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   Chapter 6 No.6

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 13883

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Of Wulnoth's Strange Wrestling in the Place of Desolation

For a day and a night did Wulnoth remain in that place, giving way to his sorrow, for a strange weakness had taken possession of him, and it seemed as though there was naught left to live for in this world. And in the long night hours did evil voices whisper in his ear, as though the wicked warlocks counselled him, and the storm sisters sped by on the wind, and they also seemed to mock at him.

"Of what use is it to think of searching for thy friend?" the voices said. "Of what use to remember Edgiva the Beautiful, who is a king's daughter? Of what use to remember the words of Wyborga, who has mocked thee? Thou art nameless and landless and thrall born, and hast only thy strength and no wisdom. Go to the hills and join the nameless ones and the masterless men, and be their leader, and spread fire and carry sword, and make thyself a name that shall be feared, and put all these dreams from thee. There are fair maidens to capture and strongholds to take, and thus thou shalt be strong. But if thou dost wander after the friend whom thou mayst never find, or seek the great one who may never be met with, then thou shalt be known as the Wanderer only, and no scald shall sing a song to thee."

And Wulnoth, seated there in the darkness of the forest, said to himself that this thing was best, and that he would go and join the nameless ones and the masterless men, and become a robber-lord to be feared.

But when the day dawned and the night shadows fled, then the birds began to sing in the woodlands and the earth smiled again, and better voices came to Wulnoth and spoke in the land-breeze and sang in the bird-song and whispered in the leaves-talk; and all these voices said-

"Why tarry here, O Wulnoth, when all the work is before thee-when the hours pass and are not used? Look up, and rise up, and go forth and begin."

"Yet I know not where to begin," said Wulnoth, and the voices seemed to answer-

"One step at a time, and the longest journey is completed. Rise up and search, for the seeker shall be the finder, if in seeking he weary not."

"Now," thought Wulnoth, "this is surely right, for I do but waste time sitting idle, and even if I seek the masterless men, I shall not find them by staying here."

So Wulnoth rose, and he plucked a stout branch from a tree for a weapon, in case any sought to harm him; and he strode through the forest and came to the road, and then he knew that it was the road he had often walked by the side of Edgiva the Beautiful-the road back to Lethra.

"I will go and see the King's hall," he said. "Perchance some dwell there even now who may tell me of Guthred."

But alas, when he reached the place where Lethra had flourished, all was silence and ashes and desolation. Here stood the blackened walls, and there lay beam and iron, while down at the fiord, the weed-covered wrecks of the long ships could still be seen.

No living thing was there, for the work of the sea-kings had been thorough, and the vengeance of Hungwar and Hubba had been complete, and Lethra was the place of desolation now.

Then a deep anger filled the heart of Wulnoth as he stood surveying the ruins, and he cried aloud-

"I will find these pirates and make them pay for this, and I will find Guthred the Prince and set him back on his throne, and I will find Edgiva the Beautiful, though I have to wander the world o'er to do it."

And then a deep mocking laugh sounded, and he turned to behold who thus jeered at his words, for tears were gone and weakness had fled, and his heart burned for the man's game.

And there, seated amidst the dust and black ashes of the place of desolation, he saw a man-a great and mighty man-who sat and eyed him; and Wulnoth's heart was full of wonder, for this man was so like himself that it was as though he looked upon his own form in the clear forest pool or the well's cool depths.

"Why dost thou laugh at me? and who art thou who art so like myself that thou mightest be my brother? and by what name art thou called?" he cried. And the other laughed again.

"I am called Wulnoth, stranger," he answered. "Wulnoth, Cerdic's son, thou talker of big words and doer of little deeds." And at that Wulnoth answered in hot rage-

"Now in that thou liest, whoever thou art, for I am Wulnoth, Cerdic's son."

"Thou Cerdic's son! Thou art a nithing to weep at sorrow's touch, to faint at difficulty, and to listen to night voices. Thou Cerdic's son!"

"Now," thought Wulnoth, "who am I? Has Wyborga cast some strange spell upon me, or did the night wanderers bewitch me in yonder forest? And if I be not Wulnoth, then who am I?"

"Well, wanderer," this strange man said at length, "dost thou own that thou hast spoken falsely? Dost thou still call thyself Cerdic's son?"

"That do I," replied Wulnoth. "Whoever thou art, thou art not Wulnoth."

"Whoever thou art, thou liest," came the reply. "I am Wulnoth, and I mean to gather a band of masterless men, and in this place of desolation to build Lethra again and here to reign as king."

"That thou shalt not," answered Wulnoth quickly. And the other laughed and asked him why he should not.

"Because I am Wulnoth," replied he, "and because I go to seek Guthred the Prince, and to bring him here to reign in his father's halls once more."

"That thou shalt not," answered the other. "It seems to me, nameless one who callest thyself Wulnoth, that there is not room for us twain in the world, and that one of us must conquer the other. Therefore cast aside thy club and come holmgang with me. Yea, here in the place of desolation, with no arms but our strength, will we fight until one shall overcome the other."

"I am well content," replied Wulnoth, and he cast aside the club. "Let it be as thou sayest, thou who callest thyself Wulnoth and who speakest a lie."

"Deeds, not words, thou man with a woman's tongue," growled the other; and then they faced each other, and gripped, and swayed, and strained, while the black ashes and the gray dust of the ruins of Lethra rose in clouds about them.

Now Wulnoth was strong, and he thought within himself that after his wrestling with Osth the giant, and his conquering of the bear, this would be but an easy matter, but to his surprise he found that the stranger was strong as he, and knew every one of his tricks, and could match him in every way, so that Wulnoth, strive as he might, could gain no victory.

All the day they fought, until the evening shadows crept from the cloudland, and then they paused, and flung themselves panting on the ground, and the stranger laughed and said-

"Well wrestled, Wanderer. Thou hast tried, but thou canst not succeed, and when the day dawns we will fight again, and I shall conquer thee, and then I will either slay thee or make thee my thrall, and thou shalt know that I am Wulnoth, Cerdic's son."

"Though

you conquer and slay me," answered Wulnoth, "that will I not know. You may be warlock or mountain troll who has stolen my shape and who uses magic against me, but Wulnoth, the son of Cerdic, you are not."

"Tarry till the morning and I will prove it," said the other. But Wulnoth answered-

"Nay, why should we tarry; by night as by day can we fight. Come, prove it now."

"I am hungry and weary, and desire to quaff from the wine horn," the other replied. "Let us do that first and fight afterwards."

"Not so," answered Wulnoth. "We will make an end of this matter, and that at once."

"Now, evil seize thee," growled the other. "For this I will surely slay thee. Yet fight, if it is in thy mind to do so."

So they gripped again, and wrestled, and strove, yet still Wulnoth could gain no victory; and as the night deepened, it seemed that the other grew the stronger, so that he cast Wulnoth to the earth and laughed and said-

"I conquer! I conquer, Wanderer, and bitter shall be the drink in which you pledge me. Now cry for mercy."

"I cry for no mercy," answered Wulnoth, speaking short and hoarse. "Come, let us make an end of this."

So there on the ground they wrestled, the stranger on top and Wulnoth beneath seeking to cast him off, and so they struggled until the sun rose; and then stronger and stronger Wulnoth seemed to grow, and weaker and weaker the stranger became, until he fell, and said-

"I can fight no more. Thou hast beaten me. Yet thou wouldst not have done this save for that shadow."

He pointed, as he spoke, to the earth, and Wulnoth looked and wondered; for two of the timbers of the ruined king's hall still stood, and they caught the beams of the rising sun, and upon the ground their shadows fell just where the two had struggled, and the shadows formed-a cross, the sign of the weak one whom Wulnoth had called nithing!

Then cried Wulnoth and said-

"O stranger, who didst take my name and whom I have conquered, can you tell me this riddle, for I am weary of mysteries. Whence comes it that yonder shadow made me strong and you weak?"

"'T is the sign of the mightiest and the strongest," answered the other, and at that Wulnoth laughed aloud in mockery-

"'T is the sign of one who was a nithing," he said; "and yet, if it made me strong, why did it not make thee strong also?"

"Thou wouldst not understand even if I told thee, Wanderer," was the reply. And Wulnoth spoke again-

"Now confess that thou didst lie when thou didst take my name." But the other replied-

"I lied not, for of a surety I am Wulnoth, Cerdic's son!"

"Now this passes all!" cried Wulnoth. "Then who may I be, if thou art Wulnoth?"

"The Wanderer, and thou shalt wander until thy task is done. Yet remember that again thou hast rejected the Strong, and called Him the weak. Hither was I sent to meet thee and to conquer thee, and thou hast conquered me. Well for thee that thou hast conquered Wulnoth, Cerdic's son, for unless thou hadst done this, thou wouldst never have conquered others; and it was for this purpose that Wyborga the Wise sent thee to tarry with Osth the giant to learn strength."

"Thou wilt bewilder me with words," cried Wulnoth impatiently. "I tell thee that I am Wulnoth. Moreover, it was Wulnoth whom Osth did teach, and since thou ownest that he taught me, thou ownest that I am Wulnoth, and thou provest thyself false."

"I may not explain this to thee," was the answer. "Some day thou shalt understand it."

"Some day!" was Wulnoth's angry reply. "Why are all the good things promised thus? The future must be stored with them, and the now has never a one."

"The future has all golden store, Wulnoth, since so thou wilt have it. And now farewell."

"Not so fast," cried Wulnoth. "I have conquered thee, and thou art my man now."

"And truly so, and truly I shall serve thee even though thou mayst not know it. Yet beware of one thing-thou must watch me, for I may yet turn and smite thee. I tell thee, Wulnoth, that I am thy best friend and thy worst foe-weak am I and yet I am thy strength. Seek not to keep me now."

"Oh, go thy way! Thou art like all the rest, filled with riddles and dark sayings. Yet before thou dost go tell me one thing, and plainly, if it be in thee to speak to the point."

"Ask thy question," said the other. And Wulnoth went on-

"Whither must I turn to seek for Guthred son of Hardacnute, who was King of Lethra in his day-canst thou tell me that?"

"By Hungwar and by Hubba was he carried off," answered the other. "From them must you seek him. Seek the Danes, Wanderer, yet in seeking hold thy counsel, for Hungwar hath a long memory, and his face still beareth a scar of a wound made by a broken sword once in this very spot. And, moreover, the names of Cerdic, thrall of Berwulf, and of Wulnoth, the son of Cerdic, might be remembered. So keep thy counsel, and call thyself the Wanderer if thou come to the Danish sea-kings." And with that this strange man turned and hastened away, leaving Wulnoth seated there wondering, yet sore spent with his fight.

"Now, this is passing strange," Wulnoth reflected. "Yet the advice is good, for where shall I glean tidings of the Prince save from the Danes who carried him off?"

Then he paused a moment and cried out-

"Now, by my word! Who so mighty and strong as Regner Lodbrok? There is Wyborga's rede! I will seek Regner Lodbrok the Dane, and to him will I give service."

Then he rose, and lo, his eye fell upon the shadow again, and he frowned and shook his head.

"There is some dark rede in all this," he mused, "and I must try and come by its meaning. 'T is but a shadow, yet as it fell upon me I grew strong and conquered yonder strange being."

He stood pressing his feet idly into the dust and pondering, and presently his foot struck something buried in the ashes, and he stooped and put down his hand. And then he uttered a cry of joy, for he drew out a mighty sword with good handle, fashioned so that the fingers could grip it well, and with long, well-tempered blade, pointed and double-edged, which the dry ashes, piled high over it, had preserved bright and free from rust.

"By Thor, a right good weapon!" he laughed, as he swung it round, making it sing its song in the air. "A right good weapon, and how it makes the heart rejoice to feel the fingers clasp such a friend! Now I have a long road to tread, and none can say what may befall in the journey or at its close, yet the way is clear thus far-I must seek Regner Lodbrok the Danish sea-king, and from him shall I glean tidings of Guthred the Prince." And with that Wulnoth, who called himself the Wanderer, turned from the place of desolation, carrying the great sword in his hand.

Now, this is how Wulnoth wrestled with one who called himself by his name, and this is how he started to seek for Regner Lodbrok, the mightiest of all the sea-kings of Denmark.

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