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   Chapter 8 No.8

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14214

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Of what befell Wulnoth in the Halls of the Danes

In the great hall of Regner Lodbrok sat his two sons who ruled in his absence, together with many a great holda of Juteland and Denmark and other vikings from the North who had gathered with them. The room was long and low, and its oaken beams were black with age and smoke. Its walls were covered with skins and horns and trophies of the chase, and laden with shields and swords and other warlike gear.

Great torches, fixed in iron sconces, cast a smoky glare on the scene, and on the mighty hearth a huge fire of logs burnt, and the blue smoke curled upwards to escape through a hole in the roof.

The upper end of the room was slightly raised, and there, in carved chairs at a table which ran crosswise the width of the hall, the nobles sat quaffing the brown ale from their deep drinking horns.

There, side by side, Hungwar and Hubba sat, older and fiercer now than when Wulnoth had seen them lead the attack at Lethra, and they had been bad enough then.

Hungwar, the elder of the brothers, was shaggy as the bear, but Hubba was smooth of face save for his heavy moustache, and on Hungwar's cheek was a scar as of a sword cut.

And there also sat Bacseg, King of the North Danes, and Halfdane the Fierce, and Sidroc the Cruel, and Osbern, and Frena, and Harold, all viking lords, holdas of high birth and warriors of fame, and each was clad in his war gear, and each had his weapons ready to hand; for words were few and blows quick in those days, and even the feasting might become the warring before men could understand the cause of the quarrel.

Set crosswise to the table, and running down the length of the room like the longer line of the letter T, was another table, and here the soldiers and the lesser leaders sat at their feasting, and the place rang with shouts of laughter and wild jest, and ever and anon with the music of the harp and the song of the scald, singing the praises of one or other of the captains; and into this company was Wulnoth led by the captain of those whom he had met.

"How now, Wahrmund!" cried Hungwar as he caught sight of the captain. "So thou hast come back, thou old wolf; and what of thy voyaging, eh?"

"The voyage was quick and the task short, Hungwar," came the answer. "And the men of Osric are scattered and their homes given to the flame!"

"Good!" cried the leaders as they heard. "Osric will not defy our might again." And then Hungwar went on, staring at Wulnoth-

"But what flaxen-haired giant of the South have you here, Wahrmund? Is this a captive from the foe? That cannot be, seeing that he is unbound and has his sword by his side. Who is this giant, and what does he here?"

"By Thor, he is a goodly man to look upon," cried one noble, bending forward and staring at Wulnoth. "I love a man when I see one, and yonder one is."

Then he raised his horn and cried to Wulnoth-

"Waes heal, stranger of the blue eyes and yellow hair," and to him Wulnoth answered-

"Drinc heal, lord."

"Now, by Odin and his twelve companions," growled Hubba, "one would think that we have no men in Denmark, noble Guthrun, that thou must make so much of this berserker."

This Guthrun was a brawny, broad-shouldered giant himself, and his hair was plaited in two long plaits which fell on either side his face, and on his arms he had massy bracelets of gold. He seemed a good-humored man, for he roared with laughter at Hubba's words and made answer-

"Not so, Hubba. We be men enough, and therefore we should love all men, be they friend or foe-and, by my word, I love a good foeman. As for being berserker, this stranger is none the worse for that in my eyes so that he be a dealer of lusty blows."

"How came ye by this man, Wahrmund?" asked Hungwar, stopping what might have led to a quarrel. And all listened while the viking told his tale.

And when he was done Hungwar turned to Wulnoth, who had stood there erect and calm, and all eyes were bent upon him.

"This is a strange tale that we hear, stranger," he said. "So thou comest to us through the swans' bath, riding a sea-monster like a horse. By my faith, most of thy people-for surely thou art Saxon by thy eyes and hair-most of thy people, I say, rather shun us. Now tell us thy tale-for surely thou hast fled from some fate that thou didst deserve. Thou art nameless and landless, I'll warrant me."

"Or else I should not come to those who take land with their sword," answered Wulnoth, and at this the vikings laughed, and said that surely this was a merry fellow. But Hungwar frowned, and said sternly-

"Thou hast a sharp tongue, stranger, but we love sharp swords. Thou hast a quick word, but we love quick deeds."

"Blow and deed will be quick enough when the time comes," Wulnoth made answer, and he looked into Hungwar's face and noted the scar that his sword had made in the past. "For myself, I am the Wanderer, for I have wandered far in my search. For my place, I come from the North, whither I was taken in my childhood after that the sword of the Dane had harried our land. As thou sayest, I am landless and nameless, and, moreover, a thrall-though I have rent the thrall collar from my neck, having somewhat outgrown its size, and he who placed it there being dead. Yet that makes little difference to thee, seeing that it is said that thou lovest those who strike strong blows better than those who have noble blood."

"Be it as it may. Thou hast come to serve under me, then?" cried the Dane.

But to this Wulnoth said, "Nay. I am seeking the bravest, the mightiest, and the noblest in the world." And at that Hungwar frowned and smote the table.

"Thou dog!" he cried. "Am I not he?" And at that Wulnoth laughed.

"Why, Hungwar, did I say ay to that, I might have all the holdas here flying at me or falling upon thee. Nay, I seek one whose name is greater than even thine-I seek Regner Lodbrok, thy father." And at that all there cried that it was well, and that Regner Lodbrok was the champion of champions.

"So thou seekest to serve my father," sneered Hungwar. "Now, by my beard, he who seeks such honor must of the honor be worthy. If thou wouldst serve none but the bravest and mightiest, thou thyself must be brave and mighty."

"Wouldst that I match myself against thee, Hungwar?" asked Wulnoth calmly. And at that the holdas laughed, for they liked to see Hungwar baited; but Hungwar frowned darkly.

"Thou art over bold, Wanderer," he said. "The bloodhound runs not with the wolf."

"But the wolf sometimes pulls down the bloodhound, Hungwar," was the ready answer. "But enough of such talk. Thou desirest to see my strength. So be it. How shall we test it?"

Then Hungwar took up a block of wood and gave it to Wulnoth, saying-

"Let us see what thy sword is worth, Wanderer. Split me that block at one blow." And at that Wulnoth laughed mockingly.

"Too easy a task, Hungwar," he answered. "Far too easy. Let me see thee rend it asunder with thy naked hands."

"Thou art drunk, fool!" roared the Dane. "No man living may do that."

"We will s

ee," answered Wulnoth, and placing the block carefully, he bent one knee upon it and gripped it with both hands, while all there rose to their feet to watch him. Then slowly and steadily he pulled, and the muscles of his arms and back stood out like ropes, and he thought within himself that his work with Osth was bearing fruit now. And as he pulled there was a sharp sound of rending wood, and the block fell apart in twain, while all there shouted till the roof rang at this great deed.

"Now, by my beard!" cried King Bacseg, "but we have a mighty man here. What sayest thou, Hubba?"

"Strong arms and strong wits go not always together. The bear is strong, but the fox beats him in cunning."

"Now, that may be," shouted Guthrun, "but we love strong arms rather than quick brains. Still, methinks the Wanderer is not slow of wit either-and he brags not as some do," he added to himself.

"What other task wilt thou set me, Hungwar, son of Regner?" asked Wulnoth. "Since I seek thy father's service, I am willing to prove that I am worthy of it." And Hungwar frowned, for, he knew not why, he felt hate for this stranger, and would gladly have put him to shame.

"Perchance the block was cracked," he said, "and I noticed it not." And Wulnoth smiled and answered-

"Perchance it was."

Then he picked up an iron mace, with the handle an inch thick, and he held it up.

"Some of you strike hard blows," he said. "Which, then, will sever this with a clean cut with one blow of the sword?"

"I will try," cried Guthrun, for he, like all the vikings, loved trial of strength.

So he took the mace and set it on the riven block, and with bared arms he lifted his sword high in the air and smote with all his force, and the sword bit deep into the iron, but severed it not.

Then tried Osbern, and after him tried Halfdane, and after him the Norse Jarl Eric, and after him Biorn Ironsides the Mighty, and not one of them could cut quite through the bar.

Then Wulnoth took his great sword, and he said, "Give me another bar, for this one is much cut now, and let it be stouter and stronger."

"This braggart shall not humble us," thought Hungwar, and he sent for his own mace, and the handle was nigh two inches thick.

"Canst cut that, boaster?" he said; and Guthrun cried out that it was not fair since 't was twice as thick as the other.

But Wulnoth swung high his sword, and the keen blade sang in the air like the scream of the gull as it flies before the storm. And lo, the iron was sheered in twain, clean cut, and the block beneath it split in two beneath the blow.

"Skoal to the Wanderer!" cried the vikings. "Worthy is he to be of our number!" But Wulnoth said-

"Wilt set me another task, O Hungwar?"

"By Thor, I will set thee a task!" cried Hubba fiercely. "All this is but child's play and has no danger in it. Come hither, Wiglaf."

Then uprose a mighty man, with bare arms and hairy, and he laughed grimly.

"What is thy pleasure, Hubba?" he asked. And Hubba said to Wulnoth-

"See here, Wanderer. This man is our mightiest boxer, and no man can stand a blow from his fist. Wilt thou exchange a blow with him?"

"That will I," answered Wulnoth. "Strike thou, Wiglaf."

"Not so," shouted Guthrun. "That were a poor test, for if Wiglaf strikes first, how shall Wanderer have strength to strike back? Let them fight one round if they will. By my father's name, 't will be a splendid sight to see."

"So be it," laughed Wulnoth. "I care not," and he and Wiglaf the Boxer faced each other.

"'T is a cruel man, Wanderer," whispered Wahrmund in Wulnoth's ear, "and he fights not over fair. Mind thyself, for he will kill thee if he can."

"If he can," answered Wulnoth; and then the fighters faced each other, and the vikings forgot their drinking horns and watched breathless.

For a little the pair feinted, and then Wiglaf rushed forward and smote a mighty blow like to have felled an ox. But Wulnoth caught it and turned it aside, and then he smote and Wiglaf could not avoid the blow, and though he caught it on his arm, there was a sound like as of a breaking stick, and the boxer's arm fell helpless, for the bone was broken.

Now all the vikings started to their feet and roared that Wulnoth was worthy to be of the best of them; and Hubba and Hungwar frowned, for they liked not men who could do more than they dared.

Then did Wulnoth rise, and he spoke and said-

"All the tasks that you have set me I have accomplished, O holdas. Now I will take a task upon my own shoulders, and if any of you dare try it, then do it first. See you yon beast?" and he pointed to the open beyond the door, where, in a fenced field, a great shaggy bull bellowed and stamped.

"Well, what of him, Wanderer?" cried Guthrun eagerly. "What new wonder canst thou show us? Only be careful of that brute, for he has killed five men already."

"Which of you will go and bring yon bull to his knees with hand, and hand alone?" Wulnoth asked. And Hungwar cried thickly-

"Thou fool, there is no man on earth can do it."

"That will we see," laughed Wulnoth lightly, and setting his sword aside, he leaped the rails and entered the bull's field, while all there crowded out to watch him, thinking that the stranger would of a surety be slain now.

And the bull glared at Wulnoth with bloodshot eyes, and lowered its massive head, pawing the ground and roaring deeply. Then, like a bolt, it charged, and the onlookers gasped, for they thought that now the daring man must perish. But quick as the bull moved, quicker still was Wulnoth, and he sprang aside and let the monster pass.

Then round wheeled the animal, but Wulnoth was ready at its side, and he gripped the wide-spreading horns and stood, and the bull stood pushing against him, both motionless, man and animal.

"Now, by Odin!" shouted Hungwar, "the man is in a poor case, for he cannot let go."

"And, by Odin!" shouted Guthrun, "he does not desire to let go. Look, look! who ever saw the like of this?"

For now Wulnoth put out his strength and did as he had been taught of old by Osth. First he pushed the bull backwards, and then he gripped tighter and swung mightily, and the bull was jerked off its feet; and then he twisted sharply, putting out every bit of his might, and the great beast cried in its pain and fell upon its knees, and all the fierceness was gone out of it.

Then did the vikings leap up and run to Wulnoth and lift him, and carry him round on their shoulders, crying "Skoal" to him. But Hubba frowned darkly, and bent towards his brother and whispered-

"I like not this fellow who has come to put us to shame with his strength. We must look to this, brother."

And to that Hungwar nodded, and answered back, "Even so. But the dagger may turn greater strength than this man's into weakness."

So the brothers spoke, and only Guthrun noticed and heard the words they said.

Now, this is how Wulnoth showed his strength before the Danish holdas, and this is how Guthrun knew that the sons of Regner planned evil towards the Wanderer.

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