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   Chapter 18 No.18

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14070

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Of the Coming back of Guthrun

Now, for nigh five years after King Alfred was crowned, did the land groan beneath the sword of the invaders; and everywhere there was battle; for when the Danes had none other to fight, then did they fight amongst themselves. And for nigh five years did Wulnoth lead amongst the King's chosen champions, and beat the foe back.

Seven years now had the Wanderer been in England, and yet he had gained no tidings of Guthred the Prince. Edgiva he saw several times, and sweet were their greetings, and dear the hours they spent together; but all too brief the time that was theirs.

Beautiful, with a wondrous beauty, was Edgiva now; and yet, though beautiful and a King's daughter, she was true to her lover, and would listen to no other suitors.

Yet still she would not give him her hand, nor did he ask it; for not yet had he owned that the Lord Christ was the greatest and noblest of all, and not yet was the land at rest; and Edgiva would not have him think of aught save his duty to his King and to the land.

"Oh! Wulnoth, my hero," she would say to him, "hard is thy task, but truly thou dost do it. And Wyborga, who grows wiser as she grows older, reveals to me that harder yet shall it be; and the King shall flee as a nameless man and a landless man, and thou shalt abide with him. But be brave, for through it all shalt thou come to victory and honor."

Then did Wulnoth kiss her fair hand, and answer, and say-"My Princess, I am thy watcher and thy servant, as I am thy faithful lover, and all that thou dost command, that will I strive to do."

Thus did the days pass and grow to years, and the years grew until five had passed; and then came Guthrun and a mighty host, marching towards Exeter, near which city the King lay with his forces. And when the army started to march, then from the mouth of the Thames their fleet sailed to the West, and from the sides of the long ships gleamed the shields of many warriors.

Now, the King of the West Saxons heard news of the marching of Guthrun's host, and of the sailing of the long ships, and he called his thanes and captains to counsel, and he said-

"Now we have two forces to meet, one by land and one by sea. Those on land march to Exeter, and those by sea will seek to land at the nearest spot."

"Wise are the Danes, O King," answered Wulnoth bitterly. "They know the weakest spot at which to strike. For this Exeter, is it not now menaced by the Britons from West Wales, and will they not help our foes?"

"We must trust in the mercy of the Lord, Wanderer," the King answered. "Would to God that all the inhabitants of this unhappy land would fight as brethren. We should soon thrust the Danes out then."[8]

"Little good to wish that, O King," cried one gaunt old warrior. And the King smiled.

"Ay, we will not waste time in idle wishes. Now this is my rede. Thou knowest that I have caused to be built long ships, like those which the Danes use. Now these lie at the coast towns; and I counsel that we man them and put to sea, and there trust to our God to give us the victory over this foe."

"And, meantime, the foe on land, O King?" cried Wulnoth.

"They will have reached the city, Wanderer, and there will they surely tarry, seeking perchance to make league with the Britons, and waiting for their friends to join them. Now mark you-if we are favored by Heaven, and can defeat the ships, we will play their own game. We will land from our ships and sweep towards Exeter, and give the city to the flame, and put them to the sword."

"By the bracelets of Odin, King," laughed Wulnoth, "thou art marking out a big task for thyself. But if this is in thy mind, I for one am well content to try it; and methinks I shall love to feel the ships leap over the waves, and to join in a sea-fight again."

So, all the thanes agreeing, the King and his forces hurried southward and got to their ships, and were ready to go on board and set sail, as soon as the foe appeared.

And presently, from afar, the sails appeared, and the hearts of some sank as they saw the number; yet the King prayed to Heaven for help, and made haste to prepare for battle.

In years long after, there was another little fleet of ships not so far from that very spot, waiting while a mighty armada came, stately and confident, up the Channel; and what happened then, happened also in the reign of Alfred the King.

For, as the fleet of Danish warships drew near, dark clouds gathered in the sky, and the tempest roared, and the wind blew, and the great waves grew, and thundered against the white cliffs, and the King pointed and cried-

"See, O friends, Heaven does not desert us; and what we are too weak to do, that God does in the strength of His might. Look, and doubt no more."

And indeed it seemed as if the King's words were true, for the Danish ships were caught by the tempest, and the great sails were rent, and the strong masts shivered, and many were engulfed, and others dashed on the rocks; and the remainder turned to flee, and were pursued by Alfred's ships, and vanquished; and thus it happened that for the first time the Saxons of Wessex gained a sea-fight, and taught the proud invaders a lesson.

Then did Alfred and his soldiers hasten back to Exeter; and there they found Guthrun and his host, and they set a siege about the city, and put the Danes into a hard case; so that Guthrun besought Alfred to make peace with him, and he swore by the bracelets of Odin, and by the hammer of Thor, that he would keep truce.

"Now," said Wulnoth, when he heard of this, "if thou art counselled by me, O King, thou wilt make no truce here. Thou hast them in thy hand, and I would make an end of them. The pledge of a Dane is as a rune written on the sand. You may search for it, and it will not be found."

But the King was so noble that he believed not that a holda like Guthrun would break his word; and, moreover, he was afraid to tarry long before the city, for fear he should be cut off by other bands who might come. So a truce was signed, and the Danes departed from the neighborhood, and for a little while the land had peace, and the King busied himself in building more long ships in case of need.

But soon the King was to learn that Wulnoth was right when he said the Danes were not to be trusted, for suddenly after a few months, and when the Winter held all the land in its iron grip, and food was hard to come by for the soldiers; back, sweeping like a flame over the land, came Guthrun and Hungwar with him, and a vast force, greater than ever; and Guthrun and Hungwar had sworn by Thor, that they would make an end of Alfred, who had worried and resisted them so long, when all the other Saxon kings had bowed to their sway.

And tidings were brought to the King as he sat in his hall, and then did Wulnoth laugh and say-

"Now, O King, if there is any power in thy God, let it be shown; for this time there will be no mistake. Hungwar and Guthrun have made friends again, an

d they march together, and I tell thee that from end to end of thy kingdom they will leave nothing but ruin and death. Thou shouldst have crushed the head while thou hadst it in thy power to do so, and then perchance the tail would have died. Now head and tail are joined, and there comes a terror to the land, O King. Of a truth there comes a terror."

"Let us not meet trouble till it comes, Wanderer," the King answered. "Ho! my thanes, go forth and summon me all my bands-all who can bear war gear and carry lance-and this time, as the Wanderer says, an end shall be made."

So the thanes went forth, and they came back with a sad tale, which they told with hanging heads. The fear of the foe was in all the land, and men were weary of being harried and marched to war, and every one was fleeing. Churls and thralls, thanes and sethcundmen, all alike had gone, fleeing. Many of them had gone across the narrow waters to the island beyond-the Isle of Wight-while others bowed in submission to the invaders; and Alfred the King found himself a King without a people, with hardly any whom he could look to, with his best soldiers melting away, as the snow melts when the sun shines upon it.

Oh! bitter was it to the King, and bitter was it to the brave hearts who loved him; for now it seemed as if the kingdom of Wessex would share the fate of the rest of the land, and groan under the rod of the pagan.

And then spake Wulnoth again, and he said-

"Now up and let us act, for these Danes will give us little rest if they once come up with us; and though I fear not death, I have somewhat to do ere I close my eyes. I have a word for Hungwar, and I have a quest to make. Come, King, and come, comrades, and never be discouraged. We must flee for the time, but it will not be forever that we are to remain hidden.

"The sun may be hidden by a cloud for the time, O King, but it is not lost forever."

"But what shall we do with our dear ones, our tender ones?" cried the King. "With whom shall we leave them?"

"With whom dost thou think they will tarry, son, save with those they love?" answered Osburga, speaking stoutly. "Do we fear the cold, and the wet, more than the risk of being taken by the wicked Danes? Nay, son, I, thy mother, go with thee, for one; and so does thy royal spouse Elswitha, and her attendant, the Lady Edgiva, herself a royal princess."

"This may not be," cried the King; but the others said that the words were wise words, and that so they would have less care than if the Queen were left unprotected and alone.

So by night a little army, such a poor little force, was gathered; and with the Queen, and Osburga, and Edgiva, and old Wyborga, they journeyed by forest and wild, and on till they came to a wild and desolate place[9] where two angry streams met, with wild moors and dreary swamps extending for many a mile, over which none might with safety pass, unless they knew the pathways that were sure.

And here in this desolate place did the King, who now had no hall, abide in humble huts which they built with their own hands; and often did he and those with him have no food, unless they first caught it by their own skill.

Fish they snared from the waters, and wild deer they chased across the moor, and they lived like outlaws and nameless ones. Hard was it then for the King, and sorely did he grieve for the unhappy land; for ever and again his spies came with reports of the grievous work of the Danes, and of the suffering of the people, and his heart was full of pain. Scarce could he go from his hiding-place because of the foe, for he knew that they were gathering closer and closer, searching for him to make an end of him.

Sometimes he had to wander quite alone, without a single attendant, and dressed in the poorest garments of a churl, and yet never in all did the faith of the King fail, and never did his mother or his wife fail him in his need.

Now the King had a jewel[10] which he valued, and which he hung round his neck; and this was a stone of polished crystal, two inches long, and cunningly wrought with gold and green enamel; and seated thereon was a figure with a lily spray in each hand, and surrounding the jewel was a gold band on which were written these words-

Alfred mec heht gewyrcan. (Alfred had me made).

And in his wanderings amidst the bogs and the fens, this jewel was lost, so that the King grieved sore, and said it was a bad omen, and that his kingdom was lost to him also.

But Wyborga came, and spoke, and her words were heard by all, and she said-

"Grieve not for the thing which is lost, O King, for in other days will it be found. Rather rejoice, for thou shalt have a better jewel than that which is lost, and thy crown shall yet shine bright, and thy fame remain for all time, so that no hero shall have more renown and none do better deeds."

"Thou dost speak good words, Wyborga," answered the King, but now he spoke a little wearily. "May they come true!" And Wyborga answered, "They will surely come true."

"Wyborga, didst thou say that to comfort the King only?" asked Wulnoth, when he saw the wise woman alone. And she smiled-

"Wulnoth, have not all my words come true to thee? But now I have a work for thee to do, and a journey for thee to go, seeing that here the King needs thee not."

"What is thy work, Wyborga?" asked Wulnoth, "and whither must I journey?"

"Take with thee of thy band those who are left to the King," the old woman said, "and journey thou southward towards the sea."

"For what purpose, O Wyborga?" he asked. And she explained-

"Wulnoth, I have seen a vision; and in the vision I beheld long ships come over the sea; and in one of them floated the raven banner of Regner, and beneath it stood Hubba, and Biorn Ironsides, who have returned from their work in Mercia. I saw these ships come to shore, and I saw a band of heroes, and thee amongst them; and the banner of Regner fell to thee, and Hubba was slain, and the Danes fled. Go now, and see how this may be, for methinks the vision was sent to me, that I might tell thee, and that the work might begin. The King's exile shall soon be done, and the darkness shall flee away."

"Now by my beard," Wulnoth cried, "this is the best news thou hast told me for many a day, and right gladly do I go to do thy bidding."

"Tell not the King," the wise woman said, "else he may desire to come with thee, and evil may come of it. Go thou, Wulnoth, and may success be thine; and I will make excuse to the King for thine absence."

So Wulnoth called to his companions, and they started off on their journey; and the heart of Wulnoth beat high with hope, and he felt that Wyborga's word would be a true word, and that he would slay Hubba, and capture the famous raven banner, which struck terror to the hearts of all men.

Now, this is how Guthrun the Dane came again with his host and forced the King to flee, and this is how Wulnoth started for Devonshire at the bidding of Wyborga the Wise Woman.

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