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   Chapter 13 No.13

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 15463

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Of How Wulnoth met with Edgiva again

The man held the curtain aside and invited them to follow him.

"The Atheling bids you come," he said. "And he says to him called the Wanderer that not yet has he received that reward which was promised to him."

"Come, Wanderer," laughed Wahrmund, "we may as well go through with it now. By Thor! 't is strange that I, a Dane, should be amongst these Saxons, but I feel inclined to see this to the end. How sayest thou?"

Little need to ask Wulnoth such a question, for the one desire of his heart was to see his Princess. Therefore the two followed their guide, and were ushered into an apartment where sat the two men whom they had seen watching in the church.

And the younger, he who did not wear the crown, came to welcome them and said-

"Greeting, friends, and again thanks for the aid you rendered me in securing honor for King Edmund's body."

Then he turned to the other, and went on-

"Ethelred, my royal and dear brother, these are the two of whom I told you, and to their help are we indebted, for otherwise it would have been a hard matter to gain the body of the martyr."

"We thank you from our hearts, strangers," said the one called Ethelred. And Wahrmund whispered to his friend-

"By Thor! 'T is Ethelred, the King of the West Saxons. He is son of the noble Ethelwulf the Bretwalda, and the other must be his brother, the Atheling Alfred."

Then did the King continue, looking hard at Wulnoth, and he said-

"But what is this? We have no Dane here, brother! This hair and those blue eyes are surely of the land of our fathers!"

"That is so, royal brother," answered Alfred. "According to all I have heard from the wise Wyborga, this man is of the noble house of Cerdic, he from whom our own house also traces its descent."

"Is that so?" the King cried. "It is good in one way, and yet 't is strange to think of one of such royal blood joining our foes."

"Strange is this man's story, my brother," Alfred replied. "I have it as it was told to me," and he told the King how Wulnoth came to Lethra with his father and of all that had happened since.

But the King shook his head as he listened, and said that this did not explain how Wulnoth came to be in Hungwar's army, seeing that it was Hungwar who gave Lethra to fire and sword.

So Wulnoth spoke, and told how he had two tasks to do-one to find Guthred the Prince, and the other to find the mightiest and the strongest. And at that Alfred the Atheling smiled gently.

"Now, brother," he said to the King, "this is a task for priests, and perchance a fair teacher whom we two wot of, and not for us. Thou seest how this man chances to be with the Danes, and thou seest how 't is but a step to discovering that for which he seeks. Let this good warrior"-and he pointed to Wahrmund-"tarry here with us and let the other go to his reward."

But the King looked grave and he said slowly-

"This man is a thrall, and Edgiva is a king's daughter."

"This man is of our blood, and can noble blood be debased because a thrall collar is placed upon the neck? My word is pledged, brother, that this man shall see the lady, and I pray you to allow it."

"Let it be so," said the King, and the Atheling laughed. "Follow me, O Wanderer," he said to Wulnoth; and as the Wanderer obeyed, he heard the deep laugh of Wahrmund, and the words-

"Of a truth, O King, a wondrous thing is love. You might offer yon man a golden crown now, and he would not take it in exchange for a few moments with a fair maiden."

The Atheling led Wulnoth to another chamber and bade him wait there, and presently there came a light step, and Edgiva stood before him, holding out her hands with a smile upon her lips.

And when Wulnoth saw her all his strength seemed to go, and only a great love seized upon him so that he dropped on his knees and took her hands and kissed them, and cried, as if he had been a weak woman and not a mighty man, and he said-

"O my Princess! my Princess! I have wandered far to see you, and my heart has grown weary with longing. Why have you hidden yourself from me all this time, and I was your watcher who guarded you? Oh! why have you done this thing, my Princess?"

And Edgiva bent over him, and in her beautiful eyes there were tears also as she bade him rise and come and sit beside her.

But Wulnoth shook his head and answered that might not be, for she was the King's daughter and he but a thrall.

"Now nay, Wulnoth," answered Edgiva. "Even if what thou sayest is true, then it would be mine to command and thine to obey. But this is not so. Thou and I are friends as we were in the dear old days when we were in Lethra-"

"But I angered you, my Princess," he said. "I angered you in the woods when I spoke of Thor." And Edgiva looked grave.

"Nay, not angered, Wulnoth," she said gently. "I was grieved, but I knew it would all come right in the end. Now, Wulnoth, tell me, for we have but little time, and perchance we may not meet again yet-"

"Not meet!" he cried. "Oh, my Princess, thou wilt not send me away again!"

"Wulnoth, thou hast thy work, and I have mine," she answered, "and we must fulfil our tasks. Now listen then to my words. Thou hast longed to find me again?"

"I have longed to find you, O Princess," he answered. "For I am thy watcher."

"And only because thou art my watcher?" she answered softly, and he made no reply.

"Canst thou not answer my question, Wulnoth?" she asked again. "Hast thou longed to find me only because thou art my watcher?"

And then he looked up, and his strong face was full of light, yet his voice was full of pain, and he said-

"Oh, my Princess, that is the first cruel thing that thou hast done to me, for why wilt thou have me tell my heart's story to thee, seeing that thou art so far away from me? Yet if thou wilt have it so, it shall be. I have longed for thee, Edgiva, because I love thee-because not a maiden in the world has moved my heart as thou hast done; because in my dreams thou hast smiled upon me. I love thee, Princess-I who am thrall and thy watcher-and now that the matter is told, send for thy servants and have me cast out."

And then, while he knelt there with bowed head, one little arm crept round his neck, and a dear, gentle voice spoke in his ear saying-

"Oh, thou great, strong, hero-hearted, foolish Wulnoth! Had it been my wish to cast thee forth, dost thou think I had let thee see me, or speak such words as thou hast now done? Wulnoth, they are heart music to me. Thou foolish Wulnoth, to be jealous as thou wast in the forest! Thou loyal Wulnoth, to resist the temptation wherewith Wyborga tempted thee to tarry there with me! Kiss me, Wulnoth, my great bear of a lover, for truly thou art as big and as strong and as shaggy as a bear, but thou art my love, and no other love have I had, save my Lord Whom I serve."

Then all music came into Wulnoth's soul, for he knew that Edgiva loved him, and he felt that nothing else mattered in this world now, and he asked her how it was since she loved him that she had fled away from him in the past.

"Canst thou not see, Wulnoth?" Edgiva answered. "It was because I loved thee. But I had learnt to love the Lord, and thou didst know nothing of Him, and hadst thou made me thy wife then, I should have followed thee and have forgotten my Lord."

"Yet I am not a Christian now, Edgiva," he said. "And not even to win thee would I call myself one unless I could do so honestly."

"I know that, Wulnoth," she answered. "But the time will come when thou dost understand. Tell me, dost thou still think the Lord a nithing, and His worship fit only for weaklings?" And at that Wulnoth shook his h

ead.

"Princess," he said, "I am like a man who walks in a wood having lost his way, or like those who are caught by the sea fog off a rocky shore. I know not what to think. For of a truth it seems strange for strong men to suffer wrong when they have swords by their sides; and yet I have seen the King die, and-it was more than I could fathom; and I have looked at the image in the church yonder-the image on the cross, and it seemed to speak to me. I know not what to think."

"And hast thou found the mightiest leader yet, Wulnoth?" she asked. And he shook his head again.

"Nay, Princess. I sought old Regner Lodbrok, for he was called the mightiest, but he died here in this land, and thus it is that I come to be with those who are doubly mine enemies, seeing that they are Danes, and those who ruined Lethra's kingdom-"

"So Wyborga told me that you would," Edgiva said. "She is wise and can prophesy, and it was she who foresaw your coming, and that the Prince should meet you in the forest. It was she who said that you should be in the church to-night, and it was she who said that I might see you. And, Wulnoth, if you have longed to see me, I also have longed for you, and comforted my heart that we should meet again."

"But oh, my love," he answered, "thou art beautiful and a king's daughter, and I am-"

"Of the Royal House of Cerdic-of the same stock as the King of the West Saxons. Thou must do mighty deeds for me, Wulnoth, and earn me a name, and then I shall be proud of thee."

"But how can I, Princess? I am of the Danes now. I must leave them and come to my own people-"

"Nay, Wulnoth. Wyborga told me of this thing. She said that thou shouldst not do that, for the parting with Hungwar and his brother would come without seeking it in that fashion. Go back to the camp and wait; and now know, Wulnoth, that I do love thee, and that I shall love none other. Yet we cannot be more than friends until thou hast finished thy quest-"

"And found Guthred?" he asked.

"Nay, but found the mightiest, and the bravest, and the grandest amongst men," she answered.

"Dost thou know, Edgiva, that it hath been told to me that Hungwar still remembers thee, and that he would fain find thee?" Wulnoth asked. And she smiled.

"Ay, I know that, Wulnoth," she answered; "and indeed I should be afraid, but that I know thou wilt be near me now, and while thou art nigh, I fear not Hungwar."

Then they were silent, standing side by side, hand in hand, and love in their hearts. And it was peace time in their souls, when all the world seemed fair, and when all nature was singing, just as it had done in the past when, as children, they wandered with Guthred in the flower-laden fields, or the shady groves of Lethra. And Edgiva lifted her face to him and smiled, and her eyes spoke words that her lips uttered not; and Wulnoth bent and kissed her, and in that kiss their souls seemed joined, so that none might come between them forever.

Then did Wyborga come and bid Wulnoth join his friend again, for the way was long, and the hours were fleeing; and Wulnoth came and Edgiva with him; and when Wahrmund saw the Princess, he stared open-mouthed, and he cried-

"Thora, beloved of Regner, the son of Sigurd, was called the most beautiful of women; but here is one more beautiful. Not Freya herself is more fair than thou art, Princess."

"Thou art a flatterer, Dane," laughed Alfred the Atheling; but Wahrmund answered-

"Not so, Prince. I speak what I think; and I counsel thee, if counsel I may, to keep this pearl from the sight of Hungwar and his friends; for surely they would burn this land into gray ash to secure such a treasure."

"Methinks our royal sister looks far more gay than she has done for many a day, brother," said the King with a smile. And Edgiva answered steadily, and with never a blush-

"That is true, royal Ethelred, for I have found again my hero." And at that the King laughed again.

Then did the Atheling turn to Wulnoth and ask him of his search after the mightiest, and where he would now look, seeing that Regner Lodbrok was dead; and Wulnoth answered that he knew not where to look now, unless he went afar to Rome and sought the Emperor.

"Now, Wulnoth," the Atheling said, "let me be thy redesman in this. Thou didst think that Regner Lodbrok was the mightiest warrior?"

"Then, by my beard, he was not far out," cried Wahrmund. And the Prince smiled.

"So! Yet this Regner is dead, and there is no king but must die in the end."

"That is true, Prince," Wulnoth said; and Wahrmund nodded.

"Then death is mightier than the mightiest," said Alfred. And Wulnoth looked puzzled.

"Does that mean we should follow death, Prince?" he said. "By my word, we soldiers do that all our lives, methinks."

"Nay, Wulnoth. 'T is true we follow death, for 't is our call; but there is one mightier than death even."

"Mightier than death!" cried Wahrmund. "That is hard saying, Prince; for what, or who, is mightier than death?" And to that the Prince answered-

"Life is mightier than death. Do not thy own sagas tell thee that the heroes live again in Walhalla, and that they perish no more?"

"Ay," answered Wahrmund. "Though whether it be true or not, I cannot say."

"Wulnoth," the Prince went on, "thou didst see the image of Him Who hung on the cross? He Whom thou didst once call nithing, I hear."

"I have seen, Prince," Wulnoth answered.

"Then know He is the Lord of Life; and to conquer death He died, and He rose again. Death and He went holmgang, and He conquered. He is the mightiest, and by Him shall we drive out our foes and conquer Thor and his followers."

"Do not be too sure of that, Prince," growled Wahrmund, not liking to hear his people spoken of so; but the Prince went on-

"Nay, I mean not to offend you, brave soldier. I only speak what I feel. Have you not told me that you wondered to see how King Edmund braved the worst torture and pain?"

"That is so," the Dane answered. And once more the Prince went on-

"And how did he do this? He was strengthened by the Lord; and He Who had suffered succored him in his suffering. Now, it is to Him that you must turn. But now," he added, "the morning draws near, and you two must be back at the camp ere day breaks; so let us bid each other farewell, and perchance we may meet again."

So they clasped each other's hands, the Saxons and the Dane; and Edgiva smiled on Wulnoth, and whispered her love-parting; and then he and Wahrmund set out, guided by him who had brought them, until they reached the forest.

And when at last they were alone, the Dane stopped and stroked his beard, and he said slowly-

"Comrade, we two have seen strange things to-night, and heard strange things, too. But beware how you speak of them to me where other ears may listen; for there are three things which Hungwar would be glad to have."

"What are they, Wahrmund?" asked Wulnoth carelessly; for he was so happy that he cared little for Hungwar and his wants.

"Wanderer, the son of Regner would like the gold from yon Christian altar; and he would like to have that Atheling in his power; and he would like to have the Lady Edgiva also."

"He shall have my axe ere he has one of the three," said Wulnoth; and the Dane laughed grimly.

"Bold words! But the son of Regner is no nithing nor weakling; and he has some warriors around him, Wanderer. Thou mayst be strong, but thou art not strong enough for that; therefore, I warn thee be discreet and hold thy tongue."

Now, this is how Wulnoth found his Princess, and how the love tale was spoken, and this is how Alfred the Atheling told Wulnoth of the Mightiest and the Bravest of Lords.

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