother."

"I will give you a sign," the wise woman said. And she took two little pieces of rough wood from the ground, and with a piece of grass, she bound them together in the form of a cross. Then she plucked a little spray of wild thorn and wound it round her cross and held it up; and she said, and her voice was soft and sweet, like the sigh of the summer wind amidst the forest leaves, "This is the sign, dear children. One day you will come to this sign, and then you will hear the most wonderful and the most beautiful story in all the wide world; and when you hear that, you will never want to hear of Odin or Thor any more."

Then she turned and walked away, and not another word could they get from her. So they turned to start on their homeward way, wondering what that strange sign could possibly mean, and what this story could be about.

And as they journeyed on, back through the woodlands, suddenly Edgiva's little pony stopped and planted its forefeet firmly and laid back its ears, snorting and trembling as if with fear.

"What can be the matter with him?" asked Prince Guthred. "There is nothing to frighten him."

"Be not so sure of that, Prince," said Wulnoth. "The pony may see more than we can; I have heard that animals can see warlocks and wizards when they are invisible to mortal eyes."

"Then what shall we do for Edgiva?" cried Guthred. "We must not let warlocks harm her."

"Let me get down and pat him," Edgiva said. "I will gather him a handful of sweet grass and then he will go on."

So they helped her to alight; but alas, no sooner had her foot touched the ground than they heard a dreadful sound, a deep, angry growl of rage and hate; and there, emerging from the undergrowth, with eyes ablaze and with yellow gleaming fangs, they saw an immense old he bear, a real wood-roamer, a honey-finder, who now was seeking for no honey.

And the pony, with a snort of terror, started off as fast as it could go, leaving the children alone there, with the monster approaching them.

For a moment Prince Guthred stood bewildered, and little Edgiva clasped her tiny hands in terror; for, indeed, this seemed a very dreadful creature, and its size was so vast and its claws so long, and it seemed to be saying to itself as it came along-

"Ho, ho! Here is a fine meal for me. This is better than risking the swineherd's spear when I go stealing the pigs. Ho, ho! This is much better."

Of course, the bear did not really say that; but that is what it seemed to the children; so it is no wonder that they were frightened.

"Run, Guthred! Run! Take Edgiva and run!" screamed Wulnoth frantically. "I will stay here and keep the bear busy."

But even in his terror Prince Guthred remembered that Wulnoth was his friend, and it seemed a hard thing to him to run away and leave him alone.

But Wulnoth cried again-"Run with thy sister, Prince. Edgiva must be before all."

So Prince Guthred caught up Edgiva in his strong arms and began to run, while Wulnoth threw a stone at the bear to make him turn his way. But the bear did not turn; perhaps he thought that two children were better than one-but he commenced to rush after Guthred, with great roars of rage; and Wulnoth ran after the bear, calling him a coward and a nithing, and bidding him stop and fight; and, as he ran, he unsheathed his stout knife and held it ready. It was the only weapon he had, and the stoutest hunters might have been forgiven if they had feared to attack such a monster with no better arms. But Wulnoth did not think of that. Edgiva must be saved, and he and that knife must save her.

And just then Guthred caught his foot in a trailing bramble, and fell, and the bear was now very nigh them. But Wulnoth was also very near to the bear, running so swiftly that the blades of grass had not even time to bend beneath his weight before he had passed on, and the gleaming knife was ready in his hand.

Now Wulnoth knew full well that the bear would not harm the others without first rising on his hind legs-for that is the way in which the bears always attack-and for that he was ready and waiting.

The bear stopped with a clumsy jerk just as Guthred scrambled to his feet, and it opened its great paws wide to seize the boy. But Wulnoth was there, and he pushed Guthred aside and darted under the bear's paws, and buried his knife in its broad, hairy chest, once, twice, and yet a third time, swifter than the lightning plays or the adder darts. Then the bear roared, and strove to bite with its wide-open, slavering jaws, and it dug its long claws deeply into Wulnoth's back, and tore muscle and flesh to the bone. But that was all it could do. It had no strength left, and it fell on its side and struggled and died; and Wulnoth uttered a mighty shout of joy, and thought nothing of his painful wounds, for he had done a man's deed and had saved Edgiva and his friend the Prince.

And Guthred and Edgiva came to him and strove to check the blood that dripped from his hurts, and the Princess would make him sit while she used her own scarf for this purpose.

"Oh, Wulnoth!" cried Guthred, "surely here is the story already, for weakness has become strength, and you have conquered the waster while I fled like a nithing."

"Wulnoth has been brave," said Edgiva, "but you have naught to grieve for, dear brother. As for the story, this cannot be it, for the sign of the thorn and the cross are not here."

"Let us not worry about stories," laughed Wulnoth, and he was as happy as could be. Indeed, his only sorrow was that Guthred had not slain a bear also, so that they could have been alike. "Let us skin this monster and take his coat home for the Princess to have a rug for her feet."

So they set to work, the two boys, and though it was a long job, they got the bear's skin, together with its mighty head and paws; and then they found the pony again, for that was grazing in a field hard by, and they put the skin on its back and Edgiva on the skin, and set off again.

And when they reached the castle, and the soldiers saw the skin, they clustered round in wonder, asking who had killed the monster. Wulnoth would have said little, but Guthred said much, and the men caught Wulnoth up and cried, "Skoal" to him, and carried him into the hall and set him down before the King, and laid the head and the claws and the great skin on the floor.

And now again Wulnoth would have said little, for he was modest and did not like to boast, and besides, he did not want to seem braver than the Prince, who would have done as he had done if the chance had been his. But Guthred and Edgiva stood at the King's side and told of the fight, and made Wulnoth show his wounds, and the King said that Wulnoth had done a man's deed, and asked him what his reward should be.

Now, the King had expected that the boy would ask that the thrall collar should be taken from his neck and from his father's, but Wulnoth made no such request.

"O King," he said, "if, as thou sayest, I have done a man's deed, let a man's weapons be given to me now, and let it be my place to guard Edgiva thy daughter, and to sleep across the threshold at night."

Then, for a moment, the King paused and frowned, for a memory came of the words of Wyborga that a thrall should marry a king's daughter; and he wondered whether that thrall was to be this boy, and the king's daughter Edgiva; for if he had thought that, though Wulnoth had slain the bear and preserved the Princess, he would have driven his spear through him as he stood, and so have made an end of the matter.

Then, when the jarls heard this thrall-boy's words, they cried out that he should be beaten with sticks for his presumption.

"Shall the son of a churl be made the Princess's guardian?" they cried. "Are there no sons of noble birth in the land, O King?"

But Wulnoth stood out, and turned and showed them the deep wounds made by the claws of the bear, and he cried-

"Many there be more noble in the land, but are there any who would have dared more? Did the bear wound me more lightly than he would have wounded any man? Are these wounds less painful to the churl than they would be to the noble? The King asked me what I desired, and I have answered. I want no other gift, and if this may not be, then let be."

"He talks like a man," some laughed; but old Hald, who liked the boy, answered-

"And by the hammer of Thor, he acts like one, and I am minded that our Edgiva would have little to fear with Wulnoth the son of Cerdic as her armed man."

"The thing shall be," answered the King, and when that was said all had to obey. "Wulnoth shall be given sword and spear and shield, and his shall it be to guard the Princess, and if any harm comes to her, then his head shall pay the penalty. I have spoken, and the thing is."

So Wulnoth the boy was given the war tools of a man, and he was appointed the guardian of the Princess, which is just what he had appointed himself in the past, only then he had no weapons save his knife.

But when King Hardacnute heard the message which Wyborga had sent to him, his face grew very grave, for it showed him that if he had forgotten, the wise woman had remembered, and that the time was drawing near when war time should be in the land.

And also the children spoke of the wonder tale that Wyborga had hinted at, and of the strange thorn cross which she had made; and the King listened and answered-

"By Thor, I can make nothing of it! 'T is like her other tale, and it may be that the one has as much in it as the other."

Now, this is how Wulnoth saved Edgiva from the bear, and how he won the man's tools and was appointed watcher over the Princess. And this is how Wyborga the Wise came again into the land, and showed the three children the sign of the thorn-crowned cross.

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