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   Chapter 16 No.16

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 15667

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

How the Men of Wessex fought the Danes

Right heartily did Alfred welcome Wulnoth after he had heard his story, and warm were the words of praise which he spoke of Wahrmund the Dane; and of him he said these words-

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." And when Wulnoth heard that he answered-

"Now, that is a true word and a wise, O Prince. What great scald or redesman uttered that?"

"The greatest Scald and the greatest Redesman that ever this world saw, O friend," answered the Prince. "That is one of the sayings of the Lord Jesus."

"Now," said Wulnoth, "I cannot understand, but everything good and true seems to come from Him-"

"Whom thou thinkest a nithing, O friend," answered the Atheling. And Wulnoth was silenced.

And with the Atheling there tarried his mother Osburga, the wife of the noble Ethelwulf-a gracious lady, so full of sympathy and wisdom, with mild, beautiful eyes that yet had a light in them as of a sorrow never forgotten; for grief had been hers, though she was a king's wife and the mother of kings.

Here also was Asser, the writer, and Alfred's bosom friend, and Ealdorman Ethelred, and Osric, both mighty warriors and great heroes, and with them Abbot Hugoline, and Bishop Eadred; and these wise ones talked much of holy things, and Wulnoth listened and learnt much, and asked many questions.

And best of all, while he tarried with the Prince there came Wyborga and Edgiva, together with holy women from the church on the island, saying that they had fled because the Danes were moving and pressing forward into Wessex, carrying fire and sword with them.

Sweet were the moments which Wulnoth spent with his Princess, yet brief were they, for there was much work to do, and he and his companions, the fifty nameless men, were busy marching hither and thither, and calling on all the men in the place to take their arms and gather at the King's command beneath the banner of the Atheling.

Every day there were martial exercises, and those who were least skilled with the bow or at casting the spear had to work from morning until night; for, as Alfred said to them, "They needed to be men who could slay-not men who were ready to be slain only."

Now between the Atheling and all his soldiers, even to the lowest, was there friendship, and not one but could be sure of being received and listened to did he wish to speak to his Prince. And each day more and more men came in, and the forces under the Prince's command grew larger.

But one day did Alfred speak with Wulnoth, and he said to him-

"Wanderer, not only brave men and skilled warriors do we need to defeat these Danes. We need what they have, and what our fathers on the other side of the sea had-good ships, stout ships, long ships that can match the best of theirs. Upon the sea must we learn to meet them and so keep the fire from our land."

"Why indeed, Prince, that is the very word which my comrade Wahrmund spake to me upon the day on which we first sighted these shores-'Not till they learn to fight us upon the sea shall they hope to beat us.'"

"He spoke a true word," replied the Prince thoughtfully, "and if God spare me I will see that this England of ours has such ships-the best that can be built. I will see that since the seas wash our shores, of those seas shall she reign mistress."

Such was Alfred's vow, and afterwards, when he was king, in face of such difficulties as might have well appalled the stoutest heart, he kept his word and built his ships, and beat the Danes at their own game upon the deep waters.

But that is not for now-now we have to tell how that first battle was waged against the Black Strangers, in which they were to learn that there were other swords as sharp as their own and other hearts as brave.

For messenger came after messenger, speeding to Alfred and saying that unless he advanced to meet the foe they would penetrate to Winchester itself, where the King's house was. So Alfred sent messages to the King, urging him to come and lead the battle in person lest the glory should be taken from him. For Alfred, though he was wiser and braver than his elder brother, never forgot that brother was his king, and in all things he honored him and gave him willing service.

So King Ethelred marched, and all his host with him, and they joined forces with the Atheling where he tarried; and the Lady Osburga, and Elswitha, Alfred's wife, and the Lady Edgiva, and all their train, retired with a small guard towards Winchester, for though they were brave enough to face the perils of war, their presence would have but hindered the army, and given increased cause for care to its leaders.

Sad was the parting, and yet joyful, for these brave Saxon ladies cheered the warriors and urged them to great deeds, and sang to them songs of how they were going to free their dear England from the power of the oppressor. And then, with many prayers and with smiling lips and tearful eyes, they parted and went their way, while the King and the Atheling caused their banners to be displayed and marched to the eastward to meet the Danes under Hungwar and King Bacseg.

For tidings came that Hubba and Biorn Ironbeard, and others had gone northward; and Guthrun stayed at the old camp, awaiting the return of the ships, for since the matter of Wulnoth and the killing of Wahrmund there had been quarrels amongst the holdas, and they parted one from the other.

Still, it was the main force that was now advancing into Wessex, and many were the chiefs of fame accompanying it.

The Saxon force was nothing like as numerous, but so great was the charm of Alfred that all there held together, forgetting their private quarrels and seeking only each to aid the great business of making the land free once more.

The King had seen Wulnoth and had greeted him well, and though he did look askance at the nameless ones, he was glad of their presence, and he said with a laugh that since Wulnoth had brought them, Wulnoth must be responsible for them; and so, while their own captain led them, Wulnoth was their commander; and because he himself was nameless and landless, the robbers greeted him well and obeyed his wishes, as otherwise they would not have done.

And they marched past the dreaded Welandes Smithan, and the Atheling himself pointed out the spot to Wulnoth and showed him the great flat stone on which the silver penny must be laid, and he said that none could tell by what power the shoeing was done, but that the body of the Wise Wieland lay at rest beneath those stones.

And other strange piles of stones they found on their march, each of which had some dreadful legend of ghost or elfin power attached to it, but which, in these days, we know to be only the tombs of a strange people long since past away. And so, at last, they came to a place called Ashdune, a wide sweeping plain, with but one single tree in it, and that tree a great straggling thorn bush, growing nigh the centre. And there, on the verge of the plain, they encamped for the night, and on the opposite side they could see the watch fires of the invaders, and count their banners waving to the wind.

Wild were the shouts from the Danish camp that night, for the holdas drank deeply, as was their custom, and they called out the names of their dead heroes, and the songs were sung in their honor by the scalds as the warriors drank to the war game and the sword song, and vowed that with the rising of the sun they would make an end of the men of Wessex, and lay the land low in fire.

Such was the way in which Wulnoth had been wont to spend the night before the battle, but in the camp of the Saxons it was not so. Sparingly the soldiers drank, and the Atheling took nothing but water; and while watch was

kept the Abbot Hugoline came amongst the ranks and prayed, and the men knelt and crossed their hands upon their breasts, and the monks sang to Him Whom they called "The Lord God, great and terrible, and mighty in battle"; and that made Wulnoth the more perplexed, for he saw not how the gentle Lord Christ could be terrible in battle.

And then did he see Bishop Eadred all girt in armor, and with a mighty mace in his hand, and thereat he wondered more than ever, for he had not thought to see a priest armed to fight like a warrior.

But the Bishop laughed and said, "Who should fight for the Church but those who are her most loving servants? Who should fight for the sheep against the ravening wolves but those who are set over the flock as shepherds?" And Wulnoth said to himself that this Bishop was a man, and that he saw the service of the White Christ did not make a man become a nithing.

And also he looked at the Prince, and the Atheling looked mighty in his war gear. Usually he looked pale, seeing that he had a sickness which forever kept him in pain; but now all thought of pain was gone, and he laughed right joyously as he looked abroad at the field whereon the battle would be waged, and he said-

"Now, truly, this is a sight for the heart of any warrior, and great deeds will be done to-day, and yonder heathen foe will be valiant. Yet remember, soldiers, that we fight for much-not for life only, but for freedom, for our hearths and families, for our wives, our sisters, our mothers, and daughters. Strike for them a good blow and true, and never let it be said of one 'This man was a nithing.' See yonder"-and he pointed across the plain-"see, there waves the magic banner of Regner Lodbrok-there the raven of Odin flaunts his wings. But here is the sign of the Lord," and he pointed to the cross which a priest held, "and we will see which is mightier this day-Odin or our Lord."

"Now," thought Wulnoth, "that is a sign, and we will see, for truly the foe is the greater and should beat us, for there are many holdas of fame there. Well, we may see, and may I come near to Hungwar, Regner's son, this day."

Then did the war-horns blare and shriek, and the armies moved forward. And first the bowmen sent their arrows hissing like hail, and many a barbed shaft bit deeply and drank its fill of the red blood, but the warriors held their shields and caught the arrows thereon, and laughed, and no nithing was found in the ranks of either side.

Then, as they drew nearer, the spears began to hurtle through the air and join the arrows, and the Valkyrs-those grim storm sisters who love the battlefield and who wait to carry the souls of the heroes to the storm-land-gathered, and floated above the field of slaughter, where the thirsty earth already began to turn red as the victims fell.

But this was but the beginning-the game was hardly started-the fierce, mad sport was to come later.

For now, sweeping forward, came ranks of champions armed with axe, with sword, and shield, and they ran to meet each other, and the strokes fell like hail, and the pikes gored like the horns of angry bulls.

Now Wulnoth had schooled his men, and they drew together in shape like a wedge, with Wulnoth and the captain at the point of it; and so a long line of shields linked each to each, a long line of axes rising and falling, or swinging upwards from beneath, they drove into the heart of the Danish ranks, and then, opening out, swept the vikings into a mass of struggling disordered men, who hardly had room to move and who mixed friend with foe in their fury.

Oh, great were the deeds done that day, and truly did the Atheling behave like a hero in the fight as he led his men, crying encouragement, pressing wherever the game was the hottest, and seeming to be in a score of places at once.

And bravely fought the King, and he singled out the great Danish champion, King Bacseg, and he called to him and said-

"Greeting, King! I would fain talk with thee." And thereat did the Dane laugh and answer-

"Greeting! Blithely will I listen to thy talk."

Then these twain fell to, and they smote each other lusty blows and made their swords sing a loud song; yet the King of Wessex was the mightier in the conflict, and he smote King Bacseg to the ground, and smote yet again, crying-

"Die, thou fell pirate of Denmark! Die, and let this good English soil find thee a resting-place."

Now, this took place nigh to the thorn bush, and there was a rush of the Danes to rescue the body of their dead King, so that King Ethelred was borne backward, and was like to have been slain himself but that Wulnoth and his fifty came sweeping down, and formed a wall between the King and the foe.

Then thither hastened all the mighty ones of both sides. There stood Bishop Eadred, and his mace dripped with Danish blood; and there stood Ethelred the Ealdorman, and Osric; and there, against them, as the waves rush against the rocks, came the heroes of Denmark. There came Sidroc the elder, and his son; there came Osbern and Frena; there also came Oskettle and Harold, and not one of them but had made his name a terror, and had carried fire and sword to many a fair spot; and now they came raging towards the spot where the body of King Bacseg lay, crying for vengeance against his slayer.

And thither also came Hungwar, foaming like a bear and rolling his angry eyes, and behind him rose the banner of Regner. And when Wulnoth saw him he cried aloud-

"Ho, tarry, thou Danish pirate, thou killer of children. For now I will give thee such a greeting as thou hast never had before. I have a message to thee from the dead King of Lethra, and from Wahrmund my friend, and thou hast still the mark of my weapon upon thy face. Stay, Hungwar! I call to thee to stay, as I called to Osbert in the days of old!"

And Hungwar heard, and he raged like a berserker, but he came not to Wulnoth, for in his heart he feared him more than all the warriors of Wessex.

And now the fight went against the Danes, and Bishop Eadred smote down Sidroc the elder, and Osric smote down Sidroc the younger and Oskettle. And Ethelred the King, he smote Frena; and Alfred the Atheling laid Osbern low.

And all around that thorn tree the dead lay piled high like unto a wall, Saxon and Dane, still clutching each other in the last fierce hand-grips of death. And the fighters were weary with slaughter and the swords tired of their song. And then, for the first time in any decisive battle since their landing, the Danes broke and retreated, and Hungwar led them, galloping off on his war-horse and waving his arms as if the evil spirit had entered into him. And so ended the battle, and the Saxons were the masters of the field of slaughter.

And yet it was at great cost, for many were slain, and while the Danes could bring a score for each one dead, the men of Wessex were few, and the men of Mercia and Northumbria were jealous of them, and would have joyed to see them beaten, and would not come to their aid.

So back went the King and the Atheling and their soldiers, and the eagles and the crows gathered over the field of slaughter, and the wolf howled for joy from the forest as he called his brethren to the feast, smelling the blood from afar.

But Wulnoth looked to where, far away, he saw the Raven of Odin in retreat, and he looked to the cross which the priests carried before the army, and he remembered his words and felt that the White Christ was the strongest, and that they who served Him were no nithings, when it came to making the sword sing and playing the man's game.

Now, this is how the Danes were beaten by the Saxons of Wessex on the field of slaughter which is called Ashdune, and this is how the Raven of Odin fled from the sign of the White Christ.

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