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   Chapter 15 No.15

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 16284

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


How Wulnoth came to Alfred

Now, on through the forest pressed Wulnoth, and his heart was heavy within him because of the dying of Wahrmund his friend, and he thought to himself that now he would seek the West Saxons and fight for them, and that this would be right, seeing that he also was Saxon.

"This Hungwar has cast me out," he mused, "so none may say that I am false in the doing of this; for a man must side with some, and since it cannot be with Hungwar it must be against him."

And then he thought that all this must be fixed from of old, and he laughed.

"No cause have I to love these black Danes," he said, "and no cause to love the sons of Regner Lodbrok. I will seek this Alfred, and perchance I may find him mightier than Hungwar, and so my rede will be read."

But then he thought that Alfred himself had said that the White Christ was the mightiest of all, and at that he frowned. Not yet did Wulnoth feel any love for that Lord, and he was too honest to pretend to a faith which he did not possess-not even for Edgiva would he do that.

"A man's word is as a man's honor," he said, "and a man's honor should be as a man's life. I will not tell my Princess that I love her Lord until I can feel that He is my Lord indeed."

"Then there you are foolish, Wanderer," said a mocking voice in his ear, and he turned, his hand on his sword, to see beside him that strange being so like himself, who had taken his name and fought with him in the past days.

"You here!" he cried sternly. "Have I not bidden thee leave me and trouble me no more?"

"As well bid your shadow leave you, Wanderer," was the answer he received. "Said I not to you that I would be with you-that I would be your servant? Now you have been foolish, and much trouble has come from it. Of old you might have possessed this Princess, and now you may do so-for what matters it what faith you profess, seeing that they all are equally vain. Go to this Alfred, declare you are a Christian, marry the Princess, and all will be well."

"Thou tempter, so like myself that thou seemest my very double!" cried Wulnoth. "I will not listen to such base words."

"Base words! Foolish thought! Does not the wise man get that which he covets in the easiest way? Still, if thou art so tender in thy conscience, I will tell thee another way-a way like unto that which heroes have practised from of old."

"What is thy way?" asked Wulnoth suspiciously, for he liked not this man's counsel. And the other answered-

"This is my way, Wanderer, and 't is counsel fit for hero to hear. As thou goest on thy road thou shalt find a band of masterless men, good fighters every one. Now make thyself leader of these, and be no man to Saxon or Dane. There is land to be won by strong hand and keen sword, and thou canst carry off thy Princess, as many a jarl has carried off his wife."

"Now, out on thee for a base churl!" cried Wulnoth angrily. "What! I carry off my Princess? By Thor, we fight again for that!"

"And, by Thor, I will win thee," laughed the other. "For here we have no light to throw crosses on the ground. 'T is my time, and my hour, and I will conquer, and thou shalt carry off the Princess as I have said."

So there again these two fought, as they had fought so often before, and now the stranger seemed much the stronger, strong though Wulnoth was, and he laughed aloud, and cried-

"O Wanderer, thou hast denied the White Christ and called Him nithing, and His sign shall not help thee now."

"Who art thou who hast my name and my form?" gasped Wulnoth hoarsely. "Who art thou who thus seekest to war with me though I have beaten thee before? This time I will kill thee."

"Nay, that thou wilt not. Because thou hast beaten me, therefore fight I still. When I have conquered, then we will be at peace. As for who I am, I have told thee that I am Wulnoth, son of Cerdic, and if thou art also Wulnoth, then we are one, and Wulnoth is Wulnoth's foe. So read my riddle if thou canst-and now I have conquered."

And with that the stranger threw Wulnoth and rested on him, one knee on his chest and one hand at his throat, and his dagger gleamed high in the air.

But Wulnoth stretched out his hand and gripped his sword, which he had let slip. And lo, he picked it up blindly and held it aloft, and it was hilt up, and the hilt was crossed after the manner of a champion's weapon.

"'T is the White Christ's sign!" he gasped, as his eyes fell upon it; and as he spoke his strength seemed to return, and he flung the stranger from him and rose joyfully, and the stranger fled away into the darkness, crying as he fled, "Lost! Lost! Lost!"

"This sign is a wonderful sign," thought Wulnoth. "I must think more of it, for how can the White Christ be so weak if His sign is so powerful? I must truly think more of this."

Now, for a night and a day did Wulnoth wander, seeking to find the way to the lake and the island whereon was the church where the dead King was buried, but he searched in vain and his heart grew weary.

It was a dreadful country in which he found himself-flat and broken with many a stream, and marshy, so that the feet sank in ooze, and at night white mists rose, like ghosts from the fens, and encircled all things, and chilled him to the bone; yet still he pushed on, seeing only ruins and the handwork of the Danes. And so he journeyed until he came to better land, where he found people.

But none could tell him of the island with its church, or if they could, they would not, for all looked upon him with suspicion, and many cursed him for a Northland haco and bade him begone, lest he find his death-sleep through tarrying.

Sometimes Wulnoth felt angry at this, but he thought of the hard things these people had suffered, and that it was but natural they should view him with distrust, and so he went his way.

Yet not all spoke so; some were kindly and gave him shelter, but none could tell him of the King of the West Saxons beyond saying that they had heard how he and the Atheling had travelled swiftly back into their kingdom of Wessex. So on Wulnoth pushed, asking his way, for since he could not find Edgiva, the next best thing to do was to find Alfred.

And in a dense wood he came, as the stranger had said he would, upon a band of masterless men seated around a fire; and they started up and asked him who he was, and demanded his money, at which Wulnoth laughed.

"Why, friends," he said, "if you never get richer than I shall make you, you will stay poor, for of money have I none, who am but a wanderer-a nameless and a landless man."

"Then thou art as a brother to us," the others said; "and come thou and join us, for thou dost look a likely man, Wanderer."

Then the Wanderer sat down by their fire, and he looked upon their bold, rugged faces and saw that they were men hardened in war, and fighters each and all, and he said-

"Fain would I join you if you would join me." And at that they asked him what his words might mean.

"This do I mean," he answered calmly. "There are strangers in this land playing your game, and playing it better than ye can. The Black Strangers give the land to fire and sword so that the flames run from east to west, until they slack their thirst in the farther waters; and the heart of this people is weak as water. Men are wanted-fighters-and, methinks, to stay here and harry those who are harried, and rob those who are robbed, is but a nithing's game, and with no glory in it. I go to find the King of Saxons, and offer my sword to him. Come ye with me and be men, and strike for your land instead of warring against it."

And then did he tell them of the cruel works of the Danes, until they started up and said that it was a good word which he had spoken, and that they would go forth with him and offer their swords to the King.

"But where is the King?" one asked; and another answered-

"He tarries nigh Welandes Smithan, with Osburga, his lady mother; and there, close to the White Horse, shall we find him."[5]

"Then let us go forward at once," cried the rest. "Only we go not nigh Welandes Smit

han by night, for 't is an evil spot and haunted by night-hags and ghosts. Long should I walk, if I had to wait for riding until the elf smith shod my horse."

"Who, then, is this Wieland, that ye fear?" asked Wulnoth, curiously; and the robbers answered that none knew, that none ever saw him, but that if any man went to his forge, which was only a number of mighty stones set on the bleak moor, and placed a piece of money on one stone and tied his horse to another, and then went his way, that when he returned, if he had been faithful and had not sought to pry, there the horse would be shod, and the money gone, though never a man could there be seen in the place.

"The good Lord shield us from all such wizardry," cried one robber; and Wulnoth stared at that. "The good Lord!" Then these robbers held that the White Christ was greater than the wizards and night-hags and the ghost smith of Wieland's forge!

"Where tarries the King himself?" he asked. "Surely 't is he whom we should seek, and not the Atheling."

"The King is gone to his house at Winchester, I hear, there to take counsel with his thanes and ealdormen in the Witenagemot. For, mark you this, Wanderer-if these black strangers come into our good Wessex, they will find us fiercer fighters than were those of East Anglia."

"Ay, that is your fault," said Wulnoth. And the robbers looked surprised.

"Our fault? What-that we fight well?"

"Now, nay," answered Wulnoth, with a smile, "for that is no fault, but that ye are so divided amongst yourselves into East and West Saxons, and men of Mercia and Northumbria. These Danes come as one, and they come like clouds of flies, and they will eat up one place at a time, when, if ye were all bound together, they could not stand before you. There will be hard work before us before we drive them out, and there will be hero deeds and death-songs for many a one."

"And what could man want better?" laughed the robbers. "Come, let us march, and-the best song for the best man."

So Wulnoth, instead of being alone, now found himself with fifty good fighters, and though he was not their captain, they were going at his advice, and that was something.

For six days they marched on, mostly by night, and through the wild lands; for, as the robbers said, they were nameless men, and if any ealdorman or thane heard of their presence near his hold, he might sally out and make an end of them for being robbers, and hang their leaders on the nearest trees, without waiting to hear of what they were thinking of doing.

"Not but what they make us what we are, ofttimes," growled the captain. "For, look you, I am a Sethcundman. For four generations, father and son, we held our five hydes, and each hyde of a hundred good acres; and if that does not make us Sethcundmen and gentle, then what does? Yet down on our land came Seward, son of Beorn,[6] son of the bear, and he seized our holdings and drove us out. What wonder that we reply by robbing, since we have been robbed? Look at Sigwad yonder-he could not pay the tax when the King's house-carls called for it; and lo, they sold all he had, and his wife died on the wayside. Thus do we, who are of the people, grow discontented, and meet violence with violence, giving blow for blow."

"But while the rich oppress you, you oppress the poor, your brethren," answered Wulnoth; "and that is but a poor thing in my eyes. But perchance now, if we do our part in this business, those who are great will see that those who are beneath them are men. Why, yonder black strangers would not hold together a month if the chiefs looked down on the warriors. But hark, methought I heard the sound of a horn in the woods yonder. What may that be?"

"Some following the hunt, most like," came the answer; "yet we will wait awhile and see what goes forward."

So amongst the bushes they sank down; for there was nothing to be gained in going forward, if that meant going to struggle with their own countrymen; and Wulnoth, accompanied by the captain, went on to spy out the peril ahead.

On through the glades they went; and presently they came to one wherein they saw a great boar, a waster of the woods, standing savagely at bay, the while two gallant hounds stood before it.

Brave dogs were they; but one was sorely ripped by those gleaming tusks, and the other stood over him, barking defiance.

"An unequal fight!" cried Wulnoth, lifting his spear. But the robber caught his hand.

"Thou fool!" he said. "Most like some great thane hunts the boar, and do you think he would thank you for slaying it? Wait. See, here he comes."

A young man sprang into the glade, cheering on his dog, but the boar broke upon the hound and tore it, and then came towards the man, who awaited it, spear in hand.

"Why!" cried the robber-"see, 't is the Atheling, and his sickness is upon him. See, see-the boar has him now, for sure."

And Wulnoth, looking, saw the Prince place his hand to his head and stagger, as one who has been too long at the ale horn; the point of his spear dropped, he made an effort to recover himself, and then he fell to the earth, right in the track of the waster!

"He is dead now!" cried the robber. "That brute will have the hope of the West Saxons, and nothing can hinder it."

"That we will see!" answered Wulnoth, and he made a cast, a mighty cast, such as, of old, Osth the giant had taught him to throw; and his spear sang, and smote that foaming, ravening monster full in the flank, and passed on and split his grim, savage heart in twain; and the waster fell, its great snout just reaching to the senseless man's breast.

"By Thor, a good cast," cried Wulnoth, drawing his knife and leaping forward. "Follow me, friend, and let us make sure the brute is dead."

They ran to the spot, and they saw at a glance there was nothing to fear from the boar; so they knelt over the Atheling and raised his head and loosened his tunic, when a band rushed forward with fierce shouts and seized them, crying out that they were robbers who had slain the Atheling.

"Little need to have slain your Prince," laughed Wulnoth, pointing to the boar. "Yon beast would have done it soon enough had it not been for my spear." And at that the men stopped and looked, and said that it was not the spear of the Prince that stood out from the boar's side.

"See! he opens his eyes. Now shall we know the truth," one man cried. And the word was true-the Atheling sighed and raised himself, looking round in bewilderment.

"Good friends! How comes it that I am unharmed?" he said. "I fell as the boar rushed at me. Who saved me, and who are these men whom ye hold?"

"Greeting, Prince," said Wulnoth. "It was I who saved you; and these hold us because they think we are robbers who have done you harm."

"What-Wanderer!" cried the Prince, with a kindly smile. "No robber thou; and so thou hast saved me. But," he added, and his face grew stern, "thy companion is a nameless man, for I know his face."

"True, O Prince, and a nameless man wants a name, methinks. I met this companion and his merry lads, and together we have journeyed to see thee; for there are fifty strong arms waiting to draw sword, and they had better be for thee than against thee, methinks."

"Is this so?" asked the Prince, turning to the robber. "Do you truly desire to fight as honest men should, against our foes?" and the robber bowed his head, and replied-

"It is even so, Atheling of the West Saxons. When foes carry fire and sword, ill it becomes the children of the land to do so also."

"Spoken like a man," cried the Prince. "Go and call thy men hither, and we will see that there is work enough for each and all. And for thee, Wanderer"-and the Prince turned to Wulnoth-"good is the gift thou hast given me, and good the service thou hast done me; so come thou, and let us talk, and receive thou the thanks of the Lady Osburga, my mother." And, thus saying, Prince Alfred took Wulnoth's arm and led him away.

Now, this is how Wulnoth met the masterless men, and how he saved the life of Alfred, the Atheling of the West Saxons.

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