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   Chapter 12 No.12

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 15187

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


How Wulnoth and Wahrmund visited the Christian Church

Now, on the morning after Wulnoth had aided in the carrying away of the King's body, there was trouble in the Danish camp, because one who had gone into the field to view the remains of the victim of Hungwar's cruelty found no trace left; and this he thought strange.

And, though the Danes were fierce and cruel, there were some amongst them noble enough to reverence a brave man who could suffer in patience as King Edmund had done; and these, like Guthrun, declared that Hungwar's deed was a shame deed, and one to be repented of.

And these, when they heard that the body was gone, declared that this was the work of the gods, because they were angry that the King had been slain. And some said that they had seen the King fly up into the clouds, borne along by the storm sisters; and others declared that he had stalked through the camp, his head in his hand, and had vanished into the forest.

But then, there are always people ready to fancy that they have seen such wonders as these, and others who will say that they have seen, even if they know it false; so the Danish leaders shook their heads and laughed when they heard, and said that the warriors had drunk too deeply from their ale horns the night before.

But Hungwar was troubled and angry, for he liked not to hear such tales; and he felt, moreover, that some treachery was abroad, or that foes had been in the camp and taken the body away.

"Why trouble thy head about it?" laughed Hubba, his brother. "The carrion is gone. The wolves have eaten it." But to that Hungwar answered-

"Wolves leave bones, brother, and there be no bones left here. There is treason amongst us, brother, and woe be to the man who is guilty if I find him out."

"Wanderer," said Wahrmund to his friend, that same morning, "methinks we played a daring game last night, and methinks that if it were known to our leaders, our tarrying in this world would be short and painful. Art thou determined to go through with this business to-night?"

"I am determined," answered Wulnoth firmly. "But come thou not, friend, if thou art minded to keep away. I will see this thing to the end; for there is one I seek to see, and I will give my life in payment, if need be."

"Thy princess, as thou dost call her, comrade?" laughed Wahrmund. "Ah! I know. So do a pair of pretty eyes lead brave men to danger and death. But hark to me, comrade"; and he lowered his voice. "I tell thee this because I love thee for a brave man, and because I read things quickly. There was some talk of a beautiful child in those days when we destroyed Lethra, and much was Hungwar angered that he could not find her. Now, if this princess of thine be she whom I suppose, look to it that Hungwar hear not of it, or there will be trouble. She is not a child now, but maiden grown; and Hungwar would not do the hunting and leave thee to take the spoil. Look to it, Wulnoth, for the son of Regner is crafty, as well as fierce; and there may be trouble for thee and thy princess yet."

Wulnoth thanked his friend for his counsel, and he thought to himself that if ever things came to that pass there would be trouble for Hungwar also; but that thought he kept from his comrade, for Wahrmund was of Hungwar's band, and Wulnoth would not do aught to make him false to his oath.

All day long the Danes roamed, hunting and sporting; and often, alas, hunting human game, driving, harrying, slaying, all the unhappy churls with whom they met, and burning their poor houses to the ground.

For this was the leader's counsel-"Here we must make a stronghold," they said, "and none but our own men must remain in the land. Then, when we have played the war game, and driven our foes before us, we will make the Saxons become our thralls, and they shall labor for us while we live at ease."

And, truly, in East Anglia it seemed as if this would be; for the people had become filled with fear and hopeless, and they thought no more of fighting these fierce strangers, who came in swarms, as the gnats rise from the pools, but they either fled and left all or else came and offered service, begging for life only.

Now in the evening, when the shadows grew, and the holdas gathered in their hall, and told their tales and drank their brown ale and wine, then Wulnoth and Wahrmund went their way towards the forest, thinking that no man would notice their absence. But Hungwar, as he sat with his friends, glanced with quick suspicious eyes adown the hall, and he saw that Wulnoth and Wahrmund were away, and he remembered that they had been away the night before; and he said naught, but resolved to watch them closely, for he hated Wulnoth, he knew not why, and he knew that Wahrmund was his friend.

And into the forest the friends went, spear in hand and sword by side, for no man might go safely unless he bore his weapons; and presently, when they came to the place where they had parted from the stranger the night before, a low hooting of the wood owl was heard, and from the deep shadows a man stepped and saluted them.

"Greeting, Hacos, both," he said, in low tones, using the name by which the Saxons call a stranger from the Northland. "Ye are to follow me."

"Hold!" cried Wahrmund, ever a wary old soldier. "That is all very well, my friend. But how do we know it? We indeed came hither to meet one, but that one you are not; and how are we to know that you come from him and are not a foe seeking to lead us to our doom?"

"The thorn-crowned cross," answered the man. "The Wanderer will know of it."

"In truth I do know," cried Wulnoth. "We may follow, Wahrmund; for if he were not sent by my friends he would not have given me that token."

"Follow then," growled the Dane, shouldering his spear, "and follow close; for, by Thor, this darkness is such that a man might walk into the presence of his worst foes, and be none the wiser until the sword or knife told him of it."

"The way is somewhat long," the guide said calmly. "Of that I warn you, and it is hard to tread."

"Little care we for that," was the answer he received. "We have trodden no easy paths of late. Lead on, and we follow."

So through the forest they went, and in the shadow a voice challenged and their guide answered. And thrice did this happen, showing to them that, after all, the soldiers of East Anglia still remained in the land and kept watch and ward over the secret paths.

Then they came from the woodland, and saw before them, in the dim light, pools and streams of water stretching all around; and the guide said-

"Follow closely in my steps, for there is death here for any who stray." And Wahrmund grunted, for he liked not the road they trod, where the feet sank into yielding soil at every step, and the air was full of the croakings of frogs and the cries of night birds.

And here again they were challenged twice, and the guide gave answer ere they were allowed to proceed; and so going they came to the water's edge where, silent and motionless, men awaited them with a boat.

"Ah!" grunted Wahrmund, "this is better. The water is the viking's land, and better than those forests or the swampy plains. Have we far to go, guide? for methinks that time passes."

"You shall be safely back at your camp ere the dawn breaks in the east," answered the guide. "Now be silent and prepare to see sights of which you know nothing yet."

The boat crossed to an island, and here they stepped ashore, again being challenged; and then, in the centre of the isle, which was but small,

they saw a building, surrounded by trees to screen it from the passers-by, and here the guide paused and uttered his cry again; and at that, from the yawning portal a man emerged, clad in a gray robe which reached to his feet.

"Who are these, my son?" he asked. And the guide replied-

"Those whom I was bidden bring, father. Now I leave them in thy keeping."

"It is well. Follow me, friends, and be silent and solemn; and, moreover, remember that ye go into the presence of the Most High."

There was something awe-inspiring in his solemn words; and he, without awaiting their reply, led the way into this building, passing along a low, narrow way, arched o'erhead, and pausing at a door whereat a man sat.

"Enter," he said, "and once again I pray you be silent, and remember that it is only because the Atheling and a royal lady have desired this, that we let your eyes behold our worship. Enter," and stepping aside he suffered them to go in.

And what a strange place it was! For the moment their eyes seemed blinded by the light-light that came from a hundred lamps. Then, as they grew accustomed to the radiance, they were able to look around and examine their surroundings.

It was not a very spacious apartment, but it was very beautiful. Massive stone pillars in long rows supported the arched roof, and the windows were ornamented with curious carvings in stone work. But it was not at columns, nor roof, nor at windows, that they looked, but at the scene directly facing them, for such a scene they had never viewed before.

There uprose above five stone steps a lofty altar, draped in white and crimson and gold, and many a gem and much precious metal in its workings; and there, directly in front of this, was a bier, upon which rested the body of the martyred King Edmund.

Calm and dignified did the royal face look in death, and all the pain and weariness had left the features. The hair fell on either side of the wax-like brow, upon which his golden crown now rested; and behind the bier, rising over it as though it were guarding the sleeping King, rose a cross. Ay, a cross, yet not an empty one, for on it hung One nailed there by hands and feet.

All the skill of the sculptor, all the cunning of the painter, had been expended upon that work; and as the two rough Northmen looked, they held their breath in awe, for the blue eyes, so gentle and yet so kingly, seemed to glance across at them; and the whole attitude of the Sufferer seemed to speak of infinite pity and love, so that Wahrmund drew a deep breath and whispered to his companion-

"By Thor! 'T is a god yonder. 'T is Balder the Beautiful, who watches from yon cross, over the couch of death!"

"Hush!" answered Wulnoth in the same tone-he could not take his eyes from that figure. Without word being spoken to him he saw what a poor blind fool he had been. If this was the image of Him Whom the Christians worshipped, He was no coward and nithing, but the greatest, the grandest, the noblest of all the sons of men.

Then they noticed yet another thing-the body of the King was guarded, for on either side of the bier a man knelt-a young man, clad in royal attire, and upon the head of one of the two glittered a kingly crown.

"Yon kneeling man is he we saw in the wood last night-he whom we aided," whispered Wahrmund, and Wulnoth nodded.

But now came a sound of soft music, sweet and strange, now sinking into a whisper, now rising into a flood, and with it the voices of singers raising a death-song.

But a strange death-song, truly, for the death-songs of the North were to the honor of the heroes and spoke of their deeds, but this song was to the White Christ and to the God of Heaven, and it spoke no word of praise about the dead king, but only told of humble trust in the Crucified One.

Then into the building the singers swept, all veiled in long robes-some men, some graceful maidens, and-

Wulnoth started and fixed his anxious eyes upon one of that throng-surely he knew that voice-surely he recognized that figure-surely beneath that robe the beauty of Edgiva was hidden!

But if it was the Princess she gave no sign. The singers slowly passed up to the altar and divided into two parties, one on either side, and the two watchers rose up and stood by the bier, as kingly a pair of young men as the eye might look upon, though he whom they had spoken with the evening before looked pale and as if sickness had been his portion.

Then there came other men, priests, led by one tall and dignified, and they sang praises to God, and offered prayers, and spoke of the Crucified as Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And the two watchers stood there with hearts filled with wonder and awe, for though they could not understand, yet there was something both grand and dreadful in this worship, and yet, withal, it was winning, like the sweet scent of the flowers or the song of the birds, or the whisper of the sea upon a summer's day. It was something which seemed to get into their hearts, and made them long for they knew not what, with a longing which was sweet and painful.

And then the aged priest, for such they divined the man to be, stood and spoke of the dead King and the work which he had tried to do, and how he had been tried and was faithful, choosing rather the tortures of the Danes than the denying of his Lord, and how, though he had passed through the gates of death, yet in his Lord he lived and reigned in glory forever.

And then he paused and turned to the two young men, and called them the hope of the Church, and bade them be strong in the Lord and gird themselves for battle.

"Strong are the foe and terrible," he said. "Many as the sands of the sea and mighty as Bashan, but in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength, and He Who could strengthen Gideon, and make Jephthah conquer, shall also make you mighty. Go forward, hope of the Church-go forward, avengers of the noble Edmund-go forward and quit yourselves like men, and the Lord shall give you the victory, and deliver His Church from the powers of darkness and from the violence of the spoiler."

Then the two young men knelt again, and the priest placed his hands upon them and blessed them; and then the men in long robes came and took up the body of the dead King and carried it away. And in one portion of the building was the dark entrance to an underground vault, and into this they lowered the bier, while all there sang hymns of victory to God for victory over death. And this was the burying of the King of the East Saxons.

Then two by two the procession was formed, and, headed by the priest, they swept all round the building, coming nigh the spot where Wulnoth and his companion stood in the shadow, and the eyes of Wulnoth followed that one figure, his heart telling him that this was Edgiva the Beautiful.

And then, just as she reached the spot where he stood, for one moment a tiny hand appeared from beneath the shrouding cloak, and a fair blossom dropped at his feet. Then, ere he could speak or move, she had passed on, and the church was empty.

"Now," said Wahrmund, speaking in low tones, "we have seen strange things over which a man needs ponder deeply. But methinks, comrade, all is done now, and we had best look for our guide."

Then, ere Wulnoth could answer, a curtain was drawn aside from an arching doorway, and the man with whom they had come hither stood before them.

Now, this is how Wulnoth saw the burying of King Edmund, and this is how he looked upon the image of Him Whom he had called a nithing.

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