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   Chapter 17 No.17

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 10821

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The Passing of Ethelred the King

Now, though the men of Wessex had beaten the Danes with a great slaughter at the battle of Ashdune, little rest did the weary land have from the war-song, but day by day the sword gleamed and the red flames roared, and the Black Strangers came in foraying bands.

Like the leaves before the wind, like the snow on the northern blast, so did the Danes seem to gather, until even the boldest and the bravest felt their hearts fail, and asked each other what could be done to free the land from these savage, barbarian invaders, who seemed like to swamp the whole world and plunge it back into paganism again.

And now the men of Mercia, and those of Northumbria and Cantua, had occasion to lament that they had not joined with Wessex, and, forgetting their own quarrels, striven side by side against the common foe. For to every part of the fair land the Danes marched, and their pathway was death and ruin, and of them the English said-

"Of what use is it to war against them, for if there be thirty thousand slain to-day, there will be twice thirty thousand in their place to-morrow?"

Yet, for all that, did Ethelred the King, and Alfred his brother, fight as brave men should, calling upon all their men to trust in the Lord and be of good cheer; and, whilst in other parts of the land the invaders were striking terror to all hearts, in the land of the West Saxons they were frequently driven back and put to flight.

But it was hard work and sad; for the hands of the strongest must grow weary, and the hearts of the mightiest must fail sometimes; and there was no rest for King or for Prince. To-day they would face the foe in one place, and the next they would be in rapid march to strike an unexpected blow in quite another direction.

But the land wept, for there was no corn sown and no harvest to reap, because men said that there was little wisdom in sowing fields that were to be trampled down in the war game, or in storing in barns, through which the red flames might leap.

Oh! those were sad days, when hunger and despair and battle were on every hand; and still, on and on the Danes pressed, and their long ships were on every coast and barring all the rivers, and even floating up to London itself.

And a merry game did Wulnoth and his robber companions play, though alas, now of that fifty but half remained. To-day here, to-morrow there, hurrying at the King's behest, enduring fatigue and peril with laughter, and doing hero deeds that rivalled the best of the Danish holdas' achievements.

Little of Edgiva did Wulnoth see in those days, but at night, when he rested with his band in the forest depths, or lay counting the watchful stars, then he would think of his Princess, and in fancy see her face, and he would dream a good dream of the days that should be, when England was England once more.

Yet never did he forget the friend of his boyhood and the promise he had made; and he wondered when and how he should ever obtain tidings of Guthred the Prince.

"I can go but one step at a time," he murmured to himself. "This helping of Alfred is the first thing, and afterwards we will think of what may follow it." And then he would sit by the watch fire, while his rough companions lay around; and he would think, and think, of the White Christ, and the wonder story of His great love, and His death on the cross; and now he no longer called it a nithing tale, but thought it beautiful as the best of the sagas; and though he said naught of it to any, nor even let Edgiva know when he saw her, Wulnoth was beginning to understand, and to see that the Lord Christ was the mightiest, and the greatest, and the best, and indeed the very Bretwalda of all the angels.

But little time was there for thinking even on that matter; for it was fight, fight, day by day; now hunted, and now hunting-at this moment the Raven of Odin victorious, and the next the banner of Ethelred triumphant.

And in one battle did the forces meet at a place called Merton, not far from Ashdune; and there, while they strove, and now to one side now to the other the victory inclined, Ethelred the King was smitten by a spear, and fell wounded from his horse; and Wulnoth, and Osric, and Alfred, raised him up tenderly, and bore him from the field of slaughter, and then rushed back and threw themselves upon the foe, fighting fiercely until, when the evening shadows came, the Danes were glad to retire; for they had met with those who could strive as well as themselves.

And then did the Saxons take their wounded King; and, commanded by Alfred, they retreated swiftly and silently, and with hearts bowed down by sadness, so that they might find a place where the King could rest in safety.

And then did the King call his brother the Atheling to his side, and he spoke with him tenderly, and bade him be comforted.

"How could man die better than face to foe, striving for his country, and for the blessed Truth, dear brother?" he said. "Now I am wounded sore, and my spirit tells me that I shall die; and for that my heart rejoices, for by dying shall I gain a better crown than one of earthly power, and by death shall I enter into life."

And Alfred bowed his head and wept, for his heart was very sore now; and Wulnoth stood by, for his it was to guard the King's tent, and he wondered yet more and more; for here was a second King

dying, and he also, like as Edmund had done, spoke of victory and life, and seemed glad and happy, and not like those of the Danes and the Old Saxons, who only spoke of going to the dark storm-land.

But they could not tarry long where the King lay, for the foe pressed too hard; and so they hurried southwards, and the army broke into small parties, that they might travel the more swiftly and securely. And so they came south by Winchester, the King's town, and even there they did not stay, but passed on into the land of Durnovaria, or as we now call it Dorchester. And there did the King tarry, for he was too sick to journey farther, though there was some talk of reaching the sea, and sending him afar into safety. But his wounds were bad, and his strength was gone, and his mind weary for his kingdom, and for the land at large, and for the faith of the Lord; and he knew that he must soon pass hence, and be at peace.

And to him came his aged mother Osburga, whom neither grief, nor peril, nor weariness could conquer; and she, and the Abbot Hugoline, and Alfred, they tended the King in his last hours of pain and sorrow, and whispered words of good cheer to him, while Osric, and Ethelred the Ealdorman, went back with the forces, and made another stand against the foe, who pursued hard upon their track.

And there did King Ethelred breathe his last, and commit his soul into the keeping of his Saviour; and from there did they carry his body to the minster at Wimborne, and there did they bury the King.

And Alfred the Atheling had the crown placed upon his head, and became Alfred the King; and of all Saxon Kings, did he prove the best, and the bravest, and the wisest; so that in after days his fame was sung and he was called "The Great Thane" and "The Bretwalda of the English" and "The Shepherd of his people."

Yet on that very day whereon he was crowned did Wulnoth the Wanderer come upon him in the church; and lo, he knelt, and he prayed, and as he prayed he wept; and Wulnoth spoke with the King, for Alfred made a friend of the Wanderer, and he asked him why he wept.

"Thou art King now, and thou hast a kingdom, and thou hast men to fight, and thou thyself art a warrior; wherefore, then, dost thou weep, O King?"

"Heavy is it to be a King, friend," the monarch answered, "and weary is the land wherein battle is ever raging; and great is the stewardship which I have. Therefore, I kneel in humbleness, and with tears I ask Him for help and for grace, that I may do my work and receive my reward."

"O King!" cried Wulnoth. "If thy God is the mightiest of gods, why does he not drive out the Danes, and scatter their host? I am puzzled, of a truth, O King, for I understand not this thing."

"And couldst thou understand all God's ways, then wouldst thou be as wise as God. Does the warrior understand all his captain's plans? Nay, he receives his order, and he obeys his command, and he trusts his captain enough to know that each order is given for a reason. So is it with us, O Wanderer. We trust and we obey, and the end is with Him. His ways are greater than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts."

Sad and solemn was the crowning of the King, for there was no pomp and stately show now, as there had been of yore. Scarcely had he thanes to stand around him; scarcely had he people to aid him; there was no time for such empty things as pageant now; for almost ere the body of King Ethelred was laid to its rest, there came tidings of new and fresh hosts of Danes sweeping over the land.

And bitter was it for Mercia then; for the Black Strangers became as a terror to the bravest, and all men trembled at their name.

Across the country to Lindum[7] they swept; and from the sea other hosts poured into the land. They attacked and drove out King Burhred, and placed one named Ceolwulf in his place, as under-lord. Black and bitter was the treason of Ceolwulf the Thane, who had been Burhred's thane; for he, a Saxon, became a servant of the Danes; and of him it is said that he was fiercer than his masters, so that the land was laid waste.

And farther north, in Northumbria, the whole land was covered with the foe; and there Halfdane, whom some called Hungwar's brother, led his forces and destroyed without ruth as he went, burning every church and monastery, and even the beautiful cathedral of Lindisfarne; and while the flames roared, and the sword sang, the wail of women, and the shriek of tortured little children, rose to mingle with it, and hope and faith died out in the land.

But down in Wessex, still the light shone, and still brave hearts resisted; though often it was hard and bitter work, and from being able to stand before the Danes, the forces frequently had to hurry, driven from place to place, yet ever inspired by the King to fresh courage and endeavor.

And in those days did Wulnoth do mighty deeds, and earn himself a name amongst men, for being a hero; so that the Danes knew and feared; and Hungwar himself trembled; for he knew that the day would come when he and Wulnoth would meet face to face; and then it would be a bitter day and dark for him.

Now, this is how King Ethelred was wounded in battle, and died of his wounds; and this is how the crown passed to Alfred the Atheling, and the whole land, from north to south, was overrun by the Black Strangers, and given to fire and sword.

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