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   Chapter 10 No.10

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 17346

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Of the Slaying of Edmund, the King of the East Saxons

Then the war-horns sounded their harsh defiance, and the vikings gave a great shout of glee, and threw themselves into the shallow water, and rushed to meet the Saxons, who also ran to drive them back.

And the battle was fierce, and great deeds were done; and from least to greatest every man was a hero. Yet the fight was with the Danes; and when the evening came the conquered Saxons broke and fled, and the sons of Regner encamped with their men on the field of slaughter not far from the coast.

And what happened in East Anglia happened elsewhere also; for the people of Angleland were divided amongst themselves, and one king warred with another, and each was jealous of his neighbor; so that they were like a bundle of sticks when the binding is broken, and each fell away from the rest. But the Danes came in mighty hosts, and if one host was beaten then two came in its place; and all through the land they carried fire and sword and death.

For these Danes were cruel and terrible, and knew nothing of mercy; and neither youth, nor age, nor weakness appealed to them. The young and the old they slew, and the fair maiden, and the old wife; and they took the tender babes and beat out their brains, or cast them from one to the other upon their spears. Death, and death alone, marked out the pathway which they had trod.

Nor was this done in Angleland alone, but in every country where the White Christ was worshipped. For these Danes were pagans, and they looked upon those who had forgotten the old gods of the North as nithings fit only for death, and despised them for the Lord they worshipped, and for the priests they obeyed; and they had sworn that they would sweep over the whole world, and wherever the worship of the Christ was found, there they would stamp it out, and make all men bow to Odin and swear by Thor-the gods of the North.

And near to doing this they were in Angleland and, indeed, they would have done it but for one man, who was strong enough and patient enough to resist them; and of that man Gyso the Gleeman speaks in his song of Wulnoth.

Twenty thousand chosen warriors were in the camp of the sons of Regner that night, and deep they drank and well they feasted; yet the sentinels kept ward, and each man slept with his weapons by his side.

And Wahrmund and Wulnoth lay side by side by the fire, and talked of the deeds that had been done that day; and from the distance, through the night air, and above the sound of the sea, there came the ringing of a deep-voiced bell and, faint and sweet, the singing of a solemn song; and Wulnoth asked his companion what these strange sounds might mean.

"'T is the calling of the Christians to prayer," the Dane said carelessly. "And the song you hear is that which they sing to their God, that He may give them the victory on the morrow. By Thor, I had rather trust to a good sword and to a strong arm than to any god that rides the storm wind."

"Yet these men fought well to-day, comrade," Wulnoth answered; "though they were few in numbers, compared to our host."

"Ay, they fought well," replied Wahrmund. "But now let us sleep, for there will be work to do when the day dawns. The air is shrewd to-night."

"Take my cloak," answered Wulnoth. "For I have no mind for sleep, and will watch by the fire."

"More fool you," replied the other; yet he took the cloak and wrapped himself up and was soon asleep, while Wulnoth sat listening to the distant song, and wondering where Guthred could be and what could have become of Edgiva the Beautiful.

And then he arose and went to the edge of the wood and listened again; and he thought that surely Wyborga the Wise had been wrong, for how could this Lord, Whom the Saxons worshipped, be strong, when He let His people be put to the sword?

And while he mused thus, sleep began to steal upon his eyes, until it seemed to him that a voice spoke, and it was the voice of Edgiva crying to him to awake; and he opened his eyes and saw a man's form bending over his comrade Wahrmund, and holding a knife high in the air.

"Wahrmund, awake!" he cried, in warning, and the man started up. But then like a flash Wulnoth cast his spear and smote the midnight wanderer fair in the chest, and he fell back dead.

And Wahrmund started to his feet, and others of the soldiers, and looked to see who this might be; and lo, it was Wiglaf the Boxer, the man of Jarl Hungwar!

"That knife was meant for thee, Wanderer," Wahrmund said; "and I, by wearing thy cloak, came nigh to getting it in my ribs. I owe my life to thee, Wanderer, and I shall not forget it."

Then when the morning broke, the war-horns sounded and the men prepared for battle; and the great ships, with their crews, stood off to go back to Denmark; and the vikings laughed and said-

"There is no going back now. Go forward we must; and if we conquer not, then we perish."

And it was told to Hungwar concerning Wiglaf, and he laughed darkly, and said that Wiglaf was ever good at paying his debts, and that he was a good man slain; but he said nothing of the shame of the nithing's deed.

Now in the morning came messengers to the Danish camp, saying that they were sent by Edmund, the King of East Anglia, to demand why strangers came to his country with fire and sword, and what was the cause of quarrel between them.

"King Edmund seeks not war," they said. "So now either give hostages that you will dwell peaceably during your stay, or else begone."

Then loud and long laughed the viking chiefs; and Hungwar answered-

"This Edmund of thine will treat us as churlishly as he did the son of Sigurd! Now go and bid him come and do homage to us. And tell him to pull down his churches, and to scourge his priests away and to worship Thor; or, by Odin and his friends, there shall be ruin and death in all the land; and what we have done elsewhere, that will we also do here."

And then Hubba spake, and said-

"This Edmund desires hostages, and hostages shall he have"; and he commanded that the heads of all the messengers save one should be struck off and put in a sack. Then he cut off the ears of the last one and bade him go back and give the heads to his king, as a present from the sea-kings, and tell him that so he would be served, if he gave not up his false god.

But the Saxon was noble and brave; and, though he was alone and in sore pain, and the vikings all around, he cast the shame in Hubba's teeth, and he said that neither the King nor his subjects would worship pagan gods or turn from the Lord Christ, let what would follow.

"Drive him from the camp," said Hubba; and the brave messenger was scourged away, amidst the vikings' laughter.

But Wulnoth did not laugh, for his soul was heavy and his heart troubled; for it seemed to him that this was a shame deed to slay messengers who did but their duty; and he could not but think that the Saxon who had thus answered seemed nobler and grander than the mightiest of the vikings.

Then the Danes put the battle in order, and they marched inland; and on the next day they saw the army of the East Saxons drawn up, and they waved their weapons, and cried in joy-

"Greeting, worshippers of the White Christ. Let Him fight for you this day, for you need aid."

But the Saxons answered not; only as their priests passed along their ranks they bowed their heads in prayer, while the Danes mocked.

Then the battle commenced, and the slingers cast their stones, and the archers sped their arrows, and the light spears whistled as they were hurled; and then the ranks of the warriors closed, and the sword sang, and the shield received the blow, and fierce the fight raged; but still the Danes were victorious, and drove the forces of the Saxons back, so that they were scattered like the leaves before the wind; and at last King Edmund himself took to flight, while the vikings, with many shouts, spread over the land, slaying all whom they found and sending the red flames through many a roof.

And some chosen warriors pursued the King, and Wulnoth was amongst the number; and so hard did they press him that, at last, he sprang from his horse and sped down the bank of a stream, and hid beneath a bridge, hoping that the foe would pass on without seeing him.

And now happened a sad thing for Edmund the King; for there came a young man and his wife, and they had but been married that day; and as they crossed the bridge, seeking to escape from the Danes who were everywhere, they espied the moonlight shining on the golden spurs of the King; and the man crept down and saw who thus lay

in the water; but the man was a nithing who knew no shame.

For the King made him swear that he would not betray his hiding-place; but the man and his wife fell in with the pirates, and they were seized and brought before Hungwar who questioned them, whether they had seen the King; and the man, to save his life and the life of his wife, led them to the place where King Edmund lay hidden, and there the Danes caught him and made him prisoner.

And the King when he knew who had betrayed him spoke, and laid a curse on the bridge, and said that whoever crossed it to get married should have that curse fall on their shoulders.

But the man who had betrayed the King did not escape, for Hungwar ordered both him and his wife to be slain-so little was the word of the viking to be trusted.

Then the Danes carried King Edmund back to their camp, and heavy chains were placed upon his arms and legs, though he was a king; and he was placed in the holdas' hall, where the chief jarls and the kings gathered; and there they made mock of him and laughed him to scorn, and asked him where was his Christ in Whom he trusted?

And Wulnoth was there, leaning on his spear nigh the door; and he looked upon the face of the King standing there amidst his foes, and thought how calm and noble he looked.

For this Edmund had the blue eyes of the Saxon, and the long yellow hair that Wulnoth remembered so well; and his mien was lofty and calm, and his manner that of one who feared no death, though he grieved for the loss of his people.

And when they asked him where his Lord was,[3] Edmund the King looked up and smiled, and his smile was one of peace, and he pointed to the sky and made answer-

"There, in His glory, sits the Lord," he said, "and He alone is God"; and at that Hungwar cast his glove and smote him in the face.

"Thy God cannot deliver thee from even that; and how shall He deliver thee from our wrath?" he shouted. "Now, Edmund, who wast king of this land, I am minded to spare thy life on certain conditions. First, thou shalt strip all thine altars and cast them down, and give the gold to me; and if thou do it not, then be sure that I shall. Then shalt thou do homage to me here in my camp, and call me thy overlord; and, lastly, thou shalt sing a song to Odin and to Thor, and to the gods which were worshipped from of old by the people of the North. How sayest thou?"

"Thus do I say, O Hungwar," answered the King calmly. "I will do none of these things. I will not give thee the gold from God's altar; and be thou sure that though He holds me unworthy to guard His house, He will find a champion to do so. I will not call thee my king; and I will not worship Thor or any false gods, for there is one God alone, and the Lord Christ is His Son."

"Now," thought Wulnoth, "this man is mad; for what does it matter what god a man calls on so long as he saves his life?" Yet, for all that, he thought it shame that his captors should treat the King so.

But that was not the worst that the Danes did to Edmund of East Anglia; for, after his words, they led him out into the midst of the camp, and, though he was a king, they beat him and scourged him with whips till the flesh was torn and the blood flowed; and then they asked him whether he would deny his Lord and worship Odin as Hungwar ordered. But the King spoke, and his voice was heavy with pain, but his reply was without hesitation-

"My Lord was scourged for my sins," he said, "and I will be scourged for His sake, and rejoice that it is so."

"Now," thought Wulnoth, "this beating of a brave man is a nithing deed, and these Danes are but as ravening beasts, while this is a man indeed." Yet he was powerless to do aught, for he was one amongst twenty thousand.

And when the reply of the tortured King was heard, then Hungwar added torture to torture. And they twisted his chains and placed sticks beneath the links, until the flesh was all bruised and the bones broke; yet still the King would give no answer, but that he bore all for his Lord's sake.

"Surely the man is a fool," growled Wahrmund; "for why else would he bear this torture?" But Wulnoth answered-

"Surely the man is a hero, and he defies his enemies and will not let them triumph over him; while, as for these holdas who stand by and see a man put to such shame, I think little of them."

"Thou hadst best say less than thou thinkest, then," said Wahrmund significantly, "or we may have thee taking thy place beside yonder tortured man."

"Is there no pain can wring consent from thee?" said Hungwar darkly when again he knew that King Edmund had defied him; and the King answered him bravely-

"There is no pain shall make me deny my Lord."

"Now be not foolish, man," cried Guthrun, who liked not this sport. "A word will save thee." But the King answered-

"That word I will never speak."

Then Hungwar the Dane gave command, and they carried King Edmund out and tied him to a great tree; and the vikings took their bows and their casting spears and made him their target; and the task was to wound the King and bring blood with each arrow or spear cast, yet not to hurt him so that his life would be endangered.

From the morn till the afternoon did they thus torture him, until his poor body was so cut and marred that it could not be seen for wounds and blood; and the King's head drooped, and his eyes closed from weariness and pain.

Now Wulnoth stood near the King, and he was filled with wonder, and with pity, and with disgust that a brave man should be so treated; and when the vikings rested from their sport he drew near, and he said in low tones-

"Listen to me, O King. Save thee I cannot; but I can make an end for thee. I will stand and cast my spear, and I will take care that it pierces thy heart, and so sleep shall come to thee."

But the King lifted his head, and opened his patient eyes, and said-

"Nay, friend. I know that to do this would cost thee thy right hand; and for me the end is not far off, and I can be patient. My Lord was smitten with a spear for me, and I will suffer the spear for His glory; He Who is stronger than the strongest will strengthen me; and from my death will good come, for the Holy Church is watered with the blood of her sons."

Now all this was as a dark saying to Wulnoth, and he could make nothing of it. Only he knew that this man, who was now no more a king, and who was now nigh to death, had something which he possessed not, something which made him grand and glorious, and strong even in weakness, and patient in suffering; and the King looked at him again, and spoke once more-

"Seek thou unto Him, friend," he said. "For He giveth peace and joy for sorrow and labor, and with Him death's darkness turneth to light."

And then Wulnoth looked again, and he saw that around the King's neck a little cross hung. And the King asked him to lift it to his lips that he might kiss it ere he died, and Wulnoth, wondering and fearing, obeyed.

Then from his hall came Hungwar, and with him came Biorn Ironsides, and Sidroc, and Frena, and many jarls, and he stood before the King and asked him again whether he would agree to worship Odin and deny the White Christ.

But the King opened his eyes again, and he said calmly-

"Trouble me no more, Hungwar, son of Regner. Thou hast done thy worst, and thou hast had thy pleasure, and I have borne in silence. Now make an end and trouble me no more, for, had I fifty lives, and each could take a lifetime in dying, I still would not do this thing which thou dost command, thou bloodthirsty and wicked pirate of the Northland."

Then Hungwar stamped his foot, and he dashed his fist in the calm face, and he ordered his men to take the King and smite off his head.

For Hungwar was weary of seeing King Edmund resist, and moreover some of the Danish holdas who were more noble of heart than he, said that this was a shame deed which was being done in their midst, while Guthrun said openly that though he loved to slay a man in fair fight, he had no love for serving a hero shamefully, and that if Hungwar liked not his words then they two would go hold holmgang together.

But that was no part of Hungwar's plans. He had no wish to have his force divided and quarrelling as did the Saxons, and so he gave the word; and Wulnoth was amongst those who saw the King die.

"You are to die," they told him, and King Edmund answered-

"To die is to live again."

Then they smote off his head, and so sleep came for the King of the East Saxons.

Now, this is how the Danes beat the men of East Anglia, and put their king to the torture.[4]

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