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   Chapter 14 No.14

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14134

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


How Wahrmund the Dane gave his Life for Wulnoth

Now, though Hungwar the Dane had evil thoughts respecting Wulnoth and Wahrmund, he held his peace and kept his own counsel at the first; and in the morning, when the two were in the hall, he greeted them with a dark smile, and he said-

"Greeting, Wulnoth, and greeting, Wahrmund. You are cunning warriors; for while we have been feasting and drinking and listening to the songs of the scalds, we have missed your faces; and methinks, surely, that ye have been spying out the land, and seeing where the foe hide."

"We have been wandering, O chief," answered Wulnoth. And Hungwar laughed loudly.

"What should the Wanderer do but wander?" he cried. "Thou art not content with doing the deeds of ordinary men, thou rider on sea monsters and thou doer of great deeds. But take care, lest one day thou do a deed too many, and a little thing, like a spear or a sword, make thy strength become weakness."

"Death comes to all in time, O chief," Wulnoth answered; and again Hungwar laughed.

"True, O Wanderer; yet sometimes he comes to some sooner than to others-and there are other ways of dying than by the man's tools."

"Look you, Wanderer," growled Wahrmund, when the two were alone, "we are in an evil case, we two; for Hungwar suspects, and when he is suspicious he puts an end to doubts with the sword or the axe. We are surely in an evil case, Wanderer."

And to that Wulnoth answered-

"It may be as thou sayest, Wahrmund, for this son of Regner is to my mind more of a nithing than a hero."

"That is but partly true," answered Wahrmund, jealous for the honor of his chief. "True, he is cruel and merciless, but when it comes to playing the man's game, where the blows are the hardest and the sword sings the loudest, there, be sure, will Hungwar be found. Still, we are in an evil case, and I see not how to advise thee. My rede is that thou flee at once, lest evil befall thee."

"I flee not," answered Wulnoth; "I am no nithing. Edgiva told me that Wyborga, who is a wise woman and a prophetess, declared that I should abide here until I received a sign, and I see no sign yet."

"To my mind," answered Wahrmund, "Hungwar's words are sign enough for any man, and you will be wise to take them."

"Do you flee with me?" Wulnoth asked. And the Dane swore a mighty oath by Thor that he would not.

"I have followed Regner Lodbrok since I was a boy," he said, "and I will follow his son, unless he attempts my life or does a shame deed to me. If that day comes, then I will fight my last fight with back to wall, and some shall go with me to Walhalla."

"Then if thou dost not flee, I do not flee," answered Wulnoth, and there the matter ended for the time.

Yet Wulnoth had much to think of; and the more he thought, the more he felt that the gods of the North were false gods, and that the God of Christians was the true God; and that it was by bearing that conquest came. And yet that puzzled him, for he felt that a warrior should war; and he knew that if Hungwar tried to do him harm, then he should fight and make his big sword sing a good song ere he was vanquished.

And more than once did his friend urge him to escape, saying that he was sure that Hungwar thought evil against him, and would seek soon to do him harm; but to all the pleading, Wulnoth answered that while Wahrmund stayed, he would stay also.

Yet Hungwar did plot evil against Wulnoth, and in a cunning way. He knew that the Wanderer looked with anger upon the killing of King Edmund, and he thought to have that done which should make Wulnoth speak rashly, and so bring him into his power; and thus it is that he did it. One of the bands of Danes which had roamed the country brought tidings of a village hidden away amidst the marshes, where old people and women and little children dwelt; and the chiefs, in cruel sport, said that they would go against this village themselves, and teach the churls the way to the storm-land; and Hungwar called upon Wulnoth and Wahrmund to be of his party.

Now, Wulnoth was troubled at this, and yet he knew not how to escape the going; and he comforted himself by thinking that when the sword sang and the red flames danced, then he might be able to save some of the poor victims and aid them to escape.

So the Danes went out on their cruel errand, and the village was surrounded, and the houses given to the fire; and the people were collected and brought into the midst of the Danes.

And then Hungwar and Hubba, raging like wolves, ordered the men to be tortured, and the women to be burnt, and the children and the maidens to be put to death by the warriors; and Wulnoth felt a great anger coming into his heart, and his blood began to tingle as it beat through his veins, and the spirit of the berserker came upon him; and at last he could stand idle no longer; and just then Hungwar called to him and mocked him, saying-

"Ah, Wanderer, thou art a sluggard. Thy sword has had no drink, and thy axe is dry. To work, Wanderer, to work, and join our sport."

"Patience, Hungwar," answered Wulnoth grimly. "Sword and axe shall have their fill. This murdering of prisoners is a nithing's game, fit only for such dogs as thou and thy companions. This is better sport for me." And with that he struck a mighty blow with his fist at one viking who had speared a little child; and, though he hit but with his fist, the man dropped dead.

"Thou dog!" roared Hungwar. "Dost thou dare to speak so to me? I will have thy tongue cut out for this insolence."

"Come and do it thyself, Dane," answered Wulnoth. "Or shall I come to thee?" and he strode towards the chief.

But men ran between them, and a score of weapons were raised against him, and many voices cried out that he should die.

"Now this is a man's game," he laughed. "Pity 't is that Hungwar will not play in it"; and he swung his axe high, and made it play like a circle of fire around his head, and wherever that axe fell there fell a viking of Denmark.

"Do not slay him. Take him alive," cried Hungwar, keeping out of reach of danger himself. "And take Wahrmund also, for he is a traitor, and the two know of the treasure of the Saxons and where the West Saxon King is. Take them alive, and the torture shall make them cry for mercy."

"Now, by Thor!" growled Wahrmund, when he heard that, "for forty years have I warred for Denmark and followed thy house, O Hungwar; and I looked to go to the storm-land doing so. But thou takest me not prisoner, and thou puttest me not to torture. And now I tell thee, as the Wanderer has told thee, that thou art a nithing and a coward, and more fit to lead ravening wolves than to direct heroes. Come thou hither and take me, thou coward."

But Hungwar only answered-"Take them alive. Do them no hurt," and he foamed at the mouth like an angry bear, and shook his fists in the air.

"Now, Wanderer, there is a game to play and a song to be sung," cried Wahrmund, as he reached Wulnoth's side. "Stand thou beside me and let us see what we

may do in this case."

So side by side they stood, their faces to the foe; and the Danes circled round them, seeking to find a place for spear thrust or sword stroke. But ever the shields received the blow, and ever the axes answered the stroke, and men fell shorn and gashed, and still the two champions stood unscathed.

And then, when the foe gathered for a greater rush, Wulnoth's strength came, like unto madness; and he rushed forward and caught a warrior in each hand and whirled them round as if they were flails, so that the vikings drew back in horror and fear, for they had never seen men strong like as Wulnoth was.

Then loud the Wanderer laughed, and he cried to his friend-

"'T is a good fight, Wahrmund, comrade, and one worth the fighting. We have slain many. Now shall we make an end and rush upon them, and take this Hungwar with us to the storm-land?"

But Wahrmund answered-

"Hast thou forgotten Edgiva the Beautiful, Wanderer? She will weep for thee, and, moreover, thou mayst yet be needed to watch over her. I see no sense in staying here to be slaughtered. Let us retreat side by side, and since these holdas cast us out, seek the Atheling and lend him our aid."

"Now surely thy words are good words, comrade," Wulnoth answered. "For if this is not the sign for which I waited, then I know not what may be. So shield in front and axe ready, let us step backwards, comrade, and then, if we can reach the forest, all may be well."

Then the two heroes began to step backwards, still facing their enemy, and around them swarmed the host of the foe, pressing hard and sore, until at last Wahrmund cried to Wulnoth that they should run.

"No scald can say we are nithing or weak," he said, "for we have fought a good fight. But fain would I see thee live, Wulnoth, since that is thy real name, for I see thou hast a word to say to Hungwar yet. As for me, I know this is my last fight, for I am sore wounded-"

"Say not 't is thy last fight, comrade," cried Wulnoth. "If thou dost tarry, then I tarry with thee."

"Think thou of Edgiva," said Wahrmund. And Wulnoth answered-

"I do think of her. I think I should be shamed to look her in the face and say I deserted a wounded comrade."

"I wish thee to live that thou mayst avenge me," Wahrmund said. But all that Wulnoth would answer was-

"I will avenge thee, ere I die by thy side."

Now, Wahrmund perceived that Wulnoth had the berserker spirit upon him, and that he was as one mad, who would listen to no reason; and yet he was minded to save him for the sake of Edgiva the Beautiful, so he said-

"Now come, then, and run, for nigh this spot is a deep ravine, the which is crossed by a single plank, and if we gain that, we can there hold our own and make a good fight."

"So be it," replied Wulnoth, and together they ran, though Wahrmund was sore in pain and wounded deeply, and soon the bridge was in sight.

It was but a log laid across a cleft in the earth, and the cleft was so wide that no man might hope to leap it, and so deep that it was death to try to descend its sides, and the trunk was but laid on the earth.

"Cross thou first, Wulnoth," gasped Wahrmund. "Cross, and hold the other end steady, for it rests on a stone, and I fear I should fall if I tried to walk over first."

The Danes were now hard upon them, and to the soldiers were joined many chiefs of fame, all full of fury at the deed that had been done.

Wulnoth, thinking nothing of what was in his friend's heart, rushed across and turned to hold the log steady, but Wahrmund stopped at his end and he seized the log with both hands and hurled it down into the chasm so that none might pass to Wulnoth, and he could not return to them.

"What hast thou done, Wahrmund, my friend?" cried Wulnoth in despair, but Wahrmund smiled and waved his hand.

"Flee thou, comrade," he answered. "I did this on purpose, for I knew thou wouldst not leave me, and I am minded that thou shalt escape. Wulnoth, the death shadow is upon me, and when that is so men see far ahead. I tell thee, thou son of Cerdic, that thou hast a big work to do, and thou must live; while as for me, my work is done, and I go to the storm-land."

"Oh, skoal to thee, thou hero!" cried Wulnoth. "Would that I might cross again and stand by thy side!"

"That thou canst not do," answered Wahrmund; and then he turned, standing with his back to the chasm and his shield advanced, and thus he met the rush of the foe, and made his axe sing a good song and bite deeply ere he fell himself.

And Wulnoth stood on the farther bank and watched the fight, and he cried aloud in his grief and called upon the Danes to fight fairly.

"Oh, nithings!" he cried. "Oh, slayers of little children and weaklings, is there not a man amongst you now? Does no hero soul dwell in Denmark? Not so would Regner Lodbrok have dealt with a brave man. Oh, cowards and nithings that you are, would I were with my friend, to stand by his side!"

But little did the Danes heed his cries. They pressed upon brave Wahrmund, seeking to take him alive. He was bleeding from a score of wounds, and his strength was all gone.

He tried to cast himself into the chasm, but they laid hands upon him, seeking to drag him away; and he turned his face towards Wulnoth, and cried to him-

"A boon, comrade-a boon for friendship's sake! Thou hast thy spear. A cast, comrade-a good, true cast, right between the shoulders. Better death from a comrade's spear than torture by Hungwar."

Then, as he made an end of speaking, he turned back to the foe, gripping them and holding them at arm's length, planting his feet firmly and standing with his back towards Wulnoth.

And Wulnoth understood, and he raised his spear.

"Skoal to thee, hero amongst men," he cried. "Art ready?" and Wahrmund panted-

"Skoal and farewell. I am ready, comrade."

Then, straight and true flew Wulnoth's spear, and it smote Wahrmund right between the shoulders and stood out a hand's breadth in front, and the old viking fell, dragging two of his foes with him down into the chasm into which he had cast the log.

Then did Wulnoth stand on the other bank, and some cast their spears, but he caught them on his shield, and he cried to Hungwar and said-

"Listen to me, thou nithing, thou wolf that eats up little children, thou fearer of grown men. There is a mark on thy cheek, and I put it there-I, when only a boy; and had it not been for this man whom thou hast watched die, I had surely made an end of thee on that day with my broken weapon. I am Wulnoth, son of Cerdic, thou Danish nithing, and of a surety one day thou and I shall meet again, and then shall a deed be done and a word said between us twain, Hungwar, son of Regner; and until then, farewell." And with that Wulnoth turned and plunged into the woodlands, and the Danes returned to their camp.

Now, this is how Wahrmund the Dane gave his life to save his friend, and this is how Wulnoth the Wanderer made himself known to Hungwar, the son of Regner Lodbrok.

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