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   Chapter 3 No.3

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 15680

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


How Wulnoth journeyed by the Birds' Road

So Wulnoth became the guard to watch over Princess Edgiva, and some of King Hardacnute's warriors were wroth, and said that the thing was a shame, and that even if it were not so, a boy like Cerdic's son should not be given such an honorable task when many a young noble would have been glad to accept such trust.

But though Wulnoth was indeed a boy in years, yet in stature and in strength he was a match for many above his age, so tall and so lusty was he. And old Hald laughed again when he heard these words, and he said-

"The wolf cub is almost grown; let those beware its fangs who would pull its ears."

And amongst those who were angered at the King's choice was the keeper of the arms, ?thelmar; and he, to spite the boy, gave him the weapons of the strongest-the heaviest spear and the weightiest sword and shield; and he in his turn laughed and said to himself-

"Now we shall see how Hald's wolf cub will bear the weight of the toys he has asked for."

Wulnoth knew his weapons were too heavy, but he was too proud to seek to have them altered, and he would have borne them in patience but that Hald saw him; and the old Constable stopped and stroked his beard, and asked him who it was who gave him his man's tools.

"Now, these are too weighty for you," he said when Wulnoth had answered him, "and it was but a poor trick of ?thelmar's to give such to you. You must have lighter ones, my young warrior."

But Wulnoth answered that since he had been given these he would keep them, and even ?thelmar should see that his strength was equal to his task.

"Not so," said the Constable, quietly, when he heard the boy's words. "That only comes from a proud heart, and the Princess must not be endangered because of your pride."

"How could the Princess be endangered?" cried Wulnoth. "I do not see that, Hald."

"Weapons that you cannot use are as if you had no weapons at all, Wulnoth," replied Hald. "How, if you had to use that long spear, which is too clumsy for you, or that sword which is too heavy? The Princess might suffer harm because you could not well protect her. We must have this remedied, my son."

And Hald was as good as his word, and gave Wulnoth man's tools more suited to his strength, and he said-

"Let not pride make thee fall, Wulnoth. If they laugh at thee for having these, thou canst the better show them thy skill when the day of testing comes."

At that Wulnoth was content, and though some laughed at him, he answered laugh with laugh, and never bore himself like a boaster, nor was led to talk of what he could do, but he only answered when such questions were put to him-

"One cannot say what he will do until the test comes. When the hour is, then I hope I shall not prove a nithing, and meanwhile I cannot do better than watch such skilled warriors as you who now laugh at my youth."

Now, that showed that Wulnoth was wise, for had he answered angrily he would but have been laughed at the more, and would have made many enemies, whereas now the soldiers said that he was modest and well-spoken, and they taught him many things relating to war; and Cerdic his father, each day when the boy used to visit him, made him exercise both with sword and spear, and in running and wrestling; and Prince Guthred would exercise with him, so that he, too, might become a mighty champion in his day, and go to the wars with his friend.

But the Prince was not so cunning nor so strong as Wulnoth, and, moreover, he was more gentle and tender; and sometimes the King his father would be angry, and say that he was more fitted to handle a distaff than to hurl a spear. But the King was wrong-the boy was gentle and kind, but his heart was brave, and he was patient, more patient than Wulnoth even, and he who has learnt patience has learnt a mighty lesson.

But in all this time no sign of the sea-kings was seen, though by day and night watch was kept, and all along the coast the great beacons were piled ready for the lighting should the long ships of the pirates be sighted upon the waves.

And the King laughed, and said that surely Wyborga the Wise was wise no longer, for her stories, though they were ill-omened, did not come true.

As for the skin of the wood-roamer, that was made into a foot rug for Edgiva, and the head and the paws were placed in the King's hall, with a rude writing beneath, made by Reinbaldus the Scald, to tell how Wulnoth, the son of Cerdic, slew the monster with his knife.

So the days passed away, and now Wulnoth was fifteen, and his little Princess was nigh five years old, and so beautiful to gaze upon that the buds of the flowers would open as she passed, so that they might look at that which was more beautiful than they were; and the wild birds would gather o'er her head, and sing their songs in honor of the fairest of children; and already the jarls spoke to their young sons and bade them strive to excel in strength and in war, so that when the time came for Edgiva to be given in marriage they might be amongst the mightiest who should strive for her hand.

Now it chanced one day that Guthred the Prince, and his sister, and Wulnoth her watcher went together into the woods nigh to the spot where they had met the bear-for they feared no bear now, nor yet the surliest of the wild boars-and while they tarried in the woodland shade Wyborga the Wise came and greeted them, and asked how they fared. And Edgiva went to her side and answered-

"O good mother, we fare well, but we have not yet heard the wonder tale, nor have we found the sign-the thorn-covered cross-though we have looked long and searched far for it."

"The sign will come, and the tale will come, Princess-all in good time will it surely come," was the answer; and then Wyborga gathered the three around her and told them of many things-of wonders from far lands, of the birds' talk and the beasts' talk, and things that men know nothing of; and while they talked there came a blowing of horns, and the King rode by on the chase, and reined his horse and spoke to the wise woman with kind, good humor.

"Greeting, Wyborga," he said. "Our watch fires are piled, but they are unlighted; our warders watch, but give no alarm; our swords are keen, but they sing no song. Surely thy wisdom was at fault when thou didst prophesy evil for the land."

"Art thou so impatient for the evil to come, O King?" she answered sadly. "It will come sure, if it comes slow. God moves not quickly."

"God?" answered the King lightly. "Why, Wyborga, we have many gods, of whom Odin and Thor are the mightiest-which of them dost thou speak of? They move fast enough for me, for they ride the storm wind so swiftly that all the storm sisters are left far behind in their path. Which god do you speak of, Wyborga?"

Then Wyborga stooped, and with the end of her wand which she used to aid her steps she marked on the ground, and the marks that she made formed a cross.

"The God of this sign, O King," she said. And at that the King shook his head, and thought with pity that surely poor old Wyborga was mad, for of all the gods of the Northland was there none whose sign was a cross.

"Now, good mother," he said aloud, "I understand not thy sign. Canst thou give me no other by which I shall know when the time is near?"

Then Wyborga bent her head in thought, and was silent for a space, and after that she looked up and spoke, and said to the King-

"So be it. I will give you one sign, and when you see that, then be sure that soon the sword shall sing the death song in the land."

"Good!" cried the King. "Give me this sign."

Then Wyborga pointed to where Wulnoth stood near, and she said-

"This is the sign, O King. When this boy treads the birds' road, then be sure that the time has com

e." And at that the King laughed aloud.

"Now, by my beard," he said, "if that were possible, then would I do well to slay Wulnoth, son of Cerdic, and so the evil should never come. But no mortal foot has trodden the birds' road yet, and none ever shall, so let Wulnoth live, and let the evil be far off; and now greeting, mother."

"Greeting, King," she answered, and Wulnoth and the Prince cried "Skoal" to the King, and Edgiva kissed her hand to him, and so Hardacnute and his men rode on, laughing to themselves; for how could old Wyborga speak of any treading the birds' road without wings? and where was there a man in the world winged like the eagle or raven?

And Wulnoth and the Prince and Edgiva went back to the hall, and they wondered also, pondering over the strange things spoken by Wyborga the Wise.

And yet that which the wise woman spoke came to pass, and this was the manner of its coming. There was in the hall of King Hardacnute a young noble of Denmark, a dark, black-haired young holda, who had journeyed across the mountains seeking adventure, as he said, and had been well received and given an honorable place by the King, in spite of the warnings of his jarls, and especially of old Hald.

"A viper stings sooner or later," said the Constable, "and a Dane plays false. Kill the stranger or send him on, for we want no spying Haco here."

But the King answered that a man's hall must ever be open to the wanderer, and that it did not become brave men to be inhospitable; and so this youth, whose name was Osbert, tarried in Lethra-a big, bragging young giant, and over fond of the drink horn.

Now, one day, as Wulnoth stood guarding the couch of Edgiva, for she had fallen asleep in the shade of the courtyard, lo, there came Osbert the Dane striding along, all flushed with wine. Now, Osbert looked upon Wulnoth with scorn, because he was a boy and a thrall, and also because he knew that his father had smitten Berwulf with his own axe in the hall of Tholk, son of Cerdic-for Osbert was of the blood of Berwulf.

Therefore, seeing Edgiva sleeping there and guarded by Wulnoth, Osbert thought to make mock of the boy, and he strode up and seized Edgiva and kissed her, so that she cried out partly in fear and partly in anger at being so rudely aroused; and Wulnoth started forward, and presented his spear, and cried fiercely-

"Set down the Lady Edgiva instantly, thou rude Dane, or I will pierce thee with this spear."

Then did Osbert place the Princess down, and he drew his heavy sword, and swung his shield from his back to his arm, and he laughed right scornfully.

"Thou wilt pierce me, thou carl. That will we see," and with that he made at Wulnoth fiercely.

But Hald the Constable was nigh, and when he heard the signs of strife he seized his great sword and strode into the courtyard, and struck the weapons apart, and demanded sternly how it came that any dared to fight in the courtyard of the King.

"This dog insulted me," cried the Dane fiercely, "and for it, by Thor, he shall die!"

"By Thor, he shall not die!" answered Hald, "until we know the truth of this business; but, for that matter, thou mightest find it hard to slay him, Dane."

So Wulnoth told how he came to have a quarrel with Osbert, and the brow of Hald grew dark when he heard of the slight to Edgiva, who now stood weeping, and he commanded the Dane to be carried before Hardacnute, that the King might say his pleasure.

And when the King heard, he said sternly-

"Osbert, stranger amongst us, hadst thou been one of my people, I would surely have had thy head smitten off. But thou art a stranger, and one who has been my guest, and I may not do this thing. Yet this I will do. Thy arms shall be taken from thee and broken as the arms of a nithing, and thou shalt be scourged with rods, a blow for every tear that the Lady Edgiva has shed, and thou shalt be driven from my lands; and if thou comest here again, then thou shalt be slain."

And the King's word was obeyed, and the Dane's weapons were broken, and he was scourged with rods, a blow for each tear that the Princess had shed; and when the scourging was ended the King bade him begone as he valued his life.

And Osbert, smarting with the beating, and mad with rage, spoke boldly and said-

"Perchance this scourging I deserve, O King, for letting the wine horn make me into a weakling; yet bitter shall be the price paid for it, O King. For each blow of the rod blood shall flow, and the sword sing its song. Now I go as thou hast said, for indeed I could not remain longer; but be sure that thou wilt hear of me again, ere long, O King, and our greeting will be brief."

But the King laughed scornfully. "Big words from an angry boy," he said. "Get thee gone while thou art safe." And Osbert turned and went.

And a few days after that, Wulnoth and Guthred and Edgiva went to the top of the great Raven Rock, from whence they could see for many a mile, and at the foot of which the sea fretted and chafed and broke itself into foam at the high tide; and here they sat watching the sea-birds circle as they trod the birds' road down to the water, and up to the crags where their nests were built.

Not a sign of living man was there; all was peaceful and calm; and Wulnoth lay on the ground, watching the Princess, who had strayed to gather wild blossoms, whilst Guthred cautiously bent over the height, seeking to steal the eggs from a seamew's nest.

And while thus they were all serene and safe, suddenly a shadow fell upon Wulnoth, and a dark face looked down upon him, and a strong hand seized him, and the voice of Osbert hissed in his ear-

"Thou dog of a Saxon thrall-die!"

And then came the sharp bitter bite of a knife in the side, and a red mist rose before Wulnoth's eyes, and a wicked laugh echoed in his ear.

And it seemed as though he were sinking into the storm-land, when a sound called his spirit back, and that sound was the scream of the Princess Edgiva. He heard also Guthred shout, and he heard Osbert cry-

"Greeting to thee, Prince. Yonder lies thy thrall friend slain, and here is the Princess, thy sister. Go and tell thy father-for this I spare thy life-that I have sent her to the storm-land by the birds' road."

Then Wulnoth managed to stagger to his feet; and he saw,-oh, the horror of it,-he saw that nithing lift Edgiva the Beautiful high in the air, and send her over the Raven Rock into the angry sea so far below; and he uttered a great cry, and all his strength seemed to come back, so that he picked up his spear and hurled it, and it smote Osbert a fierce blow in the shoulder, making him cry out and turn and flee, plucking out the weapon and casting it aside as he went.

"Run, run," cried Wulnoth to Guthred. "Run so that the grass feels not thy touch. Nay, not after that nithing," as the Prince was starting after the wounded Osbert. "We have more to think of than him. Run to the shore and bid them launch a boat and come to the aid of Edgiva. I go to her now."

"Alas, how canst thou, my friend?" cried Guthred. "The way to the water is long and the path hard; and even if she lives now she will have died ere thou canst reach her."

"The way is short and the path easy," cried Wulnoth, as he cast off his tunic. "Tell thy father, my lord the King, that Wyborga's words have come true, for I go by the birds' road."

And with that he stood on the verge of the mighty Raven Rock, and he saw far below, a gleam of gold in the water, as when the salmon play in the sunlit waves; and then, while Guthred stood in wonder and silence, he dived straight and true, speeding to the perishing Edgiva along the birds' road.

And this is how Osbert the Dane brought trouble into the land, and how Wulnoth fulfilled the prophecy of Wyborga the Wise.

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